Sherman “O. T.” Powell, a retired pickpocket who honed his skills on the streets of New York in the 1980s, claims that at the height of his career he could clear up to $5,000 a month (about $12,000 today, adjusting for inflation). But over the years, his income began to fall. “Around 2000, people started carrying less cash, and I got out of the game,” he told me. By 2010, the New York Daily News reported that year, only 40 “career pickpockets” were left in all of Manhattan, and young thieves were no longer apprenticing with seasoned ones, as had previously been customary. Selling drugs was far more profitable. “You don’t find young picks anymore,” one cop told the News. “It’s going to die out.”
Except it hasn’t. Pickpocketing is now on the rise in many American cities, among them San Francisco (where the rapid-transit system, Muni, reported a spike last year), Chicago (where more than 2,100 pickpocketing reports were filed by transit cops in 2018, a 13 percent increase over 2017), and Indianapolis (headline: “Thieves Pick $2,700 From Man’s Pocket in Kroger Frozen Food Section”).
In Manhattan, where transit larcenies rose 15 percent last year, police blame much of the bump on traveling pickpocket teams from Latin America. The profession used to be dominated by middle-aged men with light fingers and long rap sheets, but these newer players, who describe themselves as “whiz mobs,” tend to be made up of younger men, and depend more on collaboration than on manual dexterity. To this end, they rely on classic ploys like the “sandwich,” wherein they surround a victim on an escalator, with a “stall” positioned in front. When the stall abruptly stops, the pick bumps into the victim from behind, lifts his wallet, and passes it to a partner.
Bob Arno, a security expert who has instructed NATO counterintelligence agencies and SEAL teams on what he calls “distraction theft,” suggests a few reasons for the crime’s persistence. First, although banks’ anti-theft algorithms have made stolen credit cards less lucrative than they once were, debit cards can still yield a tidy profit if a thief plans ahead. Arno says most decent pickpockets know how to “shoulder surf” (peek over a mark’s shoulder at an ATM) or use binoculars to identify a PIN from a distance. Second, people carry more cash than you might think—it remains the most common method of payment in the U.S.
Finally, theft may be getting easier. Smartphones may have overtaken wallets as the most pickpocketed item, and even a disabled iPhone can fetch $200 on the black market (new screens are a particularly desirable part). Arno says that snagging a phone out of a pair of slacks is “a piece of cake.” Phones not in pockets may also be making life easier for thieves, by leaving victims less attentive to both their wallets and their surroundings. “The world provides a multitude of distractions to a brain that evolved to be single-minded,” says Earl Miller, a neuroscience professor at MIT. “Even talking on the phone can use up all of our cognitive capacity, leaving little or no awareness of anything else.”
Multitaskers, in other words, are easy marks. “We have a brain that craves information,” yet we’re immersed in an environment “that provides too much of it,” Miller says. “It’s a pickpocket’s world.”
This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Watch Your Wallet.”