In reading about travel in European cities, one topic that arose was pickpockets. Paris in particular is known for its pickpockets who hang around popular tourist attractions. I mentioned pickpocketing to my son, who became obsessed with the topic. He went online and learned all the ways that they tend to approach people and steal their valuables. I have to say that as a result my son was VERY freaked out and was dreading heading to Paris. We had a long discussion and I asked him to share with me everything he had learned and to give us suggestions, based on his research, for ways we could avoid being pickpocketed. While he was still nervous when we arrived in Paris, the fact that we were listening to him and being proactive about his concerns, seemed to help calm his fears.
So what do these pickpockets look like and what do they do? It was definitely not what I was expecting. I had visions of “Fagin’s Gang” from Oliver -- but the folks we encountered were mainly female and were otherwise unremarkable (certainly no dirty clothes or English accents). One tactic my son heard about, and which we saw for ourselves, was asking people to sign a petition. In groups of 3 or so, the “pickpockets” would approach and ask you to sign a petition against some egregious action -- lack of education for women, starving children -- basically something that is difficult for you to respond “no.” They would also ask for donations in support of this petition. We saw this happen at the Eiffel Tower and were surprised when we saw a tourist reach into her purse to give a donation. While she reached for her money, a “pickpocket” stationed behind her scouted where she kept her money and valuables. We did not see anything taken (beyond the cash donation), but the situation was “textbook” for what my son had heard about online and we steered clear of these “petitions” which we saw at multiple tourist sites.
A related ploy was to walk by asking if "anyone spoke English." If you said yes, you were approached by a group of at least 3 people who would either ask you to sign a petition, ask for help, or ask some other random questions. While one of the 3 was speaking to you, the others were scouting your party -- hovering behind you and presumably looking for food, money or valuables. It was definitely eerie. We saw the “does anyone speak English” scenario multiple times in Paris, the first time while we were standing in line at Notre Dame.
We found that all major tourist sites in Paris had posted signs warning about pickpockets and had police patrolling the areas. This still did not seem to deter them. Any doubts we had about the legalities of their actions were dispelled whenever police were nearby -- these petition holders and folks looking for "English speakers" would disappear like cockroaches when you turn on the lights. This “running away” confirmed to me that we were not being unduly paranoid.
So, what should you do?
First, don’t skip Paris. It is a beautiful city and you don’t want to miss it.
But if you go and you see folks asking if you speak English or asking you to sign a petition, ignore them and stay away. Just stare off as if you have no idea what they’re saying.
If they follow you (and some do), tell them to go away and threaten to call the police. If you know or can learn how to say that in French, all the better.
If you can purchase attraction tickets in advance, do so. That way, you are not standing outside of the attraction waiting to purchase tickets and any potential pickpockets cannot see where you have your money stored when you purchase your tickets.
Carry very little with you -- no huge purses or camera bags or expensive jewelry if you can help it. Wear anything you have cross body to make it more difficult for someone to take it. (In full candor, we had a camera bag, but it had a camera only and was carried cross-body.)
Carry your necessary valuables (credit card, identification, euros) in a travel pouch around your neck or waist. We used some by Lewis and Clark which had RFID-Blocking to also protect electronic pickpocketing. (See the Amazon links and photos below.) I went a bit overboard, buying one for each of us -- but two total would have been sufficient. (My teens were "too cool" to wear them.)
If you have a safe in your hotel room, leave valuables there.
If you carry your passport with you to tourist attractions, leave a photocopy of your passport back in the hotel safe or locked in your luggage back in your hotel room.
Finally, breathe and enjoy! As we tried to show our son, you can’t let the threat of “bad people” ruin your vacation. All you can do is be aware and take necessary precautions.