Pickpockets Unveiled: The Street Stealthy Thieves


You might encounter pickpockets almost anywhere there is a crowd.
Even the quickest and most casual contact might be a swift and nimble attempt to plumb your pockets and get what’s inside.

They tend to prefer crowded places. Sidewalks, public transport, stations, ports, and markets of all kinds are all potential pickpockets’ playgrounds.

It is not impossible to spot them even in indoors establishments such as restaurants, bars, clubs, discos, or even private parties.

They might lurk even around raves, concerts, and similar outdoor events.

List goes on. Just keep in mind the first sentence of this introduction.

1) Pickpockets: a First Look

Pickpockets are thieves who exploit the distraction of their victims and make physical contact in order to probe and steal from their pockets or purses.

Their behaviour can vary significantly depending on various factors. In this post, we will concentrate on the key aspects of this practice.

1.1- Groups vs Loners

Groups and Gangs can specialize in different types of tactics and strategies.

They usually have well-defined roles, from the distraction of the victim to the actual theft up to the immediate disappearance of the stolen goods. All them are useful for the good outcome of the mission.

Those who took care of the actual pickpocketing are unlikely to be caught with the stolen goods on them, even if you stop them immediately after the theft. Other members of the group take immediate custody of the loot and flee. This helps them operate in many more scenarios than loners.

Loners generally risk more. They usually prefer places where they can vanish and blend into the crowd as fast as possible, immediately following a successful heist.

Loners are mainly divided into two categories.

  • Occasional opportunists – common thieves who take advantage of easy loot opportunities. Like valuables or bags left in plain sight and/or unattended. These are the majority among loners and often just snatchers who, if possible, will grab what they can and run away.
  • True “artists” of pickpocketing – who base their success on their skills and sleight of hand. This second category, however opportunistic, is infinitely much more versatile and, like groups and gangs, can also adopt different strategies and techniques to score a hit.
an outdoor market full of people is a potential pickpockets playground
A Potential Pickpockets' Playground. (Credit - Nice Guys via pexels)

1.2- Similarities

Age and gender of thieves are not relevant.

Apparently, even the state of health of gangs’ members is of little importance. I know for sure about some groups of pickpockets with one or two pregnant women. That’s also because in some countries it could be a way for them to avoid jail.

Even the concept of “baby-gangs” (sometimes with very young affiliates) it’s also nothing new.

2) How Pickpockets Work

In this part we will explore the 5 phases of pickpocketing, as far as we have been able to observe and study about the subject.

Keep in mind that, in this article, we will focus on the general aspects of how loner pickpockets or gangs operate.

2.1- Scouting and Targeting

In this phase the loners, or a part of a pickpockets’ group, monitor and scout their usual “hunting ground”. They look for a suitable target to engage or an opportunity to exploit.

Once a potential prey is spotted or the right opportunity presents itself, they can move on to phase 2. They also use this phase to try to figure out where their potential victims keep valuables.

2.2- Approach and Diversion

Loner pickpockets, or part of a group, approach the prey and attempt distracting it. A drink spilled on you, a request for directions, a fake fall or an “involuntary” push, the list of methods of engagement goes on and on.

Every Random Encounter with scammers might be an excuse to distract you while the interlocutor or accomplices probe your pockets.

Often, the right opportunity occurs as an external source of distraction or stress for the victim. Pickpockets just have to exploit the situation or fuel it someway to ease the next phase. 

Opportunities like these can arise from environmental factors, such as crowded public transport, bustling bazaars, or lively nightclubs. Also, the appearance and characteristics of potential victims, such as their age or a visibly tired or distracted demeanor, can play a role.

close up pickpocket preparing steal from young woman while she is at the phone.
Every Distraction. (Designed by Freepik)

2.3- Contact and Picking

The contact phase is crucial and one of the most critical moments. Pickpockets, whether acting alone or as part of a skilled group, exploit the created diversion and the overall distraction of the victims to swiftly delve into their pockets or bags and take whatever valuable items they can.

While smartphones and wallets are preferred targets, due to their ease of removal, other belongings may also be at risk. In certain cases, such as petition scams (click here to read), they might attempt to seize cameras, other tech devices, or even backpacks and bags right under your nose.

The next escape phase typically follows regardless of the outcome of the attempt. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that our thieves successfully extracted the wallet.

2.4- Slipping Away and Securing the Loot

Once the loot is taken, it’s time to secure it and flee. The script from now depends a little on whether a loner or a group is doing the hit.

For loners, the priority is to get away as quickly and anonymously as possible. Other than being their prize, what they are carrying is also evidence of a crime. 

Their game will be to not get caught or draw any attention as they reach a safe space where they can manage the loot.

Groups and gangs, on the other hand, can count on an absurd advantage over loners: teamwork (how can we not appreciate healthy teamwork nowadays?). In the event of successful Contact and Picking, the pickpockets will be able to pass the stolen goods to those companions who are exclusively in charge of escaping with the loot. 

In such cases, usually, the members who physically committed the theft undetected can safely and calmly leave at the first opportunity and then join their comrades to split the outcome.

2.5- Managing the Loot

Anything that cannot be used or sold is typically discarded, often in secluded areas near the pickpockets’ usual “hunting” ground.

Occasionally, small dumps are discovered filled with bags, wallets, and documents that thieves have disposed of after successful hits.

2.6- Clarifications

Please note that the information provided thus far are an explanatory outline. This is not an official operational manual universally followed by pickpockets.

Situations, strategies, and individuals involved can vary, and the aforementioned phases may or may not be present. For more detailed insights, please consult the “Extras and Thoughts” section of this article. 

Core lesson here is that it is crucial to remain vigilant as pickpockets may exploit moments when you are disoriented, distracted, or experiencing difficulties.

thief takes advantage of the victim's distraction to steal her purse
The Right Window. (Designed by Freepik)

3) What You Risk

Wallets, cell phones, cameras and tech gear are preferred, but also necklaces, bracelets and earrings can be taken if they have any value.

After a hit, the thieves usually discard documents, wallets, and anything that cannot be resold to eliminate any evidence.

Sometimes, however, financial cards and IDs, especially passports, might be sold to specialized organizations. These are among the many reasons to report the theft and block your cards as soon as possible.

4) How to Avoid Being Pickpocketed

As we see it, knowing how certain dynamics work, even if only in general terms, means already being at least halfway to learning how to manage them.

We will soon add an article or a series about the different strategies and techniques used by pickpockets (see Extras and Thoughts).

Meanwhile, the following is based on what I found on the web:

4.1- Steps to Minimize your Potential Loss

Make copies and / or take photos of key documents and store them online. Don’t keep the original with you while around.

Consider getting theft insurance for expensive electronics. Make sure you’ve got a “find my phone” -type app, back up your data, and enable password protection.

Back up your phone and its photos when you can. Sync your stuff to the cloud.

Remember that luxurious luggage, outfits, and gadgets lure thieves. Wear a money belt and be discreet with your hiding places. Don’t keep your wallet in your pants back-pockets.

Leave your not essential valuables in your hotel room. Don’t tempt sticky-fingered staff by leaving a camera or tablet in plain view; hide your things well out of sight. Also beware of some hotels that are not exactly safe from this point of view.

Secure your bags, gadgets, and other valuables when you’re out. Even a minor obstacle can be an effective deterrent. (see photo below)

Remember that nearly all pickpocketing attempts suffered by tourists are nonviolent encounters. 

Report the theft, especially when documents are involved, and block the stolen cards.

a paperclip is used to secure the zip closure of the backpack making it harder for pickpockets
Simple solutions - Paperclips. (Credit - Uno for TouristScams)

4.2- From My Experience

The followings are, more or less, the only “rules” I have used so far, apart from copying documents (Seriously, make those copies), the outfit tips and a few others from the first list above.

A routine mind check when entering and exiting an area. What has been used and if there are zippers of my trousers pockets or backpack that are open/semi-open or closed in a unusual way (see below).

I keep my pocket-size valuables in my travel pants, in the front (I use models with many front pockets with zippers). Usually, the weight of objects such as keys and wallets with documents and money etc. counts as a continuous routine check. If I feel something wrong or a weight change, I can always pass a hand over it to double check.

The rest, or all in case I don’t have the right trousers, is kept hidden in my backpack among other less valuable stuff. It’s a very normal backpack that I practically never separate from. Even at the bar or restaurant, it is always under my legs.

I close all zippers of the backpack in one direction so that I can easily reach all of them with one hand for a quick check. Also, when I’m in too crowded areas I carry the backpack in front.

In a different pocket of my pants, often in a different wallet, I keep the local currency i’m going to use during the day.

Now my two most important rules.

Don’t be paranoid but always be at least a little careful. Keep your guard up, especially if you’re in a crowd or dealing with a distraction of any kind, whether it’s provoked or random. That includes staring at the phone. Even in a deserted street some thief may suddenly try to snatch your stuff out of your hand.

Often, the mere fact of you being, or at least looking, present to yourself and attentive to the environment in which you move, might make you look like a “bad bet” for pickpockets in their scouting phase (see 2) How Pickpockets Work).

Also, remember that these last few rules have worked for me, so far. It doesn’t mean they will work for everyone or forever.

4.3- Last Two Tips

Remember that any unexpected and abrupt interaction (especially if it feels forced and insistent) could potentially be a pickpocket attempt.

Watch out for Random Encounters and Friendly Faces in particular. (Click here for the main article and here for the tag)

Keep in mind that on the web (and maybe here, soon), you might easily find reports about particularly afflicted areas in those countries you are going to visit.

5) Extras And Thoughts

I lived for years in a city where some busy public transport line and station were perpetually infested with groups of pickpockets (mostly women, always the same ones). And they are still there, giving hell to residents and tourists in transit.

Anyway, this article serves as primary resource for Pickpocketing topic/tag (click here to take a look). Here we have tried to explore pickpockets in general terms, but we are planning a series dedicated to the strategies and techniques used by pickpockets (both gangs and loners) and the different contexts and scenarios in which they operate.

All works related to this topic will be listed below at the time of release and add to the mentioned tag.

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