Learning How To Pickpocket

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.

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In 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.

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A 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.

Are you looking for more advanced techniques?

If so, check out these advanced training resources:

  1. Mastering the Art of Pickpocketing – The best DVD on the subject
  2. How to Pick Pockets for Fun and Profit – A guide from a magicians perspective.
  3. Techniques of the Professional Pickpocket – A rare Japanese guide in english!

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!”

Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. I use the minimal amount of money made by these type of sales to continue my adventures.

39 comments… add one

  • Joel K Dec 4, 2012

    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.

    • Danny Dover Dec 4, 2012

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

  • Dan Dec 4, 2012

    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.

    • Danny Dover Dec 4, 2012

      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!

  • Jorge Cordova Dec 4, 2012

    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.”

    • Danny Dover Dec 4, 2012

      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!

  • Dad Dec 4, 2012

    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.

  • Chris Knight Dec 4, 2012

    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!

    • Danny Dover Dec 4, 2012

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

  • Craig Addyman Dec 5, 2012

    So awesome mwuahahaha

  • Shaad Dec 5, 2012

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

  • AJ Wilcox Dec 5, 2012

    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?

    • Danny Dover Dec 7, 2012

      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?

      • Matt Sep 10, 2013

        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.

  • Emma's Bucket List Dec 10, 2012

    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.

  • Judith Waite Allee Dec 16, 2012

    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.

    • Donnie Jul 29, 2013

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

  • Kellee Dec 28, 2012

    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

  • Andrew Smirnov Jan 10, 2013

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

  • sean Mar 21, 2013

    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,

  • Tim Mar 21, 2013

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

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

  • josh Jun 20, 2013

    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

  • Tony Jul 5, 2013

    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

  • Gray Fox Jul 25, 2013

    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.

    • Danny Dover Jul 26, 2013

      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.

  • Spyros Sep 1, 2013

    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 ;)

  • Cody Sep 6, 2013

    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.

  • Dylan O'Sullivan Sep 9, 2013

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

  • Amr Dec 11, 2013

    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.

  • OliJ167 Mar 13, 2014

    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.

  • Wonderful blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about
    in this article? I’d really love to be a part of group where I
    can get feedback from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same
    interest. If you have any suggestions, please let
    me know. Thanks!

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  • Rebel101 Aug 18, 2014

    You have got to be kidding me I give people advice and you should stand up for yourself and speak clearly and sometimes you can pickpocket if it’s nessesary right we’ll I am not here to brag but,you can try this for yourself you gotta believe and do it sometimes your weakness is your strength.

  • rebel101 Aug 24, 2014

    What up it is me again and well I just want a patient please I want to help people.PLEASE!!!!!!!!!

  • rebel101 Sep 4, 2014

    Hi and it is about ten o ‘clock and I am watching the middle but I really don’t have nothing to do so apparently I am just blogging this instead pretty much on my report card I am worried about a grade .you know do you feel like your stupid because you did it wrong or your best friend being taken away.trust me that has happen to me before.Apparently I don’t really have a fear but my fear is letting people down because I think it was all my fault.Know what I mean.Well later peace rebel101 OUT!!!!!!!!

  • rebel101 Sep 12, 2014

    Hi and thisis rebel101 and this page is like how to fit in the side and well if you want to be cool and you are gonna have to change yourself that is what people normally say but if you do they won’t get to know the real you no matter if your a freak or a nerd who wears braces and glasses you don’t want to lie to them do you your choice.

  • HK Dec 1, 2014

    I am in South Africa and I would love to learn the trick for amusement.

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