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.
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 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.
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.
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.