Child phone thieves answer questions

13-year-old phone thief
13-year-old phone thief

Florin and his 13-year-old pal emphasize that they are not pickpockets—they are phone thieves. They steal phones from tabletops, not from people. The distinction may be moot if you were the owner of a phone stolen by Florin & Friend.

Even with a monstrous TV camera aimed at them inches away, the boys spoke openly about their work. Florin even donned a fluffy microphone. As the team’s elder at about 20, he was its tongue-tied spokesman, frustrated by foreign language difficulties. He and the kid spoke Romanian, the kid and Bob spoke in rudimentary French.

We found them on La Rambla again, one month after our first conversation with them. Look closely at their photos. Do these children look suspicious? Would you be concerned about their nearness to you? If you don’t recognize the silent languages of thieves, you’d find them disarming.

Message to readers: Do not leave your smartphone on cafe tables, even while you’re sitting right there.

We’d first spotted Florin, the kid, and another youngster outside a cafe in Barcelona in July. Quick on the draw, I caught them on video as they attempted to steal iPhones from cafe tables, right under the noses of the phone-owners. I’ve already described how Florin & Friends steal smartphones. Like magicians, they practice a refined version of the Postcard Trick.

Returning to Barcelona with a German TV crew (from RTL Punkt 12) in August, we found the boys still at large and at work (no surprise). Having watched Bob Arno on YouTube in the interim, they agreed readily to speak on television. They’re at ease on camera, even eager; yet… naive, as if unaware they’ll be broadcast across the land. Florin ignored the camera, while the kid looked right into it like a professional PR rep pitching viable career options. They showed no discomfort; they did not mug for the camera. Pretty much, they ignored it. Question: How could we fail to ask why they admitted to being thieves on TV.

Florin the phone thief
Florin the phone thief

“I am not pickpocket.” Florin stressed that he doesn’t know a thing about pickpocketing, only about stealing phones from tables. We believed him.

Unfolding paper notes from their back pockets, both boys demonstrated a variety of finger techniques for the under-the-cover grip. Unlike most other thieves we’ve interviewed, neither of these was the slightest concerned about demonstrating thievery moves in public. Must be their youth and inexperience. Perhaps they haven’t yet been in jail. Question: why did we fail to ask if they’d ever been arrested or jailed?

The kids were unhurried and, although they did not appear to be nervous, both were childishly fidgety. Florin frequently scrubbed his face with his palms in frustration, partly understanding our questions in English but unable to respond without his pal’s French translations.

The youngster, all pimply and peachfuzz, lifted his shirt to air his flat belly, his hands flittering around his middle. I take this handsome dusky boy with his sweet smile as a Roma; but not Florin. We don’t often see mixed gangs. Question: why didn’t we ask?

Bob Arno: How many phones do you steal in a day?

Florin: Maybe two, three, four. Sometimes five, sometimes none.

BA: Where do you sell them? Do you have a fence?

F: No, I sell directly to buyers.

BA: What do you get for a phone?

F: 100 to 300 euros, depending on the model. Average €200, older ones €100.

BA: How long have you been in Barcelona?

F: Only six months, but I’ve been in Spain for five years.

BA: Do you think you might try working in France or Germany?

F: Not France, because other groups are already in control there. Not Germany, the police there are too tough. We are afraid of the German police. The police here are no problem.

BA: How many people in Barcelona are expert at this method of stealing phones from tables?

F: One thousand. [The two boys concur.]

BA: How many are from Romania?

F: About one hundred who steal, not just phones from tables. Pickpockets, too.

Despite the midsummer heat, the boys hung on each others shoulders. The affectionate child kept a hand on Florin’s shoulder whenever possible, habitually rubbing his own stomach in an unconscious manner, as if petting a puppy.

So many unanswered (unasked) questions! The impromptu interview is rarely perfect. Complicated by a multitude of factors, we’re usually content, if not triumphant, with what we get. We deal with criminals in our line of work: skittish, cagey, angry, fearful—we never know. To enable any conversation at all, we must firstly make our subjects comfortable. There is tension: while they suss us out, while we figure out our best tactic. One wrong move, one wrong question, and the subject walks. Like Zelig, we tailor our temper and pick a posture commensurate with our quarry. Later we regret, then accept our omissions.

Florin & Friend
Florin & Friend

At the end of the long interview and exchange of demonstrations, after handshakes and multilingual goodbyes, the boys crossed into the center of La Rambla. With the camera zooming to follow them from a distance, the young crooks disappeared into the unsuspecting tourist crowd. Our kind of thiefhunting means you catch ’em, and you throw ’em back in.

The TV camera shooting this interview.
The TV camera shooting this interview.

© Copyright 2008-2012 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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