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Essential Street Smarts to Avoid Scams

Updated on June 29, 2013

When you are going about your regular business, such as undertaking the daily commute or doing the grocery shopping, you may feel so comfortable with the routine that you become complacent and do not accept anything out of the ordinary to happen. This is the mindset that people with bad intentions rely on, allowing them to carry out their plan to divest you of your belongings while you are not on your guard.

While being completely overwhelmed by paranoia does no one any good, it is prudent to be wary of those around you and not assume that everyone can be trusted. By being aware of the types of issues that can arise, it is possible to adjust your actions in order to remain safe and avoid becoming the victim of crime.

Prevention is better than cure so the best place to start the process of avoiding devastating problems is to be aware of the manner in which they arise.


Whether you are a tourist in a foreign country or simply running errands, it is not always easy to avoid crowded places. While this may be aggravating and uncomfortable for many people, it is an ideal scenario for pickpockets to relieve you of your belongings.

Unlike muggings, pickpockets do not want to confront their victim and, instead, prefer to go completely unnoticed. This is much easier for them to achieve in crowded areas as being jostled, bumped or brushed up against can be made to seem like an accident. It is these ‘accidents’ that you will not even recognise as significant until you reach your destination and discover that you are missing something important, such as wallet or mobile phone. Even then, your first thought may be that you simply misplaced it, which extends the period in which the criminal gets away with it.

Whether in a crowded area or one that is relatively empty, make sure your possessions are not on show. From afar, a pickpocket could be sizing you up for a long time in preparation of making their move, so do not assume that you are safe just because there are not many people around. Consider a relatively empty train platform or street where there is plenty of room, where someone then passes quite close to you need to walk close to you. They may well simply fancy you, but you also have to consider the possibility of them having less than honourable intentions.

If someone does bump into you where there is plenty of room for them to have been able to avoid contact and they are not impaired in any way, consider the possibility that they may have – or tried – to steal something from you.

Keep bags and purses securely fastened and avoid leaving them dangling where other people have easy access to them. Bags in which the strap crosses the body are more secure than those that are carried on one shoulder, which can be easily snatched away by someone passing at speed. However, cross body bags present their own problems as they often end up behind you, which can make it easy for someone to slip their hand inside without you noticing. Avoid this by keeping your bag to your front and in sight at all times.

In circumstances where it is necessary to be in a crowded region for a prolonged period, such as in a popular tourist destination or a packed train, be especially wary. Being in close proximity to others for a prolonged period gives them the opportunity to slip your belongings away. Do not keep any valuables in your back pockets or ones that gape open. If you do have to leave luggage in a specified storage area, make sure you keep an eye on it during your journey. When you get the opportunity, move into an area when you can enjoy some personal space, then do so.


Using a credit or debit card to pay for goods and services is something many of us do every day, which offers a quick and easy way to settle a bill without needing to fiddle about with notes and change. As convenient as it is to use plastic for purchasing goods and services, it can also increase the risk of suffering a cloned card, which can occur as a result of skimming. The criminal will swipe the card strip through a special reader that stores the information in order to use later on a blank card in this process. Accordingly, your information could be used while your card is still safely in your pocket. This skimming procedure can be completed in the blink of an eye so it is especially important to be vigilant when using cards.

The introduction of Chip and Pin technology has reduced the risk of this occurring, but it is still a possibility. Prevent this occurring by keeping your card in sight when making payments. The vast majority of retailers and outlets will have use of a portable card machine for payments or a static one that is within the customer’s line of sight.

An unusual entry on your bank statement may be the first time that you recognise anything untoward has occurred, which will be highly frustrating. Keep a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts, by checking more regularly than just when you receive your statements. Make sure that you immediately inform your provider when you notice an unusual payment that you have not authorised. This will help ensure that you do not lose more money that and will help avoid the provider from holding you responsible for the loss as a result of not reporting the fraudulent activity.

Shoulder Surfing

Shoulder surfing is another way in which information can be gleaned without you realising and without the criminal even having to physically take anything from you. Arguably, the worst of these is at an Automated Teller Machine. There is a reason why banks advise that you never disclose your PIN to anyone. It is very valuable in the wrong hands and this can be achieved if you are not vigilant.

Where possible, use an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) that is within a bank as there will be less risk that this would have been tampered with. If this is not possible, ensure that you shield the keypad when entering your PIN. Not only will this prevent people around you from seeing the information, but it will also prevent it being recoded. Sophisticated techniques of the criminals means that some ATMs have been found to have cameras positioned above the keypad; in this case, covering the keypad will prevent the PIN from being seen.

The same protective measures must be utilised when using a card machine to pay in shops. If someone becomes aware of your PIN, their next step will be to get your card from you to give them access to your money. Make sure that you immediately change your PIN in the event that it is ever discovered.

Shoulder surfing is a technique that can also be used by criminals to get the PIN and other important information while you are using devices, such as laptops, mobiles and tablets. Be wary when using this type of equipment in public areas.



Distraction techniques can be particularly effective in helping criminals in their desire to take your belongings from you as they direct your attention one way while carrying out whatever process they are utilising in order to achieve their goal. Accordingly, it is necessary to be particularly vigilant if a stranger tries to engage you for a seemingly innocuous reason.

It is possible for someone to be heard quite clearly without them needing to take up any of your personal space, accordingly, consider whether a reason has been invented for this purpose. It is not even always necessary for them to be right in your space to achieve their goal. Directing your attention in other ways can offer the opportunity to steal from you. For example, consider someone who asks the time in order to expose your watch so that they can then snatch it from you.

While using an ATM, do not let anyone or anything distract you as this can give criminals the opportunity to get your PIN, card and/or cash. If someone tries to speak to you while you are using the ATM, it is prudent to act as though you did not hear them until you finish your transaction. Even the action of turning your head could create the opportunity for your belongings to grabbed.

Distraction techniques can take many different forms, many of which you will not see coming and may not even immediately recognise it has happened afterwards. These techniques can not only be used alone, but can also be used in conjunction with other activities you are undertaking, such as using the ATM.

It may seem like a kindness if someone points out to you that you have a mark on your back or shoulder, however, this is shown as less of a good deed when it is recognised that your ‘helper’ actually caused the problem. It is easy for something to be squirted onto you without you realising, such as ketchup from a sachet. They will then make a big show of helping you to clean it off, maybe even suggesting that you take off the spoiled coat or jacket to clean it properly. Whether you take off the garment or not, the apparent concern actually gives the faux do-gooder the perfect opportunity to slip a hand into your pocket or bag.

Being asked the time or for directions can seem like a normal everyday occurrence, but this can also be hiding more intentions. Consider a situation where someone asks you the time when you are in a populous area that comprises many opportunities to see the time, this could create a situation where you expose your watch in order for it to be snatched away. Simply saying that you do not have the time can help you to avoid any risk. If you can help someone with directions, keep your hands on your bag or pockets and maintain your personal space.

Distraction techniques can take on a more sophisticated style with people working in pairs or using props. While one person asks you for directions using a map, they could be distracting your attention and hindering your line of sight while another person walks away with your bag/briefcase/luggage.

Hearing the sound of something fall on the floor will cause many people to automatically look down to check they have not dropped something. This is what criminals will rely on to get away with particular scams; for example, while seemingly going about their business, a scammer will covertly drop an item before ‘discovering’ it and asking if you dropped it. This will often be a ring or some other piece of jewellery that may seem worth something. After you confirm that it is not yours, the criminal will offer to sell it to you, only for you to find out later that it is worthless.

It is not necessary to be paranoid, but being a little wary and keeping your wits about you will help you to avoid getting scammed.


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