To catch a thief

By David Potts

The professor of pickpocketry shares advice on how to keep your personal property safe on holiday, writes David Potts.

When sightseeing, carry your cash in a secure pouch to deter pickpockets. Photo / Thinkstock
When sightseeing, carry your cash in a secure pouch to deter pickpockets. Photo / Thinkstock

It was over in the blink of two eyes; my wallet picked from my back pocket; my wife's purse stolen from her backpack.

I was standing in line to board a bus outside the Prado museum in Madrid on my first day in the Spanish capital after a long, tiring flight from Australia.

I wasn't thinking. I know not to put my wallet in such a vulnerable place.

A well-dressed man in line behind me bumped into me. I glared at him and said something like: "There'll be room for all of us on the bus."

Then I went to pay my fare; wallet gone.

Embarrassing scene No2 occurs in the bookshop at the Vatican in Rome. My wife is looking at a book, her backpack slung across her back. A well-dressed woman slips her hand into the pack and picks out my wife's purse.

It's not only the inconvenience such incidents create - reporting to police, contacting credit card suppliers, bank and so on. It's also the invasion of one's privacy.

And, of course, the sense of 'How stupid was I?'"

Unfortunately, too many travellers can relate to these experiences. Professional thievery is on the rise worldwide with tourists the main targets.

Bob Arno is an expert on picking pockets and has written a book on the subject: Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons and Street Scams.

The Swedish son of a court judge was just a child when he became fascinated with such thievery and claims to be the world's only legal pickpocket.

But it was while he was a war photographer in Vietnam that he first encountered pickpockets, whose main targets were American servicemen on leave.

His exposes caught the attention of the US military which asked him to give lectures on the subject and his presentations were so well-received he turned them into a show business act.

Arno has also infiltrated pickpocketing groups in different parts of the world to learn their secrets, and probably knows more than the many hundreds of thousands of professional pickpockets operating around the world.

As an expert, Arno now travels seven months of each year with his wife Bambi from their home in Phoenix, Arizona, and his lecture show has been seen by millions all over the world.

He also works as a security consultant worldwide to business travellers, law enforcement agencies and corporations on how to combat street crime.

"I live to expose the latest tricks of scoundrels. If you want my title, it's 'Professor of Pickpocketry'."

He films pickpockets and other street thieves who prey on unsuspecting tourists.

I track down the Professor to get the gen on the con men - Who are these elusive scum? What do they look like? How do we find them? What advice has he to give to travellers, especially?

"Use common sense to protect your belongings," says Arno.

"Knowledge is your best defence. Unsuspecting tourists can be easy prey for thieves. The best and safest way to carry your valuables is in a small pouch worn beneath your clothing - a pouch which hangs from your belt and inside your pants."

Prepare before you leave home by making photocopies of all travel documents, including tickets, passports and itineraries, phone numbers of your credit card companies, your insurer and other important phone numbers.

"It's a good idea to scan these documents and email them to yourself," Arno says. Carry three credit cards, each on different bank accounts, and ensure you always leave one with your valuables in the hotel safe.

Speaking of hotels, make sure your room number is not on the key or the card. If you lose either, a thief is given your hotel address.

As for luggage, Arno prefers lockable, hard bags, preferably aluminium.

Attach two labels giving your name, country and email address - but not your home address which can be used to alert a thief that you're away. Put a third label inside your bag.

Airport security checkpoints can be a danger. Don't put your valuables on the conveyor belt until you are certain you can walk through the metal detector without delay, he said.

If someone cuts in front of you, beware. A common criminal strategy is to separate you quickly from your belongings which then appear on the other side of the x-ray for the thief to collect and walk away with. Phones and laptops are commonly stolen this way.

Pickpockets operate wherever there are crowds and where they can blend in and could be gangs of children, a well-dressed man, young girls or a pregnant woman.

To shield their activities, they may also carry something to hide their hands, such as a piece of clothing, a sheet of paper, a map, a flattened paper bag - even a baby.

A woman may have a child at heel who is part of the ruse, quickly taking whatever the woman snatches, while travellers who fall asleep on a late-night train or women who sling their bags on the back of a cafe chair are perfect marks.

Other crafty pickpockets create a diversion to distract you, including the "mustard" or "icecream" trick in which the thief appears to helpfully offer to wipe you down after something, usually dropped by the thief, has been spilled on you, allowing him to dip into your pocket.

Other scams can occur on the escalators, when a person in front of you drops something just as the escalator ends, causing a pile-up which provides a good opportunity for a pickpocket.

Common sense tells you not to attract attention to yourself by dressing flashily and wearing expensive jewellery, while women are encouraged to carry their bags diagonally across the front of their body.

Arno also warns of "breakfast thieves" who specialise in stealing laptops in hotel restaurants while their owners are filling their plates at the breakfast buffet.

It's a lot to keep in mind, admits Arno, but a little commonsense and planning can make sure the holiday travel doesn't end in a disaster.


For more information on how to travel safely, see Bob Arno's website:

His book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons and Street Scams, is available from


Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 25 Apr 2017 08:20:11 Processing Time: 854ms