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How to avoid being pickpocketed in Spain: tricks and scams to watch out for

Pickpocketing has fallen in Spain as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it still happens in big cities and other popular tourist spots. Here is a rundown of some of the scams thieves use that you should watch out for.

How to avoid being pickpocketed in Spain: tricks and scams to watch out for
Citizens on patrol argue with a presumed pickpocket (R) at a metro station in Barcelona on August 14, 2019. - A surge in muggings and burglaries in Barcelona, mainly targeting tourists, sparked alarm in Spain's second-largest city, leading local residents to form their own crime fighting patrols. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Spain is undoubtedly a safe country overall, but a crime that authorities haven’t managed to stamp out is pickpocketing.

That’s largely because thieves are aware that Spanish law allows them to steal goods worth less than €400 and not face a prison sentence if caught, so they exploit the system.

That has resulted in the growth of pickpocketing gangs in big cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, where you have to keep your wits about you.

Fortunately, the pandemic’s restrictions and lockdowns, as well as the lack of tourists, have seen pickpocketing and other robberies fall dramatically since 2020.

In 2019, Barcelona was in the midst of a crime wave with 83,472 robberies recorded in the first half of the year. 

According to the latest Eurostat report, street theft in Spain in 2021 fell by 34 percent compared to 2019 and robberies with violence dropped by 22 percent. 

Despite this drop, pickpocketing does still happen, so you need to watch out and know what scams to be aware of. 

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.

In Barcelona, pickpockets are known to hang out on Las Ramblas, in El Born near the Picasso Museum, in Raval, in the Gothic Quarter and around the Sagrada Familia, but even if you’re not in these areas, you still need to watch out. Common metro stations for pickpockets are Plaça Espanya, Plaça Catalunya, and Sagrada Familia. 

READ MORE: Keep passports safe: Typical pickpocket scams revealed

gran via in madrid

Gran Vía, Madrid. Photo: Pedro Belleza/Flickr.

Watch out for fake undercover cops

Another less common scam sees 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 or drugs. 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 the police could ask for your documentation, they wouldn’t do it before showing you a police badge. 

police in spain
Police in Spain. Photo: [email protected]/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, a bus, or particularly between the metro gates, 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.

iberian ham sandwich
An Iberan ham sandwich. Photo: urban_lenny/Flickr.

Look out for the ‘Rosemary women’

This scam is more common in Spain’s southern Andalusian cities such as Seville and Granada, than in Madrid or Barcelona. It will typically happen outside churches or other touristic places of interest such as Seville’s Plaza de España or the Cathedral. Typically it will be women trying to give you sprigs of rosemary for ‘good luck’. Be aware, that this is not a gift and if you accept it they will demand money from you. If you take out your wallet in a bid to give them something, they may even help themselves to a few notes. The best thing to do is walk on by and not take the rosemary, even if they try and put it in your hand. 

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 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.

Watch out for the bird poo scam

The thief will unknowingly squirt some white liquid on your back and then inform you that a bird has done its business on you. They will then offer to help clean it up, while stealing your wallet from your pocket or bag at the same time. Be aware of any stranger coming up to you, telling you that you have bird poo on your clothes and simply walk away before they can ‘help’ you. 

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.

READ ALSO:  Police warn tourists against common scam in Mallorca

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For members


Ryanair strikes: Which Spanish airports are most affected?

Ryanair cabin crew in Spain resumed strike action on Monday. But which airports will be affected, and how long will it last?

Ryanair strikes: Which Spanish airports are most affected?

Ryanair’s long-running cabin crew walkout dispute returned to Spanish airports this Monday, 8th August. 

With several strikes throughout June and July, the union representing striking workers, Unión Sindical Obrera (USO), announced today that the industrial action will continue for five months – until 7 January 2023 – and take place every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday until then.

READ MORE: Ryanair cabin crew in Spain begin latest round of strike action

During the first two weeks alone, it is anticipated that 1.4 million passengers will be affected – an average of 130,600 travellers every single day.

Which airports will be affected?

The budget Irish airline, a favourite of holidaymakers from Britain and Ireland, has operational bases across Spain and all could be affected by strike action throughout the rest of the year.

If you have booked a Ryanair flight to any of the following airports, keep in mind strike action will be happening on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through the summer and likely until the end of the year if no agreement is made between striking staff and employers. 

Ryanair bases in Spain: Madrid-Barajas, Barcelona El-Prat, ​​Girona, Santiago de Compostela, Alicante, Palma, Ibiza, Malaga, Seville, Valencia, and Palma de Mallorca. 

The airports that will be most affected by the latest walk-outs are: Madrid-Barajas, Barcelona-El Prat, Malaga, Alicante, Seville and Palma de Mallorca.

Both domestic and international flights will be disrupted, and with 650 routes, Ryanair has the highest passenger volume in the Spanish air travel market.

READ MORE: Airport chaos in Europe: Airlines cancel 15,000 flights in August


By 9am on the morning of Monday 8th, 61 flights had been affected by the latest wave of staff walkouts, with 10 cancellations and 111 delayed flights.

Unions demands include the immediate reinstatement of 11 workers who were sacked for taking part in strike action in July, an improvement to pay and working conditions, including putting salaries back to pre-pandemic level, and aligning the collective bargaining agreement with Spanish labour legislation.

Since the summer strike action began, there have been 16 total days of walkouts, which have caused over 300 cancellations and a 3,455 delays at Ryanair’s Spanish base airports.