Plan B for Spain: How to get robbed in Barcelona

Spain's Plan E
Spain’s Plan E

My wife and I just returned from an extremely pleasant vacation to Spain, which like most of the industrialized north, is trying to cope with the economic recession by (too little, too late?) pumping money into public works.  We were really impressed to see how many freeways and bright blue highway bridges are popping up to connect underpopulated areas of Aragon, and it’s starting to look like Spain might out-TGV the rest of Europe in the near future.  The Zapatero government’s response is called Plan E (E for Estímulo, Economía, Empleo and Español–they really know how to alliterate in Madrid!).

We did our best to enjoy Spain by spending as many euro as possible in shops, hotels and restaurants, but felt that just wasn’t enough.  I worried that our stimulus money was probably being filtered through management, portions going to the IVA, banks, etc.  So I personally took the initiative while my wife was checking into our hotel in Barcelona to implement Plan B (B for Bufone in Barcelona) and let the marvelously well organized BCN underground take advantage of me and remove a few trinkets from our rental car in broad daylight at a busy street corner in the trendy Born district, which like so much of Barcelona, is a bit of upscale SOHO overlaid on a former working-class neighborhood.

For those of you visiting this wonderful city (no sarcasm intended), I wanted to provide some advice on how you can help if you want to transfer a bit of wealth directly to those who need it most, the drug addicts and petty criminals working for the Barcelona union of organized pickpockets and car thieves.  Here’s the eleven-point plan I worked with (see if you can improve on it).

11 Steps to Success

1. Ignore All Those Warnings and Bits of Advice

Of course I had been lectured many times about bag-grabbers and other nastiness in Barcelona (which is running ahead of Naples now as the prime picking for tourists; my guess is that BCN still has a way to go to catch up with, say Istanbul or São Paulo, but it’s still a world-class city for parting with belongings).  So my wife and I considered safety belts, wire-mesh-reinforced fanny packs, and other ridiculous apparati, but supposing I still had some New York smarts still with me, we never used them.

We arrived in Spain after 29 hours of flying, and picked up our pretty new diesel Renault Clio at the Pamplona airport; the plan was to visit the Basque country and then drive to Barcelona.  The first thing I noticed when getting into the car was a small notice placed on the dashboard (Europcar’s form E-20919), proclaiming in four languages:


Organised gangs who rob rental vehicle users have been reported in the area.  The most usual ways they act are:

Stealing luggage at the counter while the documents are being prepared and/or in the parking lots while loading or unloading luggage from the vehicle.  PLEASE WATCH YOUR LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.

Puncturing the vehicle tyre. They then tell the driver from another car.  When the driver stops, they “kindly” offer help to change the wheel and tack advantage to steal your belongings. PLEASE DO NOT ACCEPT HELP IF IT IS NOT FROM THE POLICE OR CIVIL GUARD AND DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU REACH A PETROL STATION OR POLICE STATION.

Do not leave or hand over the keys to your vehicle at any time, as there are cases of thieves ransacking houses or apartments [you’ve got to be kidding–Ed.] and taking the keys and the vehicle and people passing themselves off as rental company employees and asking you for the vehicle keys.  Remember that you remain responsible for the car and its keys until Europcar has taken reception of these.  PLEASE KEEP THE VEHICLE KEYS WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES. KEEP THEM IN YOUR HOLDAY HOME’S SAFE WHEN YOU ARE OUT OR AT NIGHT AND DO NOT HAND THE KEYS OVER TO ANY PERONS, EVEN IF THEY CLAIM TO BE AN EMPLOYEE.  RETURN THE KEYS TO THE CAR HIRE OFFICE.

Of course I looked around and severely doubted that Pamplona airport was the spot for people to ransack me for car keys (well, maybe during the San Fermines, but not now in September).  Make sure to ignore any thing that the car company tells you.  I would wait until arriving in Barcelona to seek out those organised gangs.

2. Arrive in Barcelona by Car.  Never Take Plane, Train or Taxi

Barcelona is like every other great old city–there is no place to park. When you first arrive in a rental car, unless you’re staying at a 5-star hotel, you are basically stuck with your car on the street until you find out where to dump it.  If you come in by some other means of transportation, how are the street gangs going to be able to rob you?

3. Find A Place to Stop the Car That Is Easily Spotted by the BCN Syndicate

The theives of Barcelona are constantly cruising popular spots.  My careful observation (after I was robbed) is that there are spotters who prowl around, whistling and calling for backup on mobile phones when they think they have a good opportunity.  So you want to make sure to park your car somewhere with many sight lines, just to make it obvious that you want your stuff to be lifted.  I think the intersection I stopped at (Carrer de la Princesa and Carrer de Comerç; see map link) was pretty good in this regard.  It was pretty much a 5-way (maybe 6-way) intersection and Carrer de Comerc has got a lot of traffic.

Looking to get robbed
Looking to get robbed

4. Safety in Numbers – Not!

There are going to be at least three of them, so you don’t want to scare them off by keeping your wife, kids or other travelers with you; make sure that you are alone with the car.

5. Make Sure You Are (and Look) Dog-Tired

We came in on a Friday afternoon, after about 5 hours of driving in pouring rain through mountain passes, and then finished up in the usual Friday afternoon traffic.  This ensures that you will look and feel completely out of it–they can spot this bleary “where am I” look and it will definitely increase your chances.  Get out of the car and wander around aimlessly for a while as well to make sure you are spotted.  And any little touches that can add to your look of innocent stupdity can help thieves dial you in.  I chose to wear alpine gear (fleece vest, sweater, heavy jeans, hiking boots) and of course the weather in Barce was the usual 80 degrees F–but you have so many other choices to make you stand out in the crowds; be creative!

6. Advertise Your Presence by Turning on Emergency Lights

Just in case they can’t figure out that you’re a tourist, turn on your emergency flashers.  Of course no Spaniard would ever do this; if they want to double-park, they just leave the car there.

7. Leave the Car Windows Open and All Doors Unlocked

It helps to forget where the window controls and emergency panic button (the one that locks all doors instantly–it’s right next to the emergency flashers you just turned on).  Then open at least the driver’s side window–that’s where they will want to get your keys.

8. Showcase Your Treasure

This really helps. Now that the car is completely vulnerable, open the trunk and start moving your belongings around.  Take interesting things (iPhone accessories) and move them from one bag to another.  Lift your backpack out of the trunk, unzip it, and stuff things into it.  By now you should notice that four  young guys on the corners are starting to drool and flash hand signs back and forth.  You are almost there.  Put the backpack back in the trunk (but don’t lock the car–remember!) and then just stand around aimlessly again.

9. Action! — Handling The Approach

By now, you want to get to know the group that will be robbing you.  The tall, ugly, threatening guy is the one who will be distracting you; he’s supposed to scare you.  The normal, “Barcelona-cool” guy on the bike (with castellano features and the inevitable baseball cap) is the getaway guy.  And there’s the rest of the team: the lookout and the assistant who will be executing the hand-off of valuables to the bicyclist.  Make casual eye contact with these folks so they know you are ready for them.  When the scary guy approaches for the set up, get back in the car defensively and politely say, “No thanks, I don’t need your assistance” (following the Europcar guidelines to “not accept help”).

10. The Handover: Accomplish The Transfer With Feigned Protest

While the scary guy is pulling on your unlocked door handle, complain loudly (but still leave the car unlocked; resist the logical thing which would be to press the panic button).  Keep this up for at least 30 seconds.  This is the time required for the assitant (with the cooperation of the lookout) to open the trunk, remove your backpack, and hand it to the nonchalantly pedaling getaway guy.  Now you can start cursing at the top of your lungs (I used the “f-word” for authenticity) or honk the horn, etc., since they have gotten what they want.

11. Finale: Lock Car and “Chase” the Thief

Since by now you have an audience of amused tourists and locals (who are probably seeing this for the third or fourth time today) watching the whole thing, it looks a little more convincing if you chase after the getaway guy.  He has to blend in, so he’s wearing your backpack and just treading along on his beater bike at a few km per hour, looking like any other resident.  Walk, do not run, after him.  Sadly accept the advice of locals who know him when they warn you, “Whoa, don’t go there, man”, and then tell them what happened.  “Where did he go?”  “Right down there [Carrer dels Assaonodors].”  “What did they take?”  “My backpack.” Etc.  This kind of conversation helps make your gift look more convincing.  Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and head back to your hotel for “consolation”.

Reflections and Continuous Improvment

When you tell the bemused hotel deskperson about the incident, she will refer you to the Comisario of Police, located somewhere “underground in Plaça Catalunya”.  I did actually pass by Plaça Catalunya the next morning, and although I found the underground Metro station, parking garage, and official tourist office, there was no trace of a police desk, nor any signs of where it might be.  Needless to say, I saved my self hours of precious tourist time by not reporting the crime and having to fill out papers, bring the car down for fingerprints, get Europcar involved, etc. etc.

Luckily for my wife and me, as soon as we changed out of our mountain gear and went back on the street, there were numerous immediate opportunities to quaff cava, rueda, rioja, ribera del duero, txakoli, mojitos, and caipirinhas (more mojitos served in BCN than Habana, more caipirinhas than Rio, I’m sure), as well as the unworldly Gaudí architecture to take our minds off material things.

La Pedrera
La Pedrera

Looking back on the incident, about the only thing I didn’t do correctly (in order to accomplish maximum transfer of wealth) was to put anything of real value in the backpack.  When the theives got to the trunk, they had several choices of pickings: a monstrously heavy suitcase, several plastic bags containing ugly US running shoes, a small point-and-shoot camera case that I foolishly left obviously empty, and the backpack that they had seen me stuffing with goodies.  As it turned out, the only things that were in the backpack they stole were a terrific new novel written by a friend of mine (and not available yet in Spain–maybe that was the attraction for them), a few outdated guidebooks, a couple of pairs of socks, and the chargers for my iPhone and digital camera battery.  (By the way, I can highly recommend the excellent staff at fnac, the Spanish national department store, to help with the replacement of any kind of electronic devices you may lose while in Barcelona or Madrid.)  Sure, the items that we lost will no doubt help the needier elements of Barcelona find their way around town and learn about 19th century history, and might even fetch a few euro at a flea market; but next time I should stuff credit cards, passports and wads of 50-euro notes in there to really help out.  But all and all I consider the operation a great success.  My wife and I were able to spend the next four days in the city of Modernisme enjoying the food, shopping, and ambiance knowing that we had done our part.

It’s really every visitor’s duty to participate in whatever way he can–here’s hoping you can make Plan B a success!

La Mercé
La Mercé

Other Views and Resources

I like this justification (and the speed of transfer), from a British visitor:

“The thieves of Barcelona seem to be operating a one-city crusade to recover from English tourists all the treasure lost to the British Navy in four centuries of war (native Barcelonans blame most of the crime on Morocan immigrants, in which case much of the booty would drain out south across the Straits of Gibraltar). Eve and I went to take some pictures in the Parc Guell. Within minutes of our arrival, a pickpocket had opened her purse and taken her wallet.” [Philip Greenspun on]

Even George Orwell remarked in the efficiency of young Barcelonans to lighten the loads of foreigners during wartime:

“The younger militia boys, who seemed to regard the whole affair [the 1937 armed riots in downtown Barcelona] as a kind of picnic, were prowling round and trying to wheedle or steal rifles from anyone who had them.  It was not long before one of them got my rifle away from me by a clever dodge and immediately made himself scarce.” [George Orwell, “Homage to Calalonia”, p. 124]

Bob Arno is in the business of researching and interviewing thieves and scammers. Besides the car dodge I got going here are a dozen other ways to lose your loved things in Barcelona.  He doesn’t have much to say about the vehicle thief however:

Summer 2010 Update: “I was robbed in Spain” Facebook Page

The author of this Facebook Page asked me to post a link.  I guess he collects such tales of woe to share them with the rest of the world.  Enjoy the schadenfreude.  Also, you might want to read a Google Knol on the subject.  (Hat Tip to Andrew Korff for this one.)