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  • Karin Zeitvogel

Pickpockets and how to flummox them

Updated: Mar 26

Decoy wallets, S-carabiners and visible money that pickpockets will likely think is worthless

The other passengers on line 4 of the Paris Metro and I watched as a group of half a dozen girls surrounded a man holding a suitcase and got busy. The man looked American - crisp khaki trousers and a Colgate smile. He didn't flinch as the girls pressed up against him on the half-empty train until, one stop later, they got off and went through the wallet they had extracted from his rear pocket. Even then, he remained remarkably stoic.

One of the girls wedged herself in the door of the train to prevent it leaving. Apparently the youngest of the lot, she eventually stepped onto the platform from between the doors, pointed at the man and held up the wallet. It was empty. She made a few gestures before the doors of the Metro closed and we pulled out of the station.

The decoy wallet

Suspecting that the man had fallen victim to one of the worst aspects of living in and visiting Paris, and realising that I was probably the only other English-speaker on the train besides the Colgate-smile man, I got up, walked over to him, and said, "Sir, I think you just had your pockets picked by those girls."

And without batting an eyelid, still beaming that smile, the man said to me, "It's OK. I always carry a dummy wallet when I'm in Paris."

Brilliant, I thought.

So, tactic number 1 for beating the pickpockets: Carry a dummy wallet. If you feel like it, put a note inside it for the pickpockets.

Carry foreign money that's worthless but doesn't look it

There are more ways than the decoy wallet to prevent a pickpocket getting away with your money, IDs and other belongings. Here are a couple I've used myself:

Have some money tantalizingly showing from a partially open zip pocket of a backpack, to lure pickpockets to it and away from where the real valuables are.

The money I used was Polish zlotys, which are actually fairly valuable but are really only used in Poland. I did this in Athens, using small denominations. Like Paris, the Greek capital has lots of pickpockets in the downtown stations of the metro near the tourist hotspots like Sintagma and the Acropolis. I reckoned they wouldn't go to a bureau de change to see what 10 or 20 zlotys was worth.

On this trip, I was traveling with my son and wanted to make sure he didn't have his phone and money stolen, so I stood near the door of the Athens metro with my bait money visible in my backpack. Immediately, a group of men and women surrounded me. One of the women started to try to get hold of the zlotys poking out of my bag. She pulled the bill out of the pocket it was in, but when she saw that it was a currency that she deemed worthless (actually, 50 zloty is roughly 20 euros, but don't tell pickpockets), she dropped it on the ground and tapped me on the shoulder to feign goodwill, as if she were telling me I had dropped money and she was honest enough to let me know. I picked up my zlotys, making sure none of my other pockets were exposed, and said to the pickpocket, "Polish money. Not much good to you."

The woman gave me a look that indicated she wasn't thinking kind thoughts about me.


I have since spent all of my zlotys (in Poland) and have given away my Serbian dinars, which are of even less value than zlotys, and have no other bait bills for pickpockets.

So, more recently, I've used S-carabiners to thwart the light-fingered of the world. S-carabiners are available in America at hardware stores and shops that sell things for cars. If you repair cars, you can use these little clips to hold customers' keys so as not to confuse the keys to Gianluca's Lamborghini with those for Slobodan's Lada when they bring their rides into the shop on the same day.

S-carabiners come in different sizes. I got five or six of the small ones and one bigger one at AutoZone. You can also get them at Best Buy or online.

To thwart pickpockets, you want the small ones. You also need a bag with compartments that zip shut from two ends, such as this bag from FLX.

These small backpacks, available in America at Kohl's, are exactly the right dimensions for travel with only a personal item on RyanAir, a low-cost airline in Europe that becomes high-cost if you have to pay for extras, like a bag. The backpack would probably also work on low-cost American airlines.


Despite their perfect dimensions, large interiors and multiple compartments, I don't recommend FLX bags. One of the straps on mine broke when I hung the bag on the hook on the back of a toilet stall door. It was the first time I used the bag and I hadn't even made it to the airport.

Three months later, one of the arm straps pulled out of where it was stitched into the bag as I was running to try to catch someone crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon. I didn't see them finish and with just one arm strap, the bag was pretty much worthless.

I've since read reviews that say other people have had the exact same issue with FLX bags, with the top loop that you can hang on the hook on a toilet stall pulling away from the rest of the bag. In two cases, this happened on the way to the airport.


The S-carabiners I bought at AutoZone were well worth the $10 I spent on them. You use them to hook two zips together as shown below. This is so effective at deterring anyone from opening the bag that, when my FLX bag was shunted off on the additional-search-needed conveyor belt at Denver airport, and went to a TSA official at the far end, he tried multiple times to undo the S-carabiners before thrusting the bag my way and saying, "Can you open this for me?"

S-carabiners are an easy way to securely shut your backpack, particularly if it has zips from two ends of compartments that meet. Even a TSA official couldn't open mine.

No pickpockets or missing money on that trip, which took me through Paris, northern Morocco, Barcelona, Cologne during carnival, Berlin and London, where announcements at St. Pancras station frequently warned of 'bag thieves operating in the area.'


I was pickpocketed many years ago in the Gare du Nord in Paris. The thieves got everything: passport, credit cards and return ticket. A friend loaned me money and took me to the U.S. embassy, where I was given a temporary passport that allowed me to get back to where I lived at the time. More information on what to do if you're American and you lose your passport, or it's stolen, while travelling overseas.

If you're Australian, Austrian, British, French, German, from New Zealand, Swiss... It's pretty much the same drill. Contact your country's nearest consular offices and they should help you. You will probably also have to file a report with the local police.

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