How prevalent is pickpocketing? How many thefts occur in one day in New York, or Rome, or St. Petersburg, Russia? Or at the Rose Bowl Parade, or the World Cup? How many thefts are actually reported? Raise your hand if you think you lost your wallet or phone.
If your wallet is suddenly just—gone!—does your pride make you say that you must have lost it (because no one could steal from me!)? Or does your vanity tell you that it must have been stolen (because I never lose things!)? Is it your nature to accept responsibility or assign blame? On which list should your missing wallet be placed? Lost or stolen?
Pickpockets are an enigmatic breed. Most are never seen or felt by their victims—or anyone else. Mystery men and women (and boys and girls) moving freely among us, they’re as good as invisible. So how can they be quantified?
How many thefts does each commit in a day? How many attempts that fail? How many successes that must be reversed, by handing back the loot or dropping it on the ground when accused?
What exactly is pickpocketing, anyway?
…Fingers stealthily extract a wallet from a man’s pocket.
…They reach into a woman’s purse for hers.
…It’s demanded “for examination” by a pseudo-cop.
…They take only cash from a wallet.
…A watch is ripped off your wrist.
…A phone is lifted from a restaurant table, right under your nose.
…A woman’s purse is taken from under her chair at a cafe.
…It’s snatched from her shoulder on the street.
…It’s slit with a razor in broad daylight.
…A gold chain is yanked from your neck.
…A backpack is taken from an airport luggage cart.
…A briefcase from the ground at your feet.
…Cash or jewelry is taken from your bag in the airplane overhead bin.
Do all of these count? How do police reports define them? Larceny? Robbery? Lost property? Do the police reports further break them down into pickpocketing verses bag snatching verses mugging?
I’m often asked for actual statistics. Occasionally, I half-heartedly go looking for some. I’ve learned that this ambiguous crime is not uniformly classified and, of course, not uniformly reported at all.
Pickpocketing is a phantom crime. In many cases, only the perp knows the deed was done. There are no witnesses or evidence; no dead body or weapon—just the lack of some personal property which—you know—could have been misplaced.
To most police except the passionate few, pickpocketing is “petty;” too insignificant for them to take seriously. It’s more paperwork than they want to bother with, especially at the end of their shifts. They throw up their hands. They blow air. And now, it seems, they “downgrade” police reports, chalking up reported thefts to lost-property.
The news is scandalous over at New York’s JFK Airport, where the Port Authority Police Department is allegedly fudging reports:
When laptops and suitcases are reported stolen by travelers, officers are routinely ordered to downgrade the incidents from thefts to merely lost luggage—to keep the airport’s crime stats down and their bosses looking good, sources told the Post.
High theft numbers make people feel unsafe and make the police departments look bad. City administrators want to seem as if they’ve cleaned up crime. But high numbers also help get budget increases for additional personnel. Numbers can be tweaked to fit the day’s whim. It’s all political and arbitrary and very fuzzy.
The New York Post reporter describes the police report filed by a pickpocketing victim:
Kaya Tileu, 26, a resident of the Upper East Side who works on Wall Street, filed a theft report Feb. 22 alleging that his $200 wallet, $300 in cash and credit cards were swiped from inside a JFK McDonald’s.
The original paperwork listed Tileu as a grand-larceny victim. But a Post-it note attached to his police report advised the cop who filed it, “This is a lost property.—Capt.”
Police aren’t counting reported thefts? I didn’t even consider this possibility when I extrapolated the numbers for Barcelona and came up with a whopping “6,000 thefts per day on Barcelona visitors.” I took the police at their word when they reported 115,055 pickpocketings and bag snatches in a recent 12-month period. I started with that number—I didn’t say but wait, let’s increase it to include the victim reports they’re not counting…
In my book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams, I wrote of the impossibility of compiling pickpocket statistics:
Of those reported, most, according to a New York cop on the pickpocket detail who wishes to remain unnamed, fall into the “lost property” category. “They don’t even realize they’ve been pickpocketed,” he said. “They think they just lost it.” Incidents reported as thefts are lumped under one of several legal descriptions. Larceny is the unlawful taking of property from the possession of a person, and includes pickpocketing, purse-snatching, shoplifting, bike theft, and theft from cars. Robbery is the same but involves the use or threat of force. The theft of a purse or wallet, therefore, may fall into either of these categories, and usually cannot be extracted for statistical purposes. Similarly, the figures collected under larceny or robbery include offenses this book does not specifically address; shoplifting, for example.
For many reasons, victims don’t always report thefts. Hotels and theme parks and other venues actively discourage them from filing police reports, and incident rates are suppressed. It’s bad publicity for Paradise. Pickpocketry may be a dirty little secret, but Bob and I know that this petty theft, collectively, is huge.
So give it to me already: Pickpocket Statistics
Yeah. Sorry. Here’s my big conclusion: Catch-22. As long as pickpocketry is considered petty, no one will bother collecting data. And as long as there are no large numbers, the crime will continue to be considered petty. Petty crime—who cares? Even actually reported incidents, which we know are only some fraction of a larger number, will continue to be lumped into disparate broad legal categories, unextractable. Who will expend resources on an element that can’t be counted, a scourge that can’t be seen? Like a virus, pickpockets will continue to lurk invisibly, impossible to eradicate, wreaking their havoc.