Security issue: Pickpocketing

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Lifting a wallet from a handbag without being noticed, a classic example of pickpocketing

Pickpocketing is a form of theft that involves the stealing of valuables from a person without him noticing the theft at the time.


Pickpocketing is an issue that is especially present in large cities, where crowds of people are present and distractions are plentiful. Although Barcelona and Rome were recently singled out as being particularly dangerous pickpocketing havens.[1][2][3], pickpockets may be found in any crowded place on the globe.

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of pickpocketing, are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Lack of surveillance. Decreases risk of detection. A perceived low level of surveillance, particularly round-the-clock surveillance, decreases the perceived risk of detection for a perpetrator and thereby increases the attractiveness.
Long reaction times or inadequate action of intervention force. Decreases likelihood of apprehension Untimely or inappropriate reactions to violence lead to a perception of little control, which will increase perceived risk for the public and decrease perceived risk for the perpetrators.
High levels of pickpocketing in the environment. Increases likelihood of targeting. Pickpocketers will travel to attractive locations. The existence of successful pickpockets in the wider area (a radius of about 5 km), is an indication to assume the threat might also apply to the location at hand.
High levels of unemployment Increases likelihood of targeting High levels of unemployment are associated with higher levels of property crime[4].
Presence of crowds or busy places Increases number of targets, decreases risk of apprehension Pocket-picking is most common in places where large groups of people gather. Transportation facilities, such as bus terminals and rail-road stations, are favourite hunting grounds for pickpockets, but a department store, public arena, or city street also can supply enough potential victims.[5]
Presence of excitement or distractions Decreases risk of being detected The most significant factor in the victim profile possibly may be psychological. A crowded terminal creates a distracting environment. People are packed together in cramped waiting areas listening for public announcements, watching a departure, carrying packages, or talking on a cellular telephone. The station's environment creates a sensory overload. Further, the victims, conditioned by the rush hour atmosphere of the station, are accustomed to the close physical proximity of other people.[5]
Use of drugs or alcohol Decreases risk of being detected The use of drugs or alcohol decreases the vigilance of potential victims and therefore increases the chances of a pickpocket to successfully commit his or her crime.
Presence of tourists Decreases risk of being detected Tourists are often very recognizable and typically distracted by their surroundings. As they often also mass-visit the same locations, these locations become very busy and an ideal hunting ground for pickpockets. Because tourists often are obvious by their dress, carry items easily disposed of once stolen, and are temporary visitors (and thus unable to put much pressure on police to act against criminals, or unlikely to appear as a prosecution witness), tourist zones allow pickpockets, swindlers, thieves, gang members, and robbers to commit crimes they might not otherwise attempt or be able to accomplish.[6]


Social impact

Pickpocketing can increase citizens' perception of insecurity. Urban environments with a high rate of pickpocketing will be seen as less attractive places for the public to frequently visit. Public transport nodes and services, together with areas where there are large crowds (such as busy shopping streets or market squares), can become less comfortable places to be when users are aware there is a high rate of pickpocketing. Some strata of society are targeted more often by pickpockets others. Tourists for example are often victems of pickpocketing due to a lack of familiarity with the area, the societal context, and to a likelihood of their attention being distracted (e.g. taking photographs).

Economic impact

Property crimes such as pickpocketing lead to considerable costs in both a direct (primary) and a indirect (secondary) way[7]. Direct costs of pickpocketing come in the form of:

  • Preventive costs for individuals in anticipation of pickpocketing (e.g. prevention, insurance fees);
  • Material and immaterial costs to victims as a consequence of pickpocketing (e.g. value of property stolen repairs, mental harm); and
  • Responsive costs by public authorities to pickpocketing (e.g. the costs of detection and prevention, prosecution, support trial, etc.).

In addition, pickpocketing on a large scale could lead to secondary economic impact, but these effects are relatively minor compared to more serious types of crime. Nevertheless, a growing amount of local authorities vying (competing) for tourism and investment on an (inter)national level, are increasingly focused on the prevention and prosecution of petty crimes like pickpocketing (in order to stimulate tourism or at least to prevent a decline due to a bad reputation). Like with most types of crime, the success of these authorities is above all a matter of perceived success, rather than actual success.

Like street robbers, pickpockets are difficult to deter. They have a lot of crime opportunities and pickpocketing does not require much planning or skill (although some are really skilled technically spoken). On top of that, pickpockets will adapt quickly to preventive security measures in accordance with the economics of criminal behaviour. Pickpockets will, for example, use accomplices to distract the potential victim, or use disguises to avoid cameras.

Mobility impact

There is a high rate of pickpocketing at several mobility related locations, such as public transport nodes and services (especially train and metro stations), together with areas where there are large crowds (such as busy shopping centres or shopping streets or market squares). The risk is increased when there are large crowds, tourists, and hiding and fleeing options for pickpocketers. For example, a pickpocketer in a metro station can flee with (another) metro easily after the robbery.

In order to reduce the risk, one can use surveillance by mounting camera's inside stations and create awareness of the travellers, for example with warning posters and warning broadcasting inside trains. Also guards can be deployed inside stations and trains.

Also crowd management measures may be used to reduce risk of pickpocketing, e.g. by better directing flows of people, flows can be structured and the density of crowds can be reduced.

Safety impact

Pickpocketing has very little impact on the safety of people.


Potential measures that can mitigate the likelihood or impact of pickpocketing include:

  • Surveillance can be somewhat effective to detect pickpocketing and if overt, to deter potential criminals by raising the perceived risk of apprehension. It can incur high costs if implemented as dedicated observers, either on location or remote. A more natural form of surveillance is surveillance by the inhabitants (also known as 'natural surveillance'), usually by warning for pickpockets. Be aware that putting out warning signs can also have detrimental effects [8], as is illustrated by Ekblom[9] who cites the example of pickpockets on the London Underground who stationed themselves near signs warning of theft to see which pockets were checked by passengers on reading the signs.
  • Intervention force should be swift and effective in order to make detection measures, such as alarms or surveillance, effective and convey the notion that pickpocketing will not be left unpunished.
  • Directing traffic flows can be effective in preventing crowding. The effectiveness of this measure is illustrated by a case study which shows that thefts from shopping bags at markets in Birmingham, England, were substantially reduced by reducing congestion around the stalls, which increased the difficulty of pickpocketing and other "stealth" thefts.[10]
  • Target removal is not always feasible, but by for example suppressing tourists to visit a particular location, pickpocketing at that location can be effectively reduced. Another example of how to remove targets is to minimize distraction for visitors, by for example placing clear signposts or designing the area to minimize congestion.

Footnotes and references

  1. "Barcelona, pickpocket capital of the world ", The Daily Mail, September 25, 2009
  2. "Italy - #1 for Pickpockets",, October 20, 2011
  4. Weatherburn Don, Riots, Policing and Social Disadvantage: Learning from the Riots in Macquarie Fields and Redfern, Current Issues in Criminal Justice Volume 18 Number 1, July 2006
  5. 5.0 5.1 Young, David, Pickpockets, Their Victims, and the Transit Police, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume:72 Issue:12 Dated:December 2003,P.p 1-5
  6. Glensor Ronald W., and Peak Kenneth J., Crimes Against Tourists, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 26. August 2004
  7. Primary economic impact (or direct effects) are generally defined as the initial, immediate economic output generated by a specific cause (in this case a criminal offence). Secondary economic impact (or indirect effects) are generated each time a subsequent transaction is made, for example, the impact of crime on the real estate value in the neighbourhood.
  8. Clarke Ronald V., Situational Crime Prevention. Successful Case Studies. Second Edition,1997
  9. Ekblom, P, Talking to Offenders: Practical Lessons from Local Crime Prevention., In: O. Nel-lo (ed.). Urban Crime: Statistical Approaches and Analyses, International seminar held under the auspices of Ajuntament de Barcelona Forum des Collectives Territoriales Europeenes pour la Securité Urbaine. Barcelona: Institut d'Estudis Metropolitans de Barcelona.
  10. Poyner, B. & Webb, B., Successful Crime Prevention: case studies, London: The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, (1987)