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Pickpockets, their victims, and the transit police.

Pickpockets have pursued their trade almost as long as people have carried money. Many pickpockets begin their careers at a young age and, after many years of experience, acquire the patience, dexterity, and knowledge of human behavior to become successful criminals.


Pocket-picking is most common in places where large groups of people gather. Transportation facilities, such as bus terminals and railroad stations, are favorite hunting grounds for pickpockets, but a department store, public arena, or city street also can supply enough potential victims. (1) Several factors inherent in public areas increase opportunities for a pickpocket to commit a theft, while other variables reduce the risk that the pickpocket will be caught, prosecuted, and penalized in a manner consistent with the seriousness of the crime.

Victim Profile

The author's research revealed that females became pickpocket victims more often than males. Most victims were approximately 30 years old and used the railroad as a means of transportation. The most likely places for a theft to occur were on station escalators and platforms and on trains near the doors of the car. Because a transportation facility is a public accommodation, everyone has almost unrestricted access to the common areas of the terminal. Thousands of people pass through these areas each day, and holiday travel dramatically increases customer volume. Pickpockets spend hours in terminals watching the crowds and searching for potential targets. Research did not find significant correlation between a victim's race and victimization.

Pickpocket incidents occurred most often during peak shopping times, which usually occurred outside the station, or during evening rush hours. These victims often reported the theft to railroad police officers because of a highly visible substation in the main concourse of the terminal. After people reported a pickpocket crime, preliminary interviews revealed that most victims had their wallets exposed during the 30 minutes prior to the theft. Then, they put their wallets back in their bags, purses, or knapsacks on top of other items, making the wallets easily accessible once the pickpocket opened the bag. Closing devices, such as snaps, buckles, zippers, or velcro, proved minor obstacles for the professional pickpocket.


Victims often unintentionally placed bags in an exposed position on their person, and most victims carried the bag over one shoulder. The pickpocket surveilled the victims and waited for their bags to slip into a vulnerable position to the rear of the victims, instead of at a more secure place under their arms or toward the front of their bodies. A wallet placed in an outer compartment of a knapsack and worn over the shoulders presents an easy target for even the novice pickpocket.

Incidents increased during cold weather and around holidays. In cold weather, both the pickpocket and the victim wear more clothing, which may facilitate the pickpocket's ability to commit the crime. The extra layers reduce the victim's sense of bodily awareness and provide pickpockets with added cover by shielding movements during the commission of the crime or providing a place to hide the stolen property if they get caught. Additionally, pickpockets simply may shed an outer layer of clothing for one of a different color that they are wearing underneath, thereby confusing identification by the victims and in broadcasts to other patrol officers. Pickpockets also use this tactic in warm weather; the outer garment either can be discarded or hidden in a plastic bag carried by the offender.

The most significant factor in the victim profile possibly may be psychological. A crowded terminal creates a distracting environment. People are packed together in cramped waiting areas listening for public announcements, watching a departure, carrying packages, or talking on a cellular telephone. The station's environment creates a sensory overload. Further, the victims, conditioned by the rush hour atmosphere of the station, are accustomed to the close physical proximity of other people. Those who use mass transit expect to be bumped and jostled. The victim also expects to have even less personal space when descending the escalators and riding the train, focusing more on boarding the train and finding a seat than being concerned with others.

Pickpocket Profile

Research revealed that most pickpockets are male. The pickpockets' patterns of behavior quickly became evident during rush hours, which started around 4:30 p.m. and ended at approximately 8 p.m. The first victims usually began making their reports after 6 p.m. Typically, pickpockets bumped into their victims just as the victim stepped onto a crowded train. This usually happened a few seconds before the scheduled departure time for the train so that the pickpocket who bumped the victim simply could step off the train and let the doors close. Victims frequently realized that their wallets were stolen, but they were unable to exit the train. Instead, they had to travel to the next station before they could get off to make a report.

Most of the train rides lasted only about 18 minutes, but, during this period, the pickpocket had time to charge hundreds of dollars worth of unauthorized purchases using the victim's credit cards. Frequently, suspects used the cards within the first 5 minutes, most often to make purchases either in the station or at nearby department stores. Automatic teller machine cards regularly were compromised because victims either had the personal identification number (PIN) code in their wallets or had a PIN that the pickpocket easily could determine.

Consequences of the Crime

Connecting the pickpocket suspects to the crime may present problems with the prosecution of these cases. Victims may have been unaware that someone had stolen their wallets; therefore, they could not identify the pickpocket. Alternatively, pickpockets apprehended by police already may have passed the victim's property to an accomplice and not have possession of it anymore. Further, when confronted, pickpockets often tried to convince the victims that they were making false accusations.

Prosecution sometimes is not feasible because the victim lives too far away and the loss is relatively minor. Many years ago, crimes committed by pickpockets involved a pecuniary motive that came and went with the initial act of theft. Once the money was spent and the credit cards were "maxed out," the pickpocket moved to a new victim. Now, however, many businesses and other institutions use personal information to identify clients, customers, and students; the information itself has real value. The profits realized by the pickpocket and the potential for harm to the victim increases exponentially if the victim's personal identifying information is used to commit identity theft. (2) The New York City Police Department's grand larceny task force has worked with the district attorneys' offices in New York to familiarize prosecutors with the most active pickpockets and to coordinate prosecution resources. They hope to obtain longer sentences for recidivist offenders to keep them out of circulation for as long as possible. Permitting a pickpocket to plead to a reduced charge or to receive the minimum term on a felony conviction decreases the punishment to merely a cost of doing business.

Law Enforcement Response

Officers should learn how to recognize regular pickpocket suspects and observe actions indicative of pickpocket activity by unknown offenders. For example, has the suspect loitered in the station long enough to have missed several trains? Has the suspect moved to various platforms or trains without an apparent intent to travel? Officers should note times and locations when tracking a suspect's movements. Some offenders will arrive in groups, separate, and pretend not to know one another. Officers should note the suspects' attire (e.g., layers of different colors of clothing) and if they are carrying items that they can use to conceal their hands, such as garment bags, portfolio cases, or rain coats. Officers should watch people who repeatedly bump up against others or those who use a ruse, such as assisting a passenger with luggage, to get close to a potential victim's wallet or purse. Some states have laws that make it an offense for people to put their hands in unnecessarily close proximity to a person's wallet or purse while in public areas.

Plainclothes officers assigned to pickpocket details will develop the investigative expertise needed to make an arrest and recover the victim's property. Detectives should share the results of long-term investigations through the dissemination of intelligence information to patrol and plainclothes officers. Officers who encounter known offenders should try to effect an immediate arrest if the offenders are subject to a supervisory order that prevents them from entering the station (e.g., restraining order, condition of parole, or open arrest warrant). Further, officers should take notes during their surveillance; their written observations can prove helpful when prosecuting pickpockets.

Crime analysis also plays an important role by revealing current trends and providing statistical justification for an antipickpocket program. Transit and railroad police agencies working in the same geographical area but for different authorities should communicate with one another on a regular basis to share information and coordinate their enforcement efforts. To protect customers, transit and railroad systems should allow their police departments wide latitude in developing programs to address pocket-picking problems.


Finally, people themselves must remain aware of their environment to avoid becoming a pickpocket victim. Officers can help prevent individuals from becoming a victim by observing and pointing out certain victim behaviors. For example, officers should alert those who do not safeguard their wallets and other valuables. All transit employees should assist people who appear lost or in a vulnerable position that would attract pickpockets. Officers should detail characteristics of pickpocket behavior and techniques to all transit employees, ensuring that they feel comfortable reporting suspicious behavior to the police. Further, law enforcement agencies should provide pamphlets that include tips on personal safety and security at ticket counters, customer service areas, and on trains. When a passenger is victimized, officers should make every effort to quickly mitigate the damage. An officer should stay with the victim until the crisis is contained, giving the victim access to a telephone in a quiet area to make calls to credit card companies. Subsequently, officers should offer to take victims back to their station of origin.


Railroads have been an integral part of America's infrastructure since the 19th century. The environmental, social, and political concerns of the 20th century created an increased demand for new, light-rail, transit, and long-distance trains. Increased demand results in the construction of more terminals, the development of new rail systems, and, therefore, a growing number of customers.

Law enforcement officers must remain aware of pickpocket behaviors and techniques. Many passengers will become victims because they are careless or unaware that people will try to steal their wallets and other valuables. Officers should alert transit employees and passengers to profiles of victims, as well as offenders. Transportation authorities and their police departments assume the responsibility to protect these customers from victimization; they must ensure that they are prepared to face this challenge.


(1) The author gained experience as a criminal investigator with the Amtrak Police Department in Penn Station, New York. He culled information for this article from the careful recording and analysis of data relating to station larcenies and onboard train larcenies, as well as from facts learned during subsequent investigation from May 1999 through May 2000.

(2) For more information on identity theft, see John Pollock and James May, "Authentication Technology: New Levels in the Fight Against Identity Theft and Account Takeover," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2002, 1-4; and Matthew L. Lease and Tod W. Burke, "Identity Theft: A Fast-Growing Crime," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 2000, 8-13.

The author dedicates this article to the memory of Lieutenant James McHugh and Lieutenant John Delougherty, Amtrak Police.
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Author:Young, David
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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