Pickpocketing may be an inconspicuous problem, yet major public events attract hoards of thieves along with the tourists and their fat wallets. Most American cities and towns don’t have the knowledge or training needed to fight street thievery. In preparation for this year’s Super Bowl in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, Captain Kirk Munden of the Houston Police Department’s Burglary and Theft Division brought in a distract theft workshop for his officers. Travel safety expert Bob Arno and Police Sergeant Timothy Shalhoob gave their joint presentation to involved personnel.
Shalhoob is head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Tourist Crime Unit. After all, what city sees more tourists, more money, and more transients than Las Vegas? Shalhoob works closely with the enormous security staffs in the Vegas hotels, and incorporates their surveillance video into his lecture.
Bob Arno is the author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams. He is a “thief hunter,” though not attached to any law enforcement agency. He travels the world and finds pickpockets and other scam artists among tourist crowds. Using hidden cameras, he gets video footage of the crimes in progress. He then interviews the thieves and digs deep into their mindset to learn their MOs and motivations. Over the past dozen years, Arno has acquired hundreds of hours of unique and powerful footage—not the grainy stuff of surveillance cameras, but sharp, colorful, broadcast-quality video of hands in pockets.
With identity theft exploding in America today, it’s vital to understand that savvy pickpockets turn even a thin wallet into big bucks through credit card fraud. The cash people carry around is mere candy money—or drug money—to the thief who knows how to exploit a spread, stolen credit cards, and ID. No longer do thieves toss those items into the trash; if the cannon doesn’t know what to do with them, he knows where to sell them to someone who does, and gets up to a “G” in exchange.
Distract theft reports may fall into either larceny or robbery statistics, but the vast majority of incidents aren’t reported at all. Victims assume they simply lost their property. Lost property reports, therefore, may be an indicator of a distraction theft problem.
Pickpockets travel to major events, including Super Bowl, New Year’s Eve bashes, Mardi Gras, championship fights, and rock concerts. Between big events, pickpockets tour from city to city. They know full well that towns are not prepared for them. They blow in, work the streets until the tip is hot, meaning that law enforcement has caught onto them, then move on to the next town. A town not prepared to recognize their MOs and a public relaxed in the knowledge of their neighborhood’s security is ripe picking.
Profile Behavior, Not People
Cautioning the public to keep track of their valuables when in tight crowds is the easy part. And while uniformed police are a good deterrent, only plainclothes officers will get close enough to spot pickpockets. Shalhoob warned plainclothes officers to expect to get burned on surveillance, to get used to that idea, and to go for it anyway. He reminded them to look after their own wallets while on the job, and to try to smile. The serious facial expression and intense eyes of a cop on duty are a tip-off to seasoned criminals.
Remember the old expression, JDLR: Just Doesn’t Look Right. Follow your instincts and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Since JDLR doesn’t mean criminal behavior and doesn’t meet the threshold of a Terry stop, you have two choices: you can surveil, or prevent a potential crime through obvious presence or casual conversation. If you feel you’re burnt, pass him off to another team.
In the game of pickpocketing, the players are ideally three. The pickpocket (aka cannon, pick, mechanic, wiz, or wire) prefers two partners, although he work alone. One partner is the stall (aka stick, whose job it is to momentarily stop up a mark, creating the opportunity for the cannon to get the wallet). The second partner is the blocker (aka shade, whose function is to use him or herself to obstruct the view of the theft).
A fourth role may be played by another team member, or by one of the previously mentioned partners: the mule. The mule quickly relieves the cannon of the stolen property. “Don’t have it, means I didn’t do it” is the mantra of the cannon lucky enough to have a mule.
No matter how coordinated a crew is they are nothing without a pigeon, mark, or target to turn into a victim. Listen for their terminology, watch for repetitive hand signals and repeated behaviors.
There are two necessary elements of the crime: distraction first, then extraction. The distraction may be natural, such as watching a sports game, watching street entertainment, or paying for a purchase at a service counter. Or it may be intentional, created by the team for their advantage. Intentional distractions include stalling a target, dropping money, groping (usually performed by a female on a male), falling at an elevator door, conversation, and creating a disturbance.
Describing props, or stiffs, that pickpockets commonly use, Shalhoob demonstrated two obvious “shades” with a jacket. In the “ready position,” the jacket is carried over the arm, but the arm is unnaturally stiff and held at a right angle, possibly away from the body. The jacket is manipulated into position close against the target in order to shield the theft. In the “matador” position, the jacket is draped over the cannon’s shoulder and its bottom edge is extended forward, effectively blocking any view from the side. Shalhoob’s hotel surveillance video showed these positions, as well as perps using suspiciously empty-looking garment bags to shade their maneuvers.
Watch for suspicious behaviors, such as constantly looking around, meeting and separating, frequent changing of seats at an event, and positioning around a target. Look for unnatural elbow and shoulder movement. Work in two-person teams, and to get close enough to see an extraction, even at the risk of being noticed.
Say you do spot an extraction, who do you arrest? Follow the money, while your partner secures the victim. If the incident occurs before or during a concert, game, or show, get the victim’s driver’s license and follow up with him when it’s over. Shalhoob described how to “front load” the District Attorney before a major event, and showed an example of how to write a strong bail motion for repeat offenders.
Video Leaves Nothing to Imagination
Arno used explicit video segments to illustrate the devious strategies thieves utilize to enrich themselves. More importantly, his video showed pre-incident behavior, interaction among team members, and frank interviews with the perps. He concentrated on two obvious Super Bowl-scene scenarios: public transportation and tight, distracted crowds.
Buses, trams, and trains are favorite haunts of pickpockets. The jam-packed spaces mean the thieves don’t need any other excuse to get close to their victims, there’s already an obvious necessity. And the jostling ride helps ensure the victims feel nothing. Arno’s video included examples on all forms of public transportation, and revealed the choreography of two, three, and four-person crews.
One scene, shot on a tram in Naples, Italy, which Arno considers the birthplace of pickpocketing, showed a victim accusing a thief in rather colorful language. A bystander attempts to calm the victim, but the victim is onto him as a partner of the guilty one. All four team members are seen meekly skulking off the tram. Arno explained that they would merely hop on the next one, instantly acquiring an entirely new set of potential victims.
In another segment, the video clearly establishes a suspect on a tram. Arno is aboard the tram, holding a camera (hidden in a cell phone) near the ceiling. At the next tram stop, the suspect and his three team members surround an unwitting passenger. One team member prevents the tram doors from closing. At a subtle signal from the team leader, the entire team hops off the tram.
With the pressure now relieved, the victim examines his shoulder bag and finds his wallet, passport, and cell phone gone. Plainclothes officers should be on the lookout for “looping,” a behavior in which suspects exit one tram, train, or bus door, only to reboard at another door. They should also watch for passengers who crowd into the vehicle doorways, but at the last minute fail to board. The boarding rush is a pickpocket’s ideal moment.
Lest victims (or officers) think that a thief’s hand must actually dip into a victim’s pocket, Arno proves otherwise. On a train in Athens, video shows the incredibly sophisticated removal of a wallet from the right front trouser pocket of a local as he boarded. The cannon’s right hand raised the victim’s wallet from below, on the outside of the victim’s trousers, while the thief’s left hand snagged the corner of the wallet as it was exposed at the pocket opening. All this took exactly a second and a half.
Always watch for props, such as flat shopping bags, empty-looking backpacks, shoulder bags, or garment bags. Someone carrying a jacket on a 90-degree day is worth watching, as is someone wearing a coat and carrying another.
Shalhoob and Arno give their popular presentations separately, but as a team they excel. Their class in Houston came through a recommendation by someone who had seen the San Diego Police Department’s Super Bowl security seminar last year. After last year’s game, San Diego Chief of Police David Bejarano wrote that several pickpocket arrests were made and were attributed directly to Shalhoob and Arno’s training. Aside from providing practical training on distracting theft, the seminar serves a broader purpose. It opens the eyes of law enforcement personnel to an under-reported problem to which they may not have given much consideration.
Bambi Vincent is co-author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams. She has spent twelve years independently tracking, filming, and interviewing street thieves around the world, and co-writes Bob Arno’s lectures. She can be reached at Bambi@BobArno.com.