Oct 10

Addis Ababa Safety (How My Travel Companion was Pickpocketed Twice in Less than Two Hours)

I had read warnings about pickpockets and Addis Ababa safety but didn’t realize how bad it really was until I saw multiple pickpocket attempts on myself and my travel partner for this part of the trip…in just the first two hours.  Yes, my travel companion managed to have his camera and cell phone stolen, in two separate occasions, in less than 2 hours in Addis Ababa.  For confidentiality, we will call him “Bob”.  Here are some things that happened and what you can do to prevent losing your stuff in Addis Ababa or any other city of the world.  Whether you are on public transportation or in a park, these are things to watch out for.

You’ve Got the Look

Bob and I were certainly noticed as we walked around Addis Ababa, and not in a good way.  Multiple pickpockets looked us up and down trying to determine ease of lifting what they want.  Some of them work in cahoots so watch out for people who look like they are talking to others about you.  Sometimes it pays to be paranoid.

Don’t Show Them What You Got

Bob was using his cell phone for the map app as we were walking down a main street.  This put a huge target on his back because cell phones are in the top things the pickpockets want to steal because they are easy to sell.  Do all you can to avoid using your phone as you’re walking down the street.  Not only does it let them know you have what they want, it lowers your defenses and awareness of your surroundings.  Look at your maps before you set out walking.  If you have to look at the map app again, see if you can duck into a less conspicuous place, like a shop or cafe.  Go old school and invest in a paper map or guide or get a paper map for free from a local visitor center. 

 If Someone Approaches You, Be On Guard

Here are some common tricks the pickpockets will do to approach you, and ones we saw first-hand in Addis Ababa

  • A few kids approach as ask where you are from, they start touching your arm and your things.  One kid was trying to kiss my arm.  These are the thieves that got Bob’s camera.
  • Someone approaches you with a piece of paper – things such as newspapers, magazines, maps, brochures, charity petitions, lottery tickets.  They are up to no good.  Don’t let them get close as one hand is showing you the paper, the other hand is digging for your stuff or their buddy is in your back pocket.
  • Someone stumbles in front of you and grabs you for help.  We’re pretty sure this is where Bob lost his cell phone.  He didn’t even realize until later.
  • Avoid Beggars.  We had some following us around.  Usually they are just begging and not pickpockets but don’t let them get too close.  One man lunged at me but I avoided him and kept walking.  Another man was following us for blocks.  It was very unnerving.
  • Someone squirts you with something, don’t let them approach you with a towel or napkin.  Bob and I were just a few blocks from the hotel when he turned to me and said “I think I just got squirted with something.”  We grabbed our bags tightly knowing of this scam and saw a guy approaching him with a napkin.  Don’t accept any help in this situation.  Hold your bag tight and walk away as fast as you can.  Don’t feel bad to tell them to stay away. 

Your Stuff will be Gone Before You Know It

These guys are fast.  It just takes seconds to have your stuff taken.   We met an Israeli traveler who was chatting with some and didn’t even notice the upper pocket on his shirt, containing a cell phone, had been zipped open.

Location, Location, Location

So far, we’ve found two places in Addis Ababa that are rife with pickpockets – Meskel Square and Olympic Traffic Circle.  Read guidebooks and ask locals if there are any places you should be especially cautious. 

Day vs. Night

Pickpocketing doesn’t just happen at night when it is dark.  The serious pickpockets will work any hour of the day, Bob got pickpocketed from noon to 2pm on our first day in the city.  

If You’re on the Move, You’re Still Not Safe

The Mini-buses in Addis Ababa are always packed full.  Trains and subways are usually packed in most major cities.  Being packed like sardines makes it easy for a pickpocket to access your zippers and pockets.

If You Must Have a Bag, Here’s What to Do

The best bag is one you can wear across your body.  Have the bag rest on your opposite hip towards the front so you can keep an eye on it.  Even better is a specially designed bag with locking zippers and metal mesh wire built in to prevent slash and grabs.  This is the bag I take on all of my trips.  It’s large enough for a water bottle, wallet, large camera, and guidebook:



What to Do if You Think You’re Being Hunted

I will change my rate of speed, from slow to fast to lose someone, or consider crossing the street.  Usually the suspected pickpocket will just keep going if they think you’re onto them.  Another effective way is to hope into a shop, museum, or café.  Or approach a police officer.  In Addis Ababa, we could not lose one guy so when we saw a policeman helping at a fender bender, we stood nearby and the guy just kept going. 

Don a Decoy

Pickpockets can see the shape of a phone or wallet in your pockets.  If you must carry stuff in your pockets, make sure your pockets zip and you carry a decoy.  Effective decoys include a packet of tissues or a wallet with a few dollars and a fake or long expired credit card (this can be effectively used in a mugging situation as well).

Find Your Safe Place

Book a good accommodation that has a good safety record.  Consider leaving your most precious possessions there.  I travel around with locks and a wire cord and lock up my bag, keeping the lock inconspicuous – covering it up with clothes or a towel.  Often your items are safer here than lugging them around the city.  I really enjoyed my guesthouse in Addis Ababa  – the Olympia Guesthouse  – the most helpful owner who was really looking out for us.  Book it here.


I hope you find these Addis Ababa safety tips useful whether traveling in Addis Ababa or any other city plagued by pickpockets.



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    • Heather on October 10, 2017 at 7:08 pm
    • Reply

    I’m so sorry about your friend’s two incidents. Glad you had your anti-theft bag. I just bought the “Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag” on Amazon for an upcoming trip to South America. There are tons of thefts down there, too. I know a couple who were both robbed — on different tours — on the same day (separately).

    Thanks for the decoy tip. Good idea!

    1. Thanks Heather! Have a safe trip.

    • Karen Story on October 10, 2017 at 8:07 pm
    • Reply

    I always wear a money belt and keep passport, credit card, atm card, and most of my cash there. Such a shame to feel like a walking target when you travel. Wish it were easier to blend in sometimes.

    1. Yeah, forgot to mention the money belt. Of course I use those too. They work for pickpockets but many muggers know to look for these. Secret pockets inside your pants might be better.

    • ute ahrens on October 10, 2017 at 8:30 pm
    • Reply

    Wow! I love travelling, but that just sounds a bit too scary for me! Stay safe!!! Looking forward to more travel reports. Ute

    1. Thanks Ute. I hope it can only get better from now. Other travelers say pickpockets aren’t a problem elsewhere in Ethiopia so we shall see.

  1. I think the biggest thing is to be aware of the ways that people try to pickpocket you, and just assume most people are trying to rip you off. It’s kept me safe so far!

    1. Yeah, I agree. It’s sad that you have to be so alert in many countries of the world.

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