As wondrous as Paris is, there is a dark side to counter its rosy appearance. Non, this is not about the intermittent periods of grey weather or the sometimes serious lack of decent customer service. It’s about one of the most dangerous groups of people in Paris : the Pickpockets.
Primarily of Romanian descent, these little thieves are often young and travel in bands. They flock to all the touristy areas and prey on any and every unsuspecting soul, whether alone or in groups.
Of course, pickpocketing in Paris is no new thing. It’s a problem that’s been plaguing the capital for decades. But the criminals responsible are governed by a lasting dynasty of scam artists and because the offenders are mostly children, the Paris police have little power to do more than shoo them away. It remains to be an extremely complex and unresolved issue, but there are preventative measures you can take to avoid becoming one of the countless victims of petty theft on your next visit.
First, let’s examine some of the most common pickpocketing schemes :
1) The deaf and mute plea :
Usually played out by young girls, accompanied by little boys pretending to be their brothers, this trick is very easy to spot. The children will approach with you a clipboard and will mouth incomprehensible words to you. It’s a confusion tactic, which they then follow up by showing you a clipboard that asks you to sign your name and donate whatever charitable sum of money you choose in order to help them treat their ‘medical condition.’ While you’re distracted and signing the paper, the little boys or other companions might try to steal whatever they can from your pockets or handbags. They are highly skilled at doing this in an unnoticeable way. Or the children will just take the money you give them.
The dead giveaway : The clipboard. As soon as you see the clipboard being shoved in your face by a group of girl and/or boys resembling young gypsies, walk away immediately. Do not even speak to them or stop to tell them you’re not interested. They could potentially pickpocket you in a matter of seconds if you get too close.
2) The ring around your finger :
This is a common scam you’ll find up in the 18th near the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre but also anywhere tourists are abundant. Someone will come up to you and try to tie a piece of string around your finger. At first, you might think it’s a harmless animation. But then they will ask you for money for the ‘entertainment.’ Plus, while they are tying the string, this is once again a means of distraction that could allow a potential collaborator to come and pick your pocket.
The dead giveaway : The string. Don’t let anyone touch you or tie anything to you. It’s not normal in most countries to go up and do that to a stranger, so assume the same mentality in Paris.
3) The fallen jewelry :
Here’s a trick performed almost exclusively by solo young girls or older women. It can happen almost anywhere. She will walk by you, drop something shiny on the ground and then come up to you with a gold ring or other piece of jewelry in hand. She’ll pretend you dropped it and that she is doing the kindness of returning it to you. Most people will take it in their hand, confused. And then she will hold out her hands for a ‘token’ of kindness in return. Don’t fall for it.
The dead giveaway : The jewelry or other object. If someone approaches you with a piece of jewelry, do not take it. Simply shake your head and keep walking. If the girl follows and keeps tapping you to get your attention, give her a firm no and hug your personal items to you tightly.
4) The ATM ambush :
This is one of the scariest and more difficult situations to avoid. As in any other city, ATMs in Paris are everywhere. Even in broad daylight in areas of high pedestrian traffic, there have been incidents of tourists being robbed at cash points. It could be two or more young children or older adolescents. If you are alone, they will usually come up and put a piece of paper over the ATM screen. Then one of them might pull on you to get you away from the machine, while the other attempts to pull cash out.
The dead giveaway : Children lurking around ATMs unaccompanied who look too young to even own bank cards or groups of Romanian children hanging around them. Whatever you do, do not go to the ATM alone. Always have at least one person standing next to you to keep a watchful eye out and to help you in case a group of thieves tries anything. The bystander effect is unfortunately rather prevalent in these situations. Though there are people who will occasionally intervene and help you, oftentimes people watching nearby will be too scared to get involved or will assume someone else will step up, so they do nothing.
5) The ‘Independent’ salesmen :
These guys are typically found around the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Champs de Mars, selling Eiffel Tower paraphernalia (keychains, mini tower replicas, etc.). If you’re picnicking on the grass or the banks of the Seine, some will try to sell you overpriced wine, beer or other liquor. While a typical bottle of wine costs as little as 2 euros at the supermarket, these guys will try to get you to buy the same one for at least 10.
The dead giveaway : Men holding hundreds of Eiffel Tower keychains or random gadgets (even glowsticks at night or flying toys) or men who approach you with wine bottles, beer and cigarettes. Of course, it’s your prerogative if you want to purchase anything, but the problem is most of these salesmen do not have legal grounds to sell their goods. Most of the time, they are selling illegally without a license, and the items might even be stolen. You’re better off going to a designated tourist shop to get your Paris goodies. If you’re looking to picnic somewhere and would like to drink an alcoholic beverage, make sure to get it ahead of time because supermarkets close earlier in Paris, and some stop selling alcohol after 9 pm.
6) The Lost Soul Scam
This is yet another scam designed to distract the victims targeted by the pickpockets. What will happen during this is a group of people will walk up to the person and say that they are lost and need help with directions. A natural response is to agree to help because it has probably happened to before. Then, one of the “lost souls” will open a map to have you try to help them find their way back to their hotel. As this is happening one of the thieves with pickpocket you and the group will then magically find their destination.
The dead giveaway: If a random person/group approaches you, just like the ring around your finger scam, a red flag should pop up and signal that something is wrong. This scam is easily spotted by these professional pickpockets. For most it is uncomfortable to walk away for a person in need however, for your safety it is best to just say no and walk away. If they follow you and persist in getting your help do not stop, instead keep walking in the opposite direction that they came from.
This post is not meant to scare you away from visiting this otherwise truly magnificent place that we associate with architectural and cultural nirvana. Rather, it is a precautionary guide so that you can avoid the unpleasant experience of being a victim of pickpocketing in a foreign city.
In terms of how to dress, it is true that Parisians tend to wear more simple outfits (aka less bling and fancy designer logos). That doesn’t mean no one sports LV bags or Rolexes, but the key is to wear them without flaunting them. Dressing trendy does not mean you have to look expensive, and that is the difference in making yourself look like a tourist target or a fashionable local.
Some final tips to adhere by :
-Do not assume that your purse is safe on the ground, and never leave your cell phone on an outdoor café table.
-Do not carry large sums of cash on you or more than one debit or credit card.
-Try to avoid carrying your passport with you, if possible.
-Do not dress flashy from head to toe. Pick and choose your stylish pieces and accessorize accordingly.
-During the day walk on the sunny side of the street, scam artists like to hide in the shadows.
-Do not wear your purse to the back when walking around — always in front or under your arm.
-Do not stand on the metro with any easily accessible bags or belongings, and try to refrain from using your smartphone.
-Do not keep your phone or wallet in your back pants pocket.
-Do not examine a map in a public area, for that is how they spot the tourists.
-Do not keep walking in the same direction if you feel that you are being followed, instead do something unexpected and go into a store to catch the pickpocket off guard.
In the end, Paris is not a place to fear. But it is a major city like any other, and bad things can happen. Just be mindful of your surroundings and your belongings. Dress to impress, but do it for style not for show. And if you keep the previous tips in mind while exploring this great place, those Paris pickpockets will have slim pickings. Bon voyage!