6 ways to thwart pickpockets

Tips for shoppers and tourists to protect themselves and their wallets

By Dana Dratch

Skimmers, scammers and data hackers get all the headlines, but pickpockets are still quietly plying their trade.

"Although it's not as often, it's still a concern," says Sgt. Javier Salazar, spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department.

Unlike database thievery, pickpocketing creates one victim at a time instead of thousands or hundreds of thousands. But if you're one of them, the loss of cash and cards is galling. And personal.

While statistics on pickpocketing are scarce, shopping malls, tourist haunts and crowded city sidewalks are prime pickpocketing spots. The crime occurs in waves, especially in tourist areas. As of Sept. 26, the U.S. State Department's travel advisories included pickpocket warnings for Denmark (keep your guard up at the Copenhagen Central Station) and Paris (beware sticky-fingered children near the central city).

How to thwart a pickpocket

Want to sidestep a pickpocket? "Prevention is 99 percent of it," say Salazar. "The trick is to make yourself a harder target."

"Sneak thieves are absolutely not brain surgeons," says Bob "Pickpocket King" Arno, a stage pickpocket who trains law enforcement and security personnel. "You can defeat them."

These six tips will keep even the busiest shoppers and most carefree tourists -- and their wallets -- protected.

1. Carry only what you need.
Chances are, you don't need your Social Security card and all your plastic to hit the local shopping plaza. Or even fly to Paris.

"Just carry what you need," says Lt. Michael Gilbert, with the Montgomery County Detective Bureau in Pennsylvania. "You don't need five credit cards to go to the mall."

Not having wads of cash or stacks of credit cards makes you less of a target for thieves. If you do get hit, you don't lose everything.

2. Keep valuables close to your body.
One point on which police and pickpockets agree: The closer to your body you keep your valuables, the safer they are.

Wear that strap across your body, "not just off your shoulder," Gilbert recommends. Not only will it make you less of a target, but it practically insures that your purse will be front and center in your field of vision.

"If you have your bags forward versus behind you, that means the thief will say, 'I'm going for someone else,'" says Gilbert.

Too often, people walk through stores with their purses open, Gilbert notes. Ditto that unzipped purse in the grocery cart. Keep it closed and zipped, unless you're actually accessing it.

Carrying big bags or backpacks? Or maybe you're pushing a stroller or wheelchair? They're not the place for valuables, says Cynthia Ochterbeck, editorial director of Michelin Travel Partner. On public transit or in a crowd, she says, a pickpocket can lift items from them, unnoticed.

It's safer to keep your valuables close to your body in a small cross-body purse (with a zipper) or money belt, Ochterbeck advises.

Out for dinner or a movie? Don't put your purse on the floor, says Gilbert. Anyone can snake a hand through the seats and grab a purse or its contents. In a restaurant, the purse should stay on your seat or in the booth. At the movies, keep it in your lap or next to you in your own seat.

3. Be careful where you put that wallet.
For men or women who carry wallets, a front interior jacket pocket is the ideal location. 

If you do this, take out the wallet and cellphone before hanging your jacket on the back of a chair, says Arno. Otherwise, someone sitting behind you could slip in a hand and lift your valuables, he says. "Nobody thinks twice," he says.

When it comes to which pants pocket to use, even the pros disagree. Some prefer a front pocket. "Pickpockets don't normally take from a front pants pocket," says Gilbert.

If you prefer the back pocket, button it. Out of a million people, "999,999 don't button that back button," says Gilbert.

Arno looks at it differently. "It has nothing to do with front or back," he says. "It's which one is the loosest." The best place to keep your money: a tight jeans pocket, he says. "If they are tight, the tightest pocket is where you carry the wallet."

Be wary of people brushing up against you. That's when pickpockets do their best work.

-- Lt. Michael Gilbert
Montgomery County (Pa.) Detective Bureau 

If you're wearing loose jeans, and you have a wallet in the front pocket, "it's easy to steal," Arno says.

If you're not wearing jeans, and especially if you're a little overweight, that looser pocket can mean it "takes less than two seconds to go in there and lift it out," he says.

So that back pocket, if there's a button, is where the wallet should go, especially if a man has accumulated a few extra pounds, says Arno. With an overweight man, "front pockets are easy to steal from," he says.

Arno suggests that wallet carriers slip a long comb into the center of your wallet and stash that comb sandwich fold-side down. The protruding ends of the comb anchor the wallet in your pocket.

And don't carry cash secured by a money clip. "It's basically the easiest thing for a thief to lift," Arno says.

4. Embrace 'the bubble'
You know that bubble around you that marks the limits of your personal space? When it comes to fending off pickpockets, that bubble is your best friend.

"Use your personal space," says Salazar, and keep everyone at "an arm's length." If someone keeps intruding? "Step away," he says.

"Be wary of people brushing up against you," says Gilbert. "That's when pickpockets do their best work."

But in some situations, that's not possible. "In crowds, expect to have some bodily contact," says Susana Martinez-Conde, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and co-author of "Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions."

Avoid crowds when you can, she recommends. When you can't, stay aware and take extra measures to protect your belongings.

When mall crawling, Gilbert says, walk close to the stores so you're shielded from jostling crowds on one side. "You make it harder for people to come around from both sides," he says.

5. Be wary of distractions
Mothers corralling kids, execs chattering on their cells, tipsy travelers and lovers gazing dreamily into each other's eyes? All provide perfect targets for pickpockets.

Whenever you're paying attention to something, that means you're not paying attention to something else.

-- Susana Martinez-Conde 
SUNY Downstate Medical Center

"If a pickpocket is trying to ID a potential target, he will be looking for someone who is distracted," says Martinez-Conde, who has studied stage pickpockets and magicians under laboratory conditions.

"Whenever you're paying attention to something, that means you're not paying attention to something else," she says. "Attention is extremely limited. Even if you think you can pay attention to several things at once, you can't."

Lab research shows people who rate themselves good multitaskers aren't, says Martinez-Conde, who had her own wallet taken years ago by a pickpocket, which she wrote about in an article for Scientific American, "Multitasking, pickpockets and hubris."

Another place to be wary: loading and unloading at airports and train stations, says Ochterbeck. Unfamiliar surroundings, scattered belongings, and the need to fish for tickets, tip money and other necessities means divided attention.

One fix: "Have everything secured before you get out of the taxi," car, bus, or tram, she says.

Sometimes, thieves work in teams and create their own distractions. In a grocery store, for example, one may attract your attention with a question or comment while the other reaches in the open purse in your cart. Or one bumps you from one direction, then, while you're responding to that, the partner on the other side grabs your wallet or valuables.

Or two tourists compliment you on your clothes, says Arno. One might ask about where you got them and pull on the fabric a little, says Arno. Even if only one out of 30 people falls for it, it's a numbers game for thieves, he says.

When presented with that distraction, "Your job is to stay on target, no matter what," says Martinez-Conde.

Another trick of the trade: putting a large, common everyday object (newspaper, map, jacket, shopping bag, messenger bag) on top of the target's purse or bag, says Arno. "They want to be close behind victim, and they want to hide when they go into purse." 

A good thief brings his own props, he says, so spotting those tools can tip you off.

6. Consider traveling gear
When traveling, you might carry more credit cards and documents (such as passports) than you normally would. One fix: Something like a money belt or travel purse.

For a money belt, says Salazar, the kind that fits just inside your slacks, jeans or pants "is Grade A in my book because nobody knows it's there."

Make sure it's simple to use, says Martinez-Conde. Too many times, travelers will opt for something complicated, and leave it open half the time. Instead, she says, search out something that's difficult for thieves to access, but easy for you to use.

If you go for a cross-body bag, avoid the ones with just a flap, which Ochterbeck says are too easy for thieves to get into. Opt for a front-zip closure, she says, "so you can put thing that are not as valuable in that pocket so that you can get those things in and out in a crowd."

See related: New industry tools fight credit card fraud, 4 ways crooks cash in on your personal, financial data

Published: September 29, 2014

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