Don’t Lose Your Wallet – A Conversation With Street Crime Expert, Bob Arno

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Bob Arno

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bob Arno, one of the world’s experts on pickpocketing and street crime, about some smart and easy steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim on your next trip.

Losing your wallet is one of the most frustrating things and can ruin a perfect vacation.  I was unsuccessfully mugged a number of years ago in Madrid – an attempt thwarted by a combination of stupidity and resourcefulness – and my wallet was once craftily stolen during a security screening at Paris Charles de Gaulle, in what I still believe was a ring complicit with security screeners. Thankfully I had backup cash, but the whole thing is a huge pain.

Both of these experiences taught me a few lessons and made me more vigilant when traveling.  Beyond some of the tips that Mr. Arno recommends to prevent being robbed, I also signed up for American Express Credit Card Registry - a service that will cancel all your cards and help with a replacement passport and drivers’ license, among other things, all by calling one number.

Check out my recent chat with Mr. Arno:

You originally began your career as a comedian.  How did this progress into becoming one of the most well regarded experts in pickpocketing and street scams?
Traveling the globe with my comedy pickpocket show gives me the rare opportunity to be everywhere. Sync that luck with my lifelong fascination with thieves and con artists, my interest in filmmaking, and my six-foot-five lamppost build, and you’ve got a globetrotting crime-sleuth who doesn’t look like a cop and has better video equipment. My wife/partner and I put ourselves near the thieves and, when they steal our (empty) wallet, we don’t get mad—we start asking questions. And because I do legally what they do as criminals, I can talk the talk and share techniques.
What sort of research have you done into pickpockets and the habits of street criminals?
From the thieves themselves we learn their methods and motivations. We film them without their knowledge, then we interview them and hear their braggadocio and their sob stories. We talk to tourist police and fraud cops to learn why it’s so hard to make a dent in this crime, and victims to learn the many variations on the methods. By far our most important research is done on the streets in crowded tourist destinations.
Besides the obvious crowded tourist areas, what are some of the overlooked spots where travelers are at risk of being stolen from?
Cafés and restaurants, where bags are apt to be stolen; hotel lobbies, where you have a false sense of security; public transportation; special events, like concerts and big sports games; and anyplace where there’s a lot of drinking.
What are some of the sneakiest pickpocket moves that you have seen?
The sneakiest play on our innate tendencies to trust and be nice. We trust the guy who kindly points out pigeon poop on our back and offers to clean it off (while he cleans us out). We’re nice to the woman who asks for help with directions, unaware that she’s opening our fanny-pack under her map.
Do pickpocketing techniques vary by region? Are there techniques you are more likely to see when traveling to particular area?
Absolutely. There’s a fake soccer move that’s common in Barcelona, and purse-slicing in St. Petersburg, Russia. Necklace-snatching is common all over South America. iPhone grabbing is big on trains, just before the doors close. Naples, Italy, is famous for its scooter-riding bandits, who snag purses on the move. And there’s lots more…
You are very good at describing clever pickpocketing techniques. What is the single best thing a traveler can to do avoid being robbed?
Stow your stuff safely before going out. I want to list a few more things, but you said “single.” Let me just clarify safe-stowing to primarily mean the use of some type of under-clothes pouch.
You say that a majority of street thefts are of women.  What can women in particular do to avoid being stolen from?
Women are more often victims, simply because they carry purses, and purses don’t have nerve-endings. Women need to guard their handbags. Keep them closed, and in front of their bodies, not hanging behind. Don’t hang them on the back of a café chair, leave them on the floor or in a shopping cart, or on a bench in a shoe shop.
Do you have some tips for blending in and avoiding sticking out as a walking target?
You can’t help looking like a tourist, but dress down. You hear it over and over, but no one explains why. If you’re wearing a Rolex or diamond earrings—even if they’re fakes—you look rich. You look like you have a purse or wallet worth stealing. You’re worth following, and you’re eventually going to present an opportunity, or the thief will create an opportunity by manipulating you. Don’t send signals to the thieves who may be lurking that you’re worth their effort.
You advise against money clips. Should men carry wallets when traveling?
For men venturing into unfamiliar territory, it’s better to carry the big bucks and credit cards in a pouch that hangs from your belt inside your trousers. Keep small money in a pocket for coffee, taxi, souvenirs. Carry minimal cash and rely on credit cards whenever possible.
What other steps, before going out, can travelers take to minimize their risk ?
Read my book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams. One tip from the book: photocopy the front and back of your credit cards, and leave the copy in the hotel along with another credit card, so if you are pickpocketed, you have an easy source of funds and the phone numbers on the backs of the cards so you can cancel the accounts. Better yet, scan those credit cards and the first page of your passport, and email it to yourself so you can access the copies from any internet point.
If you’ve just realized that your wallet has been stolen, what should you do?
Shout out. If the thief is still close, he or she may drop it on the ground. There may also be an undercover cop nearby. Or a fast-acting bystander.
In the event that you’re directly confronted by a criminal who might be carrying a weapon, do you have any advice on avoiding injury and minimizing your loses?
You don’t know if he’s high on drugs, desperate, or if he has pals around the corner. Give up your property. Appease the mugger so he’ll go away.
Bob Arno is both a comedy stage pickpocket and a criminologist who specializes in street crime against travelers. His presentations combine the tragedy and comedy of pickpocketing. His blog, Thiefhunters in Paradise, is about street thievery around the world. His website is www.bobarno.com

Check out this clip of Bob on Dateline:

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