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jeffergray Dec 28th, 2019 07:55 PM

Pickpocketed in Lisbon: A Memoir
Michael's account in his recent trip journal of being pickpocketed in Lisbon prompts me to recount my own similar experience while I was there last April. Perhaps my experience can be helpful to others in avoiding a similar mishap.

I had been aware that this was an issue before I went, thanks to State Department travel advisories and comments in some guidebooks. What I had read indicated that this problem was particularly acute in the Alfama, the old Moorish area of the city -- and so it proved for me.

When I arrived, I noticed that the bellhop from my hotel made a particular point of briefing me about my room's safe. This should have been a further tip-off, but since my room was at the top of the building on the 5th floor, it didn't seem particularly pressing.

It was warm weather the day I arrived, so I was wearing shorts. I figured that I would transfer my wallet to my front pocket, put my hand on it if I found myself squeezed in a crowd or line, and otherwise be very alert to my immediate surroundings. And then I headed out to explore Belem, including the Jeronimos Monastery, which was a mob scene, especially when it came to trying to get into the church. But no problems there.

At about 4:30 p.m., I met up with a Chill Out free walking tour (tips only if you wish) that started in the Praca Luis de Camoes in Bairro Alto. I hadn't planned on being in the Alfama that first day, but the tour covered a great deal of ground and concluded by leading us up through the Alfama before finishing at the Largo Santa Lucia around 7:30 p.m. (Ironically, as we were walking, our tour guide told us about how once, when she was leading a group through the Alfama, a woman from the neighborhood stopped her group to warn them about pickpockets up ahead. So this is something that's very well-established, and acknowledged as an issue even by the residents themselves.) The Largo Santa Lucia is a square/overlook in front of a church that is perched atop a steep bluff, and which offers exceptional views of the Tejo basin. It was also pretty crowded with people.

The tour guide had done a superb job so I of course felt that I should tip her. But getting my wallet out to do this in such a public place meant that anyone who was watching with a keen eye could see what pocket I returned it to. And because I was tired and jet-lagged by this time, I slipped and returned it to my hip pocket through force of habit, not to my front pocket.

I then wandered over to the overlook. The views were superb, the light was great, and I decided to shift from my wide-angle lens to a telephoto after taking a few pictures. It was probably when I was switching these lenses and my attention was distracted that the pickpocketing happened. But these professional thieves are like ghosts. I never sensed at all that anyone had intruded anywhere close to my personal space. If I hadn't been alone, this would probably have been more difficult for the pickpocket to carry off, but there you are.

I realized I'd been pickpocketed about 10 minutes later. I lost my one credit card, my bank card, and all the money I was carrying, which was about $100. My position was pretty dismal.

I managed to find the tour guide, and she was good enough to help me go to a tourist police office near the Rossio station so I could make a report in case the wallet should be recovered. This took about an hour, and I would characterize the officer's attitude as, "Another wallet stolen in the Alfama, So what else is new?"

Once back at my room, I called to cancel my Capital One credit card, although I didn't do the same for my bank card because I figured it would be worthless without the PIN. Capital One told me they would send me a replacement card by Fed Ex as soon as possible, but I figured this was likely to take at least three days (in fact, it took four). The hotel where I was staying (the Santa Justa) already had my credit card number and had a full restaurant, so I could continue to stay there and could eat there, although it was hard to be very happy about having to eat all my meals there for the next several days.

My wife had stayed back home because of work issues, so I called her and we figured out that she could wire me money by Western Union, which would take care of my immediate cash needs. The money could arrive by the following afternoon, and there was a Western Union Office not too far from the Rossio station. Things began looking up. The one other thing that slipped my mind was that I should have thought to call the hotel where I planned to be in three nights to cancel the room, given the unlikelihood that my replacement credit card would arrive and allow me leave Lisbon before then. By the time this occurred to me the following morning, we were within the non-cancellation window.

The next morning, I called the U.S. Embassy to notify them, in part so they could stay up-to-date on the crime situation in the Alfama. They were sympathetic, but didn't feel they could do anything for me beyond the steps I had already taken myself.

After that, I decided to set forth on a walking tour. I figured at the very least, I could tour a lot of churches, because surely they don't charge admission to those, right? Wrong -- in many cases, they do (to cover maintenance expenses). Still, I felt I was getting some value out of my time at about 1:15 that afternoon when my cell phone rang. It was Ricardo, the manager at the Santa Justa, calling to tell me that my wallet had been recovered!

This proved to owe nothing to the Lisbon police. After stealing my wallet, the thief just took the cash and then tossed the wallet aside in some bushes outside a metal fabricating company on an isolated street as he (I assume) was heading for home. The next morning, when the cleaning lady got there to unlock the building, she saw the wallet and turned it in to the company's staff when they began to arrive. They would have had no idea of where to reach me, except for the fact that I had stuck the key card for my room at the Hotel Santa Justa in my wallet. So they called the hotel, and voila!

I caught an Uber up to the fabricating company and collected my wallet. Nothing else in it was touched. My Capital One card, my bank card, all my other cards, even notes on which I had recorded phone numbers -- everything except the cash itself was there. (And now I wouldn't even have to replace my wallet!)

The only further hitch at this point was that when I called Capital One to give them the good news, they said they couldn't rescind the cancellation of my previous card number. So I was still stuck with waiting in Lisbon until my replacement card arrived, but my bank card was still functional, that only delayed my departure by a day, and there was plenty to see in Lisbon and the surrounding area while I waited.

After I got back home, a friend of mine who has a Portuguese wife told me that he normally advises people not to take a wallet if they're going into the Alfama -- just a small amount of cash, preferably in a money belt. I wish we'd had that conversation before I left, but perhaps some fellow Fodorites can benefit from this counsel.

In the end, this experience proved to be only a bump in the road. I otherwise had a great time in Lisbon and in Portugal in general. I recommend it to others, and I hope I will someday be able to return. But the pervasiveness and skill of Lisbon's pickpockets is definitely something you need to take into account in terms of how you conduct yourself and what you do with your credit cards while you're in that city.

kerouac Dec 28th, 2019 08:05 PM

Thanks for telling this story, particularly since I am going to Lisbon in two weeks.

Heimdall Dec 28th, 2019 10:35 PM

Good warning! Pickpockets are a problem in many European cities, and with open borders in EU/Schengen, pickpockets are not necessarily citizens of the country you are visiting. The advice to leave your wallet in the hotel safe and carry only a small amount of cash is wise, but doesn’t help when you are packed and moving between destinations. The other advice I would add is to have more than one credit/debit card, and split them so you aren’t carrying them all together in one pocket or bag.

progol Dec 29th, 2019 03:56 AM

Thanks for sharing your experience. And you told it so well!

On a lighter note, I remember my husband being pickpocketed in Venice many years ago — only the thief absconded with my husband’s leather tobacco pouch!

StCirq Dec 29th, 2019 05:02 AM

Brilliant recounting of a personal pickpocketing story. Thank you. Unfortunately it happens all too often in Europe. But at least, and how jaded are we that we think this way, it's not gun violence?

Nikki Dec 29th, 2019 06:45 AM

Thank you for sharing your experience. My husband had his pocket picked once in Naples, and by the time he had reported it an hour later, the thieves had already charged two thousand dollars on his credit card, so I am surprised to hear your credit card was still in the wallet. Perhaps the credit card companies have gotten better about detecting fraud since then, and the thieves have more trouble using them.

cdnyul Dec 29th, 2019 07:35 AM

"At about 4:30 p.m., I met up with a Chill Out free walking tour (tips only if you wish) "

The cynic in me has a feeling that the voluntary tips are not their only source on income.

dcd Dec 29th, 2019 08:42 AM

Thanks for sharing your story.

We were in Lisbon in Oct and managed to avoid being hit. But the warnings were everywhere.

I no longer carry a traditional wallet when traveling. I use a slim, minimalist RFID wallet big enough for a credit card, bank card and some cash. I carry it in a zipped front pants pocket. They are available on amazon.

isabel Dec 29th, 2019 09:32 AM

Well, no offense to the OP or anyone else (sorry this happened to you, and nice of you to share your story to try to help others) BUT - how do people not know that it's stupid to a) carry around a wallet in a pocket when in any touristy city, and b) to not have back up credit cards/debit cards in a SECURE location which I define as an under the clothes money belt. But for those of you who for whatever reason can't stand the idea of a money belt at least separate your credit cards/debit cards and carry them in different locations on your body or leave one set in a hotel safe, etc.

mlgb Dec 29th, 2019 12:35 PM

Probably no help for the OP but I find the bra stash wallets more comfy than a money belt. Not big enough for a passport/cellphone but works great for cash and cards.

MaineGG Dec 29th, 2019 12:50 PM

Thanks for sharing your experience. Glad you got your wallet back with almost all its contents.

Your thinking "I figured that I would transfer my wallet to my front pocket, put my hand on it if I found myself squeezed in a crowd or line, and otherwise be very alert to my immediate surroundings." Even if that plan had actually been put in effect, it would still not have guaranteed your wallet's safety as my DH learned on the Madrid Metro during rush hour one morning. He was certain that no one would be able to put a hand into his front pocket without his knowing, but found out how skillful pickpockets are.

KayF Dec 30th, 2019 01:49 PM

To mlgb - what is a bra stash wallet? I've worn the ones around the waist - uncomfortable and now given away - and have worn the ones that hang around your neck. They are very obvious if you are just wearing a tshirt. The bra ones sounds intriguing. But maybe not for my husband ;)


mlgb Dec 30th, 2019 04:33 PM

mlgb Dec 30th, 2019 04:35 PM

That above post has a link. I also will wrap some emergency cash in plastic and put in inside my shoe. Every now and then a restaurant has a credit card reader that doesn't work, and I've had to dip into the shoe stash. I hate money belts, too.

Surfergirl Dec 30th, 2019 05:38 PM

I had the bra wallet when visiting Mexico city a few years ago, and loved it! Mine was a very soft, silky one, since I have Princess and the Pea sensitive skin.

isabel Dec 31st, 2019 08:08 AM

The bra wallet looks interesting, obviously won't work for a passport, or even it seems for several cards, but for one card and a bit of cash it looks like it might be comfortable.

I'm curious though what exactly it is that you money belt haters hate about them? I stuff mine quite full (passport, cash and 4 or so cards) and still don't mind it. I wear it in the small of the back and even in mid summer in hot weather after the first day I don't even notice I'm wearing it. Does show if wearing a very thin, silky type dress but for everything else it's fine.

isabel Dec 31st, 2019 08:14 AM

I also have used the 'hidden pocket' style sometimes. Works nicely if you are wearing jeans/slacks with a belt but will work even without a belt if you pin in securely.

sassy27 Dec 31st, 2019 08:54 AM

This post is very enlightening. I have only had my money stolen by being careless and my ATM card hacked at an airport. Both times I should have been smarter but still look for ways to be secure.

I do not use a money belt as I do not use belts nor want any type of bulge as my clothes are not that loose on me. The bra clip though is an idea and I found one that looks like it might fit a passport. Does this mean you only carry small amounts of cash in one area on you? That's what I did and only my cash was stolen. Also how discrete are you when needing access? As I said, I am always willing to learn from others to try and not be a theft victim.

MmePerdu Dec 31st, 2019 09:11 AM

Originally Posted by sassy27 (Post 17037845)
. . . how discrete are you when needing access?

I think the idea is to not need routine access as you go about your day, to keep enough cash in a relatively safe pocket & 1 bank card of some sort should you feel you might need it. Otherwise all safe under your clothes. If I absolutely need to get to my pin-in pouch under the waistband of my trousers I can pop into a ladies room. Or even just discreetly turn my back, as mine is more accessible (to ME) than most.

sassy27 Dec 31st, 2019 09:33 AM

Thank you MmePerdu. That is what I thought and wouldn't have helped me in one my one instance but still there are always lessons learned.

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