CHICAGO – It's a dying art on America's city streets, a bit of sleight-of-hand straight out of Charles Dickens' London.
And yet on the final shopping and travel days before Christmas, Chicago police are stepping up their watch for aging criminals plying an ancient trade in bustling shopping districts and on crowded train platforms, pilfering wallets here and there in little productions as choreographed as any performance of "A Christmas Carol" or "Oliver."
They're what's left of the pickpocket.
Their numbers have dwindled as fewer carry cash, surveillance cameras proliferate and younger would-be crooks lack the patience to learn the trade. But police say the holidays' glittering lights, bell ringers and window displays create a perfect environment of distractions for a "crew" to fool someone out of their valuables with a bump and an apology as they vanish into the crowd.
Undercover officers, some carrying city maps to make them appear lost, wander around, hoping pickpockets will take the bait and strike. Chicago police also scour surveillance cameras to spot the more than 120 known pickpockets they believe are working the city's streets.
"They're shopping around for victims," said Chicago Police Sgt. Sean Rice, who hunts for the thieves as part of his job with the department's public transportation unit.
Undoubtedly, there are not nearly as many pickpockets as there once were. In Chicago there were just over 1,800 pickpocket incidents last year — or about a tenth of the number of vehicle thefts. New York police say the number of pickpockets has so dwindled that the department no longer records the crime as its own statistic.
Yet police here and elsewhere still consider it a threat. They say the target now is more likely a victim's credit cards or identity, rather than cash, and they believe the numbers of victims are higher than the statistics suggest.
"If you have a really good pickpocket, (incidents) are reported as lost property or not reported at all," said Chicago Police Commander Christopher Kennedy, whose downtown district includes a piece of swanky Michigan Avenue. "I see the reports and you see (victims) don't know it happened, that it didn't come into their consciousness until later that, 'Hey, a guy bumped into me.'"
In Detroit, state police in 2009 arrested a group of Chicago pickpockets who stole credit cards and then quickly manufactured fake drivers' licenses that included victims' names and their own photographs.
"They had a factory in their car — cameras, computers printing material — all the stuff to make drivers' licenses," said Sgt. Paul DiPietro, a detective with the Michigan State Police who helped nab the crew that was operating during the NCAA's Final Four tournament.
Police say pickpocket crews travel to the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and other major events to take advantage of fans more interested in cheering — and drinking — than keeping track of their belongings. But like everyone else, they'd rather stay home for the holidays. And with busy stores and packed trains providing the perfect environment, there's no reason to leave.
"It was the best time," said Sherman Powell, a 64-year-old New Yorker who says he "retired" about a decade ago when his hands got too jittery.
Powell said it's not surprising that police say most of the pickpockets are older. Gone, he said, are the honest-to-goodness pickpocket schools, like the one he paid some vagabonds $500 to attend in 1969. He does not know anywhere where pickpockets learn their craft as he did, by lifting purses and wallets from mannequins adorned with bells that would ring if disturbed in the slightest way.
Powell said that the young people who call him O.T — short for Old Timer — don't have the patience to learn what he knows. "It's a dying art," he said.
In Chicago, police say all the pickpockets need is a revolving door, crowded train platform or an escalator — anywhere where people don't think twice about being jostled or bumped. A woman at a city Starbucks was robbed earlier this month after the revolving door she was in suddenly stopped, causing her to bump into the glass door while a man, whom she later described as in his 50s or 60s, bumped into her and lifted her wallet from her purse.
On train platforms, said John Graeber, commander of the Chicago department's public transportation unit, sometimes the ruses are downright comical. He once arrested two men after one simply dropped to the ground, wrapped his arms around a victim's leg long enough for the victim to back into the waiting pickpocket, desperately trying to kick free.
"That even took me a minute to see what was going on," he said.