Why hunt thieves?

Bambi and Bob Arno hunt thieves

My husband, Bob Arno, and I study street crime against travelers. Mostly that means pickpockets, but also bag snatchers, three-shell gamers, con artists, pseudo-cops, hotel crawlers, identity thieves and scamsters. We’ve taught ourselves how to find these parasites in the world’s top tourist destinations and in the busy streets of ordinary cities. Using hidden cameras, we film them as they scout a crowd and prey on their marks.

No, we don’t stop the theft; I’ll admit that right away. Many people who learn this are aghast. But if we stop the crime, we won’t get the footage, we won’t be able to study the thieves’ M.O., we won’t be able to interview them, or to give seminars to thousands of travelers every week, or to train police and security officers. We’re not law-enforcers—we’re researchers.

How to hunt thieves

We risk physical harm in gathering this intelligence. In St. Petersburg, Russia, we tailed a gang of six thugs. They were preying on tourists walking between the Metro station and the magnificent Church on the Spilled Blood. The gang caught sight of our camera, and surrounded us with raised fists and chins thrust forward. In Lima, Peru, we let a knife-wielding pair of thieves take us in a taxi to their domain, an empty cantina where we could have been mugged and robbed. We’ve been flipped off, hit, spit upon, and mooned. But mostly, the thieves talk to us.

Why hunt thieves? The Metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the Church on the Spilled Blood in the background. Probably a few pickpockets in the crowd, but who?

The Metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the Church on the Spilled Blood in the background. Probably a few pickpockets in the crowd, but who?

Why should an outlaw spill his or her guts to a straight-laced couple with cameras and questions? Perhaps because we speak to the thieves on-the-level, without judgment or reprimand. But most important, my husband proves he is their “colleague.” He steals something from the thief: a cell phone, a pack of cigarettes, glasses. Once we watched a pickpocket in Durban, South Africa, steal a wallet from a woman’s purse. Bob then stole it from the thief, flashed it to him, then returned it to its owner, who didn’t even know it was missing. The pickpocket stood gaping. “Are you working in my territory?” he asked. In Naples, Italy, Bob stole the necktie off a pickpocket dressed to look like a businessman.

This requires explanation. My husband is a thief, but not a criminal. He performs a comedy pickpocket stage show for public and private audiences, and I am his accomplice. Bob’s skills come in handy in “breaking” a street thief, and allow us to establish instant rapport. Usually, when we try to tell a pickpocket, in pidgin, that we are thieves too, but we work in casinos! in theaters!, they nod knowingly and say yes, they work there, too. We don’t always explain further. That’s why Mario, in a major Italian city I better not name, invited Bob and me to join his criminal crew for $1,000 apiece per day.

That’s a chunk of change, for a pickpocket, and a significant transfer of wealth. Mario works on trains. His favorite route takes him up through Florence and Monte Carlo to Paris. He steals credit cards, uses them to buy Rolex watches, then sells the merch for cash. Mario is doing well; he summers in Calabria with his family. Eventually, he may splurge and fix his missing teeth.

Bob Arno, left, is recognized by a thief (the smiling, hugging one). Why hunt thieves? Bambi films with a hidden camera, surrounded by thieves.

Bob Arno, left, is recognized by a thief (the smiling, hugging one). Bambi films with a hidden camera, surrounded by thieves.

Our interviewing success has surprised and pleased us, but is not without unpleasantness. Our relationship with these despicable characters is an uncomfortable imitation of friendship. We see many of the same lowlifes year after year, and some greet us with smiles and handshakes. From Kharem in Barcelona, I get hugs and kisses. Yacine, whom we met in Athens, phones us. In America, we must be careful not to reveal to our purportedly retired crook “friends” where we live. That isn’t easy while at dinner in a thief’s house.

Are we, ourselves, contemptible in our own way? I hope not. Our most satisfying work is in teaching travelers to beware, to raise their own antennas while still enjoying their adventures. After all, Bob and I are travel enthusiasts. People ask us, is this or that city bad? No, we say from the heart, it’s wonderful! But many thieves operate there. Let us tell you what to watch out for…

We also teach law enforcement and security officers how to spot thieves. You might think this shouldn’t be necessary, but pickpocket cops are usually promoted after a couple of years, just when they get good. Since 9/11, many pickpocket squads have been ditched in order to put officers on more pressing details. Touring pickpocket gangs roll into small towns that aren’t used to that sort of crime. And pickpockets by the hundreds attend the big events, the Super Bowls, the fights, the major concerts and celebrations.

As Bob and I travel the world performing our comedy version of thievery, we gather information on global theft rings and migrating techniques. We use sophisticated video equipment that no police department could afford. And we’re immune to the regulations under which government agencies must work. No one pulls our strings.

Why we hunt thieves

Pickpocketry and theft from tourists is the travel industry’s dirty little secret. Why it’s considered petty theft I can’t fathom. Collectively, it’s huge. Statistics are hard to come by and incident rates are suppressed. Hotels discourage victims of room theft from filing police reports. So do theme parks. Bad publicity for paradise. When Bob and I occasionally perform our stage show on cruise ships, we also give a theft-prevention seminar. But one cruise line rejected the idea, preferring to keep its passengers ignorant rather than exposing the “frightening” and “ominous” reality of travel. Since 9/11, travel safety issues have focused on terrorism; but the truth is, you’re more likely to be pickpocketed on a trip.

While conducting research for our book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling, we learned of the formidable hurdles, both logistical and political, that prevent police from reducing theft from tourists. We have respect and sympathy for these frustrated cops. But in some foreign cities, where police are pitifully paid, a symbiotic relationship thrives between officer and thief. Odds are against improvement: tax and immigration issues, packed prisons, overextended judicial systems, law enforcement budget constraints, high unemployment, all contribute to the persistence of street crime.

As identity theft explodes within our electronic financial world, savvy pickpockets generate big bucks from even thin wallets through credit card fraud. No longer do they toss away the plastic. Now, they use it or sell it, with a bonus if it includes a Social Security number.

As a tourist, you visit a foreign city with an open heart and mind, ready to love the place and its people. It’s this benevolent attitude, perhaps combined with a drop of timidity, which marks you to the thief. You can’t—shouldn’t, couldn’t—change your mindset. But if you’re aware of the risk of theft, you can look out for yourself. Then you’ll leave your heart there, instead of your wallet.
©copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent

26 Comments

  • Rick says:

    Great stuff, girl! If your friend wants to read Orwell every morning at the brekkers table guess what I want to do? Read this blog. It’s fabulous stuff! R.

  • BJ says:

    Would you do a comparison for me? You know the traits of a pickpocket. Now, superimpose those traits on the way Karl Rove operates. Notice the subtleties. Where pickpockets steal wallets, Karl steals away values. He is like the magician… he smiles and displays information in such a way that the public doesn’t even realize that he has just lead them down the wrong path. One must be clever to be a pickpocket. In other words, there are different levels of being a pickpocket. Karl Rove is a political pickpocket.
    Namaste

  • Very interesting blog! Besides the scam artists doing the 3-shell (“find the pea”) scam at the house of parliament in Stockholm my main experiences of con artists and street criminals are related to Barcelona. I simply love the city but the street crime activities are really out of this world and something to be wary about as a tourist.

    My first trip to Barcelona featured a really bold bag-snatching in the Gothic area. A couple of old-aged american tourists lost a whole lot of money and it frankly pissed me off to the extent that I tried to follow the thieves. Alas, they knew the district like the as well as most tourists pockets as they simply vanished.

    Since then I have visited the city several times and at least something related to street crime will always appear in front of your eyes more or less obvious (for someone wary of the problem).

    A funny incident is that at the last trip a couple of years ago me and my spouse were ourselves victims. We went to the beach in Barceloneta and brought with us a simple tourist beach bag with some foods and – this is the funny part – the probably sweatiest gym attire in Barcelona at the time. Before going to the beach I visited a gym at Avinguda d’Icaria (if my mind is not failing me). I there had a really tough bout with the free weights which left my body sweating profusely for hours after the gym visit. My very used gym attire was worn till I reached the beach and then put in a plastic bag and eventually the recently aquired beach bag. Yes, the same beach bag the thief (supposedly a woman according to a witness) stole.

    I felt sorry for the theif. No, not really…but a tad. ;)

    Ha det!

  • I was reading through the many incidents of street crime in Barcelona outlined at “Street Scams of Barcelona” (http://www.jones.tc/barna/scams.html). It dawned on me that during my first trip I experienced a similar “legal scam” as one of the contributor’s gave witness to on the site.

    I don’t remember the name of the place but “Mickey’s” does ring a bell (the name referred to on the aforementioned site). We saw all these people sitting drinking huge (I would guess maybe 1 liter sizes) glasses of OJ and ice and sat down and ordered the same.

    When we asked for the check it said 15 EUROS! I complained and the waiter acted like the scam artists usually do, i.e. shrug and show a face of being a little angel just having been accused of murder. I didn’t settle for that though and created a scene. Actually I think the best way to handle scam artists in general is creating a scene and really make some noice to show assertiveness. It ended when I asked other people having ordered the same big glass of OJ how much they had been charged. I eventually payed 5 EUROS and walked away with a smile on my face…

    Remember, good manners and acting like a good citizen is not the way to handle crooks and thieves making a living on abusing just that good mannered behaviour while disrespecting your confidence.

  • Dannyol says:

    Agreed, when you are scammed, make a scene. When I had my wallet stolen from my front pocket in Rome, I was fully aware that the gypsies approching me were pickpockets. I immediately jammed my hands in my pockets to find the wallet already missing! The gypsies were still several steps away, so I just waited until they got close enough and grabbed hold of their arms.. hard.. and started yelling. My wallet suddenly appeared at my feet so I stepped on it, let go of the gypsies and luckily had nothing stolen. It was the children that got the wallet while the women diverted attention.

  • ROY STANLEY SMITH says:

    I HAVE BEEN WORKING ON A WALLET ANTI-PICKPOCKET DEVICE SINCE HAVING BECOME A VICTIM IN ASIA SOME TIME AGO. I HAVE DEVELOPED WORKING PROTOTYPES AND PATENTED THE PRODUCT. I AM STARTING MARKETING SALES AT THIS TIME. ANY INTEREST WILL BE WELCOME. WEB SITE DETAILS CAN BE SHARED WITH ONLY GENUINE PARTIES. LETS TALK. ROY.

  • Bob says:

    I’m always amazed at the similarities of so much of the ripoff scams and how many people fall for certain things, even though guide books always warn against it. A good example is the one in Istanbul (and other cities as well) where a “friendly stranger” comes up to a lone male tourist and finds a way to start a conversation, then invites him to a bar where the girls sit down and drink colored water, and the tourist is presented with a bill for everything he has on him. And I’ve talked with so many people who’ve fallen for it, even *after* being warned.

    I did something similar to the orange juice scene above. I was in a Turkish bath, which is a notorious place for the double pricing standard. There was a Turkish customer there and when the attendants were not around, I asked him how much the full massage was. He asked and got the answer, 15 lira. When an attendant came to me I asked, he said 35. I said 15. He got surly and accused me of “bargaining like a dog.” I said “okay, then no massage.” He backed off.

    I think the fact that people are out of their element makes them easier targets for this stuff; they don’t know the language, they don’t know 100% for sure if they are in the right, and don’t want to be seen as a “bad tourist,” so they capitulate. Ask the price first!

  • Cuong Pham says:

    Hi there. I am really interested in your blog.
    I am only 18 but I like tourism. Pickpocket or things like that makes me really nervous.
    Great blog.
    Are you guys still updating?
    Peace,
    Cuong

  • Bambi says:

    Thanks, Cuong, glad you’re enjoying our blog. Yep, we’re still researching street crime around the world. Still writing!

  • Petter says:

    Hi all!

    Successful thwart story:

    I live in Barcelona and I’m Swedish
    (Hej Bob,bra blog ni har!Jag försöker varna alla svenskar här eftersom vi är ett rätt naiva,modemedvetna och lite konflikträdda av oss=lätta offer)

    St John’s Day (Big festival here) the 23rd june at 23.00 In a crowded but not packed metro station:

    Me and my girlfriend was about to enter the metro car when I heard a Swedish family behind me.I usually like to eavesdrop a little to hear what they are talking about.
    They looked tired after a whole day out and a night full of music,firecrackers and new impressions in Barcelona

    Doors closed.

    I kept listening,sipping my beer casually standing close to my girlfriend,but not looking at the man who stood alone in front of us,separated from his wife and two daughters.
    Suddenly I heard a man asking the Swedish man something in English.

    I see in the corner of my eye a map being unfolded in front of the man,and without thinking I knew what was going on.

    I pointed with my whole arm straight at the Swede and yelled “-Dom tar din plÃ¥nbok!” (“-They are taking your wallet!”)

    The Swede looked at me,surprised that somebody yelled to him in Swedish.

    I see the man with map and another man who where aiming for the wallet,fade in to the background and blend in with the passengers trying to just “hacerce el sueco”(=pretend like it’s raining,or to act as if nothing happened).

    However a third big tall man,just caught red handed,screamed to me “-F**k you!!!”,
    he approached me,raised his hand,as if to slap me,trying to intimidate me.

    Once again he yells “-F**k you!” a couple of inches away from my face.

    I responded in Swedish with a firm voice: “-Jag är svensk”(“-I’m Swedish”…corny,I know),since I didn’t want to communicate further with this man.This also made him confused.
    I continued to look him in the eyes.I was rather amused but at the same time a bit on the edge to keep myself and my girlfriend safe.

    His heart was for sure beating faster and harder than mine,since I think it came out of the blue for them,that they got thwarted in their shady actions.

    They had no idea that the casually dressed beer sipping man kept his attention on the Swedish man.

    Needless to say,they left the scene,the big man starring angrily at me as they jumped of at the next metro stop in a hurry.

    The Swede was in shock,he didn’t even thank me,and I don’t think he knew what was happening after I told him what they were doing.

    I just did this without thinking,it was all an automatic reaction.

    Please,all travellers:
    Keep your belongings close to you and your eyes wide open.

    And keep reading this blog!

    Thank you,Bob for the great info on this blog!

    Best regards

    (Med vänliga hälsningar från en svenne med lite mer skinn på näsan för varje dag som man bor här i Barcelona,..Ta i trä.hehehe)

    Petter

  • mark granfar says:

    Can you please post this for your readers?

    We are sharing on Facebook the stories of people being robbed in Spain

    thank you

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/I-was-robbed-in-Spain/126647034044560?ref=mf

  • Michael Baldwin says:

    This is the perfect job. I am always aware of my surroundings, very social, approachable and intuitive. The perfect job.

  • Scriptures says:

    all i want is information about how to have the jobs you guys are talking about thank you and please don t waste my time

  • Tim says:

    Sign me up. I’m your man.

  • Salvo says:

    Haha, I can say without doubt that the ‘major Italian city’ must be Napoli!

  • Vi says:

    I am trying to avoid any hand shakes with strangers especially in the crowd.
    But things happens..This is my story about thieves in India
    http://www.shorttraveltips.com/incredible-thieves-india/

  • Connor says:

    How do I apply to work for you? Your work seems fascinating and a bit thrilling.

  • Chris Guidry says:

    was interested in trying this. i like to travel and this seems interesting.

  • Brian says:

    What’s the process of applying for this interesting job/ experience?

  • Ariel Mendoza says:

    Hello there Bambi and Bob, I’m interested in your job opening and have had my fair share of travel experience good and bad. When you have a moment please let me know how to apply. Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you guys soon.

    Cheers,

    Ariel Mendoza

  • Hello Ariel,

    No application is necessary! As you travel, keep your eyes open. Write back about any thieves or con artists you observe. Travel safely!

  • Jason Carnahan says:

    I’m still steaming from 2 attempts on me tonight at Wangfujing Night Market in Beijing. I speak Mandarin but when I get worked up it get’s choppy.

    The first was one that I have been taken by before, I gave a 20 Yuan bill for a 10 Yuan snack and then the vendor points at something and asked if I wanted it and swapped my 20 for a 1 and asked for the rest of the money “I owed him”. I looked him in the eyes and said, “That’s not my money, I gave you a 20.” He didn’t even challenge me.

    About 30 minutes later I asked how much some shrimp dumplings were and I was told 15 Yuan (about $2.50), I only had a 50 so I gave it to him and then he asked for the rest of his money. I wasn’t about to let the 50 out of my site but he insisted that the dumplings were 15 each (they are all in trays of 6 tiny dumplings). I told him I was going to get a police officer to deal with him and took a pic of him with my 50 so he couldn’t lie about that. Then a “passer by” paid 90 Yuan for 6 to prove that that was the price and I told him I knew it was his friend and that I wasn’t going to drop it. As I left to go grab a cop and took one last picture his partner gave me my money back.

    The sad thing was there were some Chinese women that knew what happened and tried to help but got intimidated by the guys.

    It is so frustrating how these dirtbags prey on the guests in their country.

  • DgB says:

    When I first saw this I thought it was about me and my partner. Haha. Wherever we go we sem to notice these exact same sorts of goings on. We are both ex police both specialising in the covert industry and seem to be unable to switch off.
    One of our ‘ favourite ‘ place for ‘ watching’ was Olso, Norway. I think it was because we hadn’t expected it here.

    I think some people naturally have an eye for this sort of thing and when you do it seems to be with you wherever you go.

    ;-)

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