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What is a Pickpocket?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006759 — On May 16, 2022

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia...
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