Monday Morning Musings on Pickpockets on the Metro in Paris

Metro station, Arts et Metiers (Lines 3 and 11)

After dodging holiday shoppers and having my foot run over by a renegade baby stroller while visiting the Christmas Market on the Champs-Elysées yesterday, Stéphane, Sara and I decided to take metro line 1 from George V to Tuileries to have some hot chocolate. As we always seem to arrive at Angelina's just after it has closed for the night, I stood on the metro platform with my back to the wall to check their opening hours on my iPhone. Stéphane and Sara were facing me, we were speaking English and for all anyone knew we were tourists in Paris.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a group of young teenage girls with long hair and cell phones. They looked familiar because I had seen them, or girls who look exactly like them, causing a commotion on line 1 a couple of times. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I nevertheless had an instinctive feeling that something wasn't quite right, especially when they kept walking back and forth behind Sara and jostling her. Momentarily distracted from my iPhone, I thought that they were just rude teenagers who didn't have anything better to do on a Sunday afternoon.

When the metro train pulled into the station, the cluster of girls broke into small groups (strange!) and approached separate cars. By the time that one of them nudged in front of me to follow an Asian man, alarm bells were going off in my mind. Looking down, I noticed that her jacket was draped over her arm and that her hand was reaching ever so carefully into the man's jacket pocket. Without taking the time to think about French etiquette, I demanded, "Mais, qu'est-ce que tu fais?" (But, what are you doing?). Unintentionally using the impolite form of address (tu versus vous -- but how should one address a pickpocket?) in a rather loud tone caught the girl's attention because she jerked to a halt and withdrew her hand from the man's pocket. Like water slipping through your fingers, she was off of the train in an instant. Everything happened so fast that the doors hadn't even closed yet.

Meanwhile, the Asian man and the group of four women with him cast a startled glance in my direction. Realizing that they were tourists, I asked if they spoke English and explained that the girl had been trying to steal his wallet from his jacket pocket. After checking his other pockets and confirming that he still had his wallet, he said that fortunately it hadn't been in that pocket even though that's where he normally carries it. True enough, the wallet had left an imprint on the material, which is why the girl was rummaging around in that particular pocket.

Since it was over in the blink of an eye, Sara asked Stéphane and me what had happened. After telling her that the girls were pickpockets, a panicked look crossed her face as she remembered how they had been jostling her on the platform. Saying that she didn't see how they could have taken anything from the zippered purse that she was holding clenched under her arm (that's my girl!), she confirmed that everything was there. By taking the necessary precautions, the Asian man was lucky and Sara was lucky -- but don't count on luck. Here are a few things that I do while riding public transportation:

  • Look as if you know where you're going, even when you don't. If you need to look at a map or your iPhone, move to an uncrowded part of the metro.
  • Keep your purse close to your body. Mine is always held tightly under my arm and slightly in front of my chest. 
  • Pay extra attention to your belongings on routes that have more tourists, like metro line 1, and when you're entering and exiting the train. That's when the girl was busy searching the man's pocket for his wallet.
  • Sit whenever possible. Otherwise, stand with your back against a wall rather than holding the pole in the middle of the car.
  • Sorry to say, but I've heard from many people that racial profiling does exist as far as pickpockets are concerned. Because Asians tend to carry more cash and have the latest technological gadgets, they seem to be prime targets. This was confirmed by my Japanese friend Itsuko who told me that her wallet was stolen while riding the metro.
  • Any other tips? Please leave a comment.

Let me end this post by saying that Paris is a large city and it's best to be careful, just as you would in any other metropolis. Fortunately, I've never had the misfortune of having anything stolen by a pickpocket. A thief did, however, take my father's wallet while I was with him on the metro during his first trip to Paris many years ago. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Sorry, unlike those of the bracelet scam guys near the Sacré Coeur funicular, I wasn't able to take any photos of the pickpockets on the metro. Here's a picture to remind you that Paris is busy, beautiful city full of people.

Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées 

Comments

  1. Mary Kay to the rescue! I wouldn't want to know how few people would do what you did though, seems no one wants to cause a scene but would just look the other way. I had a similar experience in Barcelona waiting to get into the Picasso Museum--the pickpockets actually worked the line and people didn't seem to notice. They walked, only walked, away when the police came by. I didn't see them actually succeed at getting anything but I saw the cardboard they held to cover their invading hand. Just awful.

    And by the way, you sure are on the Champs Elysees a lot.

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  2. I have to admit that I acted without thinking. After Stephane confirmed that he saw the girl's hand in the man's pocket, I just blurted out the first thing that came into my mind because it was so disconcerting. If I would have thought about it, I would have told Stephane to say something because I don't like making scenes either.

    Barcelona seems to be particularly bad for pickpockets. I had some kids try to steal something from me while I was there a long time ago.

    We've been at the Champs Elysees more than normal because of the Christmas Market (really crowded) and because Sara wanted to go to the newly opened Marks & Spencer. No luck because the line was way too long, as it was at Angelina's. We ended up at the Hemingway bar at the Ritz drinking a Serendipity. At 30 Euros a drink, that's another kind of robbery but one that we wanted to experience before the hotel closes its doors for the next 2-3 years for renovations.

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  3. Your instincts were brillant. We are having the same problem on the MBTA in Boston so keep your excellent street smarts in place when you're here.

    http://www.universalhub.com/2011/sticky-fingered-goons-blame-double-digit-increase

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  4. Penny,

    Thanks for the reminder! I usually let my guard down in Boston so it's very helpful to know that I shouldn't. A 16% increase in crime is substantial. And who would have thought that people would be swiping the cable from the transit system.

    I'm going to send the link for the article to my kids so that they know to pay more attention while riding the T.

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  5. Omg, MK...what whores! After being severely robbed this year, I have no patience for thieves! I'm so glad you caught them...and thieves don't need to be vouvoyé...especially young ones!

    Thanks for the reminder and I will make sure to keep my bag zipped up!

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  6. Mlle Ella, Thanks for saying that I didn't need to vouvoyé the pickpockets because that's one of the things that was bothering me when I replayed the scene in my mind last night. Stupid, right? But it was more about all of the French people who heard me say "tu" when I thought that maybe I should have said "vous". There really should have been a lesson, "Talking with thieves" in one of my French classes!

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  7. I guess that pickpockets are sadly a part of city life. It seems a world away from here, but of course we're not without crime here in the depths of the countryside, but it's few and far between, thank goodness.
    Thanks for the advice. I plan to visit Paris with my daughter early next year and I'll bear it in mind. I do feel a bit country bumpkinish these days and need to wise up when I hit the city!

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  8. First let me say, I love Paris! I've been 3 times & plan to go again. My 2nd trip, 2 young teens accosted me at an ATM on Blvd. St Germain . They were targeting women alone, not tourists. I am always careful & I looked around before I started to use the ATM. The first girl came up to me out of nowhere & asked me something, I Said NO! (I thought she was begging). She then reached over a slapped the large euro amount on the ATM! All of a sudden another girl appeared on my other side & they grabbed my arms & played Tug of War with me. They were trying to dostract me. I knew that the next thing that was going to happen was the money was going to pop out so I just let them pull me around while I kept my eye on the money slot. Saying " No! No!". As soon as the money came out, I grabbed it! One girl tried to grab it out of my hand, but I had a death grip on it. FINALLY, My husband, (who was there, but looking at something on the corner), realized what was happening & he pulled them off me. After that, they ran away. I had my money, my receipt & my card!!! DOn't know how I did that! They would have gotten 250 euros! So when you go to an ATM, go inside, or have someone stand behind you & look out.
    Another incident with a Japanese friend of mine who lived in Paris. She had her iphone on a table & a guy put a paper on top of it that had writing on it, She said, "No" & he took the paper & left. She then realized he took her phone with the paper. Same Japanese friend had a friend from Japan visiting her. They were at Versailles & they were in a crowded room. A man shoved a camera in her face & said,"Take a picture me me!" Instinct was to lift her hands to take the camera. While she did that, another guy took her wallet out of her purse. She was warned of pick pockets from her friend & had her hand on her purse up until that time. Just be very aware of everything. Did I mention, I love Paris?

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  9. You go, Mary Kay! I wish you had been there when my wallet was lifted on the metro last year. Now I am very careful on the metro. I am always looking around, wondering who is getting targeted around me, but I have never seen a thing. If I do, I hope i will have the nerve to do what you did!

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  10. yikes! You go girl!
    nancyb

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  11. Steph, The main thing is to look as if you know what you're doing, keep a good grip on your purse and pay attention to what's going on around you. Please let me know if you need any info for your upcoming trip with your daughter. I'm sure that you'll have a good time together in the city.

    Anonymous, Talk about keeping your eye on the prize. It's a good thing that you didn't panic and that you kept your wits about you. When we opened our bank account in Paris, our account manager told me to always go inside the bank to withdraw money. I've started to get a bit slack because it means swiping my card and it takes a bit more time. After reading your comment, I'm convinced and will go inside whenever I withdraw money. And I wouldn't have thought that you would have had something like that happen on Blvd. St. Germain. It just goes to show... I also didn't know the scam about placing a piece of paper over a phone and then stealing it. Many thanks for sharing your experiences about the city that you obviously love!

    Kate, They're very skilled at what they do. Now that I've seen them in action, I'm going to keep a close eye on them whenever I'm on line 1 near the Champs Elysees. They're easy to recognize. I had seen this group of girls on several occasions before realizing that they're pickpockets working the metro line.

    Nancy, In between drinking hot chocolate and eating macarons, I occasionally rise to the challenge. ;-)

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  12. This is great advice that bears repeating. Glad to hear nothing was stolen and you were on your guard. It was very decent of you to warn the man as well.

    Love your photo of the Arts et Metiers station, by the way. That is one cool-looking station.

    -nycgirl

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  13. Thanks for your comment about the Arts et Metiers station. I'm going to have to go back and take some more photos and do a post on it because it's an interesting one.

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  14. Another favorite spot for pick-pockets: the Trocadero on summer evenings, on the terraces where everyone takes pictures with the Eiffel Tower in the background. I got zapped there about 7 years ago. One guy will be walking casually in front of you, then suddenly put on the brakes so that you run into him. In the ensuing confusion & apologies, his accomplice is in & out of your pocket in a flash.

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  15. Bigfish, Sorry to hear about your experience at Trocadero. That's a clever way for the pickpockets to steal something because it's always so crowded there that you probably weren't even suspicious when the guy in front of you stopped. It's good to know because I'm in that area quite often and will be more watchful now.

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  16. Dear Mary Kay
    Amazing how you can surprise yourself in a situation like that. My husband and I had jumped on a bus in Rome and suddenly thought we might have the correct number but be going in the wrong direction. It was very crowded and we were on the bottom step by the rear door. He was getting directions from people on his left when I suddenly felt something was wrong. I looked down to my cross the body handbag and discovered the man on the step above, in his 40s and quite well dressed, had plunged his arm deep into it and was searching through it, even though the flap was fastened across the top. I was so shocked at this invasion I yelled "Hey!" - couldn't think of the correct Italian. I gave him a kind of karate chop with one hand (though with osteo-arthritis I have little strength and am no super hero) and kicked him in the shins. He was absolutely panic stricken - I could see it in his eyes as he was trying desperately to remove his hand from my bag. My husband suddenly looked over and saw me kicking a man. He wondered what on earth I was doing. The next stop we got off immediately. That's when my knees buckled under me. My wallet and everything was safe - I'd managed to defend them - but for about half an hour I couldn't stop shaking. We've never ever caught another bus in Rome, on subsequent trips either. We either walk or take taxis. After this lesson my husband has become super cautious, we never take money from ATMs on the street - always go inside the bank itself as you recommended, no matter whether in Italy, France or wherever. Sometimes it means a bit of a walk to find one - but that's OK.

    Have also seen racial unpleasantness on the metro in Paris. We were sitting near the doors when a guy who looked to be either high on something or psychologically disturbed got on and sat opposite us. He was aggressive and belligerent and looking for a fight. We were careful to avoid eye contact with him. The next stop a South Asian man got on and sat across the aisle from him. Suddenly the belligerent guy started shouting racial abuse at him and moved towards him in a very threatening way. We were all lucky because further on in the carriage there were four more South Asians who noticed what was going on and one stood up and invited him to sit with them. When the belligerent guy saw there were then five to his one he backed down and got off at the next stop. I hate to think what would have happened otherwise.
    Thank you for you your warning - it's very timely for us as we're leaving in a few weeks for another holiday in Italy and France.

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    Replies
    1. Were you on the main bus line going to/from the train station? After reading that it's the pickpocket express, my husband and I were glued to each other so that no one could reach their hands in his pockets or in my purse when we were in Rome a couple of years ago.

      Good for you for stopping the thief in action! I know what you mean, though, about your legs buckling under you after the fact.

      I hope that all goes well during your upcoming holiday in Italy and France.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  17. The only thing Paris police do about it is stalk americans & harass them for their ticket stubs when leaving the train onto the street. Not in the station but out on the street.

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