Do You Need to Worry About Pickpocketing?

Dayton Uttinger

Pickpocketing has been around since there was money. If you take a moment to examine any crowded area, it’s easy to see why. People are often distracted, carrying easily-accessible valuables, and expect some degree of contact with complete strangers. We’ve been told to constantly watch out for pickpockets whenever we’re in a city center, but the truth is that all that vigilance isn’t getting us anywhere. Whether you’re aware of your belongings or not, pickpocketing is a dying art.

In 1990, there were 23,000 reported cases of pickpocketing in New York alone. By the year 2000, there were only 5,000. Now, New York cops don’t even keep track of pickpocketing cases. They’re just grouped in with all other larceny cases. A similar trend is happening across the United States. Although we’ve been warned about nefarious picpockets all our lives, we’re worrying about a crime that is barely happening anymore. Of course, you’re free to keep wearing your very fashionable fanny pack, but it might be more of an accessory than a item of protection now.

Why Are Pickpockets Disappearing?

As with any decision, the choice to commit crime is based on two things: risk and reward. With pickpocketing, the risk has risen dramatically while the reward has diminished. When both of these factors happen simultaneously, pickpockets have little incentive to join or stay in the profession.

First, the risk. While getting caught pickpocketing does not promise a life in prison, the punishments have been growing more severe. After the crime bubble of the 90’s, governments pushed for harsher sentencing to deter criminals. Pickpockets in some jurisdictions can be convicted of grand larceny and spend two years in prison; other states define a pick as “theft from the body of another” and is considered a felony, no matter how much was taken. Furthermore, the risk of getting caught rises as pickpockets frequently lack proper training. The US used to house a network of “schools,” wherein young pickpockets would learn the skills of the older ones, sometimes training for years before they hit the streets. These days, those networks have been dismantled by law enforcement.

Of course, new networks could be established, but young people don’t see the benefit in pickpocketing compared to other crimes. Whereas pickpocketing takes a lot of skill to pull off successfully, other nefarious trades have a lower bar for entry. According to professional pickpockets, all the younger crowd wants to do now is deal drugs, which takes a lot less time and skill to pull off.

Additionally, American just aren’t carrying cash like they used to. Pulling out a wad of cash from a wallet instantly rewards the pickpocket and lets them know that they succeeded. If they are able to steal your card, there is a chance that you’ve maxed out your credit line or that you may cancel the card before they have a chance to use it. Plus, cards are traceable; if they use your credit or debit card, police can track where they made a purchase and possibly review security footage. Cash is anonymous and therefore vastly preferable.

Do You Need to Worry at All?

Probably not. Of course, some people are still pickpocketed. But generally, as long as  you aren’t carrying a wad of $100 bills (why?), the consequences are usually more of an inconvenience than they are actually detrimental. You cancel the credit card and dispute the charges; as long as you report the theft in a timely manner, your losses will be minimal. For the most part, though, it is not worth your time to constantly worry. Yes, you should take obvious and easy precautions, like not storing your wallet in your back pocket or carrying your Social Security card at all times, but the threat is so minimal that it shouldn’t worry you.

The only exception to this is if you are traveling internationally. Yes, pickpocketing is still relatively rare in other countries, but there is an increased risk, particularly in Europe. Pickpocketing hasn’t been a priority for law enforcement there, generally, and Europeans rely on cash more than Americans. This lowers the risk and heightens the reward for pickpockets abroad, so be on your guard if you are traveling outside the US. Some thieves are so skilled that they’re sure to make a living regardless of how aware you are. The most you can do to combat these picks is to carry minimal cash and leave any other valuables behind.

Pickpocketing might seem like an eternal threat, but trends in the United States say otherwise. As more and more people start using mobile payments, pickpocketing will become less and less prevalent, especially as we become more glued to our phones, never letting them out of our grasp. There are plenty of other threats out there for us to all worry about; for now, you can put your fanny pack away.


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