SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Have you ever reached into your pocket or purse for your wallet, and discovered it’s not there? You’ve been pickpocketed.

It’s a scary feeling. Unfortunately, it’s still all too common in the Bay Area, mostly in San Francisco, and mostly on Muni.

Bob Arno, a famous stage pickpocket, showed us how it works, using our unsuspecting production assistant Earl as the guinea pig. In the blink of an eye Arno goes into his backpack grabs a red wallet and is off the bus, in this case the 30-Stockton, before Earl knows what hit him.

Earl got his wallet back. And these days Arno, known as the Pickpocket King, doesn’t perform any more. He’s on to more serious stuff, hunting organized pickpocket rings for a living, both in the states and abroad.

Arno says once a pickpocket develops their signature move, they rarely deviate from it. And there are classic markers: First, the eyes, always looking down at purses or wallet marks in pockets, what in pickpocket lingo is known as the “print of the money”.

Next comes the diversion, typically as you get on a crowded bus. The diversion could be a slight bump. “You might get squeezed from a partner in front so that you get slowed, maybe creating a sandwich, so that you don’t move easily,” said Arno.

And finally the invasion, with a hand darting in and out of a pocket, backpack or purse in a second.

Bob says the most sophisticated pickpockets travel the world, targeting conventions and big sporting events. Las Vegas is their number one destination in the U.S. In Europe, it’s Paris .

But the Bay Area isn’t immune.

“Yes, there have been some very good pickpockets, some very very good ones, coming from this area,” said Arno.

And apparently they’re keeping busy. Pickpocketing incidents were up 8 percent on Muni in San Francisco last year to 854 incidents.

“I was surprised,” said San Francisco police Commander Teresa Ewins. She oversees the police department’s Muni Task Force. She says the crime is so discreet that it is hard to catch the suspects.

“It’s really about people not understanding, they didn’t see anything, they aren’t sure if they felt anything. The person doesn’t know it happened until probably they got to a store or they got home,” said Ewins.

Police data shows most pickpocketing incidents happen in the city’s central district, on the F street car line, the 38, 41 and 45 lines and most of all the 30-Stockton that runs through Chinatown.

It’s the favorite bus line for a career pickpocket called Tommy Wilson with a rap sheet a mile long.

“I have arrested him off and on for 30 years” said Audrey Moy, a retired investigator with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

Moy says Tommy Wilson has a routine that starts at the bus stop right before the Stockton tunnel that leads into busy Union Square.

“Once the bus enters the tunnel there’s usually a victim that loses their wallet,” Moy said. “When they come out of it Tommy gets off, crosses the street, jumps on another bus and goes back through the tunnel.”

His MO she says is classic: “He drapes a coat over his right arm. He leans in and removes the wallet.”

Arno was happy to demonstrate the technique again, this time with bus rider Raymond Capwood, who agreed to play along. He thought he had just dropped his keys and that Arno had picked them up for him and was completely surprised to learn Bob had snatched his iPhone out of his pocket.

“Do you think I’m good?” asked Arno. “You’re real good!” said Capwood.

Capwood told us he’s going to be way more careful from now on, and that’s what Arno’s goal was.

“That is a devastating moment. And of course, that is why I work in the field I am in, making it difficult for those guys,” said Arno.

Police say there are a few key precautions that you can take to avoid becoming a victim: If you’re stashing your wallet in a pocket, use a front pocket. If you have a purse or a backpack hold it in front of you in a crowd, and especially getting on or off a bus.

Comments (17)
  1. Pick pocketing is much more common than the reports indicate, as it’s difficult and time-consuming to report the crime. One must go to a police station, in person, to file a report. It’s not allowed on-line if the property was taken off your person. Thus, you need to find a police station and spend time doing a report. If you live in Oakland, as I do, and the crime was committed in San Francisco, it necessitates a trip back to the city. On December 28th, I was pick pocketed in Macys on Union Square, on the first floor in the handbag department. Someone bumped me, I turned around and there was no one there. Only upon returning to the O’Farrell Street parking garage, did I realize that my parking stub and house keys were missing, taken from a pouch on the outside of my zippered handbag. I told Macy’s right away. They could care less. I now have filed a police report, having to come back to the city to do so. Really? If the reporting requirements were easier, the crime numbers would soar. Victimless crimes are not victimless.

  2. In Mexico City I got on a Metro and someone behind me pushed a little. I had my wallet in my front jean pocket and I instinctively reached for it. I grabbed it out of mid-air as it was being stolen. I turned around and there was a little old lady with a basket and a dish-towel over it. She said she didn’t see anything but probably was the one who did it. Just the front pocket isn’t safe enough!

  3. Bob Arno still does his comedy pickpocket show for private corporate events.

  4. Teresa and Edmond both make correct points: If all pickpocket victims filed police reports, numbers would soar (my estimate is by 10x). It is too difficult, too time-consuming, and seems useless to file (it isn’t!). And, correct that the front pants pockets isn’t particularly safe. Use your tightest pocket or, better, carry your wallet under your clothes.