Child Pickpockets in Europe – A Real Life Charles Dickens Story

BY Beth Williams

Child pickpockets to this day are still an on-going problem in Europe, since the time of Fagin and the Artful Dodger.  Sometimes these juvenile street criminals work alone, their small size being an asset to working unnoticed. However, on  police reports, the problem of child pickpockets has been increasing with many European law enforcement officials report that the largest number of these occurrences involve Romanian child pickpockets. Many others report that they also appear to come from the Balkan regions. Children as young as five have been commonly reported to being professionally trained by adult pickpocket gypsy gangs from Romania to shoplift and pickpocket on the streets of major European cities, say police.

Typically most child pickpockets will be under 14 years of age, as many European juvenile delinquency laws states that children of this age cannot be held accountable for their crimes.  What usually occurs when law enforcement arrest a child pickpocket is that they are taken by police to child refuges – or child welfare group homes. Because they have no where to go that is safe they simply walk out the door the next day, only to return to commit more crimes the next day.

In Madrid Spain,  police say that 95% of children they pick up for pickpocketing and theft related crimes are under 14 years of age, and usually involve Roma from Romania.  Because the age of criminal responsibility in Spain is 14, there is little the police in Spain can do about these organized child pickpocket groups.

There have been many reports of organized child pickpocket gangs which have been dismantled by European law enforcement authorities only for new ones to arise.  The following is just one which was reported in Paris.

This incident involved police in Paris, France who uncovered a large ring of young girl pickpockets  who were each  ordered to steal $400 a day from tourists, or face horrific punishments that included being beaten, burned with cigarettes and getting raped.  In this case, a total of 18 men have been arrested for their role in the case, including the ring’s alleged “patriarch,” a 58-year-old Bosnian, whose name was not released.

This was a significant child pickpocket ring which was operating in Paris and involved approximately 100 girls, most from the Balkans, and were aged between 12 and 16 years old.  These child pickpockets were trained to steal wallets and snatch purses specifically in the Paris subway and other tourist hot spots.

In this case, law enforcement discovered that some of the young girl pickpockets were sold to the ring by their poor families.  The child pickpocket ring brought in an eye-popping $5.3 million, with one girl stealing more than $130,000 in a single day. The Bosnian leader reportedly used the cash to buy luxury cars and property in Italy.

Most of the girls lived in fear.  Authorities called their treatment “medieval.” If you did not meet the daily objectives, you would be hit with fists and weapons, burnt, even raped,” said the French prosecutor. The investigation took two years because the girls were trained to tell police they were 12 years old, which in France ensured they could not be prosecuted. The police also stated that the child pickpocket girls refused to be photographed or to provide physical evidence – which is allowed under French law when it comes to the arrest of young children.

In a report last year in London, law enforcement has arrested 88 Romanian gypsy children who were involved in pickpocket activity, which resulted in a police raid and arrest of 24 suspected adult “controllers” who were responsible for sending the child pickpockets out everyday. London law enforcement arrested these adults on suspicion of human trafficking and running a “highly organized” theft business involving up to £1billion a year. The youngest children involved in these child pickpocket rings were less than one year old – up to 17.  London police stated that in these cases, many of the child pickpockets are made to travel to central London every day and carry out crimes including pickpocketing, credit card cloning and distraction thefts targeting commuters and tourists.

The trafficking of Romanian children to the U.K. for forced begging and pickpocketing has become an epidemic in recent years. In the past 18 months alone, reports of crimes by Romanians in Britain has increased by 700%. And many of those crimes are committed by children, who would never have had the ability to make the trip from Romania to London on their own. So far, police have identified 168 children, ages 7 to 15, who have committed an average of 100 petty crimes each, for a total of about 16,800 offenses.

But these children aren’t picking pockets and shoplifting just to feed themselves. They are part of complex human trafficking rings that stretch from Bucharest to London. Each child can earn up to $145,000 a year by begging, stealing, and committing other petty crimes. That money is given to traffickers in the U.K. who control the children and force them to make certain quotas. A portion is often then sent back to Romania, where other traffickers use it to lure more children to the U.K. to beg and steal.

Here are some other news reports of child pickpockets in Europe that will provide shocking accounts of how organized they are, as well as the criminal adults who run these groups:

What tourists need to be alert to when it comes to child pickpockets

  • Travelers should not be lulled into a false sense of security when they come in contact with young children who they suddenly come in contact with – no mater how young.  There are many reports in Europe of child pickpockets being as young as five years old.
  • Be aware of heavily-pregnant girls; as this is a classic example of the pickpockets sent out by Fagin-like operators.
  • Typically scams used by child pickpockets are those who target travelers who are waiting in lines at subways, museums, and other tourist attractions.
  • Child pickpockets may try to show something to a mark, like a drawing or a toy in order to distract a traveler so a another child pickpocket can remove valuables from your pocket or travel bag.