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Where are all the pickpockets?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2011

Due to tougher laws and easier opportunities in other areas of crime, pickpockets have all but vanished from the streets and trains of the US.

The decline of dipping on the rails is extraordinary. Subways were always the happiest hunting grounds for pickpockets, who would work alone or in teams. There were classic skilled canons-organized pickpocket gangs-at the top, targeting wealthier riders, then “bag workers” who went for purses, and “lush workers” who disreputably targeted unconscious drunks. Richard Sinnott, who worked as a New York City transit cop in the 1970s and ’80s, also admiringly recalls “fob workers,” a subspecies of pickpocket who worked their way through train cars using just their index and middle fingers to extract coins and pieces of paper money-a quarter here, a buck there-from riders’ pockets. “They weren’t greedy, and they never got caught,” says Sinnott. Bit by bit, fob workers could make up to $400 on a single subway trip; then they’d go to Florida in the winter to work the racetracks. Many of the city’s pickpockets trained elsewhere, “and if they were any good, they came to New York,” Sinnot says, with a touch of pride. “In the subways, we had the best there were.”

I’m generally a fan of Slate’s compulsive contrarianism, but asking if we should miss pickpocketing is just too much.