These Pickpocket Secrets Will Make You Cry

Pickpocket tricks explained by neuroscience.

So while sleight of hand helps, it’s as much about capturing all of somebody’s attention with other movements. Street pickpockets also use this effect to their advantage by manufacturing a situation that can’t help but overload your attention system. A classic trick is the ‘stall’, used by pickpocketing gangs all over the world. First, a ‘blocker’, walks in front of the victim (or ‘mark’) and suddenly stops so that the mark bumps into them. Another gang member will be close behind and will bump into both of them and then start a staged argument with the blocker. Amid the confusion one or both of them steal what they can and pass it to a third member of the gang, who quickly makes off with the loot.

I’ve seen Apollo Robbins in action. He’s very good.

Posted on July 8, 2014 at 6:22 AM46 Comments


Anon July 8, 2014 6:33 AM

Sounds like someone is having too much fun with the upworthy-esque titles this week. Please don’t do this for more than one week, though.

Sam July 8, 2014 6:41 AM

When I lived in pick pocket haven Las Vegas, I used to carry a lockblade knife in a sheath that dropped down over my billfold back pocket. It worked as a double disincentive for pick pockets.

Bill July 8, 2014 7:08 AM

Bruce, are you okay? If you’re being coerced in some way use a prime number of vowels in your next post.

Irene July 8, 2014 7:40 AM

Back in 1998 I was traveling in Rome with my husband. Three women came up to us. One held a newspaper in front of me and acted like she was crying. Another separated my husband from me and a third reached into my pants pocket to try to steal from me. I took a step back from the first and pulled the third woman’s hand out of my pocket, cracking her knuckles.

A postcard salesman came up to us, grabbed the two woman around the neck, shoved them against a fence and started screaming at them in Italian. Fortunately, I had already learned never to carry cash loosely. It was locked in our backpack and they only got about 15 cents out of my husband’s jacket pocket. We bought all our postcards from this guy as a thank you for helping us.

Also, I agree with other posters. I’m not too sure I like the recent change in headlines/titles. Maybe it’s to get folks like me to post more often instead of reading/lurking.

kronos July 8, 2014 7:55 AM

Anytime I am in a large crowd, I put my wallet and valuables in my front pants pockets. Still I’ve been bumped and felt something/someone touching my back pockets on several occasions. Wearing a jacket helps if you keep your valuables in the inside pockets and especially if the jacket is fastened.

Still the pickpockets can simply physically accost you and take what they want, but many seem to avoid the attention that brings.

Anura July 8, 2014 7:56 AM

I suspect Bruce is just having some fun, but I think it’s a good time to start coming up with wild conspiracy theories just in case.

This is probably his way of communicating that he received an NSL for all of our account passwords for the blog.

Rufo guerreschi July 8, 2014 8:15 AM

This hand trick are very relevant also to hardware manufacturing oversight processes, such as those of DARPA’S Trusted in Integrated Circuits.

Richard Stallman suggested hiring performing magicians to prevent such trick…

Rob July 8, 2014 8:25 AM

Is anyone working on decrypting the hidden messages in the titles?



Alex July 8, 2014 8:25 AM

I think Bruce is conducting a Facebook-like experiment on his RSS feed readers to see if they will click on the link 😉

Tim July 8, 2014 8:29 AM

Alt. theory on subject lines: Bruce is doing A-B testing on us. Is anyone out there seeing non-Buzzkill, vanilla subject lines? Alternatively is anyone seeing subject lines like “NSA Employee Flees to Hong Kong; Desolation Is All About”, or “The Simple Trick That Will Destroy Yur Will To Live” ?

steve37 July 8, 2014 8:53 AM

“Has Bruce outsourced the headline writing?”
This site was hacked. Bruce is on holiday 🙂

calho July 8, 2014 9:43 AM

Bruce, what are this summer’s hottest tricks to look thinner in our sys admin outfits?

Dave Walker July 8, 2014 9:57 AM

My own anti-pickpocket measure: make sure all valuables are heavy enough that, if someone tries to lift them, you’ll feel the weight difference (and they may also be surprised enough by the weight, to give themselves away).

Harvey MacDonald July 8, 2014 10:19 AM

I have said it before and I will say it again.

Two words: Wallet Grenade.

nbm July 8, 2014 11:06 AM

I think it’s a scheme to make the NSA’s headline reader algorithms ignore his blog. Or, alternatively, to make them process and store all the buzzfeed articles ever written.

anonymous July 8, 2014 12:16 PM

Dear Comments Section,

I never believed these blog posts were real, until it happened to me one day..

Wael July 8, 2014 1:57 PM

@ wiredog,

I dust the outside of my wallet with iocaine powder.

Won’t help you if your pickpocket drinks from This cup

pfogg July 8, 2014 2:30 PM

“Pickpockets tend to hang out near ‘beware of pickpockets’ signs, because the first thing people do when they read it is check they still have their valuables, helpfully giving away where they are.”

Standard unintended consequences.

Herman July 8, 2014 2:45 PM

You got to cross yourself like Austin Powers: Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch…

extra88 July 8, 2014 4:25 PM

@Irene, those “pickpockets” were actually working as shills for the postcard salesman 😉

Blonko July 8, 2014 4:59 PM

Come on, Bruce. Please stop the uninformative clickbait headlines.

Unless you’re paid for traffic, in which case, please continue.

Incredulous July 8, 2014 5:53 PM

I think Alex is right. These headlines must be part of an experiment: A research study a la Facebook in order to draw some instructive conclusion about the ethics/desirability/effectiveness of the manipulation of social media content in a research context. I assume that Bruce will post the results at some point.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2014 6:09 PM

For all those complaining about the titles…

Please remember that traditionally the two months of July and August are known by journalists as “the silly season” where unless there are heatwaves killing the old and inferm or causing forest/brush fires that cause a billion or so in damage, the news needs to be “stuffed” with stories about cats stuck in drain pipes being flushed out with air from a fireman’s breathing gear or some Z-lister doing something brainless.

So when we stop seeing articles about how Kim Kardashian “allegedly” uses tire sealant to get a “firmer seat”, then and only then will silly season be over and we could ask “for normal programing to return” on this blog.

@ Bruce,

If you are away doing something “vacational” enjoy and grab a drink in a coconut or pineapple, just make sure the cocktail umbrella is not that “sun burn pink” you see on the less cautious 😉

Chris Abbott July 8, 2014 9:10 PM

I figured out the Buzzfeed/Tabloid style titles and this is what you must do:

  1. Combine all of the titles into a text file using Notepad and save it as MESSAGE.TXT.

  2. Create a file named WARNING.TXT and type in “You all need to leave the country NOW before you get kidnapped or assassinated!”

  3. Get the SHA-512 hash of both files, you’ll notice that they collide and realize what this means.

  4. Get out of the country NOW! I’m already packed and heading to the airport. The airport in an undisclosed city of course because I know they’re waiting for me at Eppley (Omaha’s airport).

dandraka July 9, 2014 1:41 AM

My guess on the titles: Bruce has lost a bet, forcing him to write this way 🙂

Clive Robinson July 9, 2014 3:39 AM

@ Anura,

With such a build up and an article title of


I was hoping for some DIY random pass phrase generator that involved some light vegetable oil, a heat source, corn kernels, a saucepan without a lid and a computer with USB camera to watch the kernels pop to generate the word selection via some clever algorithm we could discuss in depth.

Esspecialy as some one would say it was realy a new British Secret Service plant along with their previous Fairy/cup cake success over AQ and we could have further indepth discussions for a week or to about how it might actually also be weaponised etc.

You can only imagine my disappointment 😉

AlanS July 9, 2014 8:09 AM


Yes, I did notice that one. Funny. Also scary that it’s more or less what most people do.

Anura July 9, 2014 4:40 PM

The distribution of air pockets in cupcakes should be fairly random too. I think I found a legitimate reason to use “Smart” devices: entropy collection (I’m assuming we will bombard our baked goods with X-rays or something to detect air pockets).

Zaphod July 10, 2014 3:37 PM

Damnation!!! ‘cuse the cussing but all these headlines have caused me to drop my Higg’s Boson on the floor and I can’t find it.


Markus July 12, 2014 10:24 AM

An interesting book about such tricks, cons, cheats and hustles:
“How to cheat at everything” by Simon Lovell

Just my 5 cents.

Wesley Parish July 12, 2014 11:34 PM

Personally I thought the reference to “neuroscience” was a little overblown. The article wasn’t referring to Neuroscience as such, but to a recognition of certain habits of attention that are endemic to Homo Sapiens.

About the only thing that I felt could be categorized as Neuroscience was the information on attention during straight-line movement of the hands versus movement of the hands in an arc. The rest is simple psychology.

Bruce’s reference to topic heading “social engineering” is quite apt.

And as such, since focus of attention is quite an interesting neuroscience topic, I don’t find Bruce’s “clickbait” titles quite that jarring.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.