Whatever Happened To Pickpocketing?

Pickpocketing in America was once a proud criminal tradition, rich with drama, celebrated in the culture, singular enough that its practitioners developed a whole lexicon to describe its intricacies. Those days appear to be over.

“Pickpocketing is more or less dead in this country,” says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose new book Triumph of the City, deals at length with urban crime trends.

Marcus Felson, a criminologist at Texas State University who has spent decades studying low-level crime, calls pickpocketing a “lost art.” Last year, a New York City subway detective told the Daily News that the only pickpockets left working the trains anymore were middle-aged or older, and even those are few and far between.

“You don’t find young picks anymore,” the cop told the paper. “It’s going to die out.”

A transit detective in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which operates the Boston area’s bus, commuter rail, and subway system, concurred via e-mail. “Pickpockets are a dying breed,” he wrote. “The only known pickpockets we encounter are older, middle-aged men; however, they are rarely seen on the system anymore.”

The decline of dipping on the rails is extraordinary. Subways were always the happiest hunting grounds for pickpockets, who would work alone or in teams. There were classic skilled canons—organized pickpocket gangs—at the top, targeting wealthier riders, then “bag workers” who went for purses, and “lush workers” who disreputably targeted unconscious drunks. Richard Sinnott, who worked as a New York City transit cop in the 1970s and ’80s, also admiringly recalls “fob workers,” a subspecies of pickpocket who worked their way through train cars using just their index and middle fingers to extract coins and pieces of paper money—a quarter here, a buck there—from riders’ pockets.

“They weren’t greedy, and they never got caught,” says Sinnott. Bit by bit, fob workers could make up to $400 on a single subway trip; then they’d go to Florida in the winter to work the racetracks. Many of the city’s pickpockets trained elsewhere, “and if they were any good, they came to New York,” Sinnot says, with a touch of pride. “In the subways, we had the best there were.”

Pickpocketing remained fairly rampant for years. Glenn Cunningham, who was part of an elite NYPD anti-pickpocketing task force in the 1980s and ’90s (he currently handles security for Robert De Niro’s hotel and film festival), says that pickpocketing in spots like Times Square was “out of control” at that time. “I made tons of arrests with those guys. We were like cowboys.”

That was then.

In a 2001 story, the New York Times reported that there were 23,068 reported pickpocketing incidents in the city in 1990, amounting to nearly $10 million in losses. Five years later, the number of reported incidents had fallen by half, and by the turn of the millennium, there were less than 5,000. Today, the NYPD doesn’t even maintain individual numbers on pickpocketing.

“It’s hardly a problem anymore,” says a department spokesperson. The FBI’s definition of the crime is more inclusive than what we would consider a classic pick—the bureau defines it as “the theft of articles from a person by stealth where the victim usually does not become immediately aware of the theft,” according to a spokesman—but even broadly defined, that category of larceny-theft has been falling sharply for years.

Experts offer a few explanations for the gradual disappearance of pickpockets in the United States. Crime nationwide—from pickpocketing to homicide—has been dropping since the mid-1990s. People carry less cash today, and thanks to enhanced security features, it’s harder for thieves to use stolen credit or debit cards than it was in the past. And perhaps most important, the centuries-old apprenticeship system underpinning organized pickpocketing has been disrupted.

Pickpocketing has always perpetuated itself by having older hooks—nicknamed “Fagins,” after the crime boss in Oliver Twist—teach younger ones the art, and then absorbing them into canons. But due to ratcheted-up law enforcement measures, including heftier sentences (in some states, a pick, defined as theft from the body of another person and charged as a felony regardless of the amount taken) and better surveillance of hot spots and known pickpockets, that system has been dismantled.

This is not the case in Europe, where pickpocketing has been less of a priority for law enforcement and where professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007, developing their organizations and plying their trade in tourist hot spots like Barcelona, Rome, and Prague.

“The good thieves in Europe are generally 22 to 35,” says Bob Arno, a criminologist and consultant who travels the world posing as a victim to stay atop the latest pickpocketing techniques and works with law enforcement agencies to help them battle the crime. “In America they are dying off, or they had been apprehended so many times that it’s easier for law enforcement to track them and catch them.”

Complete article via Slate


2 Responses to “Whatever Happened To Pickpocketing?”

  1. Hi to World Scene Today!

    reading your article, knowing that professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007, developing their organizations and plying their trade in tourist hot spots like Barcelona, Rome, and Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt/Main etc. make problems here especially in Frankfurt Main. I am from the City-Police-Station and we try different things to find new way to save the people from picks!
    The picture above, I would use it for a privention action in a big sign! Do you know, are there any copyrights on this symbol which shows the pickpocketing in the article! thank you for your answer, Uwe Baier


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