Smartphone theft is out of control. Phones are flying off cafe tables right under the noses of their owners. The thieves are nonchalant and diabolical, and I’m going to show you how the steal is done. The perps we just filmed practiced a refined version of the pickpocket’s postcard trick. For cover, they used just a flimsy sheet of paper with an illegible scrawl on it—and they did it one-handed.
Bob and I had paused for coffee at a Barcelona cafe. We had just left the Norwegian victims at the police station, along with all the other stolen-iPhone and other smartphone theft victims who wouldn’t be allowed to file a police report. Revived, we paid and got up to leave.
Bob immediately spotted three boys hovering on the perimeter of the cafe. They did not have any pickpocket’s “tools,” like a jacket, cardboard sheet, newspaper, messenger bag, or even a hat. It’s hard to say what made us suspect these boys out of the hundreds of people in the vicinity. We had not been observing them. We simply saw them as suspects immediately. Just experience, I guess.
Bob spotted them and said “my nine o’clock.” I looked to his left just as they sprang into action. I got my video running in the nick of time. Two of the boys headed for the cafe, each extracting a sheet of paper from under their shirts as they walked. I focused on one of the boys and got right behind him, camera extended blatantly.
He walked up to a table where a tourist couple was relaxing with drinks and, with his left hand only, held his piece of paper over the iPhone sitting in front of them. I could see his fingers under the paper trying to grasp the phone. So did the smartphone theft almost-victim—or rather, he noticed the phone move a bit. He heard it, too, as one end was briefly lifted and slipped back onto the table. He reached for it. The young pickpocket, unperturbed, moved to another table as if to try again, but then reversed and left the cafe.
How is it possible to hold a piece of paper with one hand and sneakily snag a phone (or a wallet) with the same hand? We didn’t get it until we watched our video later.
The video also showed that the oldest boy, about 20 with unshaven peach fuzz, had sent in the two youngsters, who worked on adjacent tables almost simultaneously. Both failed in this instance.
The boys left the cafe and rejoined their friend. As they sauntered away, we were right there with them, demanding they speak with us. In a combination of French and English, they told us they’re Romanian. The two younger boys, pimply and beardless, were 14-16. The youngest-looking claimed to be 15. The oldest of the three, clearly the “controller” of the gang, was pierced and tattooed, the inside of his left wrist proclaiming “Born to kill.”
Surprisingly, the killer provided his email address and posed for a photo with the youngster. The other boy backed away from the pose.
We left the three boys and went back to the cafe. The smartphone theft almost-victims were still there, still relaxed, as if they were almost ripped off every day. Bob and I introduced ourselves and asked them what they’d seen. They had focused on the note, “something about money and eat,” the Belgian man said, “and he kept pointing to the word gracias.”
Aha! The almost-victims had seen something subtle which we couldn’t see from behind—a gesture so casually performed they hadn’t thought anything of it. What they described was a trick worthy of a world-class magician. Masterful misdirection.
Bob and I are impressed by the devilish simplicity of the one-handed technique. Although we watched the boys fail, with practice these teenagers will turn a blithe deception into a powerful thievery tool.
Dear Readers: do not leave your valuables on cafe table tops! Now you see it—now you don’t. These thieves are magicians.
Bob Arno’s take:
I have over fifty years’ experience watching magicians, mentalists, con artists, thieves, and financial criminals executing their ruses to fool, bamboozle, or divert attention from reality. Yes, I’m blasé when it comes to deceptive moves, be they performed by skillful politicians or close-up magicians at the Magic Castle.
But occasionally even I get taken in. In the case of the one-handed smartphone theft in Barcelona, which must be attempted hundreds of times a day, I could not immediately figure out the exact moves of the young Romanian pickpocket (whom we filmed in action), even though I replayed the video of his attempt over and over. Granted, the seven seconds of footage was from behind and wide-angle, and all the finer details were lost. It infuriated me that I couldn’t see or figure out the “tipping point” of the exercise.
Even replaying the interview with the mark didn’t shed light on the dexterity of the thieves, or their technique, until I played close attention to a small detail of the mark’s re-enactment of the thief’s approach, and the positions of his hands. It suddenly hit me—WOW—how simple; and yet how effective. And how absolutely insignificant the gesture would be to any victim sitting at a table sipping coffee with a smartphone (or wallet) on the table.
Yet, without that two-second move, the one-handed steal could never be perfected. These young, unsophisticated thieves, through practice, have accomplished a sort of fluid elegance that they repeat day after day, hour in hour out. It wreaks havoc on the celebrated Barcelona charm visitors experience as they people-watch over a drink or a coffee on La Rambla.
And no, we will not reveal the actual move! It would spread among all thieves who read our stories like weeds in a strawberry patch.