Let’s face it: any large municipality poses a risk to the wallets of naive tourists. Within every major city is a class of criminal adept at singling out vulnerable visitors from the resident population and then relieving the marks of their most valued belongings, but this demographic is considerably larger in certain places — or, at least, considerably more adept. In terms of pickpocketing and other types of petty theft, these cities (ranked alphabetically) all belong near the top of the list. Armed robbery, assault, kidnapping, rape, murder, and other violent crimes didn’t necessarily factor into this list.
Many European cities are dubiously characterized by a strong presence of petty crime (particularly against tourists), but arguably none have earned this distinction more than Barcelona. The gorgeous seaside metropolis attracts millions of tourists every year, and many of them encounter pickpockets — though most won’t notice until it’s too late. A 2009 survey of TripAdvisor editors and complaints registered by site users found Barcelona was the ‘worst city for pickpockets’, and local authorities have been unable to quell this long-standing problem in the city. According to travel advisories issued by the U.S. State Department, the areas of Barcelona with the highest rates of theft include: Las Ramblas, El Prat Airport, Sants train station, Metro stations, Sagrada Familia, the Gothic Quarter, Park Güell, Plaza Real, and Olimpic Park, as well as all of the city’s popular beaches.
“Cape Town is one of the most relaxed cities in Africa, which can instill a false sense of security”, Lonely Planet notes, “Paranoia is not required, but common sense is.” While pickpocketing and armed robbery are both quite common, tourists should additionally be wary of any ATM machines after dark. First rule-of-thumb: if there isn’t a uniformed guard nearby, then don’t use the machine. If your card becomes lodged in the ATM and a suspicious man or woman emerges from the shadows and offers to assist with your transaction, retrieve the card (if possible) and get the hell out of there. In some parts of Cape Town, you should even avoid ATMs during the daylight hours.
When visiting Hanoi these days, methamphetamine and petty theft are your two biggest concerns when it comes to criminal activity. The first one is easy: don’t do meth, and stay away from people who have been using it or are trying to sell it (this rule applies universally, not just in Hanoi). Petty theft is a little trickier, since the pickpockets of Hanoi are known as being among the world’s stealthiest. Be on particular lookout for motorcycle thieves, who can snatch a purse, wallet, cell phone, or other prized item while passing by on two wheels at a high rate of speed.
Violent crime rates in Madrid are low, but petty crime is and always has been a major problem in the Spanish capital. According to the U.S. Department of State, thieves in Madrid employ every trick in the book. In addition to the pickpockets who hang around train stations and popular restaurants, numerous travelers have reported baggage theft at hotels throughout the city and the airport. Other criminals approach tourists asking for directions or offering to take photos — you laugh, but you’d be surprised at how many people fall victim to these infamous ruses. Another criminal to watch out for in Madrid is the phony cop; he’s the one who says he’s a cop, even though he’s not wearing a police uniform or carrying a badge. Don’t give him any money, even if he says you’re under arrest — you’re not.
In April 2013, the Louvre shut down for a day after the staff went on strike. Their gripe? Too many teenage pickpockets enter the museum for free and spend their days preying on unsuspecting patrons. Petty crime in Paris has become a major headache for the local authorities in recent years. Guardian UK reports that the US embassy in Paris has issued an official warning to American tourists: “Don’t carry too much cash. Be wary of the ‘crush and grab’ technique used on the metro. Beware people asking for directions, or those who ‘accidentally’ spill something on your clothes. Ladies, only carry purses that zip. If you have the backpack-type purse, swing it around so that it is slightly in front of you as well,” the pamphlet states.
Like most European capitals, pickpocketing rates in Prague tend to be highest at train and bus stations, monuments, shopping districts, and other tourist hotspots. Additionally, the British government reports there have been reports of petty criminals actually stealing from passengers on flights from the United Kingdom. And just in case you think a roll in the hay with a local working girl (or guy) will add an exotic element to your Prague visit, you’ll definitely want to reconsider: some of the alluring individuals on the street corner are nothing more than pickpockets waiting to pilfer your things while you’re at your most… vulnerable.
For all their idyllic beauty, the Caribbean Islands are a hotbed of petty crime — most notably in Punta Cana, a resort town located on the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast, That’s according to TripAdvisor, who ranked Punta Cana at the top of their ‘World’s Most Dangerous Cities for Travelers’ list. The Canadian Government concurs: visitors are urged to avoid walking through urban areas after dark; valuables should be safeguarded at all times, since neither hotel rooms nor hotel safes should be considered secure; and “thefts of items for checked baggage at airports” occur with some frequency. The bottom line: enjoy all the resort offerings that Punta Cana has to offer, but don’t get carried away and always be on your guard.
Rio de Janeiro
Tourists with even just an iota of common sense know to stay out of shady looking neighborhoods during their travels, and this is certainly a good rule-of-thumb to follow in Rio de Janeiro — rates of murder, rape, and other violent crimes in the local slums, or favelas, are some of the world’s highest. It might seem sensible to stick to the city’s picturesque beaches, which are historically teeming with people. However, Fodor’s argues that Rio pickpockets love the sand and surf as much as anyone else in the city. “Be particularly wary of children who thrust themselves in front of you and ask for money or offer to shine your shoes,” the company warns. “Another member of the gang may strike from behind, grabbing your valuables and disappearing into the crowd.” Fodor’s also encourages those who use a rental car to always keep the vehicle locked — especially at intersections, where armed carjackers are known to bum rush unsuspecting drivers.
If Barcelona is the pickpocketing capital of Europe, then Rome takes a close second. The city has long been known for widespread petty crime, but the problem has grown considerably worse in the last couple of years. According to a report by Today published last month, tour guides in Rome have considered going on strike in response to a 24-percent increase in muggings throughout the city. Even the hallowed grounds of Vatican City have been tainted by high rates of tourist theft; local authorities even suspect that some pickpockets are specifically targeting visitors who gaze up at Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
There is plenty more to be said about safety tips, and if you can’t remember all of these then don’t forget your Secret Wallet. Be safe out there, wherever your travels take you!
By Brad Nehring