I hate fear mongering, and I rarely pay attention to crime stats on the news because I think they’re just hyped up. I prefer to go with personal experience. And unfortunately, for once my own experiences seem to match what’s been all over the French news the past two months: pickpocketing and muggings are on the rise.
Several of my tour clients were victims over the winter holidays. One had his coat stolen at a bar (it was on the table next to him). “I could have touched it, I was so close,” he said. And this guy is a 6’4” Texan man in his late 20s. He would have happily pounded the thief into a pulp if he caught him in the act. A woman traveling with her adult daughter had her wallet lifted out of her small, across-the-chest zippered purse while getting a bottle of water at the Louvre. It happened the moment after paying for the water, when she returned the wallet to the purse, then reached up for the bottle. The woman had simply grabbed it a few seconds before my client zipped her purse closed, and her daughter standing right next to her on the other side. The daughter had even suspected the woman was standing too close. A Parisian friend lost her phone in a bar when a charming man chatting with her as he ordered his drinks leaned in a bit too close. Another Parisian friend was sitting in a café downstairs at Printemps department store with her friend. She paid for her drink, and sat down with her purse on the chair next to her. Only a few moments later she realized her wallet was gone, most likely the woman who had passed by a bit too closely, seemingly burdened by a large number of shopping bags.
In all of these cases, the thieves were extremely bold, pickpocketing in places where, if the victims had realized what was going on, it would have been hard to easily escape. They were pickpocketed in places where their friends or other people (the cashier at the Louvre, the barman) could have easily spotted what was going on. In all cases, the victims were particularly shocked at the thieves’ audacity. People expect to get pickpocketd in the metro. They don’t expect it in a high-end department store. But of course that’s why they’re so successful. If you ever catch yourself thinking, “they wouldn’t dare try to pickpocket anyone in here”, they probably already have.
Now, normally, I would tell all of you to be careful, be alert, don’t carry all of your cash, credit cards and ID in one place, keep your purse zipper closed, don’t put your wallet in your back pocket, and watch out for the gangs of gypsy kids in the metro who push and shove (with their hands in your pockets). Back in 2008 I wrote about how a pickpocket had mysteriously removed all the cash from my wallet without me knowing. I was lucky that I didn’t lose my cards and identification, and lucky I wasn’t mugged. But you already know to be careful.
What I’d like to say this time is a bit different. I’m recommending you be prepared in the likely case you’re a victim.
I can feel the resistance. No one wants to take the pessimistic route. We all think that if we’re careful enough, smart enough, that the pickpockets won’t get us. But that means that we instantly feel stupid and accountable if we become victims of these Artful Dodgers. Don’t add insult to injury by then having to blame yourself for not being perfect. The number of careful and smart people who drop their guard for just one moment seems to outnumber the ones who succeed in thwarting the thieves. Everyone who has been pickpocketed knows the worst part is that moment when you realize you’ve been robbed, that sinking feeling in the stomach that, beneath the anger of being robbed, tells you you’re a failure for letting it happen.
So let’s try something different. We can’t control whether or not we’re robbed, but we can control how prepared we are in advance. After all, it’s bad enough being robbed, but then you have to go through all of the formalities of cancelling and replacing credit cards, ID, and cell phones. If you’re on vacation in Paris this can turn your trip into a nightmare.
Here are my tips, both for visitors and residents, for being prepared for pickpockets:
Make a photocopy or scan of both sides of every single item you carry in your wallet or purse on a daily basis. Most people, when their wallet is stolen, can’t even remember everything that’s inside. ID cards, bank and credit cards, membership cards, medical cards, insurance cards, drivers license, student ID, etc. You should also keep a scan or photocopy of your passport on file at all times, even if you rarely use it. This way, you have a visual to show police or authorities when going through the replacement process, and it’s an easy way to immediately find the account numbers and emergency numbers usually listed on the back of the card (ironically, the number to call for your stolen credit card is right on the card…not much help if you don’t have the card anymore).
If you really want to be prepared, or if you’re only visiting Paris, you should also make a list of every card and ID you have with the account number, emergency contact number, and customer service number. When my wallet was stolen, the bank cards were easy to cancel and replace. But they also got my Disney Passport, my movie pass, my Velib’ card, and my Carte Vitale, all which entailed a tedious trudge through my files to find the account numbers and contact info. Keep this on file somewhere you can access via internet, not just your hard drive (like a Google app, or in a Hotmail attachment to yourself, in case your computer is also stolen). Keeping a printout of these numbers with you when traveling is ideal (separate from the wallet/purse, of course). It’s also a good idea to have the emergency number of your embassy for any country you’re traveling to, in case you lose your passport (ie: US Embassy in Paris).
Have a backup plan if your phone is stolen, too. If your whole bag is stolen with your phone and your wallet, life quickly gets more complicated. And not just the number to cancel the phone service and block your SIM (for French phones, make sure you have written down your IMEI number; if you don’t know it, just type into your phone: *#06# and it will display on the phone). You’ll also want to backup those important phone numbers somewhere at home or on your computer (am I the only human who also still uses an actual phone book with handwritten names and numbers?) Many of us don’t memorize even our closest friends’ and family members’ telephone numbers anymore, so having a backup is good in case of emergency. All credit cards have free international collect-call numbers, write them down. To make a free collect call (assuming the person on the other end accepts the call), dial the AT&T access number (free from any phone in France: 0800-99-0011).
A note on cell phone theft insurance: Check your cell phone insurance contract carefully. My Parisian friend whose cell phone was stolen by the Casanova at the bar found out the hard way that hers only covered theft if the phone was physically pulled out of her hand, not out of her pocket. Another insult on top of the injury.
Don’t forget to file that police report. If you’re a resident, you will need to file the report for insurance purposes, and to replace any stolen ID cards. If you’re a visitor, you may need the report to show your insurance company at home or the Embassy to have your card replaced. I encourage everyone to file a report even if they don’t have to, because it helps the police get accurate information on crime statistics and what areas of Paris need more policing. And, heck, how many of your friends can say they’ve been inside a French police station? They’re actually very nice, in my experience, and you get to leave with the souvenir document of your “story” with the official police stamp, in French. The declaration can be made at any police station or commissariat. If you don’t speak French, they will try to find someone who can help translate (or at least speak Franglais to you). If you live in Paris, you may want to follow the Prefecture de Police on Twitter, as they post alerts on the most troublesome areas or particular scams making the rounds.
For visitors, stop carrying things you don’t need. Take everything out of your wallet or purse that isn’t necessary, especially if it can’t be replaced easily. Personal photos, gym membership cards, your work ID badge, drivers license (an American drivers license isn’t recognized as official identification in France, so if you’re not renting a car, you don’t need to carry it around). Leave all of this stuff at home, or put it in the hotel safe with your passport (just carry a photocopy of your passport unless you’re sure you need it for something specific). There is rarely ever a time when visitors need to show identification in Paris. The French don’t require any ID when paying with credit cards (because everyone but America has PIN-secured cards now, they don’t rely on signatures). If you don’t have an in-room safe, use your own suitcase with a combination padlock as a last-resort safe place to lock up your belongings.
Finally, don’t forget that your expensive cell phone looks just like cash to a thief. Sadly, there has also been a rise in muggings in Paris, with cell phones being the current number one target for being ripped right out of your hands. And it doesn’t have to be at night, or in a dark alley. I had just finished a tour on December 27 when I heard about the mugging-gone-wrong in the Etienne Marcel metro station (central Paris). A young man tried to rip the cell phone of one woman’s hand on the platform in the middle of the day. She fought back and, thwarted, he pushed her to the ground and ran off. But as he ran up the stairs to the exit, he shoved a 27-year-old woman out of his way, causing her to fall and fracture her skull on the steps. She never regained consciousness before dying that night in the hospital.
Police and the RATP have confirmed that there has been a sharp rise in muggings involving cell phones being grabbed out of victims’ hands, both on the metro platforms and on the streets. You wouldn’t walk around on the street holding four hundred euro bills in front of you, would you? Both visitors and residents should be more cautious about where and when they pull out their phones in public. It may seem totally safe because “everyone’s using theirs too” and it’s “the middle of the day in a nice neighborhood”, but it only takes one second for someone who is more desperate than you to hit and run.
Remember that losing your money and belongings is not the end of the world. The most important thing is that you are safe and unharmed. Being careful is recommended, but being prepared is essential if you want to keep your peace of mind.
And now, back to our regular program…