An excellent article at the New Yorker chronicles the career of Apollo Robbins, pickpocket extraordinaire. He is a stage performer specialized in stealing objects from his public and apparently he is so skilled that his act is being studied by psychiatrists and cops.
In fact, professional magicians (in French called “prestidigitateurs”, i.e. fast-moving fingers) and regular pickpockets use similar techniques: the trick is not so much to move fast as to focus the victim’s attention on something else, so that he becomes oblivious as to what is really happening.
It is easier to do that with groups, because our attention is naturally divided. I have seen gypsy women in Rome creating distractions with their kids or their companions in order to steal money from naive tourists. But lone pickpockets have a harder time; they must either be extremely dexterous with their hands or, in the case of scam artists, be extremely convincing in their initial friendly approach.
We tend to be fascinated with pickpockets because of the clear skill involved. Muggers will just point a gun at you: brute force is no fun. But we have to begrudgingly admit that pickpockets and scam artists at least have some kind of talent.
How do they learn their trade? Some mention a mythical “School of The Seven Bells”, supposedly in Colombia, where pickpockets graduate after managing to silently steal from a jacket laced with bells. It is most likely an urban legend, but apparently many police officers believe that the place really exists.
There are pickpockets everywhere, but from a sample of the many cities I visited, I would say that Barcelona is probably in the top ten, not so much because of the amount of criminals (I personally have never been robbed there) as for their originality. Now, I am talking about non-violent thieves. In the US and in Latin America, robberies at gun point are the most common form of taking someone’s money, but in Europe there are less guns and a different dynamic.
Apparently the tradition of pickpocketing in Barcelona goes way back, but an article from El Periodico (in Spanish) described the several criminal gangs currently operating in the city. There are the “moors at the airport”, the “gypsy women with flowers”, the “peruvians with backpacks” and other colourful characters, most of them, not surprisingly, of foreign extraction. (However, the writers of the article seem to have forgotten the “scamming scandinavians” and the “japs in the jeep”, two dangerous groups also operating in the city.)
The most incredible pickpocketing scam that I personally witnessed took place in Prague (another beautiful city which full of such artists). I was in a restaurant with a female friend. The place was quite full and there were no available tables, so they politely asked if they could sit at our table (we were sitting at a large table with plenty of space).
There was nothing suspicious about them: they were a white couple in their mid-fifties, well-dressed and very sympathetic. Soon we were having an agreeable conversation without a care in the world. Until… At one point at the end of the dinner, the woman had some kind of collapse. It was not clear if it was an epileptic seizure or heart attack, she just moved frantically for a few seconds and then remained still with a paralyzed expression on her face. We all panicked, and I went with my friend to call someone at the bar. But when we came back with the waitress, the woman had miraculously recovered. She refused the glass of water that was offered to her and said she was OK. Her husband also seemed pretty calm, as if it was a common occurrence. They hurriedly paid their bill and left the restaurant.
When it was our turn to pay, a few moments later, my friend searched for her wallet in her purse and… Well, as you can imagine, “where is my wallet??” was the next sentence that came out of her mouth.
So, what can I say? Beware of white middle-aged couples, I guess.