Avoiding Pickpocketing / Mugging in Madrid – Link

Here’s an interesting article by Richard Morley about the increasing problem of pickpocketing in Madrid. It starts out by describing the experience of a new and more sinister approach I haven’t heard of before, the ‘show me your passport, I’m a policeman’ intimidation approach, which sounds most unpleasant.

Madrid is getting a deserved, and bad, reputation of this sort of tourist-targeting street crime now, which is a real shame (we used to say, “Oh, that sort of thing only happens in Barcelona…”)

It’s about time Spain got tough on this. If they can cut this kind of crime down in other big cities, then why not here?

22 Replies to “Avoiding Pickpocketing / Mugging in Madrid – Link”

  1. Pickpocketing es quite a problem in cities like Seville and Barcelona, but it’s even worse in Madrid, specially around the “Puerta del Sol” area.

  2. This isn’t good. We were in Plaza Mayor recently, enjoying a coffee, when someone grabbed my wife’s handbag from under our table. Thankfully the guy at a table behind us spotted in and he and I ran the guy down and got the bag back.

    One of the issue is that you hardly ever see cops on the street in Madrid, they always seem to be in cars or on bikes, and therefore aren’t providing much of a deterrent.

  3. When we visited Madrid in 2007, we had a camera stolen from a coat pocket on the subway. A crowd of guys got on the subway and crowded next to me – a little too close. When we got to our stop, I had to fight my way through this group of guys. Little did I know, one had a hand on the camera and stole it as I exited the train.

    Talk about disappointed!! All my pictures from Gran Canaria and six days in Madrid were gone! Had I been more Spain savvy, I would have went to the Rastro and looked for it there. I am sure that is where it ended up.

  4. I’ve heard of this policeman impersonation routine before (although never come across it personally). Like many others I’ve found Madrid very safe for a big city (and far safer at night than UK towns and cities), yet it has to be said that in certain areas (mainly Sol and the central train and metro stations) pickpockets and bag-snatchers abound. Anyone who lives and works there, quickly adapts so it’s no longer a problem (I tended to keep my money in a small wallet in my top shirt pocket) but it’s easy to see how tourists fall foul. There are plenty of places in London too where your bag will quickly “walk” if unattended, but Madrid is worse. However the city that reigns supreme in this dubious league table has to be Barcelona.

  5. One more thing – this is not a recent innovation – street crime was far worse in the late 80s and early 90s. At that time the dispossessed who resorted to doing this were poor Spanish, sometimes from the Gitano community, or drug addicts feeding their habit. It’s far more likely nowadays to be “newcomers” to the bottom of the pile eg Rumanians or Latin Americans. I understand that if caught stealing less than a certain amount in this way, the punishment is quite mild indeed. So a certain type of criminal will carry out this type of crime (and thus avoid imprisonment if say they broke into a house or threatened anyone with weapons).

  6. A couple of weeks ago I saw a league table of worst cites in the world for pick pockets and I seem to remember the top five being first Barcelona, Rio, Naples, Madrid, Rome. London was about seventh. If I find the link I’ll post it.
    Personally, I’ve never had a problem with this in Madrid since my wife is from there and has a sixth sense for it. I think she can pick out people as dangerous by the way they look. It’s quite easy to spot a junkie or people who aren’t in the mainstream of society because ‘normal’ folk have a very homogenous sense of dress in Madrid. My wife’s brother was a heroin junkie and went to prison for an armed robbery on the metro with a gang so I guess she’s got the inside knowledge.

  7. I’ve found that the most easy way to loose cash in Madrid is when the waiter short changes you or doesn’t bring back the change at all.

  8. I run a Spanish Travel agency in Spain and just this morning received an email from a US client who just got back from a trip with us. She and her partner were robbed by the lake in the Parc de la Cuitadella in Barcelona. While reporing it at the police station they met an elderly Australian couple who had been tricked by the policeman scam. Here is what my client wrote:

    “We were in the Parc de la Cuitadella, looking
    at the fountain and then walked over to the lake. Then I felt something drop on me. Two ladies came over and pointed up and said, “Birds!” They offered to help us with water and paper napkins. They
    were very nice, and said they were from Mexico, which I believed, since they looked a little different. Of course, I had to put down my purse (which was in a tote bag) so I could take off my sweater. They
    distracted me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. We walked to the Picasso Museum, and when I took out my wallet, all my money was gone! Over $500, both euros and dollars! At least they didn’t take my
    passport or credit cards. We went to the police station to report it. That took two hours! (One and a half hours waiting and half an hour talking to them.) There was an elderly couple (both using canes!) from Australia who had encountered two men dressed as policemen who said they were doing a check for cocaine and had to inspect their things.
    They took all their money! This happened at the Arc d’ Triumph, just a few blocks from where we were.”

    I can also comment that both Madrid airport and Barcelona airport are prime locations for thieves. We have had several clients robbed at these airports. One even had his suitcase robbed while waiting outside arrivals for a bus. A car drove by and while my client was distracted for a second while making a mobile phonecall, one of the occupants of the car snatched my clients suitcase, dragged it into the car and they sped off.

    It´s not good but it has been happening forever. One just can´t be careful enough. I too recommend that when travelling everyone carry copies of all important documents. A digital camera is very handy for this. Just photograph everything (passport, credit cards, travellers checks, etc) and transfer these to a pendrive and keep it in a safe place. I also recommend taking a note of your country´s Consular Office or Embassy in Spain just in case you need asistance. For example US consular offices in Spain can be seen here http://www.embusa.es/cons/offices.html

    British Consular offices can be seen here http://ukinspain.fco.gov.uk/en/our-offices-in-spain/consular-offices/

  9. @ Valenciason :
    I have to say that I don´t find Madrid unsafe in the slightest but maybe because I’m a native Spaniard, but yes, I agree, NYC, or at least Manhattan, has to be the safest big city I know. Any time of day or night you are perfectly alright. Not only safe but friendly with the visitor too.

  10. I moved to Barcelona in June and while looking for an apartment with my wife I watched two different pickpockets in action (one trying to go in a girl’s purse; one boldly trying to go in my bag which I was blatantly staring at) our first week in the city. In high summer on the metro (especially the tourist centers) during the lunch rush pickpockets were like flies; I found them ridiculously easy to spot.

    I’m still wrapping my head around this as a new resident but I’ve seen lots of instances of petty crime. I know the US Embassy has tried to directly talk with the Catalan officials but has gotten very little response. If this level of crime happened to the degree it does here — anywhere in the US — it would not be tolerated. Whereas here because it’s mostly happening to tourists and not Spaniards [in my opinion] there seems to be an indifferent attitude by the local authorities. That said I have seen Barcelonese on the subway yell “Cabron” and “Hay ladrones cuidado con las bolsas” on the subway when they see pickpockets; I know that the savvier locals know that Barcelona should do everything it can to stop this problem, which adversely affects tourism.

    A few easy solutions that I think Barcelona could do are 1) Do something to offenders. Spaniards I have spoken with say that offenders are not even slapped on the hand; that partly explains the scale of the problem. 2) Put uniformed police officers in the subway in summer. Show that you are taking action. If nothing else this should act as a deterrent. 3) Have plain clothes officers on duty spotting pickpockets; with cameras you have proof to convict. 4) Don’t be complacent. Show that you are doing something about this problem. Publicize results. Work with embassies. Listen. Talk to victims. Get feedback. Act.

  11. Great feedback and stories above.I think the key to avoid being robbed (apart from keeping all your valuable well out of sight and trying to look as untouristy as possible!) is to be very very aware of being distracted. Most of these crimes involve some sort of distraction technique.

    These days if anyone stops me in the street in Madrid to ask me anything at all (rare, I have to say!), my hand automatically goes into my pocket to protect my wallet, and I quickly look around for potential accomplices. Sad but neccessary.

  12. I was mugged at syringe-point in Granada’s Albaicin in 1993. There was a fair bit of this type of petty street crime there at the time and I was prepared by having money distributed in every pocket.

    Hit me quite hard though as it was just around the corner from my place. We shared the neighbourhood with several friendly junkies and they were all up in arms – we went looking for the culprit together – that someone had done something to potentially bring the police around. Definitely an experience!

    Word of advice: supplying someone with a cigarette – as I did – or a light brings them into very close quarters. Probably be best to wave them off and keep moving.

  13. As if this is news? I’ve lived Madrid for 20 years and had my wallet stollen several times, been mugged violently (punched, thrown to the ground; one time they yanked my small purse off me and the strap cut my neck). I live around Huertas, and the pickpockets are one of the continuing growth industries. I’m blond and I look foreign so i get followed, have had my bag dipped into, etc. quite regularly. Luckily I’m a New Yorker so I have no mercy; I shout and have punched one or two. And the cops don’t do shit. As for citizen solidarity, the time I was mugged by a gang of glue-sniffers and thrown to the ground, at 2:30 AM with the street teeming with people, one young woman shouted “¡HAHA! ¿TE HAN PILLADO!” and then she objected when I spit in her face.

  14. Some of my affluent students who have gone to Madrid have come back telling me they have been robbed. One psychologist got mugged while a train passenger fell on her during a stop, another student got mugged by a motorbike taking her handbag through the car window.But we only remember… the trips with incidents. The ones when nothing happened kind of go unnoticed.
    But yet, in Central Europe we know mugging and robbing is said to happen, especially in Madrid and Barcelona.

    And ValenciaSon is right – New York City has got to be safer than most Southern European Cities. NYC and its people qualify for the friendliest city I know. Ask my daughter:just walking down the street, strangers would stop and talk to us. My daughter kept pulling on my sleeve to move on to Macy’s….or other shopping places.
    Nevertheless, Madrid needs to clean up,but I do not know what it takes to reduce this tourist-unfriendly economy.

  15. I have read stories of absolutely no problemas w/crime in Madrid and then there are the stories here too. one writer says it’s been happening since the 80s? When I spent my jr. year in college there in 1980-81, I never felt unsafe. well, let me qualify that a little. I never felt like a crime would be committed against me, but there were bombings that seemed like they occurred every day tho I know that can’t be true. it was alot tho to me. the day after I was in the student travel office, it was bombed. so, I worried more about getting bombed than being robbed. there was only one time I was a tad nervous. I had been studying with a friend and he walked me to the metro station near his place at midnight or shortly thereafter when we quit for the night. the walk from my metro station back to my place was kinda spooky because I had never been out that late yet. but I also recall lots of “mili men” too and maybe they’re not as prevalent now?

    anyway, good information because I will be in Madrid for nearly a week next May. and Barcelona for 3…I had a pretty good sense when I was there nearly 30 years ago, hopefully it is still intact 🙂

  16. Both my flatmates had their wallets robbed on the Madrid metro and the other day, we apprehended a Romanian who we noticed had just stolen my wallet, and turned him over to police. Predictably, as the wallet & contents represented modest value, the police explained lodging a complaint would have no effect and the pickpocket, whom they already knew, would be turned free.

    Pickpockets essentially have free rein so long as they are lucky enough not to be caught stealing anything of considerable value. I believe they should be entered into some kind of social programme to extract them from their life of petty crime. This would cost the government too much? I personally don’t look kindly on paying taxes to a system that keeps thieves in free circulation as long as they’re petty. It might cause some people to resort to private justice – not desirable, not needed.

  17. I guess it’s quite obvious to say that you can be anywhere in the world and still be a victim of crime. I had my car broken into in Portugal, and was attacked at a cash point in France, but I found Spain to be quite safe.

    I have never heard of the Policeman tactic. I think anyone could fall foul of this, even the most careful traveller.

  18. interesting topic…
    Toby, I lived in Madrid 10 years after you –90-91. Found it very safe, but one time I did feel someone reaching into my bag on the metro. I just turned around and screamed something at him in Spanish and he backed off.
    My grandparents came to visit me, however, and my grandpa was pickpocketed on the metro the first day they were there. I felt horrible.
    I am looking forward to returning some day and I really hope it’s not as bad as it sounds from this blog. I’d be interested to hear about your impressions after being away so long, Toby.

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