The holidays are here, which for New York means bright lights, big sales, streets crowded with shoppers—and pickpockets. In recent years, the city has seen a Christmas-time spike in covert phone- and wallet-snatchers, who slip their hands into unsuspecting commuters’ bags and pockets on crowded buses, trains and streets.
“It’s that time of year. This is what we get on the Upper East Side,” said Officer Tarik Hunter, the 19th Police Precinct’s crime prevention specialist. He cited eight reported incidents of pickpocketing in his district since August, most of which have occurred in the past month. This increase mirrors last year’s numbers, and, as Hunter emphasized, only accounts for thefts that have been reported to NYPD: Many people do not realize that their belongings are missing until well after the incident, he said, so they are not sure if they were robbed or simply lost something.
A community affairs officer in Midtown North, Manhattan’s 18th Precinct, confirmed a similar spike in larcenies in his district. “It’s usually the same [each year],” he said, and added that the city’s heavily commercial areas endure a regular holiday increase in shoplifting as well as pickpocketing.
Thefts are, indeed, up across the city this month in keeping with annual trends, the NYPD reported. As well as in crowded public transportation vehicles, they said that many sneaky crooks strike in restaurants, bars and outdoor benches, where absent-minded visitors sometimes leave bags unattended and ripe for picking.
“I’m surprised. I haven’t heard of any [increase],” said John Barrett, a commuter waiting at a bus stop along Madison Avenue, whose buses have been heaviest hit by Upper East side pickpockets, according to Officer Hunter. “Pickpockets—that sounds like something from Charles Dickens.”
Despite his startled reaction, Barrett said that he is diligent in guarding his belongings on public transportation, and checks his pockets whenever someone brushes against him—a habit that he says has won him more than a few mean looks from innocent passersby. “It’s so quick that somebody can take your stuff and leave with it,” he said. “I just try to take precautions.”
Another bus rider was less surprised to hear about the holiday-time thieves. “I’m a New Yorker wherever I go,” said Peggy McDermott-Roberts, a city native who recently returned from a trip to California. “I look at my purse 29 times before and after I get on any bus.” She noticed that on her return to the city, people seemed more anxious on public transport around this time of the year, a bit more frenzied and less attentive.
A third commuter, Sandra Hasman, attributed the increase in thefts to the city’s seasonal influx of tourists. “There are so many more out-of-towners here for the holiday,” she observed. The NYPD confirmed that tourists were prime targets for pickpockets, because they tend to be less aware of the danger and more preoccupied with navigating the city.
However, locals are always at risk, too, officers emphasized. According to an NYPD safety report, pickpockets often hit crowds on bus or subway rides when passengers are so crammed together that it is hard to distinguish the feeling of a sneaky hand. New York pickpockets are also known to orchestrate some elaborate distractions, like a staged shouting match between two apparent strangers, to hold commuters’ attention long enough to steal from them.
The NYPD is taking measures to combat the annual spike, but they say that the best prevention is awareness. Use handbags with zippers and locks, they recommend, and never carry wallets in back pockets. If your find your pocket picked on a bus or train, they suggest that you immediately yell out to warn passengers and the driver / conductor. In their words, “Don’t be afraid to be loud.”
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