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 even
realizes what has happened, the pickpocket is long gone. And
since no weapons are involved, pickpockets who do get caught
face minimal jail time.
of this is bad news for the rest of us. When you're
travelling, 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 your stuff back.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks,
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 up of simple opportunists. These
pickpockets don't employ any special technique; they simply
seek out people who have 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 near a student and surreptitiously reaches into
the victim's backpack. Opportunists also target people
sleeping at the beach and people 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 actually
touch the mark or something close to the mark's body. The
basic approach is to mask the illegal physical contact with
expected, benign physical contact.
The pickpocket appears to be engrossed in a
magazine while sneaking a hand from under his jacket
into the mark's
In a crowded subway car, for example, it's normal for
strangers to press up against you, so you don't even notice
something pressing against your pocket or purse. If the
pickpocket is good, the mark never feels a thing. Usually,
pickpockets carry jackets or newspapers to cover their hands
while they work.
same approach works in less crowded areas as well. A
pickpocket team might casually sandwich you between
them, in order to press up 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
The "sandwich" technique: The stall stops
suddenly, and the pick bumps into the mark from behind,
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
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.
One of the most effective distractions is sex: An
attractive woman, usually pretending to be drunk,
will touch an unsuspecting man affectionately, and lift his
wallet or watch
while he's distracted.
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
One member of the pickpocket team pretends to
drop what she's carrying. When the mark stoops to help,
the second pickpocket lifts her wallet from her
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 the work a lot harder, as we'll see
in the next section.
It's difficult to spot
every pickpocket, no matter how careful you are, because
pickpockets generally camouflage themselves. They are
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 in crowded areas.
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
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 back 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. (This
site has more information on traveling overseas.)
If you do discover that your credit cards and
identification are missing, at home or abroad, it's important
to act quickly. Call the credit companies and cancel the cards
right away. Then file a report with the police, and contact
the Department of Motor Vehicles (if your license is stolen)
and the Social Security
Administration (if your Social Security card is stolen).
With your credit cards and identification, a thief could
try to steal your identity, which could take years to
sort out. Contact the major credit
reporting agencies right away so they know that someone
might try to establish credit in your name. In the United
States, the three major agencies are Equifax,
site has a good guide on how to handle identity theft.)
Pickpockets are going to be around for a long time, and
there's not much law enforcement can do about it. For
impoverished people with few other options, and for lifelong
criminals as well, it's a relatively easy way to steal a good
amount of money with minimal risk. 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 in the next section.
Lots More Information!
More Great Links