Tuesday, 14 April 2015

12 Ways to Avoid Pickpocketers/Scammers/iPhone-Snatchers in Paris

Paris is a beautiful place. 

One of my favourite places in the world, it's the City of Light, the City of Love, the City of Romance.

On the other hand, Paris (and greater Paris) can also be the city of.. scams, pickpocketers, snatch-and-runners (or for me personally anyway, iPhone snatchers) and, the city of "seriously-can-you-please-just-stop-hassling-me..!"



Like any big city with tourists roaming around, there's money to be made. Whether it's being ripped off by your 8€ coffee legally, being pressured into giving some money through coercion/guilt, being pickpocketed without even knowing or being brazenly robbed, it's moments like these that tarnish the otherwise potentially magical Parisian experience.

And it's not just the actual money you lose or the sentimental possession that was taken away from you. It's the feeling of being duped, the uncomfortable feeling of someone entering your personal space, having schemed and plotted behind your back. Or, it's the feeling of someone snatching something right out of your hand, right in front of your eyes. 

You feel a little violated.


After the initial shock, it's the feeling of 'I really should have done this', 'why didn't I do that?', 'if I had only done this!', that self blame that creates a vicious cycle in your head leaving you feeling guilty, stupid, highly strung and paranoid, long after the event itself is over.

Having been through this awful (in a first world country sense) experience myself, I found that there were generally 3 camps of people responding to my story. 

Camp A : Those who were genuinely concerned and outraged and shocked, who sincerely sympathised with me from the bottom of their hearts, fearlessly defending my right to use my phone whenever I needed to without living in fear that someone would snatch it (members from this camp also threatened to jump on a plane, fly over here and hunt down the thief himself)

Camp B : Those who asked me why I was doing what I was doing in the first place and told me I should never really have been doing what I was doing 

Camp C : Those who reassured me that I wasn't alone with their personal story, or a story of a friend, or a story of a friend of a friend of a friend, reminding me that although it's an unpleasant experience and it's completely unfair, sadly it's a part of life and it happens everywhere, I was just in the wrong carriage with the wrong people, at the wrong time.

And it's true, it does happen everywhere. 

Yes, be vigilant and aware and alert but remember that everyone is a potential target, some more so than others, but still. Local Frenchies, experienced travellers, first time tourists, maybe even the perpetrators themselves (on a bad day), we are all potential targets. Don't beat yourself up about it.

So here is my guide of 12 things you can do, based on all my discussions with Frenchies, Parisians, expats, colleagues, clients, students, friends and family.


1. TRAVEL INSURANCE

Make sure you have this organised. Keep your policy number and emergency contact phone number handy. If something happens, at least you will have the peace of mind that you will be reimbursed, something, if anything.


2. REPORT IT

I was in tears after my iPhone was snatched from my hand. No one helped me on the train and I felt like Dorothy, wishing I could just close my eyes and click my red shoes to go back home to Australia. Luckily I soldiered on and reported it to the nearest police station as soon as possible. You need some kind of proof and documentation, dated as soon as possible after the incident for the insurance claim. Also, being around the police makes you feel like your matter is being taken seriously, just jotting down details and recounting your story can be therapeutic. 

Momentarily you will imagine that the police will immediately send out a patrol car as soon as you leave. They will mutter the words "justice will prevail" in their French accents, and track down your stolen item...!!! ;)


3. ON THE METRO/RER

* Pickpocketers
Scan the carriage and look at everyone around you (pickpocketers will target those who are pre-occupied and unaware).
Women make sure your bag is zipped up, held slightly/right in front of you, under your eyes.
Men make sure your wallet is not in your back pocket.
When they announce over the PA system to be aware of pickpocketers, resist the urge to check where your wallet is.
Be wary when the carriage becomes crowded, often they will swarm the crowded carriage and you won't be able to notice anything because everyone is pushed up against each other. 
When things get tight, pull your belongings in even tighter. 

* Snatch-and-runners
Snatch-and-runners will wait until the very last minute, just before the doors are closing to snatch your phone/bag/whatever and jump off the carriage. 
Be careful when seated/standing near the doors especially when the train is about to leave the station.
Hold on tight, if they can't snatch quickly, they will let go and jump off the carriage regardless, they don't want to be stuck on the same carriage after a failed attempt, I've seen a guy try to snatch a phone but the woman had such a tight grip he gave up and ran off. 
There will be times when you will need to take out your phone on the train to use it, it's hard to avoid realistically so when you do, hold it securely with both hands.

NOTE: If you are taking the RER on a longer journey, I've found that it is better to sit upstairs, but not too close to the stairs, second or third row in is where I normally sit now. My girlfriend and I analysed the RER seating plan after my snatching and figured that it was harder to snatch and run, leap down 8 steps then off the carriage, than to snatch and run, leap up 4 steps then off the carriage. Also try to sit close to the window, away from the aisle where it's easier to snatch and run, preferably with people around you and choose a carriage with as many passengers as possible.


4. ON THE STREETS/AT ATMs

Don't head out with too much cash on you, always keep a second debit/credit card locked up in your luggage and think carefully about where to stash your passport. Keep your belongings close to you on the streets and be wary of anyone trying to strike up a conversation, especially when you are at an ATM, where they may steal your money straight away or spy on your PIN code and steal your card later. My friend actually witnessed this happening in broad daylight. 

Many of these groups of pickpocketers are minors, they are barely even teenagers, kids even - operated by adult gangs. They are dressed normally and probably the only thing giving them away is the fact that they are out and about during school hours and that hypothetically if they were on holidays, why are their parents nowhere to be seen? They hang out in groups around famous monuments and often work more discreetly in pairs near ATMs. 
There isn't much the authorities can do with this problem because first of all they need to be caught red-handed. Secondly, even when they are caught, because of their age, they are soon released afterwards, making pickpocketing a very lucrative way of earning money for these groups.


5. THE STRING SCAM (normally around Montmartre, Sacre Coeur)

Before the steps leading up to the beautiful Sacre Coeur, you will find groups of men loitering at the bottom with their brightly coloured pieces of string. They will approach you to show a 'magic trick' and offer to make a bracelet/ring/whatever, for you/the church/good luck/as a gift/present/souvenir. After that, they will hassle for a payment. Obviously, with a piece of string tied to your fingers/hand/wrist it is going to be hard to refuse giving a donation (that you never agreed to in the first place!). 
They will be insistent and intimidating in their groups and paying them might be the only way to get rid of them.

Walk through them, don't stand around wondering how you can get away, just walk away purposefully, walk behind a group of people if you are travelling alone, don't engage in any eye contact, body language, conversation, anything. Watch out for pickpocketers who might mill around at the same time. Try to act like a local, shake your head, keep your hands in your pockets/crossed and say as little as possible - 

NON merci (no thank you)
Non, c'est bon (no, it's good)
EHH - OH (which is like an "errrr I don't think so" remark, I've seen John do this quite effectively a few times, it sounds like a deep "AAAY - OH" which the emphasis on the AAAY part) 


6. THE CLIPBOARD SCAM

This scam seems to be everywhere (even in the metro outside Galeries Lafayette as well as all the major monuments). You will see groups of girls/women holding clipboards approaching tourists asking if you speak English to sign a petition. Normally it is some deaf/mute petition. Sometimes the girls pretend to be deaf/mute then you'll see them talk to each other afterwards. These girls can get aggressive and grab your arm and pester you to sign, it's really really annoying. Once you've signed they will demand a donation. 
Once again, watch out for pickpocketing while you are signing or trying to get away.

Don't make eye contact, walk through them as quickly as possible and be firm. Don't underestimate these girls, I've had them grab onto my arm to the point where it actually really hurt.
Once again, you can use:

NON, merci (no thank you)
J'ai dit, NON MERCI! (I said, NO THANK YOU!)
Non, je suis pressé(e) (no, I'm busy)
Non, je n'ai pas le temps (no, I don't have time)


7. THE GOLD RING SCAM

This is where someone will pick up a gold ring and then approach you to ask if it is yours and try to give it to you claiming that they can't use it. Later on they will ask you for some money, because they are hungry/thirsty/have given you the ring. This scam seems to be popular among many scamming groups, men and women of all ages.


8. THE CUP GAME SCAM

I've added this scam because I keep on seeing it. Initially I wasn't going to include it because it's not a scam that approaches you but rather one that you willingly participate in but this scam has been increasing in numbers. Here you will see men trying to coax you into playing a game where you guess where the ball is underneath the three cups. The cups move around and at the end you choose which cup it is. You will witness other people off the street "winning" 50€ notes and exclaiming their disbelief and excitement after "winning"! 

Great in theory but problem is they are all in it together. 

Step away from the game. It's too good to be true. Go and spend that 50€ on something else instead! 


9. BEGGARS - THE HOMELESS, THE ROMA PEOPLE


This is a complex social issue to write about. But it's one that is strikingly obvious as soon as you set foot in Paris. It isn't a scam as such but rather it's a complicated situation that can have scam potential but you don't really know for sure. 

In the metro station, along the streets, on little stretches of pavements, on top of those vents with openings on the ground, on street corners, in front of boulangeries, in telephone booths you will see people, even families, groups of people begging for money. They'll often have a sign saying they are hungry and that 1€, 2€ or a "ticket resto" (which is like a food voucher) would help them. Sometimes they are accompanied by a dog, some puppies, kittens, rabbits. Sometimes they will present a little speech on the metro. Sometimes they will distribute little pieces of paper (in Comic Sans font) in French or English stating how they have 3 children and they are homeless and don't have a job.

It's something that I have found difficult to understand, especially coming from a country like Australia where I hardly saw any beggars or homeless people. 

What I've noticed over the time I've been in Paris (and correct me if I'm wrong as this is merely my personal observation) is that generally speaking there are two groups. Firstly, there are the homeless people and you will see different types of homeless people. There are the homeless who don't seem stereotypically 'homeless'. They look like average people and they often present a little speech on the metro starting with "Ladies and gentlemen I'm so sorry to disturb you..". Then there are homeless people who are seated on the ground with a little sign, usually on their own. Sometimes they don't even have a sign. Sometimes they sit in their little spot surrounded by a few possessions and a sleeping bag. Sometimes you will even notice them refusing help from authorities offering shelter in the middle of Winter because they don't want to leave their 'spot'.

Secondly, there are the Roma people. They often distribute the little pieces of paper on the train, their young children will also beg in the train carriages. It will break your heart seeing that image. They sit on the streets, sometimes on mattresses, sometimes in telephone booths, sometimes in tents, sometimes with their babies, children, their whole family. There are some who are linked to the organised pickpocketing groups and others who aren't. There are some who actually live there on the street corner and others who live in shanty towns on the outskirts of Paris and go into Paris each day to beg.

It's a difficult call this one. I'm not saying that one beggar may be more deserving over another. I'm not saying that anyone is deserving of anything. I'm not saying that you should or shouldn't give anything (be it money, a ticket resto, food - although I do tend to choose giving food over money) to anyone. I don't know their life story. I don't know their personal circumstances nor how they arrived at their current situation. I don't know if they were offered help and had refused it. I don't know if they were able to access help in the first place. I don't know if they are linked to organised crime. I don't know if substance abuse/dependence is involved or depression or other psychological factors inhibiting them from "just picking themselves up and just getting a job". Sometimes it's not all that easy. I don't know because I'm not in their head. 

I don't know if they refused to send their children to school. I don't know if culturally, they believe in 'schooling' for their children. I don't know if they have actually chosen to live like this and do not wish to conform nor integrate. I don't know.

One thing I do know is that I feel really uncomfortable when I see babies/young toddlers asleep while their "mother" begs. Normal babies do not stay asleep and quiet for hours on end. I can understand for a nap but not long periods of time. Normal babies fidget and cry and are restless and want to squirm around and move about. I don't know for sure in each case but there is a chance that these babies/young toddlers have been sedated with something to allow the "mother" (which could be anyone really) to beg. I may be unsure of everything else but there is one thing that I am sure about. I am sure that I do not want to support this kind of practice in any way, shape or form. If this type of practice/scam attracts pity and makes money, well it's effectively going to continue. If it doesn't make money, it won't continue. Another scam might take its place but at least those babies/toddlers won't be involved.


Now back to something less emotional..

10. BACK UP YOUR PHONE/ENABLE GPS LOCALISATION/UPDATE YOUR PHONE

Invest in some extra iCloud storage if you have an iPhone so that you can back your phone up over wi-fi whilst travelling. Otherwise just try and back up your contacts and photos manually. It's a pain in the *** trying to retrieve all that information if it's not already backed up.
Install apps like Find My iPhone, it may help in locating or deleting your phone remotely. Other times it won't make a difference because many thieves work in groups - they turn your phone off immediately then pass it on to someone else in another location.
Some updates will render your phone useless without the passcode or fingerprint access. Although your phone might still have been stolen by then, at least it's just become a fancy paperweight to the thief. 


11. C'EST LA VIE

If this does happen to you, don't beat yourself up about it. I spent forever thinking why I didn't I do this, why didn't I do that. There will be times when you will need to use your phone on a train, there will be times when you will have had no other choice. There will also be times when you can't help but just assume that people are nice and that they won't take something that doesn't belong to them. Maybe they are just petitioning for a good cause! It's completely natural to want to use your phone, open your purse or give a stranger the benefit of the doubt as you please, without feeling paranoid. 

Understand that you were unlucky and that it happens to everyone, even locals who were born and bred in Paris have had this happen to them. Everyone is a potential target, there's nothing you can do about it now. You live and you learn. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise to make you more vigilant in order to avoid something more serious that was lined up to happen in the future.


12. AIN'T NOTHING GONNA BREAK MY STRIDE.. 

Nobody's gonna slow me down. Oh no, I've got to keep on moving.

(This might not make sense if you didn't grow up in the nineties ;)

Lastly, don't become paranoid - it will ruin your experience and you will lose faith in humanity. Sure it's hard when you hear about ATM snatch and runs, people being pushed off the platform for a phone, people being hospitalised after getting into a fight with the thief etc but these cases aren't the common ones. Listen to the stories but try to take them on board with a clear head. 

Also another reason not to become paranoid is that it's actually really exhausting being on meerkat-on-caffeine mode all day (trust me), you'll miss seeing beautiful things pass by because you're too busy planning how to execute your imaginary ninja moves to trip over the next wise guy who decides to try it on you. 

It's always about balance. 

Balance between being paranoid and too relaxed. Balance between being overly suspicious and naive. Balance between letting the situation consume you and learning to just, let go.


6 comments:

  1. These are excellent & very helpful tips! I plan on going to Paris sometime this fall. Thank you! (:

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    1. No worries Ivy! I hope you won't need to use any of these measures ;) enjoy Paris!

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  2. Thanks for the Tips, and I know that Feeling ..Got scammed in Goa in my own country!

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    1. In your own country too..! Wow, I suppose it really does happen to everyone, not just tourists!

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  3. Thanks Nhan! Very useful tips. Me & younger sis will visit your paradise in Oct :-D

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    1. No worries at all, I hope you and your sister don't have to deal with too much of this side of Paris..!
      PS Your comment was published under anonymous so I don't know who you are :(

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