Purseology 101 (How purses are picked)

How purses are picked. All about purses and the thieves who steal from them.

how purses are picked

To pickpocket is to steal valuables carried by a person. In real life, those valuables are most often in a bag carried by the person.


Why doesn’t Bob Arno steal from women in his pickpocket stage show?
He’d never get away with it! Women are more sensitive and more alert. (He has additional reasons, but we’ll leave it at that for now.)

Then why are women more often the victims of pickpockets?
It’s the damn purse. They don’t have nerve endings.

Okay, just give me the dos and don’ts for purses, handbags, pocketbooks, or whatever you call them. Tell me how purses are picked.
Yeah, there are lots of dos and don’ts.

  • If you carry a purse, try to give it nerve endings: hold it snug against your body, never let it stick out behind you, especially never let it stick out behind you open.
  • Use a wide-strapped bag and wear the strap diagonally across your chest; or use a short-strapped one with the purse tucked under your arm.
  • Keep your bag closed properly. If it has a flap, wear the flap against your body.
  • Keep your wallet at the bottom of your purse.
  • Never hang your purse on the back of a chair in a public place, where it’s out of your sight. Keep it on your lap. If you must put it on the floor, tuck the strap under your thigh, or at least put the chair leg through it.
  • Be sure your purse is in front of you as you enter revolving doors, board trains, etc.
  • Never leave your purse in a shopping cart or baby stroller. Don’t leave it at your restaurant table while you go to the buffet.
  • Never set your purse down in a shop so you can turn your attention elsewhere. (Number one bag theft venue: shoe stores!)
  • In a public restroom, loop your bag’s strap around the hook and keep your eye on the bag. Dropped coins in the stall beside could be a distraction ruse.
  • To prevent a drive-by bag snatch, walk far from the curb, on the side of the street towards traffic.
  • Don’t be fooled at outdoor cafes, where the space is bordered by potted plants. Thieves can reach in between the plants and grab your bag.
  • If your bag is snatched, let it go. It may be impossible to fight the instinct to hold on, but try to ingrain that thought. You can get seriously hurt in a bag snatch.

Fanny pack security; how purses are picked.

What about fanny packs, or bum bags? Are they safe?
They are if you secure the zippers, which are otherwise easily opened by practiced thieves. Use a safety pin, a paperclip fastened to a rubberband around the belt strap, or string. Anything to make opening the zipper more difficult. If it takes an extra few seconds, the pickpocket will move on to someone else.

Fanny pack security; how purses are picked.


I wouldn’t. Out of sight, out of control. Good for beach stuff, guide books, and non-valuables. Or wear it on your chest.

I carry money in my bra.
Good for you. Many women tell me that works well. I haven’t tried it.

How purses are picked

How purses are picked. Your backpack is much safer from pickpockets when worn in front.

Your backpack is much safer from pickpockets when worn in front.

Do some pickpockets specifically target purses?

Yes, many do. Pickpockets tend to get comfortable with a specialty or two. They may specialize in stealing from cargo pants pockets, or inside jacket pockets, or purses… They’ve perfected their specific technique and want to do what they know best. Remember, the job is highly stressful, with countless risks. So each practitioner repeats a posture, a movement, and a routine that has been ingrained, and he uses a tool (jacket, hat, satchel, postcard, etc.) to hide his work, as if it were a security blanket. On the other hand, the goal is to get money, and possibly a “spread,”* so if he sees another opportunity, or if he’s desperate, he may step out of his comfort zone and diversify. There’s no rigid job description. A pickpocket’s diversity is defined by his tolerance for risk.

*A “spread” is a set of documents that allow identity theft or cash withdrawal from a cash machine.

You keep saying “him.” Are pickpockets always male?
No, but I dislike the repetition of “he or she.” We need a new pronoun.

How purses are picked: the matador position.

In the “matador” position, the pickpocket (left) slings a coat on her shoulder when she’s ready to work. The coat blocks others from seeing her handiwork.

So what’s the least risky type of pickpocketry?
Picking from purses! Because, as I said above, purses have no nerve endings. And the “pickpurse” has a few extra tricks to be sure you won’t feel it. He may lift the bag slightly from underneath, to take the weight of it off your arm or shoulder. He might work while you’re in motion, walking, or on a bumpy bus. He prefers a bag that is carried behind the arm, or one that sticks out in back. He likes open (bucket-style) bags, bags with easy-to-open flaps, or with zippers. And he likes bags with the goods protruding from them. How purses are picked… the methods are endless. And so are the opportunities!

How purses are picked: the matador technique.

The woman on the left used the matador position. The woman in the center is her partner, and on this day, they also had two boys working with them. The woman on the right is the victim.

How purses are picked: using the matador technique.

The victim pointed out the thieves who tried to pick her purse. They failed, nonchalantly moving on to their next target.

Sounds like pretty easy pickings.
Not as easy as the ultimate favorite: the unattended handbag. That includes a purse put in a shopping cart, in a baby stroller, on the back of a chair, on the floor beside you, on the seat beside you, or any place where you don’t have physical contact. You may turn away from it for a second, or be intentionally distracted by an accomplice. Your whole bag may be taken, or just items from it.

I’ll keep my bag on a short strap, or a wide strap, close to me, and I’ll never lose physical contact. Will it be safe then?
Pretty safe. There’s not much you can do about bag snatchers. You can avoid the scooter-riding type by wearing your bag on the side of you away from traffic. But sometimes a bag snatcher appears suddenly, out of the blue, yanks and runs. In that case, let it go! Shout, if you can, and if you’re lucky, there will be a plainclothes police officer nearby, or a brave good samaritan who gives chase (like my good friend Terry.)

What about bags that have a wire cable in the strap?
Dangerous. The thief can’t tell he should avoid it, so he yanks and you fall down. Perhaps into traffic, or down some stairs. You can be seriously injured.

How purses are picked.

This purse was slashed with a razor while it was carried on a woman’s shoulder.

Okay. They can’t be slashed through, and slashing is a pretty common technique. It’s a step further than I care to go, though.

What do you carry?
We’re talking about travel here, right? Going out in unfamiliar areas? I prefer a purse with a short strap that I can wear on my shoulder and that rides high under my arm. It becomes almost a part of my body, is safe from most perils, and can’t be forgotten since I never let it go. When I want to be extra safe, I carry ID, cash and credit cards in a pouch under my clothes, and use a purse for bulky, non-valuable items. Oh, and I do love underwear with pockets.

Have a horror story?
I do, but there’s not much to be learned from it. I know of a woman who did everything right. After assessing the security of her hotel room, she chose to go out with all valuables in her purse. She never let go of it. At an outdoor cafe, she kept the purse on her lap. She felt a presence behind her and assumed it was the waiter. It wasn’t. A man grabbed her bag and ran.

Add your story below. Or, if it happened in Barcelona, add it to my Barcelona Scams page.

©copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent


  • Doug says:

    My wife and I are visiting Rome. I was looking at securing my camera with a steel cable attached to my belt AND backpack. Your thoughts?

  • Seems a bit excessive, Doug, but you certainly won’t walk away from your camera that way. What are you going to do about your backpack zippers?

  • Doug says:

    Locks on all zippers.
    They are getting aggressive. Some friends of ours came back from Rome recently. Falling gypsy handed baby to her. My friends pack was slashed and the camera was gone, the gypsy ran yelling in English baby thief!

  • lindamaker says:

    im old fashion. i put my wallet directly inside my bra cup. i know it shows a bit but i dont care. a womans bra cup is safe and convient. sometimes simple is the best.

  • Agreed, Linda—whatever works. That particular strategy is popular, though it doesn’t work for me. :-(

  • Alex says:

    I’m moving to Madrid to take up language courses for several months. This actually worries me so much especially during my first few weeks when I have to do a lot of paperwork to get NIE, residence card, and foreigner’s identity card where I’d be carrying around a lot of important documents like my passport, birth certificate and other valid IDs. Of course I also have to carry around cash to pay for the administration fees. It’s just so unfair cause you’re already busy adjusting, trying to figure out where to go next, language barrier and then you also have to worry about pickpockets and thieves. Makes me think twice now about moving to Madrid. I’m from the Philippines which is a third world country and we don’t even have this kind of problem unless you’re extremely stupid and careless.

    It’s something I really have to adjust to because I’ve travelled to places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Los Angeles and you can literally leave your stuff on the table and people won’t even bother to come near your stuff. And now I have to live in a country full of pickpockets and thieves! :-(

  • Carol says:

    I still feel bad about our really last minute in Rome … Where about to leave and having a flight at 11am ,
    At around 7 30am we enjoy our last
    Espresso at the hotel cafe, but sad to say my husband left his bag open
    In that last minute, and boooommm !! We lost the money we had. It’s so bad please Don’t trust this Hotel Planet at Rome Termini, this I think
    Their tactics of stealing money to guest . We learn our lesson . And hope that person took will have a very bad karma .

  • What a shame, Carol. It’s important to stay vigilant about valuables, always. The thieves watch for that short moment of distraction and, as you said… boom! They hit. Don’t blame the cafe.

    Bob and I just did a tv segment on pickpockets in Rome. It’s for a German station, RTL, and the program is “The Reisechecker.” It will be broadcast November 11 in Germany, and probably online after that.

  • hareysha says:

    my purse has ben stolen ive looked everywhere in school

  • hareysha says:

    give me some info of how to find the thif

  • TVS says:

    Never trust a Burkha-clad Woman next to U or Behind U. My wife’s cloth bag was recently Cut by a Burkha-clad woman(or is it a man in Burkha?) at a popular Chemist shop in Chembur Mumbai. She came next to her and while my wife had her eyes concentrated on the various drugs spread on the counter,the Burkha woman cleanly slit-open the cloth bag slung under her right arm and whisked away the Big Black Money Bag and her purse cleanly. The Drug Shop’s CCTV footage showed the Image of the Pickpocket but the cops in Chembur Mumbai were least hopeful of catching the thief pp. So 4 nos Credi/ATM Cards lost and INR 2000 cash lost along with IDs…So is there a Shopping Bag available at Online stores like Amazon that have a CAGED INNER BAG not amenable to cuts?

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