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Crime For Members

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

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Shwetali Sapte - [email protected]
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, has sparked alarm in Spain's second-largest city, leading local residents to form their own crime fighting patrols. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Pickpocketing is common in big cities and other popular tourist spots across Spain. This rundown of some of the tricks thieves use and how to avoid them should help keep you and your belongings safe.

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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, Seville and Barcelona, where you have to keep your wits about you.

In fact, the Catalan capital is unofficially considered the 'pickpocketing capital of Spain', with 202 non-violent robberies reported every day on average in the first half of 2022.

READ MORE: How Barcelona is once again Spain's pickpocket capital

Technically, the law which allows pickpockets who steal more than €400 to avoid prison was scrapped in 2022 for reoffenders. However, there is little evidence of it having dissuaded many carteristas (pickpockets), as in 2022 this type of theft went up by 51 percent across Spain.

So whether you're a tourist or a local in Spain, it's worth knowing these tips to keep your belongings safe, especially if you're in a busy tourist area. 

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. 

 

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. 

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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.

 

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.

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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. 

The three Barcelona metro stations with the most pickpocketing incidents are Espanya, Barceloneta and Sants. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
 

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.

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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. 

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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

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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