Bob Arno can reveal every trick in the book used by pickpockets and con men. He tells Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary how his knowledge is used by the police as well as common people to counter the con.
How many times when touring a new country have you had a strange feeling of being watched? A sense of being closely followed by a pair of invisible eyes? You brush the sensation off as paranoia and board the train or hop into a bus only to collide with a deeply apologetic stranger. He mollifies you and you smile back. 'It's all right.' Except it isn't because when you reach for your wallet soon after, it's not there. You have been a sitting duck for one of Fagin's followers.
They are legion. But now, one man is trying to lessen their hold on you, literally. Meet Bob Arno, the counter con man. This US-based professor has taken pains to learn the tricks of the bad guys to protect people like you and me. Nothing escapes his eye. He can stand in crowded trains, alleys and marketplaces and let his hawk-like eyes lock on to artful dodgers who are practising their tricks on unsuspecting people, specially tourists. An expert on body language, Arno can detect a pickpocket almost instinctively. He is as good in theory as he is in the practice of 'counter pickpocketing'. So he decided to make a living from it, specialising in theft risk management solutions for people travelling on business and leisure. He is a speaker, entertainer, lecturer and author of books on how to avoid being conned. He works with the top detective agencies, tracks con men and runs accredited courses on this subject at the Connecticut Police Academy. In Dubai last week to present a show on the topic, he captured the fancy of every member of the audience.
In a detailed chat with Friday, Arno traces his own interest in the topic and gives special tips for travelling smart. Arno's fascination with the art of picking a pocket started when he was a young boy in Sweden. "It began with my research as a teenager in Sweden, with little understanding at the time of the deeper relationships between misdirection, diversion, or the serious repercussions of the crime itself.
"I was 16 years old at the time, and this form of activity was practically non-existent [in my country]." The wake-up call
"My curiosity came from three sources: a few books [David Maurer's two books Grift Sense and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man], the French film Pickpocket, and attending a show in Stockholm by a French pickpocket entertainer, Dominique. The film story and the book scenes were dramatised, but at the same time very much based on reality. Pickpocketing, however, is many degrees higher; for accurate execution it depends on psychology: reading people, watching body language, misdirection [of attention] and executing the actual extraction with superb coordination and timing.
"Add to this the ability of 'grift sense', and one can summarise what pickpocketing is all about. Three years later, a lot wiser and a tad more mature, I came to realise that there is also a thieves' culture, a pecking order, no compassion for others, and often a sense of feeling superior to the laws of the land."
That realisation came during his travels to Asia as a 21-year-old photographer. "I had a quick wake-up call while living in cheap hotels in Asia for about a year, before I finally arrived in Vietnam. My old life in Sweden had been dependable and predictable. My experience in Asia, living in rather poor and tight financial constraints, made me come in contact with many con men, scammers and non-violent criminals who survived simply on their wits. These were the guests of cheap hotels in Saigon, Hong Kong and Bangkok. I experienced, first hand, what David Maurer calls 'grift sense', a slang-term used among drifters and grifters in the US in the '30s. These were people on the fringes of society; carnival workers, side-show men, circus people, pickpockets, short-change artists and con men in general. Grift sense is basically the skill to read the hapless victims, to 'rope' them in, and create a con where he is being taken advantage of."
It was a shockingly novel experience for a person like him, coming from a society where the rules, the laws and the population's idea of right and wrong were always very clear. "We believed that you work hard and there is a good 'payoff', eventually, for everyone. It's that simple. You do not take advantage of others! My father was a judge, and later a member of Parliament, and I had a very good upbringing with clear moral values in our home. The environment at home, in terms of value and clarity of right and wrong, was exemplary."
He quickly acquired a lot of knowledge on a crime that intrigued him and by the age of 22 became an amateur criminologist. Soon he was given the responsibility by a US law enforcement agency of tracking the master conman of Britain, Lord Moynihan. Arno began specialising in the art and science of this crime and started to enjoy the intricacies of his job even though catching a thief in the act was very risky. "I agree that this is an unusual profession and to outsiders, not exactly easy to understand," says Arno.
"But it is no more hard to grasp than any person or professional who gets sucked into the chase, like a chess game to win and to have an impact. One lecture, in front of, for example, 1,000 people, can be far more satisfying, in terms of helping and making sure that travellers visiting dangerous zones leave a popular tourist destination with all their belongings, while feeling safe at the same time."
When things go wrong The personal satisfaction of slicing ever deeper into the underbelly of the underworld is an issue which is hard for him to express in a few lines. Arno travels around the world, assisted by his wife Bambi Vincent, and together they have had very unusual experiences on field jobs.
"We have been gypped by Gypsies in Italy in the Florence region. We have been threatened many times in various manners. In one part of the world, an internal affairs division of the government asked us to put together a team of pickpocket specialists [sophisticated thieves] to steal highly sensitive documents from a drug cartel in South America. But things have often gone wrong, over the years, when we least expected it. At one point, a few years ago, a pickpocket gang managed to steal an expensive video recording device that I carried in a soft bag at ankle height, by using a razor-sharp knife and slicing the fabric [on a crowded metro in Rome]. This happened while I was secretly filming another pickpocket team on this subway train! When we all left the train at the next station, I confronted the team I had been filming. At that point, the other team which had my recording device came up and apologised and gave me back the video recorder."
There are countries he can never travel to any more as his 'cover' has been blown. In some he has to use innovative disguises. These he regards only as occupational hazards. In the meantime, he wastes no time honing his techniques and adding new ones to his repertoire. So accurate and winning are his techniques that he has had invitations from thugs to join their world, something which never really charmed him.
"I am often invited to participate in various scams. Especially in territories [countries] where my 'cover' hasn't been blown. I don't think I will describe exactly where and how, but it often stems from building trust with 'the bad guys' and showing them some sort of skill that they are impressed with. Especially if they think I can be suitable as a 'player' in a scam where a tall, European-looking tourist is a benefit to their 'game' [for example in the process of maxing out a stolen credit card]."
So how does one really recognise or pick out the person who is about to clean their pocket? Arno says the key is 'body language'. "What we do is body-language-profiling and I am also looking for certain tools which good pickpockets carry, to hide the actual extraction."
Arno has filmed the actual act and uses these clips to educate his audience. But he refuses to reveal all. "Your article may get picked up globally, or gain a viral life. For that reason, I may not tell you every single sign I am looking for, and thereby tipping my hat to the bad guys." However, he reveals what kind of ideal candidate a pickpocket looks for. "The psychology is to find easy-going people who are easily led or diverted. Thieves stay away from hard-nosed or serious-looking persons. Individuals who appear to have purpose and "pace" in their facial expressions are usually avoided by pickpockets. They may wait 10 or 15 minutes before they see a good "mark" or a perfect victim, sometimes longer. They also look for certain characteristics in the dress mode: loose pockets on people who are 45 or over not tight jeans."
However, Arno has his own technique of sniffing out a gang of miscreants and he proceeds to narrate an operation he and his wife Bambi were involved in recently catching a pickpocket red-handed on a Lisbon tram in Portugal. "We stayed there for 48 hours only. We hadn't been back there for five years and we felt a bit rusty in terms of exact locations where the thieves hung out. We started our experiment, to track new thieves by asking a few police officers working in the central metro station where they see the most pickpocketing action. We already knew from our own reports that certain trams and buses have more action than others.
"Our conversation led us to a few central areas in Lisbon. Once we arrived, we spotted our first pickpocket within five minutes. His facial reaction and a tool led us to believe he was a pickpocket but we were not certain.
"We followed him from a distance for about five minutes and we noticed that he was having visual contact with two other persons: a man and a woman who also appeared to be pickpockets. All three boarded a tram. So did we. They left the tram one station away and returned in the opposite direction [on another tram]. In pickpocket slang, this is called 'looping'. We now knew for sure that they were pickpockets.
"My wife and I did not stand together at the tram station. We appeared like separate tourists. On operations like this I carry a prop wallet, with only newspapers in it in my hip pocket. We stood fairly close to the tram station but not exactly in the waiting line. I then waited for a crowd to board a tram if the crowd was sparse and not 'tight' at the door, it would not do.
The perfect moment soon came, as more people lined up for the tram and I positioned myself with others to board. My wife positioned herself on my right, about five feet behind me, to have a line of sight of my right hip pocket. If she was immediately behind, she would not have been able to film an extraction. The pickpocket team immediately positioned itself behind me and they started work, as we climbed on board. I could sense the wallet slowly sliding out.
"My wife filmed the entire operation. Sometimes the thieves cover all the important moves [of the extraction] with clothing articles; a jacket, cap, soft bag carried sideways but with straps, a newspaper, or, if they are especially experienced, bare-handed [with the left hand usually held over the right to shield the view of the stolen articles from other passengers]. The tram started to move and we waited about three minutes. Then I turned to the thief and asked him to return my wallet.
"There are several situations that could have happened at this point: one, they could've dropped the wallet on the ground and pretended it was somebody else who might have stolen the wallet. Two, they could have sheepishly given it back. Three, I would have to grab the arm which was holding my wallet, and literally retrieve the wallet from his grasp. Four, they could literally 'stone-face' me and pretend not to understand.
"In that case I would then lean in and attempt to steal something simple from him at breast height they are more nervous than I am at this point like a cellphone or a pair of sunglasses [in a top pocket]. I now say something like: "here is your phone, let me trade it for my wallet there is nothing in it anyhow, only newspaper." That nearly always works.
Arno does not end it there. He tries to 'make friends' with them to be able to completely understand their way of working. "The purpose here is not to trade something with the thieves [for the sake of the 'rush'] but to establish rapport. This works around 25 per cent of the time.
"And in the case of the incident in Lisbon we left the tram together at the end station [in a park] and one of the thieves eventually demonstrated for me his technique and the unique positioning of his fingers during the extraction! The bottomline is that each scene is unique, unpredictable, and to some extent dangerous. We have to be very cautious, have our guard up and analyse the environment, where we are and what can happen next."
Arno's show in Dubai was a learning experience for his audience as he revealed the interesting modules to his performance.
"In the middle of the show, we actually project video for some minutes of real thieves in action around the world. This footage has been filmed by us with very sophisticated equipment, hidden in our clothes and rather close to the action, as it unravels.
"After the video projection, we also re-enact one scene, and the audience member is still being fooled. But the most common reaction we get after the show is: wow, we had such a good time, it was fun but we also learned through tears of laughter. If you are observant, you will surely walk away a lot wiser than when you arrived."