Pickpocketing is one of the oldest and most widespread crimes in the world. The appeal is its relative safety: A skilled pickpocket can make off with just as much money as an armed robber, without much danger of confrontation or risk of being identified in a line-up. By the time the victim realizes what's happened, the pickpocket is long gone. And since no weapons are involved, pickpockets who do get caught face minimal jail time.
All of this is bad news for the rest of us. When you're traveling, a pickpocket can easily ruin your trip, lifting your money, credit cards and identification in a few seconds. And there's very little hope of getting any of it back. In this article, we'll see how these thieves can rob people blind without them even knowing it. We'll also find out what you can do to avoid being a "mark" (a con or pickpocket target) and what you should do if your wallet is stolen.
There are all sorts of pickpockets in the world, working at various skill levels. The lowest level is made of simple opportunists. They don't employ any special technique; they just seek out people who've left themselves vulnerable. For example, college students often study in crowded public areas, with their backpacks sitting open next to them. A pickpocket simply sits nearby and surreptitiously reaches into the victim's backpack. Opportunists also target people sleeping at the beach and waiting around with their luggage in airports.
Getting a wallet out of somebody's pocket or purse is a little more difficult because the pickpocket has to touch the mark or something close to the mark's body. The basic approach is to mask the illegal contact with expected, benign contact.
In a crowded subway car, for example, it's normal for strangers to press against you, so you don't notice something pressing against your pocket or purse. If the pickpocket is good, you never feel a thing. Usually, pickpockets carry jackets or newspapers to cover their hands.
The same approach works in less crowded areas as well. A pickpocket team might casually sandwich you between them in order to press against your body. In a standard scheme, the "stall" suddenly stops in front of the mark so that the mark bumps into her. The "pick" pretends to accidentally bump into the mark from behind and graciously apologizes while removing the mark's wallet. It might seem strange that the stall suddenly stopped, but the pick seems completely innocent, so the mark doesn't notice she's been robbed.
Next, we'll take a look at exactly why this works.
Compassion and Distraction
Just as in a magic show, the major method at work here is distraction. Human beings usually focus their attention on one thing, so if you give them anything interesting to focus on, they won't pay attention to their money and valuables.
In the pickpocketing world, distraction can get pretty elaborate. Two members of a team might stage a fight while the third member takes advantage of the inattentive crowd. Child pickpockets may try to show something to a mark, like a drawing or a toy, while other children sneak up from behind. Another common trick is to surreptitiously spray someone with bird droppings, or a convincing facsimile, and then offer to help clean it off.
Some pickpockets play on compassion in their distractions. They "accidentally" drop change or shopping bags on the ground so that someone will stop to help them. While the mark is kneeling on the ground with the first pickpocket, another member of the team steals his or her wallet. At the beach, one member of the team may pretend to be in trouble in the water. When the mark runs in to help out, another member of the team walks off with whatever the mark has left on the beach.
Sometimes, pickpockets don't want to distract you from your money; they want to bring your attention to it. For example, one member of a pickpocket team might yell out "Somebody just stole my wallet!" in a crowded subway station. Most people's automatic reaction is to make sure they still have their own wallet and valuables, so they'll pat whatever pocket it's in. This makes the pickpockets' job a lot easier -- it shows them exactly where to look. Pickpockets will also stake out ATMs or cash registers and watch where people put their money. Pickpockets will also "fan" victims -- casually brush by to feel where the mark's wallet is before trying to steal it.
Pickpockets are always coming up with new schemes, so it's nearly impossible to make yourself completely immune to their tricks. But you can make their work a lot harder, as we'll see in the next section.
Protecting Yourself from Pickpockets
It's difficult to spot every pickpocket, no matter how careful you are, because pickpockets generally camouflage themselves. They're very careful not to fit the common conception of criminals. Many dress like wealthy businessmen and women; others carry babies, who they use to hide what their hands are doing. Some even mimic tourists, their prime targets.
The best defense against pickpockets is to make it hard to get to your valuables. It's not a good idea to carry your wallet in your back pocket, because it's fairly easy for a pickpocket to sneak up behind you. Front pockets are safer, but the best option is a money belt under your clothes. Fanny packs are extremely vulnerable, particularly when the pouch is on your back rather than your front. Backpacks and purses are also attractive to pickpockets. If you need to carry a purse, you should hold it under your arm and cover it with your hand.
Another good defense is to employ some distraction methods of your own. Carry an easily accessible "dummy" wallet in your pocket or purse so pickpockets never seek out your real wallet.
It's also important not to look like a good target. Pickpockets are drawn to people who look lost, confused or distracted. People who seem sure of themselves and aware of their surroundings are less attractive targets. Remember, most pickpockets are cautious thieves who want to avoid confrontation. Even if they think they could steal something off you, they'll tend to pass you over if you don't look like the safest mark in a crowd.
Even if you do take all of these precautions, you could still fall victim to pickpockets. You can minimize the damage if you're prepared. Keep a list of everything in your wallet or purse, especially all credit card numbers. This makes it a lot easier to straighten everything out if somebody does steal from you. It's also a good idea to spread out your money, credit cards and identification in different places, so you're less likely to lose it all at once. Be very careful what else you put in your wallet. It's not a good idea to walk around with your Social Security card, for example, or to carry any personal access codes (especially ATM codes) on you.
Pickpockets can completely ruin a trip to a foreign country if you aren't prepared. When you lose your identification, you could even get stuck in that country until everything gets sorted out. To make the process as easy as possible, you should keep photocopies of your credit cards, your passport, and any other forms of identification. Keep copies at your hotel, and leave separate copies with somebody at 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 your trip. Find out where your country's foreign embassy is, and write down the local police station's number.
Pickpockets are going to be around for a long time, and there's not much law enforcement can do about it. But if you're informed and prepared, they'll most likely move on to a better target.
For much more information on pickpockets and their methods, check out the links on the next page.