A recent flourish of articles and reports has been published in the wake of the one-day closing of the Louvre for pickpocket-related reasons.
These articles have been feeding off each other, growing and blending together like some kind of yukky fear-mongering mayonnaise, resulting in an impression to the reader that is out of all proportion with reality.
Having lived in central Paris for 20 years, I would like to bring some balance and perspective.
Pickpocketing is nothing new and has been documented since ancient Greece.
Paris is no exception.
That said, pickpocketing does thankfully remain a very rare occurrence (and never mind the recent articles that paint a picture of endless hoards of sinister individuals ready to prey on YOU), even in the Metro where most pickpocketing occurs.
Case in point: our A La Carte Paris team of 10 people of French, English and American nationalities. As you might readily imagine, in our business of managing 65 apartments in the best locations (i.e. those that attract the most tourists!), our team gets around a lot on a daily basis. And we all use the metro.
So you might imagine that with all this moving around of 10 people, day in day out, for over 10 years, in the most touristic locations and using only the metro, we might have seen it all (and been to hell and back).
In fact, in over 10 years of such activity and without resorting to any special pouches or belt-bags, not one of us has been pickpocketed.
I, for one, cannot even remember having witnessed any such trouble, never mind fallen prey (despite living for 10 years at the top of the Champs Elysées!).
Maybe my team and I just don’t fit the target profile of the map-and-camera-wielding, short-and-sandel-wearing tourist.
The assumption would be that tourists carry the biggest bounty and indeed, some tourists who make no effort to blend in at all do stand out as easily identifiable targets.
If so, then don’t be one of them (I don’t think you are anyway… 😉
That being said, if you want to be certain to avoid problems, rules of basic care apply (like in any big city). The best defense is simply not having valuables readily available. Thieves go after what is easily accessible, so make sure your valuables aren’t (handbag open, thick wallet in back pocket, smartphone on café table, etc.).
As a precaution, when out and about, leave everything you don’t need for the day in your apartment or hotel room. Carry only a bit of cash and one card in a deep front pocket or an inside zipped pocket or the inside zipper section of a handbag. A belt-loop wallet is reassuring too. Only take your passport for crossing international boundaries. For the rest, carry a color photocopy.
My best advice of all, however, is to continue enjoying Paris to the full and to NOT BUY INTO THE FEAR-MONGERING!
“But I’ve been reading so much in the press about the problem of pickpockets in Paris! I think I’d really rather go to another city!” you might object.
Hang on a second.
As you no doubt know, Paris is by a very large margin the most visited capital in Europe. So on a purely statistical basis, one would expect pickpocketing (which is measured by number of complaints) to be most prevalent in Paris. It would only be normal.
In fact, this is not the case. Not by a long shot.
According to a 2010 Trip Advisor study, Paris is only the 5th most pickpocketed european destination, after Barcelona, Rome, Prague and Madrid.
“But I’ve been reading the forums, which are rife with stories of pickpocketing! I get the impression it happens to everyone!”
There is a name for this understandable reaction.
It’s called the Availability Error and here is how it works:
There is a natural and fundamental bias in the reports of pickpocketing, which arises simply because being pickpocketed is news-worthy (and forum-post worthy) while NOT being pickpocketed is not. You will never find a forum post by someone expressing their delight at NOT being targeted by pickpockets, simply because NOT being targeted is the default and expected situation. It is therefore not news.
Yet when we anxiously read the graphic description posted by a poor victim, it completely captures our attention. Fear strengthens memory (this irrational bias is – or at least was, when we lived among the lions in the African savannah – a very useful survival adaptation) and as a result we grossly overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events. The drama of improbable events makes them appear far more frequent than they are.
This human error of rationality is what is know in psychology as the “Availability Error” because our assessment of likelihood can be grossly biased by information that is highly reported and available to us (like the news articles and forum posts pickpocketing victims) compared to information that is less available to us (like the number of people who leave Paris without having had any such issue).
The resulting “probability neglect” helps to explain excessive reactions (such as wanting to cancel travel to Paris) to low-probability risks of very bad outcomes.
The conclusion would seem to be this:
By all means stay alert to your surroundings and don’t be careless with your belongings. But most importantly, don’t let overblown press reports (by journalists who have a vested interest in writing something that grabs you…) and forum posts (voiced by the few victims, while the many non-victims remain largely silent) hamper your travel plans or compromise your enjoyment of Paris.
Il faut vivre!
Founder & CEO
PS: For the sake of a balanced debate, I would welcome your comments on my post and on the issue of pickpocketing in Paris.
PPS: UPDATE: In the wake of a great many comments about the “ring trick”, I thought I would explain. I too have had the gold ring trick attempted on me once, on the Champs Elysées. This is NOT pickpocketing however, but rather a ruse that makes use of the strong social principle of reciprocation and that aims to VOLUNTARILY extract a bit of cash from the passer-by.
Here is how it works: the person pretends to find a ‘gold’ ring (in fact a worthless trinket) on the sidewalk right in front of you and offers it to you, saying that they don’t need it and that they’d be glad for you to have it. Once you accept it, they kindly ask you for some money.
This is a variation on a tactic used some years ago by Hare Krishnas. The Kishna disciple would give unwary travelers a flower, saying that it was a gift. Then when the gift was accepted, the disciple would ask for a donation.
With a pretty flower in hand, it was hard to then refuse a smiling request for a small donation. That is reciprocation in action.
So if a (generally scruffy) person finds a ring on your path and offers it to you as a gift, don’t even acknowledge them (if you do, they can become annoyingly insistent). Just wave them off with the back of your hand and keep walking.