Understanding pickpockets to protect yourself
The British Crime Survey recently found that "theft from the person" (things like pickpocketing) rose by 25% in 2008 from 2007. The recent rise in unemployment is believed to be behind the increase in such crimes.
What you may not know is the potentially lucrative nature of the business.
A Greek national named Apostolos Nastos was recently arrested for making more than £100,000 a year by sending pairs of female pickpockets out into the London Underground and several other locations across the UK to ply their trade. Nastos was so successful that his operation lasted for eight years, and within a month of his arrest, thefts on the Underground fell by 21%.
So why were his "employees" so successful at picking pockets? Or are victims really just daft people, and it would never happen to you?
The fact is this: successful pickpockets look like everyone else; most do not risk standing out in a crowd. A skillful pickpocket is essentially a daring street magician / performer; skilled in sleight of hand and distraction, with a high threshold for law breaking. Sometimes they work in small teams, but the principles to protect yourself are similar regardless. Four common ways pickpockets distract people include:
1. The classic "bumping into you." It's remarkably effective. That's why they do it.
2. Yelling / accusing. "My wallet's been stolen! Has anyone seen it? Show me your pockets!" This is a common team tactic. Everyone within earshot of the "victim" will suddenly check their belongings, revealing the location of their valuables to the other pickpockets on the team, who can then choose their mark and know exactly where to look.
3. Staging a fake fight. Two pickpockets get in a fight, attracting "help" from a compassionate person while a third person sneaks in and lifts the person's belongings. Scenes may include fake family quarrels in toursity destinations like Prague and Italy, in the nature of a "husband" beating the "wife" on a busy tram. You may feel brazenly well for stopping the fight, only to discover that it served as the perfect distraction for a third person to lift your pockets before hopping off the tram.
4. Invading your personal space. If someone grabs your forearm, of course you'll be suspicious. But you'll also be focusing pretty much exclusively on your forearm, making it easier for a pickpocket to steal your wallet or other belongings without your noticing. This applies to other personal parts of your physique.
But if you're marked as a target, is there anything you can do to protect yourself? Firstly, it can happen to anyone, so if you do become a victim of a pickpocket, don't beat yourself up over it. But here are 5 tips on protecting yourself and your belongings:
1. Do the bleeding obvious: Leave your valuables. Yes, this includes your £35k Breguet Tourbillon watch at home. Carry as little cash as you require. Split up your valuables, and travel light. Bring functional items only. Photocopy all your important documents. And if you're too cool to wear a fanny pack, consider an internal money belt.
2. Grab the mofo: While this sounds risky, if you realize your catch your wallet being stolen and can grab the pickpocket holding the wallet before it gets tossed to the 'runner', you will often miraculously "find" your wallet on the ground. They are pickpockets, and not robbers, because they do not want to get caught or expose the ring.
3. Wear a jacket. Especially one that covers your pockets. If your jacket has an inside pocket where you've stashed your wallet, zip or button the jacket to make that inside pocket becomes harder to access.
4. Don't look like an American tourist. Even if you're not completely confident in the setting you're in, do not display vulnerability, or act like the stag party idiots that plaster most developing European cities. A pickpocket is looking for an easier target, not someone who knows what they're about.
5. Choose your bags. Pickpockets go after handbags with long, thin straps. This is because they are the easiest to cut away with a small, sharp razor blade. Long straps also provide enough leverage to make them easy to twist off a person's shoulder. So, think: short straps, zipped, held between the upper arm and torso. Particularly if you're in a foreign country.
You've no doubt spent some time in the big bad world out there, so tell us if you have any personal experience of being pickpocketed, mugged, or other clever ruses pickpockets use so that we can defeat them and breathe freely in crowded public spaces.