Pickpockets Don’t Always Look Like Criminals

BY Beth Williams

Many travelers think they know how to spot a pickpocket, but good pickpockets aren’t easy to spot. Do you think pickpockets look like the stereotype of “shady characters” who look like a crook?  While that is true for a small portion of the time, most often professional pickpockets go to great strides to blend into the crowd and area so their victims are not aware of them.

Chinese chopstick pickpocket

Chopstick pickpocket goes unnoticed. He places what he steals into his bag, out of view


How to spot a pickpocket

To prove this point, the police in Sterling Heights, Michigan have alerted the public that they should not assume that the sweet old lady in a hat they see standing next to them in the mall is so sweet after all.  She just may be part of an organized crime gang!

Police in an upscale Detroit suburb say an all-female criminal ring, made up of middle-aged and elderly women, is running a sophisticated con in which they allegedly pick the pockets of unsuspecting shoppers and use the stolen credit cards elsewhere.  The group which police nicknamed the “Mad Hatters,” is a pickpocket ring is made up of at least six women who frequently wear hats to disguise their identities and have allegedly swiped more than $500,000 in the past year and a half, authorities say.  One bank alone estimated it had lost at least $200,000 at the hands of the hatters. Travelers should be very aware that pickpockets come in all shapes, ages, colors, and ages.

Here are a few tips to help spot a pickpocket before they strike

Watch out for people that make a scene

People who make a scene within a crowd are often regular people. They may be a bit disturbed, frustrated, or clumsy like dropping their groceries but they typically have no agenda. However, some of them are just aiming to create confusion among a group of unsuspecting onlookers particularly if they are trying to engage others in their drama, and their accomplices are just there waiting on the sidelines for you to be distracted by the commotion so that they can then pick your pocket. Some pickpocket teams have children cause a scene or approach tourists asking for money.

Be aware of those that try to get close to you

Getting close to people is unavoidable, especially in crowded areas. This can be even natural in a culture with less personal space or in locations popular with tourists. However, if you find someone crowding your personal space incessantly and you feel uncomfortable, then he or she may be a pickpocket, and it would be wise to go to an area less crowded and with more open space if possible move towards someone who is a person of authority like a police officer or security guard.

Keep an eye out for people trying to make a conversation

In this setup, someone may stop you while walking on a crowded street, in the subway, or in other tourist locations with people around to ask you something. They may ask about road directions, show you a map, or ask if you have seen a certain person. There is a strong chance that they are part of a pickpocket team trying to divert your attention so that their partners can take advantage of your momentary diverted focus. The advice in this scenario is not to stop and look at a map and just keep going. Being rude beats losing your wallet.

Be cautious of anyone trying to blend in

The main weapon of a pickpocket is his or her ability to blend in with a crowd. Still, you can probably observe people who are trying too hard to join the crowd for the purpose of stealing from them. Be wary of everyone when in a crowded area, and don’t trust anyone simply because they are a child, old, infirm, or even pregnant. Hold your backpack or purse in front of you or crossbody style.

For peace of mind carry your valuables in a neck wallet you tuck under your shirt or a money belt you wear around your waist under your shirt. Today’s options of money belts and body pouches are slim, smooth, and soft. See some of the latest styles here.


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