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Learning How To Pickpocket

by on December 4, 2012

Pick Pocketing

All of my training led up to this moment. I chose an unsuspecting victim, waited for the perfect opportunity, unzipped their bag, felt my hand grab a wallet and like a pro, I made a break for it. It was blatant theft and this time I wasn’t the victim.

Learning to pickpocket has been by far my weirdest bucket list item. I am not exactly sure who recommended I put it on my list but in hindsight, I am glad it got there. Like layovers at airports, pickpocketing is one of the uncomfortable truths about travel that can’t be avoided indefinitely. Everyone has their time, I just decided to turn the tables and make me the one in control.

Truth be told, I have been working on this life list item for about a year. It wasn’t the technique that tripped me up, instead it was the ethical dilemma. I have a list that I have publicly made the purpose of my life to complete yet, at the same time I don’t want to steal. How could I possibly do both?

As such, progress was slow with this item.

I broke this mission down like I break down most problems. The first thing I did was look for a mentor. This proved to be particularly difficult for this task as I wanted to learn the craft but I didn’t want to have my wallet stolen :-) Thus, I kept to a listening role.

In multiple cities (Paris, Buenos Aires, Rome and Barcelona) I marked off times to go scout out pickpockets. I intentionally went to areas where people had specifically told me to “watch out for pickpockets” and did exactly that, I watched pickpocketers.

Techniques:

From my studies, I identified three different types of pickpockets:

The Gun

This technique is very straightforward. It has long been established that violence is the fastest way to gain leverage. You may not listen to someone if they politely ask you for some extra change but you sure as hell will listen to someone if they point a gun at you.

Most of the time this technique happens in busy areas (like restaurant districts) where someone will ride up on a scooter or jump out of a truck and pull a gun on an unsuspecting tourist. They then demand their valuables and make a quick break for it.

In my opinion, this is cheap and recklessly dangerous for everyone involved. This was not be the type of pickpocketing I was looking to do.

The Distractor

This is the technique that most people associate with the crime. Most of these involve predetermined scenes where one or multiple thieves will pray on a victim.

IMG_3194In Amsterdam, a common example of this was where someone would stand on a bridge or overpass that looked a pedestrian walkway. When a victim walked by, the thief drops a substance on them that resembles bird droppings.

Embarrassed, the victim looks around confused and upset.

At that exact moment, a single or group of “good samaritans” (all working on the pickpocket team) come and help the person clean up by wiping them and patting them down.

Embarrassed and thankful for the help, the victim unknowingly has their valuables stolen.

The other twist on this is likely more effective. A beautiful girl approaches a male tourist (“Oh are you American? I LOVE American accents!”). While she reaches toward his belt buckle and he imagines his night is about to get a lot better, she or another pickpocketer steals his wallet, laptop and keys without him noticing.

This second method is sort of funny but mostly mean. :-)

My opinion is these techniques are both cruel and detrimental. It makes people fearful of strangers. This was also not my chosen technique.

The Crowd

The third technique that I found involved both the most risk (for the pickpocketer) and the most skill. Most of these attempts take place in highly dense tourist attractions where people are uncharacteristically distracted by something.

IMG_0093A straightforward example of this is the crowd that forms in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. There is a odd human trait that disables comfort zones in crowds.

Imagine you are in an elevator that is occupied by one other person. The normal situation is that you will both stand on opposite sides of the elevator and avoid eye contact. You may make small talk if the silence is overwhelming but it is very unlikely that you will make any physical contact. This situation plays itself out everyday in office buildings around the world.

Now contrast this with the situation where you are in a crowd eager to see something exciting. Be it a concert, a line at DisneyLand or a famous semi-self portrait by some wierdo out of Italy. Suddenly the social norms that applied in the elevator no longer apply. Some dude is touching shoulders with me? No problem, I want to see the painting! Some stranger is pressed up against my butt? Whatever, I want to see the famous smile I have heard so much about!

Humans are strange creators.

Now bring in a magician, a person who has studied body language and the art of sleight of hand. That is a master pickpocket. They can take your shoe laces while you are worried about your watch.

I found one such expert in Barcelona, the unofficial pick-pocketing capital of the world. On one of my ventures to study the craft, I went to Las Ramblas, the most horrible part of Barcelona, and found a pro.

I sat and enjoyed my coffee as the thief attempted to steal from dozens of different tourists. But why would a master thief fail so often? Well, this is what made this teacher so incredibly helpful. Each time he successfully got his prize, a nearby police officer would shake his head in disapproval and the would-be thief returned the belongings to the would-be victim.

I watched as this same process took place perhaps two dozens times. Each time the pickpocketer would masterfully use sleight of hand to grab a ring or wallet and each time the policeman shook his head and the thief returned it. Not once did the officer approach the thief.

Spain is full of things I don’t understand. This situation was only one more on the list.

This was my school. Over and over again I got to observe the methods of the master thief all without any real damage being done. I enjoyed my coffee and took notes.

Game Time

It turns out that the hardest part of learning how to pickpocket is not actually mastering the techniques. Instead, it is getting the guts to actually do it. Throughout my life, it has been pounded into my head that stealing is wrong. Each time I saw an opportunity to cross off this bucket list item, I was greeted by my own version of Jiminy Cricket. Each time, he persuasively talked me out of it.

Over and over again in lines, crowds and at doctors offices I tried to get myself to make the leap for the first time. Over and over again, I failed. My morals won.

Until one day things changed.

I was dressed in my skydiving gear and in-line for a massive rave in downtown Seattle. It was a few days before Halloween and I was waiting to get into Freak Night. I was surrounded by zombies, fairies and far too many Gangnam Style impersonators.

I ended up losing the group of friends I had arrived with and found myself dancing in the crowd.

This was my moment.

I scouted the dance floor looking for my victim. Would it be the girl in the nun costume or the human sized dancing wig? The mostly naked girl or the giant pop-tart box?

I investigated the half naked girl again. She wasn’t a particularly good pickpocketing candidate but I wanted to be sure I covered my bases. :-) Focus Danny.

Then I spotted them. The match was too good to be true.

Dancing like an idiot was a guy dressed up as a tacky tourist. He had an expensive looking camera around his neck, a fanny pack and a Hawaiian shirt. This was too convenient to make excuses. It was as if the teacher in Barcelona decided to plant a subject for me.

I moved forward dancing with the rhythm. Blending in with the crowd, I scouted my goal. He was with a group of friends, two guys who I decided could beat me in a fight and three girls. A group was going to be tough but I was optimistic.

Slowly, I made my way into their group and without actually talking to them, made them comfortable with the idea of me being there. There is a certain amount of unspoken camaraderie that happens at concerts. I used this to my advantage.

Without looking directly at it, I scoped out the fanny pack. It was clear that something was in it but it wasn’t clear what. It was fully zipped starting from the right side and leaning toward his left hip.

All at once, I moved in.

I simultaneously bumped the guy’s hip and touched his shoulder with my left hand. Meanwhile, my right hand (my dominant side) unzipped the fanny pack, grabbed the item inside and fluidly slipped it into my back pocket. I looked at the guy and said “sorry bro!” and continued dancing. He gave me a funny look and I waited for what was surely the longest minute of my life. As my adrenaline rushed, I immediately realized why rich people steal. The experience was scary as hell and riveting.

I eventually scooted to the back of the crowd and reached into my pocket to see what I had scored. I had taken a packed wallet full of cash and credit cards.

I smiled for a second. My life list has put me in some strange situations but this was something entirely new.

I looked around to make sure no one was coming to kill me. Eventually, I decided I was safe and let out a sigh of relief.

The goal of this life list item was never to steal anything. The tricky part was that the item required theft. I took another look around. I had successfully done it.

I walked back to the guy dressed up as a tourist and tapped him on the shoulder again.

He looked at me and I handed him his wallet, saying “Hey bud, you dropped your wallet.”

He gave me a huge appreciative smile, put his wallet back in his fanny pack and fist bumped me.

“Thanks man! You totally rock!”

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How The Hell Do You Afford To Do All of This Stuff? Aren't You Afraid You Are Going To Get Grotesquely Murdered?


Despite the rumors, I am not a drug dealer :-) Instead, I am a storytelling consultant. I do marketing, video production and write code for people (a weird mix I know) in exchange for money. As far as being murdered, there was a close call once but it ended up being a miscommunication with an ex-girlfriend. Check out this page to learn the easy (and non-life threatening) way to add more adventures to your life.


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel K December 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

Is it wrong to say I found this completely inspiring? Your blog always puts the sense of urgency back in my steps. Great story – and congrats on the theft that wasn’t.

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Danny Dover December 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm

lol, there is nothing wrong with that! You rock man, keep it up!

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Dan December 4, 2012 at 10:28 am

Thanks for stealing, nay, returning my wallet!

Great story, I definitely found the part about your “schooling” to be interesting. You can watch a million and one videos on YouTube on how to do anything, but I think seeing something like pickpocketing in person is essential since the social situation can be drastically different with every single attempt.

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Danny Dover December 4, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Yeah, sorry about that…

The schooling part was very interesting for me too. I’d love to get as good as the guy who (inadvertently) taught me. Ignoring the money aspect,, think of all of the funny ways you could prank people :-p

Cheers bud!

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Jorge Cordova December 4, 2012 at 10:31 am

Dover,

I was waiting for the part of the article where you decide to trade in your Online Marketing life for one of International Crime. Found myself laughing with the line: “I was dressed in my skydiving gear and in-line for a massive rave in downtown Seattle. It was a few days before Halloween and I was waiting to get into Freak Night. I was surrounded by zombies, fairies and far too many Gangnam Style impersonators.”

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Danny Dover December 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Perhaps I already have? A pursuer of the art of International Crime wouldn’t mention it in a blog post. But they may allude to it in a blog comment… :-p

Cheers Jorge!

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Dad December 4, 2012 at 11:26 am

Danny’s dad officially does not condone this “life list” activity. But I enjoyed the story. Now move on to the next item on your list.

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Danny Dover December 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Don’t tell mom… :-)

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Chris Knight December 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

This is pretty great and the fact that you had to unzip the fanny pack is impressive. Your bucket list is fascinating because of the corky things on it like this. Keep it up!

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Danny Dover December 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I am continuing the trend with the next one… Antarctica. :-) More info to come in the next post.

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Craig Addyman December 5, 2012 at 1:01 am

So awesome mwuahahaha

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Shaad December 5, 2012 at 1:07 am

You stole, and you lied to the poor bloke? :-(

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AJ Wilcox December 5, 2012 at 8:55 am

Thanks for sharing your experience! I have no desire to pickpocket or anything else which could incur the wrath of a crowd of friends with fists, but I certainly appreciate you teaching us what to beware of as we travel. Is picking locks on your bucket list?

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Danny Dover December 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Not officially but I did learn one summer at Burning Man. I am by no means an expert though. Is this a secret talent that you possess?

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Matt September 10, 2013 at 4:35 pm

This was incredibly inspiring. This ended just the way I had hoped- the way I would have ended it. I want to learn to be a pickpocket, but have no intention of stealing cards or cash for myself. You’re awesome, man. Basically, thank you.

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Emma's Bucket List December 10, 2012 at 1:24 am

Naples is another notorious place apparently. Thankfully I’ve not been a victim of this to date. Not sure I’d have the guts for this one.

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Judith Waite Allee December 16, 2012 at 10:56 am

This is a behind-the-eyes illustration of why criminals are addicted to crime, even when, logically, the risk may far exceed any gain. The adrenalin-roller-coaster-roulette rush that goes with the risk is addictive. Just a thought, but people who do actual good in the world can experience that risk-rush–firefighters, police, social workers, ambulance drivers, foster parents of troubled teens, Red Cross volunteers, etc.

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Donnie July 29, 2013 at 7:13 pm

social workers? foster parents of troubled teens? lol..

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Kellee December 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Danny! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! So glad to hear your are living life to the fullest :). It’s so encouraging to hear about happy people you know? My little brother (now 19) read this too and now thinks you’re “the man”! I feel like a movie should be made about this someday. What an awesome concept!

-Kellee Captain

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Andrew Smirnov January 10, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Danny, I don’t read your posts often but when I do it brings a smile to my face. This was a fantastic read.

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sean March 21, 2013 at 6:09 am

mate, thats proper good that bit with the bird chatting the bloke up then robbing him made me laugh, some bostin tips there may try some on my mates, cheers mate for tips,

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Tim March 21, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I would have taken the cash and snuck the wallet back in

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augustvermeylenlaan.be June 7, 2013 at 8:23 am

Hello, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this post. It was funny. Keep on posting!

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josh June 20, 2013 at 11:32 pm

My problem is trying to do it like swiftly with noone noticing i find myself
to be fairly good unless its a wallet because of bulk they feel it sliding out but if its just a bill then I’m good how can i get the bulk and not be noticed

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Tony July 5, 2013 at 8:03 pm

HAHA don’t tell mom :p that’s hilarious.

I know you probably aren’t responding to posts on this anymore, but thanks for the inspiration! I plan to be a pickpocket magician soon

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Gray Fox July 25, 2013 at 7:17 pm

To become good in this line off work you have to master Lock picking,stealth moving trough shadows,also think off learning martial arts,pickpocketing skills,Illusions how to cloud ones mind,hacking trough computers and security main frames.And for your final set off skills safe cracking,using fake id’s.passport and disguises.When your name carries weight around the globe and everyone knows your name that is true mastery.In my opinion it’s not enough to master just one set off skills but several sets to become a true legend among thieves.A master thief must be a ghost,master off shadows,Chameleon an Expert in everything only then you can call yourself a Master Thief.To achieve this you must find Specialists in all sets off skills so make sure you are learning from the best.But still congratulations :) you’ve deserved a pat on your back after such a great description off your crime so Cheers mate.

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Danny Dover July 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Diversifying sounds like a really good idea. I guess I need more life lists! Don’t know if a master thief would want his or her name known globally but I think I know what you mean.

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Spyros September 1, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I would tell the guy that I just stole his wallet, then hand it back to him. The shock would surely make him more cautious. You were not a ‘real’ thief, but I’m not sure about the next guy approaching him ;)

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Cody September 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm

How have you managed to find the time and money to have done so many amazing things, I’d be ecstatic to do half the things on your list.

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Dylan O'Sullivan September 9, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I agree I found this inspiring :) DUDE pls email me if u think I should do this

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Amr December 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm

The thing I find most interesting is how you can make somebody’s day with that. I bet the guy was so grateful some random stranger helped. So you could really be helping people by making them grateful that what could’ve happened didn’t.

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OliJ167 March 13, 2014 at 5:20 am

Do you still have your notes? And if you do would you be willing to share them with us for I am also trying to cross this off my bucket list but I don’t have the money to travel for experience.

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