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.