I was nearly the victim of a team of pickpockets on an early trip to Paris while exiting a Metro train at the Opera station. As I started to leave the car, a young man elbowed his way in front of me, while someone behind me plucked at my shoulder bag strap. I clutched at the strap, turned suddenly and the first young man fell down in the doorway. I just kept going, back into the car and resumed a seat. A second young man and the first managed to get off just as the doors closed. I think they were inept, perhaps even undergoing training, or they could easily have had my bag if they persevered. Not a word was spoken by anyone. I decided I preferred the safety of other passengers in the car to getting off, and left the train at the next stop instead.
Many pickpocket -- thief is a better word -- tricks are well known. One is to slash the pockets of your clothing to get at a wallet. (I saw this happen to a Japanese businessman in Chicago years ago, as he stood on the street trying to hail a cab. Two men approached, one pulled down the victim's jacket to waist level, making a straitjacket by which he was held while the other simply slashed his front and back trouser pockets. And the knife cut into his body, too, I discovered by the time I reached him as the attackers fled.)
Passing by on a motorcycle and grabbing the bag from a pedestrian's shoulder is another popular method of stealing. The little crowd of children who surround you, one pretending to sell flowers or beg while the others let their little hands roam and flutter around is well known, perhaps even older than Oliver Twist and Fagin.
Watching your valuables all the time can make traveling something less than pleasant. The best bet is to have an as-close-to-foolproof method of concealing and protecting the valuables you carry with you, either on your body or in your hotel room and car.
You should start off with the catalog of a company like Magellan, Travel Smith or similar firm. In the late spring 2008 edition of the Magellan catalog alone I found 19 items intended to protect your belongings while on the road. I especially like the MetroSafe 200 bag, which has a wire-reinforced adjustable shoulder strap, slash-proof front and bottom panels, and tamper-proof zippers on two main compartments. Padded cell phone and camera pockets help, too. Magellan's claims this product is "slash proof, snatch proof and tamperproof." The cost is $59.85.
There are even wire-reinforced waist belts (once known as fanny packs?), with locks and brass padlocks at $39.85 and a little safe that attaches to your belt at $19.85. There are purses with steel cables in the straps, secret wallets, neck pouches, waist wallets, and other devices to confuse and confound thieves. There are also camera straps with stainless steel wire imbedded, and backpacks with tamper-proof zippers, slash-proof shoulder straps and wire mesh construction.
Very high tech is an RFID Blocking Passport Holder, which prevents unauthorized persons from reading the radio frequency (RF) tags that are now being imbedded into passports and other forms of ID. The tags can only be read when you remove your passport or credit card from the Blocking Holder. Cost is $17.85 at Magellan's.
The Magellan website (www.magellans.com) has a good discussion on avoiding pickpockets, recreating several familiar scenes in which thieves attempt to confuse you and deprive you of your belongings. They cite a trio in most cases, a "Stall," a "dip" and a "catcher." They have been known to dab mustard on your clothing, or "accidentally" bump into you.
At Travel Smith, in addition to items similar to those at Magellan's, there are some unique products. One is the Rick Steves Neck Wallet for only $12.95, made for your ID materials, mostly. Another is a Victorinox Boarding Pouch, a glorified version of the same thing, with two pockets for documents and currency, a mesh pocket for ID, and a zippered pocket for coins and other small items. Made by the people who give you the famous Swiss Army knife, this costs $22.
Most impressive is a Personal Safety Device, a 6-in-1 handheld tool that is crank-powered, containing items you will need in an emergency such as auto or train crash, earthquake, flood, etc. The six are: an FM radio, a cell phone charger, a super bright five-LED flashlight, emergency flashers that can be seen up to half a mile distance, a 130 decibel siren and a compass. It goes for $40.
Items for your hotel room at Travel Smith include a doorstop alarm for $12.95, a medical kit (for different travel zones) at $36.50 and various types of locks you can use on your luggage while traveling or when you leave your room or car. Their website is www.travelsmith.com.
I have seen elsewhere thick coat hangers that contain primitive safes (concealed by clothing over them in your hotel closet), small pouches worn inside the stocking, hollowed-out books and other devices. If you go far enough, you'll get into the realm of spies and false heels or smugglers with pouches sewn inside the body, but then we're talking crazy enough to better just stay at home. Stick with the products carried by companies such as Magellan's or Travel Smith and you'll be safe as well as sane.
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