Pick a pocket or two
||05 March 2002 12:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
It happens in a flash - one moment you've got your cell phone, your wallet or your passport and the next moment it's gone. But one man has made it his mission to study the fast fingers and quick scams of pickpockets around the world.
Bob Arno has made pickpocketing his personal obsession. Armed with hidden cameras and surveillance technology, Bob travels to the world's top tourist destinations to find, follow and film pickpockets and con artists at work.
Bob explains what is happening in one of his video tapes of a pick pocket at work: 'This guy here is a pickpocket. He's going for bags with zippers. He's going to make maybe three, four attempts. It's going to take him half and hour, standing around this crowd before he finally hits the right person. It's just like prey, like an animal on the perimeter, looking, observing, going for the weakest victim...'
He goes on to explain what thieves look for when finding victims: 'One would think that they always look for just the weakness and just the individual they can succeed with, because they would be afraid of a big beefy guy. Strangely enough, that does not hold true. It's the magnet of the money. If they think that you carry cash, and if it's going to be easy to remove...'
The profile of the criminal is as varied as the victim. Bob captured the workings of a notorious Colombian group of female pickpockets operating in New York city.
'It's interesting because of how they take chances ... it's very careful and slow, because she wants to go in where the wallet is ... the group here involves four people ... the speed factor varies from country to country. For example, a Russian pickpocket will never use that same timing - it's much, much quicker. They are territorial, they have a certain section of the street in St Petersburg and Moscow. It's quick, it's instant, it's done. In this case, these people are superbly experienced, they probably travel to many places. They average around $3000 to $4000 a day,' explains Bob.
Bob has done research on crime hotspots around the world, but how would that compare with the local situation? Here the emphasis seems to be on violent crime, like mugging and armed robbery, so would our pickpockets be as sophisticated as those abroad?
We decided to put two local experts to the test to see how they compare with their international counterparts - the one a reformed criminal, the other a practising pickpocket. Our victim is Bob's wife. The one on the right acts as the distraction while the other one goes for the zipper. Note how none of the people walking past notice a thing.
When discussing the set-up, reformed criminal Mondli explained that he started out working as a pickpocket and then gravitated to armed robbery. Bob was amazed at his speed and dexterity. Although the techniques are similar around the world, there are local differences.
Bob describes what he thinks is unique about pickpockets in SA: 'I think one of the things that has amazed me most - when I have conversations with them - is their mindset afterward. I've tried to find out if there's a slight bit of embarrassment, if there is a discomfort, if they feel nervous or if they realise that there's any compassion with the victim. There is zero feeling of that and all they are concerned about is 'Get that cash'. They do not think in any shape about the repercussions of being caught.'
And that blasé attitude persists, despite the constant camera surveillance of streets in Johannesburg city centre.
Since 1998, Johannesburg city centre has been like a macro version of Big Brother, with thousands of people on the streets under constant surveillance. But if there are pickpockets out there, these cameras are going to catch them red-handed.
While we were at Business Against Crime, the operators spotted two pickpockets moving in on a victim and called for police on the ground to move in on the suspects. In this case, the police presence on the street prevented the criminals from succeeding.
John Pemberthy managing director of Business Against Crime, spoke about the effect the surveillance cameras has on crime in the city: 'In the areas where cameras are, our violent crime has dropped by more than 80 percent. What has not happened is that the pick pocketing and diversion thefts are still there.'
But is the presence of such small-time thieves taken seriously? Carte Blanche asked Senior Superintendent Joe Pharasi.
'You have to keep on chasing them, identifying them, removing them from their situation ... you can't (just ignore the problem),' says the superintendent.
But diversion theft and pick pocketing is difficult to stop due to the criminal's speed and skill. Tactics might vary between South Africa and abroad but the basic principles stay the same and pickpockets use various tricks to distract their victim.
Bob describes one of the tactics he has captured on film: 'This guy, in his sixties presumably, has just been squirted with something here a second or two ago. It looks like an oil-based dot, and someone came up and said 'Look, you've got that spot on you' and then they brush it off and as they do that brush, you feel that spot more than the touch somewhere else. So at the same time as they do this, they lift either the wallet or the cash or the credit card.'
In order to infiltrate some of these syndicates, Bob often sets himself up as the victim by posing as a typical tourist.
On one occasion in Naples, Bob allowed himself to be pick pocketed and then persuaded the pickpockets to have some coffee with him. Ignoring the element of danger that was present in this scenario, Bob befriended the group in order to establish how this particular syndicate operates.
'I have to break down the barrier. I'm saying to him that 'I'm a pickpocket just like you'. I'm not telling him I'm doing it in a lecture demonstration,' he says.
After he won their trust, they offered him a substantial amount of money to work for them, but that's not how Bob earns his living. His in-depth research has made him an authority on crime and he uses his unique surveillance footage in his stage shows and shares it with police and security forces around the world.
Most of all, Bob warns against romanticising these thieves for their aptitude.
'Whenever you come across someone in the top 10% of the skills sector, you do admire that skill. The consequences of this man is far worse, because this guy succeeds over and over and when you look at the victim - the devastated reaction, how many years they will remember the incident - one should never ever, ever forget what the consequences are,' he says.
We're left with the question - are pickpockets really a threat to society amid the violent life-threatening crimes in this country. Should we just ignore them and concentrate on the serious problems?
Bob thinks we shouldn't ignore them: 'It is as important to go after these guys as it is to go after the others. Why? Not because the crime is less or more, but because those individuals you do not change them. Once they're in that circle of crime, you can be practically guaranteed that five years later they are still in that, they have not changed. Can you predict whether it's still pick pocketing or armed robbery? Go after them seriously and think of programmes to either incarcerate them or put them in social programmes to help them out.'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.