Several times, maybe four or five, during the time that we were in Europe, we would be walking along in a popular tourist area and see ahead of us a card table, and some volunteers with clipboards. They would approach and say that they were trying to get us to sign a petition to outlaw illegal drugs.
This seemed absolutely, nonsensically, bizarre. I could not figure out what in the heck they were up to.
First of all, how do you outlaw something that is already illegal?
Second of all, what the heck would any country care about the signature of someone from another country on a petition?
Well, I figured out what they’re up to. They are pickpockets. They distract you with a clipboard and try to get into your belt pack, purse, backpack, or pockets while you are distracted. The way I learned this was that the man was holding the clipboard against my belly, while with his other hand he unzipped my belt pack that had my camera and some other things in it, including my passport.
Fortunately I pushed him away before he got anything. But that was when I noticed that he had unzipped the pack.
From that day on, the approach that I use if I see what might be a similar situation, is to tell them, “Keep well away from me. You are frightening me!”
If they come closer, I use my outdoor voice to repeat a similar message. It has worked very well. My personal decision, and I do not want anyone else to do this just because I do it, is that if one persisted and got within arms length of me I would hurt him or her. I see no reason to let them get close enough to steal anything. I have never needed to.
Also, be especially aware of your environment. Who is behind you and around you. This is an excellent time to be distracted and not paying full attention to everything. if you fixate on ANYTHING, then the person behind you can go through more of your stuff. Just get away from them as fast as you can.
Being loud, sounding very concerned, not belligerent, and attracting a lot of attention is your best tool at this stage. They do not want everybody within 50 m staring at you and therefore the pickpocket. I would guess that if you sound belligerent and then smack someone, especially if they are NOT a crook, then you will not come out of it as well as if you sound genuinely frightened for your personal safety and are obviously ‘defending yourself.’ Your tone conveys meaning clearly in any language.
“Help! This man/woman is scaring me!” is better than, “I’m an American! I’m going to beat the cr*p out of you, you little…”
You get the idea. but, be sure that NO ONE gets close to you while ‘helping’.
If there are two or more of you, it is usually better to scan the environment in the direction of your friend(s) while they scan by looking past you. Each of you has more protection that way. Otherwise, if your friend is behind you looking aft, you have no idea if they are in trouble and who is looking in what direction, when? If you are looking past them, you know that they are OK and which way they are looking, when.
This is not the ‘Shootout at the OK Corral.’ They have no desire to do anything if someone is watching. So, watch like crazy. They will go after a new fish.
It is always possible that they are on a legitimate and wonderfully beneficial mission. Buying cigarettes for mother Theresa, condoms for day care centers, or something. But, in my opinion, the odds that they are up to no good is dramatically higher.
Some friends in Europe sent me this nice link:
If you are driving, it is a common scam for an expensive car with a ‘bank president’ driving. A very high class presentation. Signals you that you have a problem and you pull over and they rob you. There is often a confederate hiding that while you talk to the ‘bank president’ sneaks up on the other side of the car and grabs stuff.
Do not give up and stay home. Just make it hard for them and they will go elsewhere.