Travel site TripAdvisor named both Madrid and Barcelona in its list of the 10 worst cities for pickpocketing, with Barcelona given the title of world's pickpocketing capital. Whether you're a tourist or a local, it's worth knowing these tips to keep your belongings safe.
Keep your belongings close on public transport
Pickpockets are known to enter the metro and scan the carriage for unattended bags to steal. Here, timing is key: the pickpocket snatches your belongings and runs away with them just as the metro's doors are about to close. This effectively ensures that you can't go after them. If you choose to put your bag on the floor or on the seat next to you, make sure you're holding on to it, especially if you're sitting close to the doors.
Be wary of thieves in tourist spots
It's possible to be robbed in any of Madrid's neighbourhoods, but pickpockets are known to frequent those areas crammed with tourists – Gran Vía, Sol, Paseo del Prado, and the area near the Palacio Real, just to name a few. In fact, there are higher incidences of pickpocketing reported on metro lines most frequently used by tourists, such as those to and from the airport.
Gran Vía, Madrid. Photo: Pedro Belleza/Flickr.
Watch out for the ‘police'
Another popular scam is pickpockets masquerading as undercover policemen. They approach you on the street and ask for your wallet and documentation, pretending that they're looking for counterfeit notes. You'll discover later that they stealthily swiped a few notes while they were looking through your money.
Remember that the police are unlikely to approach you unless your behaviour seems suspicious or you are inebriated; moreover, they certainly wouldn't ask to go through your wallet. While a real policeman could ask for your documentation, he wouldn't do it before showing you a police badge of his own.
Police in Spain. Photo: firstname.lastname@example.org/Flickr.
Beware of other ‘tourists'
If a hapless, confused-looking person armed with a map and camera asks you for directions, you're likely to try your best to help. While you're pointing them the right way, be aware that the ‘tourist' might have an accomplice using the distraction to pickpocket you.
Photo: Galio/ Flickr
Don't be the jamón in the sandwich
This could happen in any place that's reasonably crowded. You find yourself sandwiched between two people on the street, an escalator, or a bus, while the person behind you picks your pocket or backpack. In crowded areas, wear your backpack in front of you and avoid keeping valuables in your pockets.
An Iberan ham sandwich. Photo: urban_lenny/Flickr.
Be careful while paying the bill
It's well known that leaving your phone or wallet out on restaurant tables provides pickpockets with an easy target. However, you might find yourself scammed even while paying the bill. The waiter will take your cash, swap it with fake notes, and return to accuse you of paying with counterfeit money. This effectively forces you to pay again. If this happens, make sure you speak to the restaurant's management before paying double.
Don't overpay the taxi driver, either
Unless you're aware of how much you should be paying, you could easily be cheated into giving your taxi driver €25 for a €5 journey. Use trusted transport apps like Uber and Hailo when you can, or make sure you ask around and do some research to avoid being overcharged. Check whether there is a fixed rate in place, for example in Madrid a trip to or from the airport is set €30 wherever you are within the centre of the city.
Taxis in Barcelona. Photo: Juan Salmoral/Flickr.
Don't fall for the fake petition trick
Pickpockets will often approach people on the streets with a fake petition to sign. Whether you sign or not, they will ask you to donate to ‘charity' as a way of extorting money. This scam is easy to see through, but there's more to it: the pickpocket has an accomplice who uses the distraction to steal your belongings while the other openly extorts money from you. It's best to avoid strangers approaching you on the streets and asking for donations; don't be fooled into thinking the money goes to a good cause.
Don't fall for the drop scam, either
Pickpockets often feign goodwill, coming after you and pretending to return a valuable item you've dropped. While you deny the item is yours, an accomplice uses the distraction to snatch your wallet. If you turn around and find a stranger with a wad of cash or some jewellery that's not yours, walk away as fast as possible. The ‘drop' scam works the other way round, too – you might see a person suddenly drop money or a bag on the ground, so you'd stop to help them while an accomplice steals your things.
Avoid impromptu roadside games
Never join in an impromptu card game. Photo: Jeffrey Smith/Flickr
You might stroll down the street to find a few people playing a card game on the footpath. No matter how enticing it is, refuse their invitation to join the game – they will cheat to make sure you lose your money. The football scam is popular as well: a group of strangers might ask you to join their football match. Once you've enjoyed a quick game, chances are you won't find your belongings where you left them.