The Dying Art of Picking Pockets

September 5, 2014

Have you never encountered a pickpocket? Ever wondered why?

Small hand legerdemain, or pickpocketing, is largely a lost art in the United States. There are a couple of interesting reasons for this. First and formost, there are severial obvious social factors that make pickpocketing an undesirable profession. Pickpocketing is particularly hard here-- Americans have a very large personal space bubble and little tolerence for casual touching, both traits that make sight-of-hand more difficult. Also, America is extremely spread out. We generally commute by car, so many Americans encounter crowds vary rarely. Even our largest cities can't support a community of small hand operators, because none of them are crowded enough.

But more interestingly, there are psychosocial reasons America has few pickpockets. Pickpocketing is a skill. It has to be taught. In the 1930s the government made a concentrated effort to imprison or deport reported legerdemains, and by doing so wiped out a whole generation of pickpockets. The practice never made a comeback, because there was nobody left to teach it.

 

Europe doesn't have these problems. Rome is the pickpocketing capital of the world, but even there the pratice is slowing dying out. The reward simply isn't worth the effort. Any criminal smart enough to pick a pocket could learn to skim credit cards instead-- more money, less risk.

In pickpocketing's heyday at the dawn of the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon for people to walk around with a *ton* of cash in their wallets. A rich man in 1920 might have three hundred dollars in his pocket. That might not sound like a lot, but in today's money that would be like walking around with three grand. Even working class people carried cash, because it was the only method of exchange. What killed the American pickpocket? Credit cards.


But some pickpockets survived-- they simply changed how they picked their targets. Rich people don't carry cash anymore, but working class people do. Working class people, especially working class foreigners, are far less likely to have access to banking services. In short-- tourists carry cash. The rich might have fancy watches and cell phones, but those things have limited street value. A good pickpocket fences all of his hot merch within an hour of the crime, so even a $500 cell phone is only worth its recycling price. Unless the target is wearing a paticularly valuable watch, cash remains a pickpocket's primary motive. Plus, poor foreigners are less likely to report the crime, making them the best targets of all.

So have you ever been pickpocketed? What do you think made you the target?

 

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