7 sneaky ways pickpockets steal your phone (and what you can do about it)

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Even the most complicated lockscreen pattern, pass code, or even Face Unlock, can’t protect against someone physically stealing your phone. We’ve written about what to do about lost or stolen phones in the past, but sometimes even the best anti-theft software is no use. What do you do if someone is smart enough to steal your phone and know how to stop you from tracking them?

Pickpocketing is a common way for petty thieves to steal valuable items. Most people nowadays are carrying something that is worth more than the contents of your wallet or purse: a smartphone. The best way to protect your phone is to know the techniques being used against you. These are the seven most common tricks pickpocketers use to swipe your phone or wallet.

The Tricks

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The Diversion

The most common technique for pickpockets is The Diversion. As the name implies, this technique is all about distracting you, and it usually requires a tag team. Thief 1 will drop something in front of you in hopes that you help them pick it up, then Thief 2 will come from behind and swipe your phone as they walk by. With all of your attention on Thief 1’s diversion you have no idea what just happened.

The Stall

This technique is similar to The Diversion. Thief 1 will try to stall you by asking for help or telling you there is something on your coat or shirt. While this is happening Thief 2 will walk by and swipe your phone. This technique works because it is usually used on people in a hurry. Your mind is on the place you need to be and the annoying stranger who is slowing you down.

Concealed Hand

The Concealed Hand is a popular pickpocketing technique to show on TV. The thief will use something like a newspaper or magazine to hide their hand movement. This technique is commonly used in congested areas of people standing still, such as subway cars and bus stops. The thief is trying to hide their actions from other people so as to not alert the victim.

Runners

This technique is probably the laziest. The thieves using this trick are not worried about being discrete or undiscovered. It’s all about getting the goods and making a break for it. The thief will simply ask to use your phone to make a call or look something up. It seems harmless, but after they get their hands on your device they bolt. Gone forever with your phone, unless you happen to be Usain Bolt.

The Bump

Another technique that is commonly used in congested areas is The Bump. We’ve all been walking around and been bumped into by passing strangers. It happens a lot. Thieves will use this to their advantage by purposefully bumping into you so they can snag your phone. The act of being bumped puts all of your attention on the stranger and the area of your body that was hit. You don’t feel the phone being lifted from your pocket or bag.

The Fake-out

This technique is one of the more complex on this list. Thief 1 will purposefully let you catch them “pickpocketing” you. What they are really doing is trying to be caught so your attention is on them and not Thief 2 who is actually pickpocketing you for real. This is a risky technique because it can draw attention to you, which makes it harder for a thief to be sneaky. When it works it works really well because you leave the encounter thinking you stopped a pickpocket.

The Sleeper

Do you often sleep on public transportation? If so, you are susceptible to this technique. It’s very simple, really. The thief waits until you fall asleep, then they will swipe your phone or your entire bag. This technique is particularly successful if you keep all of your valuables in a bag under your seat. Thieves are not picky. They will take the entire bag because it’s much easier to do quickly.

What can you do?

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Now that we know the tricks used by pickpocketers we can think about how to prevent them from being used on you. For the purpose of this article we are talking about phones being stolen, but these techniques can obviously be used to steal any number of valuable objects. There are a few simple things you can do to avoid being pickpocketed.

  • A pickpocket can’t steal what you don’t have. Limit the amount of things that you carry on your person.
  • Be aware of the situation. Many of the techniques listed above only work in congested areas. If you find yourself in these situations pay extra attention to the contents of your pockets and bags.
  • Don’t be a target. This may sound impossible, but it’s not. Thieves will target people that they think look susceptible. Walk like you know where you’re going, keep your bag properly closed, and don’t have things hanging out of your pockets.
  • Pay attention to distractions. We don’t want you to stop helping people with directions or dropped items, but just pay closer attention in these situations. Is your phone peeking out of your pocket when you bend over? Did you set your bag on the ground to help?
  • Last but not least is to use anti-pickpocketing devices. If you’re super worried about these techniques you can put your phone or wallet on a chain connected to your pants or use a lock on your bag.

Have you or anyone you know been a victim of pickpocketing? Is this something you worry about, or do you not care? If you do care, what are you doing to prevent it from happening?

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  • CodeMonkey

    Only had one person attempt to pickpocket me on a metro train in Madrid, back when I used to keep my wallet in my back pocket. I caught the (rather elderly) thief as he removed the wallet and was about to drop it into a carrier bag hung over his ‘picking’ arm. I retrieved my wallet and threw him off the train.

    • Jeff Dodds

      Some old guy tried to pick pocket me on a train in Madrid too! I happened to be paranoidedly checking that my wallet was still there when I felt his hand trying to grab it! He yanked his hand back leaving the wallet and stepped out the closing doors and ran away.

      • http://twitter.com/gamercore Chris Chavez

        I feel like pickpocketing is a European thing. Maybe cuz I don’t live in a big city, but can’t say I’ve ever experienced or known anyone who’s been pickpocketed.

        A close friend has been pepper sprayed in the face and her stuff stolen in front of a Del Taco. Guess it’s different everywhere.

        • John Smith

          Did they get her tacos?

        • J Cav the Great

          I ♥ Del Taco.

        • thedicemaster

          it wouldn’t surprise me if pickpocketing is indeed more common in Europe than in the US.
          in the US it’s much easier to get a gun, so thieves will probably resort to gunpoint robbery more often.

        • archercc

          Its more common pretty much anywhere but the US in built-up areas. Europe, Mexico City. Guess Canada might be the exception in NA and some of the tiny nations in Europe.

          Dont think its a “Europeans are thieves” thing as much a you have the perfect storm of very old and crowded transit systems and streets coupled with a lot of foreign travelers. Its a far more target rich environment.

  • collin ferreira

    Is it me or has it been a very slow month of tech news…..

  • John Andrew Stuart

    Another Runner technique, though unplanned, is for the thief to run off with your phone after you have graciously asked them to take your picture. This tends to work well with large group photos since the thief has to take a “big” step back to capture the shot.

  • Roy Aguilera

    But who really tries to steal an LG Nexus?

    • Marc Perrusquia

      Smart thieves.

    • Champion of the Internets

      That’s $100 on Craigslist

  • John Andrew Stuart

    By the way, that video was recorded in the wrong side of town. It should have been recorded in “da hood.”

  • J Cav the Great

    I have a lanyard attached to my phone…when I’m in a populated area..or feel I need to be secured…I put my hand through the lanyard and wrap it once around my wrist..tug a little so that its secured..

    Also…I wish someone would try to take my phone..I ran track for 4 years…100m and 400m..so I’m quite sure I can outlast a runner thieve.. And when I do catch him/her I will beat them like they stole something…no pun intended.

    • bobfrea

      I keep my important data either encrypted or not on the device. I would not bother running after someone as I wouldn’t want to find out if they value the device more than my life.

    • archercc

      I got to see some street justice once. It was pretty hilarious and remarkably quick. Lady screamed and the guy happened to run near two men (possibly navy, in Chicago) who pretty easily tripped him up and then proceeded to kick him pretty mercilessly for a few minutes.

      It was only about 15 seconds all total but I suspect that the wannabe thief’s medical bills probably outweighed whatever we was trying to steal from the woman.

    • ronk2010

      I hope that you have a Go-Pro. I’d like to see that.

      • J Cav the Great

        Note to self: Buy a Go-Pro.

  • guitarist5122

    Best defense is not having any physical feature that makes you stand out of the crowd, like Chris Chavez hair.

    • robjackson81

      There is a reason for that hair. It’s where he hides his phone. More of a nest, really.

      • Dwight

        The ladies are the other reason, of course.

        • archercc

          He hides ladies in there?

          • Dwight

            Yeah… It’s a big problem when it comes to airport security. Can you belive that they want him to buy tickets for each of the ladies in there?? Preposterous.

          • ronk2010

            Sweet!

  • Angel De La Riva

    I can’t go more than 30-60 seconds without making sure I have my phone, wallet, & keys when I’m in a crowded place.

    • bobfrea

      i walk through crowded places with my hands on my [front] pockets holding phone and wallet/keys. and reminding my family members to pay attention to their tech gear.

  • Fourskim

    Kinda weird, but I repeatedly touch my butt and front pockets at random intervals to make sure things are still in my pockets. It’s as simple as a tap of the back and front pockets.

    • thedicemaster

      bad idea.
      especially if you do it around pickpocket warning signs.
      you’re telling pickpockets “here’s my wallet, and there you can find my phone.

      it’s better to use tight pockets through which you can feel the contents without using your hands, pockets with really annoying hard-to-open buttons, or pockets that are impossible to reach without very noticeably digging around.

      • superbelt

        Yep. Places that put up pickpocket warning signs end up taking them down because of this very phenomenon. The signs work, and get people to pay attention, but it really just makes people easy marks and increases the rates of theft.

    • Dan

      lol I do the same, also when I go out of the house to make sure I didn’t forget anything

  • http://twitter.com/Vanakatherock Vanakatherock

    I keep my phone in my front pocket at all times. My back pockets usually have receipts and my wallet. When I am knowingly going into a very public place, such as sporting events, I will put my wallet in my front pocket with my phone and keep my hand hanging on the edge of the pocket.

  • jpchopper

    I’m particularly paranoid about people reaching for my pockets, as I sometimes carry a loaded concealed 9mm (not in the pocket but close enough). I also usually have deeper pockets, even if I’m not carrying, which mostly just makes things difficult when I am buckled into a seatbelt.

    • dallasmay

      Wow. Okay, let’s step back just a minute. Are you really ready to kill someone for trying to stealing your phone? Seems a little over the top to me.

      • jj14x

        He didn’t really say that he was ready to “kill” someone, did he? A lot of people carry that for self defense. Just as a deterrent. If he lives in a city where he worries about getting mugged, that 9mm is enough to make a good percentage of muggers run away (though it could also lead to an exchange of fire in some cases).

        Besides, if somebody attacks you and mugs you, a shot in the mugger’s leg may not be a bad idea (ok – wait while I hammer these horns back into my skull – didn’t see them grow up so fast)

        And in this case, he seems more concerned about having his gun stolen (that could be pretty serious in itself assuming it is registered to him)
        (assuming jpchopper is a guy)

        • dallasmay

          That’s not really how guns work. If you draw your weapon and fire, you better be prepared to deal with the consequences of everything that happens there after. That’s one thing that annoys me about gun owners. They want the RIGHT to have a gun, but complain endlessly about also having the RESPONSIBILITY for that gun.

          And you are right about him being worried about the gun being stolen. That is the most dangerous thing about owning a gun, and most gun owners I know don’t think about that. I have had two friends have their guns stolen from their homes, and both of them freaked out and immediately went out to but another gun, and one of the friends had the second gun stolen within a week.

          • jj14x

            if one draws a weapon and fires, yep – gotta deal with the consequences. I don’t think i said anything contradictory. What I meant is that just drawing a weapon on a mugger is usually enough to stop the attack (exceptions exist of course – somebody under the influence may feel invincible). So, firing a weapons is (hopefully) not required in most cases.
            While I don’t really feel comfortable with the current Open Carry marches that are going on, you can bet they don’t worry about getting mugged.

          • ronk2010

            Rate of crime is higher in areas with stricter gun laws. As to Your friends having there guns stolen, responsible gun owners also own a safe.

        • DannyB2

          If you are going to draw your gun, you better be prepared to use it.

          If you think otherwise, you’ve been watching too much TV.

          • jj14x

            I’m not a gun owner, but if I ever chose to own a gun, and drawing a gun didn’t stop a mugger from attacking me, you can bet I’d be prepared to use it.
            But on TV or in real life, pointing a gun at an attacker usually makes them go away (unless of course they have one too – that could lead to an exchange of fire – as I mentioned earlier)

          • DannyB2

            BTW, I am not a gun owner.

      • jpchopper

        That’s silly, nobody carries to protect a phone, except maybe the man carrying the nuclear launch codes for the president.
        When I carry it has nothing to do with my phone, but all the same I’m not playing around letting people reach, either.

      • No_Nickname90

        I think it’s more along the lines that someone is invading your personal space and a mofo goin’ get shot if they ain’t careful.

  • dfs1122

    I had attempted “picks” at my pockets three times.

    1) In Rome (Italy). Two young women, one carrying a baby-like bundle, bumped into me on the sidewalk. During the bump their hands were inside my jacket. (They were feeling in the wrong place though.)
    2) Also in Rome. A school-aged girl reached into my pocket and then jumped out of the subway train as the doors were closing. Others on the carriage pointed out that I had just been targeted. (A had also noticed something, and had instinctively reached to my pocket, preventing her from pulling my wallet out.)
    3) In Santa Cruz, CA. Two young men watched me use my shiny iPhone 3G (!). Then they asked to borrow it to make a call. I offered them money for a payphone. They insisted on the mobile. I pointed them to the payphone less than 10 paces away. They decided they didn’t need to make a call after all, and hastily walked away.

    • Richard Sequeira

      Similar situation. I told this stranger that the underground has coin-op phones.

  • namesib

    Listen to music from your phone.

  • currency212

    I was in Florence once and some guy reaches into my pocket and grabs my camera. Then he walks off with the camera string dangling from his pocket. I didn’t mind so much about the camera but I would have lost weeks of photos. Anyway I run over and reach into his pocket and take it right back. Then I got into some shouting match with this dude, me in English, him in Italian.

    But at that point I realized I had “won” at that point and didn’t wanna get in a fight and walked off. Next day I backed up all those photos at an Internet cafe.

    I’m a short guy and I have a theory that it’s harder to pickpocket shorter people because of their lower pocket height. Anyway, anytime you bump into someone, always check your pockets. That’s my advice.

  • gtsip

    If you keep your valuable things on your front pockets, the risk is seriously decreased, even if you sleep on metro.

  • ilh

    I have a lot of change in my wallet, adds weight to notice it if it’s gone and makes it thicker and so harder to get out of my front pocket. Also have a counting system which I use every 30 seconds as I have a rubbish memory so don’t remember what I have but know how many things I have and where they are.

    • Wigdogg

      Counting system?? Not sure what you mean?/

      • ilh

        On a regular work day I carry 5 things; my wallet, phone, work pass, earphones and bus ticket. Much easier to remember how many things I have than what I have. So I tap and count my right pocket twice (wallet and bus ticket), left pocket (phone), belly (work pass on a lanyard), and shoulders (earphones). If I’m short I know something is missing.

    • Moroni Granja

      If you mean you touch your pockets every 30 seconds to make sure your stuff is still there, you are showing a pickpocket exactly where your valuables are!

      • ilh

        Generally speaking my earphones are plugged in to my phone when I’m out and about so I would notice if I suddenly lost sound and my wallet is that thick and heavy with the change that even I have a hard time getting it out. That leaves a bus ticket which would be easy to nick but not really of any use and worth no more than £14.

  • dallasmay

    The best anti-theft measure to take:
    Don’t travel to France. If you do travel to france, buy the cheapest pre-pay phone you can when you get there. There is a 100% chance your phone will be stolen, and a 0% chance any french person will care.

    • Guillaume

      This is a stupid racist and prejudiced comment. I’ve lived in France for 25 years, my house door was never locked as weren’t my neighboors’, never had anything stolen from me or my house.

      • dallasmay

        Is “french” a race?

        • archercc

          In France it is.

          • dallasmay

            So I guess when I order “French Fries” a person from France functionally hears the same thing as if I ordered “Black People Potatoes”.

          • Guillaume

            “Black People” is not a race… In fact, there is only one Human race: the Human race.

          • Unorthodox

            That is such a dumb thing to say, Mr. Obama.

          • No_Nickname90

            Race is determined based on the physical attributes of the human. This is why French is not a race, it’s an ethnicity.

            It’s a common mistake people make all the time. I took the time to look it up because I had nothing else to do at my help desk job. LoL!!

            The person you were referring to up top was discriminating, not being racist.

            Oh, and I find it funny that black people is being mentioned. I feel so special, now. =.3

          • Liferules

            French fries originated in Belgium, not France. So if you say that in France, they take no offence or pride…

      • archercc

        Stereotypes exist for a reason, you smelly thief.

      • leo98918

        I’m assuming he is talking about tourists. Now if you lived there for some time you’ve prolly become accustomed to them, and they can tell that your a local.

    • steveb944

  • archercc

    My anti-theft system is putting them in the front pocket of fitted jeans. You’re as likely to feel me up as you are to successfully get my phone out.

  • Negafox

    My tactics to help prevent pick-pocketing:

    1. I keep my cell phone, debit/credit cards and keys in my front pockets. It is a bit difficult to fish around my front pockets without me noticing. Objects slide about of back pockets very easily.
    2. I do not use a wallet but keep my cards in my pants. No cash whenever possible to create a paper trail of spending. I had someone attempt to mug me once in a foreign country and I responded I did not have a wallet. He did not realize I had $400 in cash sitting in my pocket and I got off scott-free.
    3. I do not let strangers borrow my cell phone out in public.

    • DannyB2

      I learned to keep valuables in front pockets at the end of high school on my senior trip. Before going to the airport, the responsible adults taking us told us that we should keep valuables in front pockets because it makes the job of pickpockets much more difficult.

      What simple advice. From that day I switched to keeping valuables in my front pockets.

      • Younanomous

        I’ve been doing this since I was younger simply because it’s more comfortable, especially when sitting, good to know about the added theft deterrent bonus. :)

  • bambi vincent

    Phone thieves are magicians. See how phones are stolen off restaurant tables right under your nose! http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/smart-phone-thieves-are-magicians/

  • http://www.KamilGPhotography.com/ KamilG225

    I’ve always been worried of being robbed on the train in Chicago.

    Surprisingly, through 5 years of classes and taking the subway nearly everyday, no one ever stole my bag filled with electronics even though I slept like a baby every single trip. Got lucky, I guess.