Secrets of a London Pickpocket

BY Beth Williams

The following is an article written by a former European pickpocket.  It gives an interesting perspective into how a professional pickpocket operates.  Take this article with a grain of salt.  Their is no way to verify that the person who wrote the article is in fact a pickpocket, and most people would agree a pickpocket would be hard pressed to talk about his/her exploits in a publiched format.  Either way, the article does provide interesting content – much of which applies to preventing pickpockets.

“Ever had your pocket picked? It’s a crime that’s been around for years.  I should know—for 25 years before I went straight I was a full-time thief, specializing in picking pockets. Where I come from in south-east London that’s an honorable profession. All the “faces” on my estate had long family histories of pickpocketing and they commanded respect. Anyone could steal a car or burgle an old lady’s house, but “dipping” takes training, skill and alertness.

I was eight when my elder sister took me on my first dipping day. She was just 14 months older, but had already learned her trade from two daughters of a notorious crime family. I’d been trailing the three of them round shops for three years and had a good grounding in how to be nimble, appear confident and look out of the corner of my eye while walking purposefully ahead.

In the beginning my sister and I did office blocks. I remember the first, on the Albert Embankment in central London. We waited for a group of adults to walk past security and fell in behind them. As we strode down the corridor we were looking out for empty offices with a jacket or handbag hanging on the back of a door or chair. There was a big demand for stolen checkbooks and check guarantee cards.

I was terrified as I followed my sister into a room, tucked my hand into the inside pocket of a worn corduroy jacket and pulled out a black wallet. I did as I’d been told and shoved it down the front of my trousers. Inside was a checkbook and card, which I fenced to my second sister, older by three years. She in turn fenced it to a man on the estate who gave her £1.50 for each cheque. Out of this she gave me 50p. I remember looking at the money in my hand. It hadn’t been easy and I felt like I’d earned it. For 20 years my sister and I were among the most successful pickpocket teams in London and the south of England. We worked the West End, hotel foyers, airports, shopping centers. There are many misconceptions about my former trade, so here are some tips if you want to protect yourself:

Professional pickpockets do not see victims, only handbags, jewelery and money. Mothers with babies, the elderly, the disabled are all fair game. None of them deserves it, but this is business. Having said that, my preferred target was the lone female, handbag dangling by her side—the right side, to be exact, so if I’m next to her I can reach it discreetly with my right hand across my body. Only about one woman in a thousand carries her bag on the left and I tended to steer clear of them. It’s a bit like operating a left-hand drive car—I could probably do it, but why would I want to try?
Keeping our activities out of sight is vital for pickpockets. If you’re a woman, try putting your bag on your shoulder as normal and look ahead or down at something. You can’t see your bag can you? That’s what makes it so easy.

Most dippers also work with a “staller“, nearly always a woman. She stands next to the victim examining whatever goods are in front of her. The timing is crucial because, as I move in, the staller must casually take a half step closer to the target and move her left hand (the one nearest to the victim) so that her elbow juts out above the handbag—obscuring it from the victim’s view, security cameras or store detectives. Women whose bags are hanging in front of them are tricky for the pickpocket, as there isn’t a blind side where you can come in with any cover. And if you want to make it harder, try using a bag with handles rather than a strap.

My pet hate was the kind of handbag with a clasp on the side and a zip underneath. They take twice as long to do—about five seconds. That’s twice as much time to get caught. Worse still are women who keep their purses in an inside zipped pocket. And a new bag, especially a leather one, is much stiffer, making it harder to open without the owner feeling it.  Toughest of all is the bum bag. It’s almost impossible to dip because it’s worn at the front. I’d recommend one, especially for holidays. As far as men are concerned, one of the best places you can keep a wallet is in your back pocket, particularly if you’re wearing tight trousers. I know it’s behind you and out of sight, but if it’s up against your backside you’ll feel any attempts to move it. Another good place is in the zipped-up inside pocket of a bomber jacket. There’s just no way in, unlike a loose-hanging suit-style jacket. Another good measure is to keep wallets attached to a cord or chain that’s anchored to a belt.

Pickpockets love crowds, right? Not necessarily. Show me a bustling station, a crammed football match or even the hustle of Royal Ascot and I’d walk away. Human beings don’t really like having their personal space invaded. A crowded place is an unsettling place and unsettled people are wary. What a professional pickpocket needs are targets who are relaxed and preoccupied. If I could design the perfect setting to go to work in, it would be a clothing store. The layout has just the right proportions to afford maximum cover for me, and there’s a constant turnover of customers bustling among the racks and shelves, completely distracted as they hold up items, unfold and refold them.

The presence of a uniformed security guard is even better. False reassurance makes a pickpocket’s job so much simpler. During the week, I used to go up and down the country working the supermarkets too. Have you ever noticed how they all begin with a fruit and veg section? I spent so much time in them that on any given day I could have told you the exact cost of any produce. I always tried to “dispossess” my target before she left the veg area so I’d have plenty of time to get to the checkout and use the credit cards before she knew her purse was missing. I don’t know how many times shoppers had everything scanned in, only to open their bags and find they’d been dipped. Of course, there are plenty of amateurish “snatchers” who will hang around packed public places, simply “working the numbers”: the more people passing through, the greater the chance that someone will have a wallet poking out of a coat or open handbag.

The Underground is rich pickings for snatchers—the number of people having their pockets dipped on the Tube doubled last year to 10,000. Be particularly wary when the doors of the train open: everyone is concentrating on squeezing on and, amidst the jostling, it’s child’s play to sucker someone. Women should check that their bags are properly closed and ideally held in front of them or under their arms. Men could do worse than keep a hand on their wallets. I have to admit there were times when I couldn’t resist working the West End’s theatre foyers just before a show. Everyone’s so excited about the play that the last thing on their minds is the whereabouts of valuables, especially when they’re hurrying to find their seats. I could dispossess three or four people during one of these sessions. Restaurants are also fertile ground—diners hang bags or jackets over the back of their seats or, even more rashly, dump handbags out of sight on the floor.

I nearly always got away with it. Sometimes, when I’d had a day of easy pickings and was getting a bit bored, I’d set myself challenges. I remember being in Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, a few years ago. I’d already made about a grand and knew I should be going home. Then I saw a middle-aged, very expensively dressed lady carrying a handbag on her left shoulder. I could see the leather was brand new, but still decided to go for it. I indicated to my sister to get into position. I could tell that she didn’t want to do it, but the dipper always has the final say. I went in.

It’s hard to describe what those few seconds feel like. Imagine it as happening in slow motion. I’m aware of every movement in my body as the adrenalin rushes round me like a steam train. All I can see is the bag, as if looking at it through the sight of a rifle. Everything else is a blur. I can smell the sweetness of the woman’s perfume now and the newness of the leather. The excitement that rolls over me in waves, combined with my fear, is almost unbearable. My right hand is coming up in one continuous movement under my left arm. The woman is running her hands through some silk scarves. Their billowing adds to my own floating sensation. As I pop the stud on the handbag I dampen the click with my thumb, but it’s always much louder on new bags. My hand freezes halfway up the inch gap that has opened under the flap. There is no reaction. To keep my hand flat, I’m now pinching the zip pull between my index and middle fingers. The bag plumps slightly as it is opened and the contents settle into the larger space. Its owner is engrossed in feeling the silk. Then the climax of every dip, when the same two fingers first make contact with the cold weight of the purse.

All good pickpockets strengthen their two working fingers by putting elastic bands round them and opening them like a crab’s claws. You can get them strong enough to lift a brick. With a little roll of the wrist to clear the purse of any obstacles, I ease it out. But there’s a problem. The stiffness of the new leather makes  the purse snag under the zip and I can feel it slipping through my fingers, falling back into the darkness. When it hits the bottom of the bag, it’s like a bomb going off.  Still in slow motion, I vividly see the woman’s jaw drop, a set of teeth marked red with lipstick and her lips pulling back into a strangled scream. My sister has already melted away.

I turn to run, but two store detectives and a security guard have closed all escape routes. I am already calculating my sentence. With a good judge, I reckon two to three years. Having spent nearly half my adult life in prison, you’d think I’d be prepared for anything a court could throw at me. But when I heard the judge say seven years, my legs buckled. It wasn’t just for the Harvey Nichols offense. A load of other jobs I’d skipped bail on had caught up with me. I knew that was it. My life of crime had to be over. I tended not to look at faces when I was out working, perhaps because it personalized things too much. But thanks to the victim-awareness courses I’ve been on, I see the people behind the possessions now. I can never make amends for depriving an old lady of her pension or stopping a single mum putting food on the table. But by writing this I can, perhaps, help others keep their possessions for themselves. ”

Several unique travel security purses are on the market that feature numerious anti-pickpocket prevention features such as security zippers that prevent a pickpocket from sliding their hand into your purse, anti-slashing panels on the bottom and sides of the purse, as well as thin steel cables built into the shoulder strap so they cannot be cut.

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