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What is a Pickpocket?

A pickpocket is a stealthy thief who specializes in stealing items from unsuspecting individuals' pockets or bags. They often operate in crowded areas, using distraction and sleight of hand to go unnoticed. Protecting your belongings requires vigilance and smart habits. Have you ever wondered how to safeguard your possessions against these silent snatchers? Join us as we explore effective strategies to keep your valuables secure.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Pickpockets can be said to have existed since the birth of currency. The pickpocket is usually a petty thief, who steals directly from a "mark," or person, by taking his/her wallet from pockets, purses, backpacks or fanny packs. References to pickpockets can be found in Shakespeare to these crafty individuals working crowds at hangings, and certainly one of the most famous literary references is to the gang of thieves in Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist.

Since the advent of the credit card, the pickpocket has the capacity when taking a wallet, to steal much more than any cash it contains. A pickpocket can also use anything like checkbooks, ATM cards, driver’s licenses, passports, social security cards, or credit cards, to lift money directly from someone’s banks account or line of credit. This increases total profit, and some pickpockets no longer steal for the cash but for the identities they can then access or sell to others in the criminal world.

Pickpockets can use a checkbook to steal money from a person's account.
Pickpockets can use a checkbook to steal money from a person's account.

The pickpocket tends to look for the easiest “mark” in a crowd, perhaps someone who is momentarily distracted, and also obviously anyone who is displaying their money or identity possessions in full view. Generally this thief doesn’t want to be noticed or engage with the mark in any way, and there are many ploys for making this type of thief “normal” in appearance. Such thieves might look like affluent businessmen, moms with crying babies, or just appear very average. The goal for the pickpocket is to quickly steal and quickly leave without people realizing their possessions are missing.

Pickpockets often work at amusement parks.
Pickpockets often work at amusement parks.

In society, trust is a valuable thing, but remains something of which pickpockets will take advantage. If you fall asleep in the airport, leave your purse in the grocery cart while hunting up some produce, or just don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re an easy mark for pickpockets. The way you carry your possessions may also matter. Wallets, for instance, are much harder to lift when they are carried in front pockets, and you should try to avoid carrying things like social security cards. Generally the most secure way to port money around is to use an under the clothing money clip, or at the very least, place wallets in front pockets of the pants.

Pickpockets are featured in many of Shakespeare's plays.
Pickpockets are featured in many of Shakespeare's plays.

Women who carry purses do best when they have snaps or zippers which close them, and purses should be carried to the front of the body, rather than loosely hanging toward the back. This, of course, doesn’t stop a pickpocket from deftly using a knife to slit open a bag or even cut purse straps, and many pickpockets are excellent at slight of hand; in fact magicians use pickpocket skills all the time.

Charles Dickens' book "Oliver Twist" portrayed a gang of pickpockets.
Charles Dickens' book "Oliver Twist" portrayed a gang of pickpockets.

The pickpocket may work alone or in concert with other thieves; sometimes two work together to effectively sandwich a mark between them or to use distraction so one person can pick the pocket while the other distracts the mark from paying attention. There are numerous methods which such a thief or thieves may employ in order to keep you from noticing they’ve stolen from you.

Pickpockets can use stolen Social Security cards to access a person's identity.
Pickpockets can use stolen Social Security cards to access a person's identity.

Even if you’re super vigilant, it may be impossible to avoid ever having your possessions stolen in this manner. It’s therefore advisable to keep a list of everything your wallet contains, especially credit cards or passports, so when you notice its loss you can make a full report to the police and cancel any ATM or credit cards immediately. Carry only the cash you need, and try to keep it in as inaccessible a place a possible. Some people even carry a dummy wallet or purse which doesn’t contain anything, so if their pockets are picked, the thief gains nothing. In crowded areas like amusement parks, train stations or airports, take advantage of lockers to stow away most of your possessions, and don’t leave your possessions unwatched or unguarded for any period of time.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a pickpocket and how do they typically operate?

Personal information contained in a passport may be used by a pickpocket.
Personal information contained in a passport may be used by a pickpocket.

A pickpocket is a type of thief who steals items such as wallets, phones, and other valuables from people's clothing and bags without them noticing. They often work in crowded areas, using distraction techniques or taking advantage of the victim's distractions. Pickpockets may work alone or in groups, sometimes using one person to distract the victim while another commits the theft. Their success relies on stealth and the element of surprise.

What are some common tactics used by pickpockets?

Pickpockets may work in crowds where they will be harder to catch.
Pickpockets may work in crowds where they will be harder to catch.

Pickpockets use various tactics to steal from unsuspecting victims. Some common methods include the 'bump and lift', where the thief bumps into the victim to mask the sensation of theft, and the 'distraction', involving a third party to divert the victim's attention. They may also use 'the dip', which is a quick hand movement into a bag or pocket, or the 'cover', using a newspaper or map to hide their actions. These tactics require skill and practice to perform effectively.

How can someone protect themselves from pickpockets?

To protect against pickpockets, individuals should remain vigilant in crowded places and be aware of their surroundings. It's advisable to keep valuables in secure, zipped compartments and to use anti-theft bags or clothing with hidden pockets. Additionally, maintaining a low profile by not displaying wealth and being cautious of strangers who invade personal space can help. Awareness campaigns and police advisories often provide updated tips for specific locations.

Where are pickpockets most commonly found?

Pickpockets tend to operate in areas with high pedestrian traffic and where people are likely to be distracted. This includes tourist attractions, public transportation systems, markets, festivals, and busy streets. Cities with a high volume of tourists are particularly attractive to pickpockets, as visitors are often less familiar with their surroundings and may be carrying more valuables. According to the Barcelona Metropolitan, tourist hotspots like Barcelona are known for high pickpocketing rates.

Have pickpocketing trends changed with advancements in technology?

With advancements in technology, pickpocketing trends have evolved. Modern pickpockets may target smartphones and electronic devices, which can be resold for a significant profit. Additionally, there's a growing concern over electronic pickpocketing, where thieves use RFID readers to steal credit card information without physical contact. However, traditional pickpocketing still persists due to the value of cash and the difficulty in tracing stolen goods. Security experts continually develop new methods to counter these evolving threats.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon1006759

Very insightful article.

While some articles tend to say pickpockets are a dead breed of thief, I can tell you first hand they still exist.

I was victimized in a hotel elevator very early one morning pre-pandemic in NYC.

I was the only one on the elevator when stopped a floor or two where I got on.

A well dressed woman attempted to get on the elevator and looked at me and smiled and said good morning and I did the same.

As she got on the elevator, she appeared to lose her balance and fell to the ground.

I immediately went to go help her up. As she reached for my hand to pull her up, she bumped in to me and managed to lift my wallet out of the breast pocket of my suit jacket. She definitely knew what she was doing to lift it without me knowing what she was doing.

The question I keep asking myself is: How in the hell did she know where I kept my wallet? I rarely pull it out in public as it was given to be by my grandfather as a graduation gift when I got my masters degree.

Fortunately for me, she got just over $100 in cash and a couple of credit cards I rarely use.

This exactly why I also carry my money clip with cash and the credit cards I use daily.

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    • Pickpockets can use a checkbook to steal money from a person's account.
      Pickpockets can use a checkbook to steal money from a person's account.
    • Pickpockets often work at amusement parks.
      Pickpockets often work at amusement parks.
    • Pickpockets are featured in many of Shakespeare's plays.
      By: Jasmin
      Pickpockets are featured in many of Shakespeare's plays.
    • Charles Dickens' book "Oliver Twist" portrayed a gang of pickpockets.
      By: nickolae
      Charles Dickens' book "Oliver Twist" portrayed a gang of pickpockets.
    • Pickpockets can use stolen Social Security cards to access a person's identity.
      By: JohnKwan
      Pickpockets can use stolen Social Security cards to access a person's identity.
    • Personal information contained in a passport may be used by a pickpocket.
      By: charles taylor
      Personal information contained in a passport may be used by a pickpocket.
    • Pickpockets may work in crowds where they will be harder to catch.
      By: Ints Vikmanis
      Pickpockets may work in crowds where they will be harder to catch.