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Crime in Athens

Murder, armed robbery, rape and other violent crimes are not a big problem in Athens. Even with the rise in crime which by Greek standards is an epidemic, Athens is still one of the safest cities in Europe if not the world though it is quickly building a reputation as a city to avoid or get in and get out as fast as it takes to see the Acropolis. For this reason some people are chosing to stay in the coastal suburbs and visit the sights of Athens on a daytrip with a taxi or public transport. But my feeling is that if you know what to watch out for and take a few precautionary steps you should not be affected by the ills of Athens.

Petty Crime

Most crime is of the petty variety like the pick-pockets who work the crowded metro cars in central Athens. By keeping your hands in your pocket, or holding tight to purse, you make yourself a difficult target and what they are looking for are easy targets. One way you can protect yourself and at the same time really annoy the pickpockets is by using a decoy wallet, stuffed with fake credit cards, unpleasant photos, monopoly money etc while having your real valuables in one of those secret wallets that fasten to your ankle under your socks or down your pants. I wrote about this on my blog in an article titled Defeating the Pick-pockets and I highly suggest you read this and follow my advice.

As one reader of my site wrote to me:

So I got smart and did what you said last year. I bought a cheap wallet, bought kid`s play money and filled it full of the fake cash, with a few fake credit cards. Sure enough, the thief took the bait on the metro...I laughed all the way back to the hotel !!!!

or this which came on Sept 2nd 2011:

Hey Matt. Just returned from Athens after probably the best week of my life ! Your safety tips helped me on countless occasions. I was walking through the metro building when I felt a hand hear my coat. And sure enough my wallet was gone!. But o yeh I read your page first so the pick pocket only stole the fake one. I took 3 fake wallets and retuned home with one! I'm so glad it wasn’t my real wallet. I hope you are well. Yours thankfully JB

The easiest places to get pick-pocketed are the metro, the public buses, on line at the acropolis and even looking at the flights board at the airport. If someone stumbles into you in a crowd chances are they have your wallet. If you use a decoy and make it easy for them you will leave the bus a lot happier than they are.

Many higher category hotels and even the economy class Hotel Attalos now have safety deposit boxes in the rooms. If you have a safe in your room there is no reason for you to walk the streets of Athens with a bunch of credit cards and all your money.

Women can generally walk the streets of Athens in safety though there are areas between Omonia, the Larissa train station and Arhanon street where though I might walk it at night I would feel a little uneasy about my daughter or girlfriend doing so. Also the neighborhood between the Central Market and Pireos Street behind city hall is best avoided late at night as is Patission, 3rd of September and Acharnon beyond Omonia. But avoiding these areas does not mean that you are safe. Like any city a purse snatcher can strike anywhere and that includes the nice cafes on the main streets if the snatcher believes he can out-run anyone who may be around. Greeks will give chase to a purse-snatcher but you should not count on it. But if someone grabs your purse and you run after them shouting in English "stop thief" or other appropriate words, you will be joined in the chase and chances are someone else will reach the thief before you do and after some gentle coercing they will hand you back your purse with everything intact. But really it is better to take precautions so nobody can take your purse and put your valuables in a safer place. But mostly this kind of crime takes place very late at night when there are few people around by desperate immigrants. The guys who work in the day are professionals and make a good living targeting tourists.

A professional purse snatcher is better at what he does than you are at keeping him from doing what he does. You may be walking on a shopping street and snip-snip the straps to your handbag have been cut and the guy(or woman) disappears into the crowd. You may have your camera bag at your feet in a cafe 10 feet from the next table and suddenly notice it is gone and come to the realization that the person who took it must have used a fishing pole to get it.

Eagle Creek Hidden PocketSo how do you avoid being one of the many tourist victims whose holidays are inconvenienced or ruined because of this kind of crime? First of all do what I do. Have a photo-copy of your passport and driver's license and keep the real thing locked in your hotel safe. When you leave the hotel to shop, or have dinner, or see the sites, especially if you are going on the metro bring only as much money as you will need and one credit card if you must have one. If you want to have your valuables with you at all time use one of these wallets made by Eagle Creek(photo) which fit in your pants and in your underwear where no thief is likely to go. There is another wallet that straps around your leg. There are also money-belts that serve the same purpose. If you want use the decoy wallet trick that I write about at Defeating the Pick-pockets and they will take that or go after someone who does not even know pick-pockets exist. Just fill the wallet full of stuff and keep your money in your pocket with your hand in it. By the way if you put a rubber band around your wallet that makes it harder to be removed from your pocket. If you must carry a handbag or purse buy one with steel cables that make it impossible to cut. I am sure there are camera bags that have them too. But a handbag makes you a target and since your hotel is probably downtown and you most likely won't be more than a 20 minute walk from it at anytime, ask yourself if you really need to carry a handbag with all your junk in it. When you walk down the street and you are carrying a purse or handbag, walk close to the buildings and keep your purse on the building side, not the street side. If you wear the straps across your body instead of over your shoulder it will be much harder for someone to grab, especially if they are on a motorbike.

I go all over Athens with my camera and a cell-phone and here is my secret to never getting robbed:
1) I stand with my back against the wall of the metro (I usually ride in the 1st car) or the side of the bus so there is nobody behind me
2) My camera is small and non-discript and hardly looks worth stealing and I wear it on my wrist and it can easily fit in my hand even while I am on the trolley and holding the strap.
3) My cell phone is in my pocket (unless I am texting on it), with my money and my other hand in it as well.
4) In my top pocket is the photo-copy of my Greek ID (or in your case your passport and/or driver's license)
5) I am a big guy with a shaved head and I look kind of mean and the last thing a thief wants is to mess with someone that even looks like me.

Do you really need to bring expensive jewelry to Greece? Wear the cheap stuff and leave the good stuff at home. Do you really need a super camera with all the lenses and paraphenalia that go with it to take the same photos you can see on my website and every other person's travel blog? Just find the best $100 camera that easily fits in your hand or pocket and you will have one less thing to worry about. If they steal it go to Public in Syntagma Square and buy another one.

If you are really worried that the crooks will out-smart you no matter how well prepared you are then just do what I do: Dress like a bum. Of course that is the attire I feel most comfortable in but think about it... If you are a pickpocket are you gonna go for the guy in the sports-jacket with the Izod shirt and penny loafers or the guy in the ripped dirty jeans and t-shirt and sneakers? I still have my fake wallet in my jeans and do all the things I wrote about above but the fact that I look like a guy who has nothing worth stealing probably makes me less of a target, which is why they still have not stolen my fake wallet.

Athens Street Scams

There are a few street scams that you may want to be aware of. The first and most popular is the man with the cafe/bar who asks you the time and then invites you to his bar or cafe, depending on his perception of what kind of person you are. He usually asks where you are from, tells you he has a cousin from there and invites you for a drink/coffee. Once you are there you are introduced to a girl(s) at the bar and she asks you to buy her a drink and at the end you get a bill for a lot more than you want to pay. (Usually about $100 which I would happily pay to talk to a beautiful Greek/Russian/Albanian/Ukrainian woman all afternoon, but not in these circumstances.) Of course when you dispute the charges the men in the bar swell up in size and use the threat of violence to convince you to pay. In some reports the final price has been negotiated down and only one person said he was physically harmed (and this person was of dubious character himself). The bottom line is when the man approaches you on the street and invites you to his bar just tell him no thank you as probably 99 out of 100 people do. If you find yourself in this situation, as scary as it may seem, these guys are an anachronism, the last of the bars that made their money when the US 6th Fleet sailed into port and sailors with pockets full of money roamed the streets looking for booze and girls. Preying on foreigners is pretty low. But falling prey to these guys takes a combination of naivety and a little of what those sailors were feeling.

A variation of this is the man who takes you to his friend's travel agency to buy ferry tickets to a quiet island and he tells you there are no tickets or there is no ferry and sells you a fancy hotel in Mykonos and a cruise. You may even be paying a normal price, but the fact is you did not come to his shop for a cruise and a fancy hotel, you came for ferry tickets.

Athens Taxi Scams

Taxis are another story. Being a taxi driver in Athens is not an easy life. Rates are extremely low for a metropolitan area and two drivers will work the same car on 12 hour shifts trying to make a living. To supplement their meager income they have a number of tricks which won't work on Greeks but will on foreigners. The two most famous ones are the hotel and restaurant trick where you get in a cab and when you tell him which hotel you are going to they tell you that you don't want to stay there because it is a bordello, or in a bad neighborhood, and take you to another hotel they know of. Of course they get a kickback from the hotel. This is not just a taxi-scam but a hotel scam as well and some decent hotels do this. The same thing with restaurants. You say you want to go to a specific restaurant and the taxi driver tells you it is closed, or it has gotten bad, and takes you to another, usually an expensive fish restaurant in Microlimono on the sea, where he makes a percentage of what you order. One person wrote to me that the taxi driver actually called their hotel room at 4am to ask them what their bill was because he thought the restaurant was trying to stiff him. So if you get taken by one of these guys take your phone off the hook before you go to bed.

Another taxi trick is to turn the meter on 2 which makes it run twice as fast. They are allowed to do this after midnight. Taxis are allowed to do trips for a set price which is decided before the trip, not after, unless of course you and he agree on an hourly rate.

Crime in General

But generally there is not that much you have to worry about in Athens in terms of serious crime. That is not to say that serious crime does not exist in Greece. Athens has many of the problems other modern cities have and with its economic problems things seem to have gotten much worse. But someone coming here for a 2 week holiday is unlikely to suffer from them. (Running a business is another story.)

Because of the influx of illegal immigrants who really have no choice but to turn to crime since they get no help from the government, the areas where they congregate are probably not where you want to stay. The travel agents I work with won't book clients anywhere near Omonia Square and certainly not around Metaxourgio. Of course that means you can get a lot of hotel for just a little bit of money if you are a frugal traveler and if you stick to the main roads you will be OK unless your are stumbling home alone at 4am and look like a victim waiting to happen. But your chances of being ripped-off or seeing unpleasant things are increased dramatically the further away you get from the Plaka. You can see which hotels I recommend and which are the safest areas on my hotels page.

Pickpocket Update

Dear Matt,

There is a scam operating in Athens.  I arrived last night, and I was one of many victims of that scam.

Three men dressed in suit coats, slacks, and good shoes (like business men) walk onto a Metro car and stand together.  People can't get past them without pushing through them.  When you push through, you get pick-pocketed.
 
I arrived yesterday, and they stood between the luggage rack on the Metro and several tourists.  When I pushed through the men to get to my luggage, I felt one of them bump against me, and I KNEW I had been pickpocketed, but I couldn't leave my luggage to chase after them.
 
Five credit cards were stolen.  I called the banks immediately.  There had been no incoming charges.
 
Only $60.00 was taken in cash.
 
At the police station last night, 3 people in addition to me (Greeks who live elsewhere in Europe) had been a victim of this scam.  Today, Pantelli told me that two girls (Americans) were in his store, and had also been robbed in the same way.
George
 

The solution to this is if you see 3 well-dressed men standing between you and the door, go to another door to exit the train. If you can't, hold your wallet in one hand or have your hand in your pocket over your wallet, carry your bag with the other, say excuse me and push through these guys.

Don't use cash-points or ATM machines in or near the metro stations, especially Omonia, Metaxourgio, Monastiraki or Syntagma. Theives will watch you withdraw money, follow you and then wait for an opportunity, usually just before the doors of the metro close, when they will grab your wallet before you know what is happening and exit just before the train's door closes leaving you on the moving train.

You can also read my article Defeating the Pick-pockets which will explain other ways of avoiding getting pickpocketed. If you know there are pickpockets operating and you follow my advice it will be impossible for you to be robbed on the metro.

Far from the Maddening Crowd: In response to the travelers who are worried about staying in downtown Athens, at my request Fantasy Travel has put together a 10-Day Athens-Mykonos-Santorini package which includes a tour of Athens and all transfers and ferry tickets. The package starts at 790 euros per person. What makes it unique is for the Athens part of the trip you will be staying by the beach in Faliron, just 20 minutes from downtown by taxi or 30 minutes by bus or coastal tram. There are several other programs which feature hotels on the coast out of the city center: Click For more information

Hotel Attalos, Athens

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