The pickpocket pair was plain as day to us. And we were just as obvious to them: tourists—by definition, filthy rich and fair game.
Romania’s pickpockets are tourists, too. As some of the most traveled of thieves, they’re regularly found plying their ancient trade all across Europe and beyond. They send their earning back to Romania. (Hence their little Romanian shanty towns gone grand.) In our thiefhunting pursuits, Bob Arno and I have met Romanian pickpockets while traveling in Europe top to bottom, east to west, from Sweden to Spain, from England to Estonia, and everywhere in between.
Bob and I had come to Romania to see Romanian pickpockets on their home turf. It didn’t take long. Two minutes in the city, and there they were. We’d planned to visit Bucharest but learned at the last minute that on this long summer holiday weekend Bucharest would be empty. Everyone who possibly could would be at the beach; and following them would be the pickpockets. So we decided to explore Constanta.
The pickpocket pair laid in waiting on the corner of the pedestrian street. We probably spotted and identified each other at the same instant. For my part, it was easy. If I’d just seen the man’s diagonally-worn messenger bag, I’d give him a suspicious look. Noting the sweater he carried, the man was as good as guilty. After all, it was 80 degrees; yet, the sweater was not folded and forgotten. Rather, it was over his arm, then flourished, fiddled with, and finally folded over his messenger bag. A “tool,” for sure.
Yesterday, we’d met with the city’s pickpocket police officer, a man with 32 years’ experience—rare for the pickpocket detail, who usually move on to more interesting policing. The cop, whose identity I need to conceal, described the local pickpocket techniques.
Romanian pickpocket techniques
“Wrestling” is what he calls the first M.O. The pickpocket approaches his mark straight on with a big smile and familiar greeting. “Remember me, Andrei?” He picks a very common name. While locking eyes and insisting that the two know each other, the thief puts his hands on the mark’s shoulders and shakes him roughly. His partner comes from behind and picks the wallet during the commotion. The thief stops abruptly, apologizes, and departs, while the victim is still rattled, wondering if he really did know the friendly stranger.
“Belt-shake” is method number two. The thief compliments the mark’s shoes and/or clothing, and finally his belt. He shakes the belt and, during the distraction, either snags the vic’s wallet or his partner does.
The cop also described the back-to-back cafe-chair steal, and said there’s a lot of theft on buses.
So Bob and I went for a little stroll in this large Romanian coastal city and almost immediately, there we were, face to face with a pair of Romanian pickpockets in Romania.
With almost no English skills at all, the faux-friendly thief began chatting up Bob while his partner tried to head me into a different direction. “Where you from” is a phrase they both used. Bob’s guy claimed to be a tourist from Bulgaria and asked where the casino was. Then he began to compliment Bob’s clothes.
I had started taking pictures right away. Though the partner tried to distract me, I kept an eye on Bob’s encounter. The perp fingered Bob’s pants with an admiring smile. He ran his hand lightly over the fabric. This is called “fanning,” when a pickpocket tries to establish where the valuables are kept.
Bob maintained a smiley, gentle demeanor, hoping the thief would validate his designation by dipping into his pocket or getting his partner to do so. But something spooked them. Perhaps it was my picture-taking, or perhaps one or both of us didn’t play like regular tourists. In any case, my guy said something to Bob’s guy and pulled back, retreating to pace twitchily in the shadow of a building. His colleague continued to persist with Bob for several minutes longer. He slowly grasped that we weren’t playing our expected roles. Finally he too disappeared down a side street.
Upon seeing these photos, our police contact identified the pickpocket right away by name and said he’d just been let out of jail. Take a good look at him. You may see him next in Paris, Rome, or Barcelona.