Pickpockets on the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport

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We’re on our way back from Sofia. A couple of people asked us whether we had any safety issues in Bulgaria but we didn’t. Apart from an insistent beggar in Plovdiv, we always felt perfectly safe, even walking through deserted streets at night (except for the pavements which are treacherous).

Jean Michel demonstrating the position of the backpack before the attempted theft. Slightly blurry photo because I'm still a little shaky.

Jean Michel in the train with his backpack and the handle of the roll-on.

We have a large suitcase, a smaller roll-on bag, a backpack and a handbag (which I don’t usually carry when I travel but it’s easier than putting it in my roll-on). We’re sitting in the RER train that goes from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Châtelet-les-Halles in the city centre. We are sitting in the aisle opposite each other. I have the handbag on my lap with my hands on it. My iPhone is in the zipper closest to my lap because I’ve had that stolen before. The suitcase is on the floor near the window with the roll-on on top of it. The backpack is on the seat next to Jean Michel. His wallet, etc. are in his shirt flap-pocket. My wallet is in my bag.

Jean Michel then does something stupid (his admission). As we’re nearly home, he removes a little purse from the backpack and takes out his keys. He puts the now empty purse back into the backpack.

The train stops and a young man drops some coins on the floor next to us. While the door is still open, he bends down to pick them up. He indicates that one has gone under Jean Michel’s seat. Instinctively clutching my handbag (at least I’ve acquired that reflex at last!), I’m looking for the coin.

Suddenly, I see Jean Michel’s hand reach out to clutch another man’s sleeve next to us and then see his backpack on the floor. Both of the men dash out of the train just as the door closes.

Somewhat shaken, I ask Jean Michel what happened. The second man came from behind him and plucked the backpack from the seat. He then made the error (for him, not us!) of trying to leave the train from the door in front of Jean Michel. Had he left from the door behind, in the next wagon, he would have got away with it. Jean Michel immediately realised what was happening and grabbed his sleeve. The man was forced to let go and run for the door.

These are not organised professionals, in our opinion, just petty thieves used to working together whence the exit mistake.

The carriage is buzzing. Everyone is astounded but, you may be sure, not one of them would have tried to stop the thieves.

The moral is this: watch your belongings at all times. Make sure you don’t have too many bits of luggage. You can use a ribbon or shoelace or something to tie your luggage together until it’s time to get out the train. Don’t be silly enough to remove a purse from your backpack or bag in public transport.

AND DON’T BE FOOLED BY PEOPLE DROPPING COINS ON THE FLOOR!!!

N.B. Do read the comments to this post – there are other scams to be aware of too.

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22 Responses to Pickpockets on the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport

  1. Susan Walter says:

    This is why you don’t give money to beggars and buskers too — it reveals where you are keeping your wallet. And always wear your handbag at the front on a long strap across your body from one shoulder to the opposite hip, ideally holding it with one hand too.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      I had never thought of the beggars and buskers scam! And you’re right about the handbag if you use one. That’s what I usually do in countries outside France …

  2. Jill says:

    Wow, that was close…I don’t think we had any near misses…although we wouldn’t really know would we….?! What I do know is that I kept my bag wrapped across myself and hung on as well… can never be too careful!

  3. David Leigh Shearer says:

    The ONLY time I have been pickpocketed in my life, anywhere in the world, was in Paris on the metro stop at Trocodero. Coming up the escalator one man stopped in front of me and another pushed from behind to make me fall over. They grabbed my wallet out of my pants pocket while I had on a very long heavy coat. When I got to the top of the Escalator a gypsy holding a baby gave me my wallet back minus the cash asking if I was planning to call the police. I did get my credit card, ID and subway tickets back in the wallet. It was a very well organized theft.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Goodness, that certainly is organised theft! How scary. Jean Michel had a problem once when we were in a crowded bus in Naples, but the guy didn’t get anything. He was also attacked by gypsies in Bologna in Italy – one woman actually THREW her baby at him so that the person behind could get into his backpack. But he yelled very loudly and they didn’t get anything. As a result, I never carry valuables (credit cards, money, etc.) when we are travelling – except for coming back to France this time. Never again!

  4. jan says:

    thanks for the heads up! it’s nice to know that ‘we all make mistakes’. it’s easy to do and because it’s so random easy to let your guard down – sometimes more so on ‘home territory’

  5. Rosemary Kneipp says:

    Yes, it was our first time, so you do have to be careful.

  6. breadispain says:

    Yikes! Yeah, just a couple of weeks ago on the way up to Montmarte we had an incident. There were all the guys on the street doing magic tricks…one after the other, and they had the street quite crowded and as we were walking my Father literally had to pull a man’s hand out of his pocket. Clearly, the shows were set up to create the crowd and the distraction. Glad that y’all noticed and got everything home with you!

  7. Rosemary Kneipp says:

    Yes, that sounds like Naples! Up until now the only time I’ve had pickpocket problems in France was when I was walking along Rue de Rivoli with an Australian friend, speaking English. This guy tried to grab my bag but I yelled at him in French and pulled it away. Now, when I’m speaking English in the centre of Paris, I’m extra careful, but I realise that I’ll have to pay attention even when speaking to Jean Michel in French now!

  8. Kliment Nenov says:

    This summer in Paris I’ve noticed two well-known (for me and most Bulgarians) and trivial scams:
    – A woman/man surprisingly founds “a golden ring” (the ring is not golden) on the ground in front of you and tries to sell it to you at “special price”.
    – A group of women (mostly Bulgarian and Romanian gypsies) pretend to be deaf (they are not deaf) collecting signatures and money as “a donation”. The trick is when you sign their fake petition (sheet with signatures). Your whole attention is occupied by this and it is very easy to rob you.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Hello and welcome to Aussie in France. Yes, the golden ring has been around for some time now. The band of gypsies pretending they are deaf that used to be on Place du Palais Royal just opposite the Louvre (and very close to where I live) disappeared recently for a while because the police really clamped down on them but I’m sure they’ll reappear soon. I just wave them away. So, another rule, don’t ever sign a petition!

  9. Jane's cousins friend says:

    One of our group fell prey to the ‘sign a petition and give a donation scam, they had taken her cash so quickly it was unbelievable. Luckily we were able to report it to the police and she got it back on insurance but it made us all more careful. Even then in a market in Tarascon, Provence, I had my wallet stolen from a shoulder handbag which was across the front of my body, I think the stall holder created a diversion, and I had just put my wallet back into my bag and then went to get it out again (to check how much I had left) and it was gone. I didn’t feel a thing. Luckily, there was only a couple of euros left in it but it still leaves you feeling a bit shocked.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      What a horrible experience! I’m amazed that they could get into your handbag without your realising it. Just goes to show how devious they are.

      • Delphine says:

        One time (years ago) I was with my mother, we were looking at a metro map outside the Pigalle station and were quite engrossed trying to find our way…
        At some point my mother looks down and the man next to her was slowly opening her purse (which was strapped in front of her). When she noticed, she started making noise (obviously!) but the man just left, never making eye contact, pretending nothing had happened.
        Maybe that’s why I’m so careful now!

  10. Lyn Gardner says:

    This almost happened to me when visiting the Eiffel Tower! I was stalked by a couple of women & they kept asking me questions – because I am an Aussie & a little naive, I kept being engaged but did keep hold of my handbag. Fortunately, our tour guide was on to them & managed to disengage me & warn me. Two others from the tour were not so lucky! I felt on edge the whole time I was in Paris and also in Rome where the gypsies were rife!

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Hi Lyn, what a pity you felt so on edge in Paris and in Rome. It’s so annoying to have to watch out all the time. When the young gypsy girls are in the same metro compartment as me, I say very loudly in English “Watch out for your bags, there are thieves on-board”. You should see the reaction!

  11. Pamela says:

    Dear Rosemary
    Thank you for this good advice. All very scary but important to know about! I always wear an across the body bag and if there are people close-by fold my hands firmly across the bag in front of me. Also I always try to avoid crowds, if possible will walk around a crowd rather than through it or even change direction to avoid. Know lots of people who’ve been pick pocketed in crowds. Have also seen the petition people near the Palais Royal but thank goodness have always avoided them and refused to sign. Last time I stayed in a hotel at St Sulpice and there was an older woman who regularly accosted me for money as I walked across the square. The last time she did this really aggressively and I was quite rude in response, telling her to go away. She was annoyed but I just kept walking.
    Nowadays if arriving at CDG airport we pre-book transport (through our hotel or landlord if renting a flat). It’s a lot more expensive than taking the train but with bags it’s much easier, eg Chatelet metro (the closest to the apartment we normally stay in) is a nightmare with bags – the correspondences are so long and there are so many stairs, escalators and walkways (which often don’t work anyway) – and we avoid the risk of being robbed which could set us back a lot more than the transfer cost.
    I’m curious, was it a real baby that the thieves threw at Jean Michel or a doll wrapped up? Have heard it’s usually a doll.
    The only place to date where I’ve had a close shave was in Italy, on a bus in Rome. We’d been warned to be careful but weren’t sure if we were on the right line so my husband checked with a man standing near us. I was distracted, listening when suddenly I felt there was something wrong and discovered that the well dressed man on the step above had his hand deep into the bottom of my bag, fishing for my wallet. I couldn’t think of the Italian word for thief (ladro) so just yelled “hey” at him and chopped down on his wrist and then kicked him in the shins. My husband turned in time to see me attacking a strange man and asked “what do you think you’re doing?” We got off at the next stop and I explained, by then my anger had evaporated and my knees were shaking. Luckily we didn’t lose anything. But no more buses after that. We either walked or took taxis. best wishes, Pamela

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Very unnerving experience you had in Rome! The baby in Bologna seemed pretty real though of course considering our surprise it might have been a doll after all.
      Prevention of course is the best method. I was fooled by not usually having to worry when I’m in France. The RER is very convenient for us. I think that when we live in Blois we’ll take the direct TGV from Tours to Roissy, even if it’s more expensive.

  12. Kimberly says:

    Augh, pickpockets! I am so glad nothing was taken. I had read quite a bit lately on crime on the RER from (at to) Charles de Gaulle. Very good advice about not having your cell phone out either!

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