You’re eating tapas at an outdoor restaurant in Barcelona, your iPhone on the table a few inches from your right hand, when a woman bumps your left arm and spills a drink on you. She apologizes profusely and walks away. A few minutes later, you realize your iPhone has disappeared.
Unfortunately, you’ve just become a statistic, one of thousands of daily victims of “Apple picking,” a crime trend aimed at the owners of iPhones and iPads.
In this example, the crime was in Barcelona, known for its petty thievery and pickpockets. But it could have happened almost anywhere in the world. While Apple picking is a crime that’s soaring statistically, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for travelers, who are prime targets for pickpockets and street criminals.
Pickpockets have become so aggressive in some parts of Europe that guards at the Louvre Museum in Paris – the most famous museum in the world – went on strike earlier this year to protest the audacious behavior of street criminals at the facility, and a similar strike was threatened in Rome by guards at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
“There have always been pickpockets at the Louvre and in tourist locations in Paris, but for the last year and a half the gangs have become increasingly violent,” Sophie Aquirre, a supervisor at the museum, told the BBC.
Statistically, tourists are victimized at much higher rates than local residents, says Marcus Felson, a Texas State University professor and expert in crime analysis. “Tourist crime is quite high,” he says.
Because of the inconsistent way crime statistics are reported in various countries, street crime is difficult to chart. And while groups such as the United Nations track crime trends internationally, they usually don’t distinguish between violent and nonviolent crime.
Nonetheless, some cities are known for street crime, says Bob Arno, co-author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid ‘Thefts, Cons, and Street Crime While Traveling.
Barcelona is at the top of the list.
“For 10 years, there’s been a concerted effort to cut down on street crime in Barcelona, and it’s slowly getting better,” says Arno. “But it has a long way to go.”
He says statistics show seven to 10 percent of all visitors to Spain will be accosted by a street criminal, and about one-third of these attacks will be successful.
Arno, recognized as an expert on pickpockets, is a frequent guest on CNN and has made documentaries for The Travel Channel, Discovery and National Geographic. After Barcelona, he lists Paris as a top spot for pickpockets.
Paul Roll, director of the city’s tourism office, tried to deflect some of the bad publicity Paris received after the Louvre strike by telling the press that he hoped tourists would visit the city anyway. But he added that “it is a subject that we shouldn’t hide and must take seriously.”
The U.S. Embassy takes it seriously enough to have published a tips guide: “Pickpockets in Paris: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim.”
When Connecticut resident Sally Murphy spent a week in Paris in March, she saw “groups of pickpockets lurking around the Louvre and other tourist sites. Paris is a great city. But like any other city you have to be aware of your surroundings.”
After Paris, Rome ranks high as a pickpocket capital, says Arno. In addition to the Sistine Chapel, where guards say tourists are often hit while staring up at Michelangelo’s frescoed walls and ceiling, danger zones include the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain.
The U.S. State Department also advises caution “at the Termini train station. The large crowds and chaotic atmosphere provide an ideal environment for criminals.” And savvy tourists avoid the number 64 bus, sometimes called “the pickpocket special,” which runs between St. Peter’s Square and Termini, Rome’s main station. The bus is often packed with tourists.
Rounding out the list in Europe are these:
• London: The British Transport Police admits it directs “a lot of our resources towards combating pickpocketing and theft, including deploying specialist covert officers.”
• Amsterdam: The number of complaints about pickpockets increased by 30 percent last year, according to Amsterdam police.
• Naples: The U.S. State Department cautions against well-organized pickpocket rings. “Purses are either outright grabbed or straps are slashed by a person on foot or on a motor scooter. In some cases, the intended victim is hit with an unsavory liquid, and during the confusion that follows, the purse, luggage, or other valuables are taken.”
In South America, says Arno, the most dangerous spots are these:
• Rio de Janeiro: In May, the State Department noted that Rio has been rated “critical” for crime for the past 25 years, adding that statistics “reflect continued critically high and rising levels of crimes in the categories of robbery, rape, fraud, and residential thefts.” The report went on to say that street robberies continue at a high rate even in affluent neighborhoods, with cell phones and electronic items specifically targeted.
• Lima, Peru: The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs suggests travelers should “be especially careful when visiting tourist areas in Lima such as the Plaza de Armas (Government Square), the Plaza San Martin, Acho Bullring, Pachacamac, and any location in downtown Lima.”
In South Africa, travelers must be wary here:
• Cape Town: The official visitor’s website here is honest about the city’s crime problems. “While Cape Town’s dark reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities is almost entirely a result of the number of murders that happen there each year, the vast majority of these murders happen in areas far removed from the main tourist destinations. Unfortunately, while your life may not be in much danger as a visitor, your possessions most certainly are!”
Finally, in the United States, classic pickpocketing has decreased, experts say. But purse-snatching and thefts of electronics, such as Apple picking, are rampant. According to University of Texas professor Felson, pickpockets still operate at places where people carry a lot of cash, such as race tracks and in crowds, like at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Arno’s pick for the top pickpocket locale in the U.S. is:
• Las Vegas: “There’s so much cash,” Arno says. “People are drinking, there are crowds. Tourists are an easy target.”