Pickpocketing is one of the oldest and most common crimes in the world. Its appeal is its relative safety: An adept pickpocket can make off with as much money as an armed robber, without much danger of confrontation or risk of being identified in a lineup. By the time the victim realizes what has happened, the pickpocket is long gone. And because there are no weapons involved, the pickpocket who is caught faces a minimal prison sentence.
All this is bad news for the rest of us. When traveling, a pickpocket can easily ruin your trip by stealing your money, credit cards and identification in seconds. And there’s little hope of getting it back. In this article, we’ll see how these thieves can rob people blindly without them realizing it. We also find out what you can do to avoid becoming a “target” (a scammer or pickpocket) and what to do if your wallet is stolen.
There are all kinds of pickpockets in the world, operating at different skill levels. The lowest level consists of simple opportunists. They don’t use any special technique; they just seek out people who have made themselves vulnerable. For example, students often study in crowded public spaces, with their backpacks open next to them. A pickpocket simply sits nearby and stealthily reaches into the victim’s backpack. Pickpockets also target people sleeping on the beach and waiting at airports with their luggage.
Getting a wallet out of someone’s pocket or purse is a bit more difficult, as the pickpocket has to touch the target or something near the target’s body. The basic approach is to mask the illicit contact with expected, benign contact.
For example, in a busy subway, it’s normal for strangers to press against you so you don’t notice something pressing against your pocket or bag. If the pickpocket is good, you won’t feel it. Pickpockets usually wear coats or newspapers to cover their hands.
The same approach also works in less congested areas. A pickpocket can casually slide you between them to press against your body. In a standard scheme, the “stalker” suddenly stops in front of the target, causing the target to bump into her. The “pick” pretends to accidentally crash into the target from behind and politely apologizes as she takes the target’s wallet away. It may seem strange that the stall suddenly stopped, but the tuft seems completely innocent so that the brand does not notice that she has been robbed.
Pity and distraction
Like a magic show, the main method here is distraction. People tend to focus their attention on one thing, so if you give them something interesting to focus on, they won’t mind their money and valuables.
In the world of pickpocketing, distractions can be extensive. Two members of a team can stage a fight while the third member takes advantage of the unwary crowd. Child thieves may try to show something to a target, such as a drawing or a toy, while other children sneak up from behind. Another common trick is to surreptitiously spray someone with bird droppings, or some convincing imitation thereof, and then offer to help clean up.
One of the most effective distractions is sex: An attractive woman, usually pretending to be drunk, will affectionately touch an unsuspecting man and steal his wallet or watch while he is distracted.
Some pickpockets play on pity in their distraction. They “accidentally” drop loose change or shopping bags on the floor so that someone will stop to help them. While the mark kneels on the floor near the first pickpocket, another member of the team steals his or her wallet. On the beach, a member of the team can pretend to be in trouble in the water. When the target rushes in to help, another member of the team walks off with what the target left on the beach.
Sometimes pickpockets don’t want to distract you from your money; they want to draw your attention to it. For example, in a busy subway station, a member of a pickpocket squad may shout, “Someone just stole my wallet!”. Most people’s automatic response is to make sure they still have their own wallet and valuables, so they knock on the bag it’s in. This makes pickpockets’ job a lot easier – it shows them exactly where to look. Pickpockets also monitor ATMs or cash registers and see where people put their money. Pickpockets will also “fan” their victims — casually passing by to feel where the target’s wallet is before attempting to steal it.
Pickpockets are always coming up with new tricks, so it’s almost impossible to make yourself completely immune to their tricks. But you can make their job a lot harder, as we’ll see in the next section.
Protect yourself from pickpockets
It is difficult to spot every pickpocket, no matter how careful you are, because pickpockets usually camouflage themselves. They make sure that they do not fit into the common image of criminals. Many dress like wealthy businessmen and women; others have babies with them, which they use to hide what their hands are doing. Some even impersonate tourists, their main target.
The best defense against pickpockets is to make it difficult to get to your valuables. It’s not a good idea to carry your wallet in your back pocket because then a pickpocket can sneak up behind you quite easily. Front pockets are more secure, but the best option is a money belt under your clothes. Fanny packs are extremely fragile, especially if the pouch is on your back instead of your front. Backpacks and purses are also attractive to pickpockets. If you must carry a bag, keep it under your arm and cover it with your hand.
Another good defense is to employ some distractions yourself. Carry an easily accessible “dummy” wallet in your pocket or purse so pickpockets never go looking for your real wallet.
It’s also important that you don’t look like a good target. Pickpockets are attracted to people who look lost, confused or distracted. People who seem confident and aware of their surroundings are less attractive targets. Remember that most pickpockets are cautious thieves who want to avoid confrontation. Even if they think they can steal something from you, they will tend to pass you if you don’t look like the safest target in a crowd.
Even if you take all these precautions, you can still fall victim to pickpockets. You can limit the damage if you are prepared. Keep a list of everything in your wallet or bag, especially all credit card numbers. This makes it a lot easier to make things right if someone does steal from you. It’s also a good idea to spread your money, credit cards, and identification around in different places so you’re less likely to lose them all at once. Be very careful about what else you put in your wallet. For example, it’s not a good idea to carry around your social security number or carry personal access codes (especially for ATMs) with you.
Pickpockets can completely ruin a trip abroad if you are not prepared. If you lose your identification, you could even get stuck in that country until everything is settled. To make the process as easy as possible, keep photocopies of your credit cards, passport, and any other forms of identification. Keep copies at your hotel, and leave separate copies at someone’s home. Even if you lose everything, your friend can fax you the information you need. It’s also a good idea to prepare a list of emergency numbers and addresses before you travel. Find out where your country’s foreign embassy is and write down the number of the local police station.
Pickpockets will be around for a long time, and there’s not much the police can do about it. But if you’re well informed and prepared, they’ll probably look for a better target.