Athens Thieves: Pickpocketed Abroad on the Athens Metro

I didn’t realize my wallet was gone until 20 minutes after they stole it. I’m sure these four Greek men were professional pickpockets working together. Their big beefy bodies were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the Athens subway car, and when the doors opened, they didn’t move to let us on the train. The crowd pushed us from behind and for a split second my balance was off and I let go of my zipper on my bag. I didn’t feel a thing when they took it.

You know the feeling of uneasiness—like someone is scratching the inside of your stomach lining with sharp, bare fingernails? Well on this tube ride, I got that feeling. My friends and I immediately eyed each other; we all knew the pickpockets were at work.   We just didn’t know they had already got me.

Sandwiched between two middle-aged fat Greek men, I stuck out the bumpy tube ride. Our journey was one stop, and since they wouldn’t let us push past them into a more spacious part of the car, I was stuck with them literally breathing down my neck. Way too close for comfort.

The fat men got off the tube at the same stop we did, and my friends and I rushed away, talking about pickpockets and how everyone clutches their bags in Athens…a phenomenon not really found in Madrid or London.

Then I went into a coffee shop to get a bottle of water. I reached inside my bag and felt around for my wallet. My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t there. I ripped through the entire contents of my purse. Tore open my backpack, called the hostel to double check I hadn’t left it on accident. All the while a nagging voice in the back of my head, the same stomach-scratching instinct, told me it was long-gone.

I was on the phone with my dad in Minnesota (courtesy of a pre-paid calling card and a payphone) within ten minutes. Within the hour, my parents had cancelled my credit and debit cards. According to the bank, someone tried to use my debit card at an Athens ATM to make a withdrawal but they couldn’t get my PIN right.

Thankfully my passport and my big euro bills were tucked safely away at the bottom of my bag, along with my visa letter. I shudder to think what a mess I’d be in, stuck in Athens passport-less, if they’d just grabbed the pouch to the left of my wallet. My emergency credit card was in my wallet so that was no use, and I had 20 pounds and 95 euro to my name in cash, with no way of getting more until I was safely back in London.

Luckily, I flew out within two hours, and over the bumpy plane ride north I slept fitfully playing the tube scene over and over again. The total damage was nothing compared to what could have happened—I lost 10 euro, my debit and credit card, my Minnesota state driver’s license, and other random things in my wallet. It was more of an inconvenience for my parents and the bank, but the thought of some fat Greek guy slinking around some alley with my wallet in hand made me sick.

He probably took all my coffee punch cards out and threw them on the ground. Next I’m sure he found my hidden prayer cards (St. Patrick and St. Michael) that my grandpa got me years ago as a confirmation present into the Catholic Church. Those probably ended up in some dumpster, too. My spare change and ten-euro note probably disappointed him. (I don’t know why he thought he’d make a lot of money off a student like me.) Maybe the tenner paid for his next meal or box of cigarettes. Who knows. He also probably noticed a piece of white paper tucked away behind the coin pouch—a scribbled scone recipe from the cutest little Irish woman on the west coast. I sweet talked her into giving me her secret recipe back in January.

I didn’t lose much, in retrospect. I always keep my big bills and passport separate from my wallet, specifically for this reason. There’s nothing worse than feeling violated like that. They went through my personal things and took what they wanted in a mere second. Though the damage wasn’t bad, the principal of stealing still made me feel violated. After leaving Greece with a sour taste in my mouth, (the rest of our trip to Santorini was phenomenal) I made a little mental checklist of reminders and next time hopefully it won’t happen.

  1. Pick pocketing happens faster than you can imagine. Many people work in pairs or groups. The safest place to stand in a subway car is in the corner with your back protected and your visibility in front of you.
  2. Separating passports and big bills is a good idea, and make sure that you don’t keep emergency credit cards right next to your main cards (this defeats the purpose…) I should have had the extra credit card tucked away elsewhere.
  3. If you’re carrying a backpack or a big camera, you’re an easy target. Beware.
  4. Don’t write your PIN on your card and don’t make your PIN obvious. Since they tried to use my cards they probably riffled through my wallet for information that could clue them into what my 4-digit PIN might be… my birth date, my birth month etc.
  5. I’m always so worried about fitting in and respecting other cultures that I tend to be ultra quiet on public transportation (maybe to ditch the loud US stereotype) but next time I’m purposefully blocked by big men and bad vibes, I’m going to ask them to let me pass in a loud, clear voice. Just because I’m am foreign doesn’t give thugs the right to push me, or anyone, around.

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