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This article is about the crime. For the Robert Bresson film, see Pickpocket (film).
Eighteenth-century engraving showing pickpocket George Barrington being apprehended in action.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480. A pickpocket, in cahoots with the conjurer, is shown at far left.

Pickpocketing is a form of larceny that involves the stealing of money or other valuables from the person of a victim without their noticing the theft at the time. It requires considerable dexterity and a knack for misdirection. A thief who works in this manner is known as a pickpocket.

As an occupation[edit]

Pickpockets and other thieves, especially those working in teams, sometimes apply distraction, such as asking a question or bumping into the victim. These distractions sometimes require sleight of hand, speed, misdirection and other types of skills.[1][2]

Pickpocketing can be a dangerous trade, since persons aware of the presence of pickpockets in an area may conceal such items as specially designed mousetraps,[3] rat traps or empty decoy wallets on their person. Since pickpockets usually have no way to gauge the contents of a wallet, save by the style of dress of the victim, they must take what they find.

Pickpockets may be found in any crowded place around the world. However, Barcelona and Rome were recently singled out as being particularly dangerous pickpocket havens.[4][5][6]

As entertainment[edit]

Pickpocketing skills are employed by some magicians as a form of entertainment, either by taking an item from a spectator or by returning it without them knowing they had lost it. James Freedman, also known as "The Man of Steal", created the pickpocket sequences for the 2005 film Oliver Twist directed by Roman Polanski. Time Out magazine wrote that Freedman is "possibly the world's best pickpocket". Professional illusionist David Avadon featured pickpocketing as his trademark act for more than 30 years and promoted himself as "a daring pickpocket with dashing finesse" and "the country's premier exhibition pickpocket, one of the few masters in the world of this underground art.".[7][8] Smith Journal of Australia has described America's Thomas Blacke as one of the top pickpockets in the world.[9]

Famous pickpockets[edit]

Famous fictional pickpockets include The Artful Dodger and Fagin, characters from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Famous true-life historical pickpockets include the Irish prostitute Chicago May, who was profiled in books; Mary Frith, nicknamed Moll Cutpurse; the Gubbins band of highwaymen; and Cutting Ball, a notorious Elizabethan thief. George Barrington's escapades, arrests, and trials, were widely chronicled in the late 18th century London press.


  • Pickpockets may work in groups. The most popular is the crush-and-grab which often occurs at transit stations. a person will be swarmed by several people all trying to get on or off. While they are pushing the person, they pick the unsuspecting victim. Another technique is to grab the purse of someone sitting right by the door and to hop off just as the doors are closing. To avoid being a victim, try to find a seat away from the doors. If you can't sit, back yourself up against one of the sides. Try to minimize access to your pockets and purses or put your own hands in your pockets and feel the items you have before getting on or off.
  • The most frequently used tactic here is the distraction technique. Two or more people will approach you and ask for directions, try to sell you stuff, or just crowd you. While you are occupied with one person, another is picking your pocket. Another technique is to have something thrown or spilled on you, like water or ice cream. Someone will approach you and offer to help clean you up. Another person then picks your pocket while you are distracted.


There are some basic rules of thumb in regards to prevent pickpocketing.

  • Do not carry more than what you're willing to lose. Cash can be replaced but things like credit card, passport and various ID's are a nightmare to ever get back. Even if reported immediately, the likelihood of getting those items back is minimal.
  • Avoid carrying items of sentimental value while travelling.
  • If you do have to carry large sums of cash, pick the largest denominational bills (which can be thinly folded) and hide them in places other than your pocket, your shoes, between your socks.
  • Avoid putting important items in accessory pockets for things like jackets, coats, hoodies. Extra layers are difficult to feel whether a person is touching you or grabbing your stuff.
  • If traveling to a foreign nation, be aware of the tourist destinations with the greatest degree of theft.
  • If you cannot help but visit a tourist destination, create an invisible zone of distance between you and others, never join a dense crowd even for things such as street performers. Perform a 360 degree turn every so often, while this may seem weird to some it gives you a better chance to react to someone approaching you. Move to opposite sides of a venue if faces you recognize over and over, they may be following you.
  • Be aware of people you don't know looking at you, they may see you as a tempting target.
  • Women with purses should carry them tightly under ones arm and slightly in front of you, it's also difficult for purse snatchers to grab it as they would simply snap the handle.
  • Men with wallets, tie a thick rubber band around your wallet. This greatly increases the friction and level of difficulty for a thief to remove the item without your noticing. Use a safety pin to anchor the rubber band to the inside of your pocket.
  • The best way to avoid pickpocketing is to avoid using your visible pockets. Secret pockets imbedded in custom or available clothing can be hidden in bras, shirts, undershirts, belts, jackets, hoodies, and pants all out of sight of the naked eye.
  • Electronic items are the new trend of thefts (cell phones, MP3 Players, expensive cameras, tablet PC's). Create a back up of your cell phones contact information so if it is stolen, you won't lose valuable information. Keep your electronic devices out of sight of others.
  • If you are traveling to a foreign nation, dress as the locals might dress. Wearing expensive clothing advertises you as a person with money.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heap, Simon. "Pickpocketing in Ibadan, 1930–60", Urban History, 24(3), 1997, 324-43.
  2. ^ Heap, Simon. "'Their Days are Spent in Gambling and Loafing, Pimping for Prostitutes, and Picking Pockets': Male Juvenile Delinquents on Lagos Island, Nigeria, 1920s-60s", Journal of Family History, 35(1), 2010, 48-70.
  3. ^ "Comedy". Motion Pictures From The Library of Congress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912. University of California Press. p. 122. "The Rat Trap Pickpocket Detector" 
  4. ^ "Barcelona, pickpocket capital of the world ", The Daily Mail, September 25, 2009
  5. ^ "Italy - #1 for Pickpockets", WorldNomads.com, October 20, 2011
  7. ^ Nelson, Valerie J. (4 September 2009). "David Avadon dies at 60; illusionist specialized in picking pockets". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "The Fastest Pickpocket in the West". David Avadon. 
  9. ^ Smith Journal of Australia, Benjamin Law. V 2, p 29-31, Autumn 2012.

Further reading[edit]

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