One woman was sitting in a window seat at La Colombe, lost in a discussion about a Macy’s sale, when someone snatched her wallet from her purse.
Alyssa Abbott had just finished lunch at a Chestnut Street cafe when she noticed how light her tote bag felt.
And Temple University student Rachael Young was packing up her laptop at Starbucks when she realized her wallet was gone.
Or, more precisely, the work of what police now call “sneak thieves.”
If the best friend of the coffeehouse thief is distraction, then the holiday season, with its crowded shops of hurried shoppers, offers the pickpocket prime opportunities.
The thieves are out there working, said Sgt. Phil McAlorum of the Ninth District, which covers Center City West.
“This is that person’s job,” he said. “Just like you, they work to the day before Christmas.”
But gone are the days, police say, of skilled, nimble-fingered thieves who emptied pockets in theater lobbies, rush-hour subways, and crammed elevators.
Police say your grandfather’s pickpocket has been replaced by a less adept, but equally efficient, crook.
“You don’t see the skilled professional as much anymore – the classic bumps, the hug-and-lift,” said Capt. Brian Korn, commander of the Sixth District, which covers portions of Center City.
“That’s something you see slim to none,” agreed Capt. Frank Banford, commander of the Ninth District, which handles Center City West.
Though the talent has diminished, the boldness of the criminals has, if anything, increased, McAlorum said.
His investigators handle about 10 pickpocket crimes a month.
And in almost every case, it’s the same thing: a thief sidles up to an open purse hanging from the chair of a person lost in conversation or on a laptop or iPhone.
“It’s just a reach-in,” McAlorum said, describing the favorite move of the modern pickpocket, during an interview last week. “And the bag doesn’t even have to be open. I’ve seen cases where they remove the person’s purse, put it on their lap, get the wallet, and then just leave the bag and walk out.”
Exact totals of the crimes are hard to pin down, Banford said.
Not everybody reports it, he said. Some victims are just happy to be reimbursed by their credit card companies for the fraudulent billings that inevitably follow.
There have been 162 reported pickpocket offenses in Center City in 2013, according to police data. That’s up from 133 last year.
A review of those incidents shows the crimes were centered in the busy coffeehouses and restaurants between 11th and 16th Streets. But there aren’t any particular hot spots, McAlorum said.
“That doesn’t mean the same place hasn’t been hit twice,” he said. “But it’s not like I can say, `9 o’clock Thursday, they are going to be somewhere.’ It’s a job with flex hours – they can do it wherever they want.”
And they do, he said. The crimes occur at all times, not just during busy rush hours.
“I’ve seen crowded places,” he said. “I’ve also seen where the only people in the place were the victim and the pickpocket.”
McAlorum is chasing two pickpockets police believe are responsible for a string of recent thefts.
One of the men has been stealing wallets from bags in Center City restaurants and in a coffee shop at the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, he said. The other has been targeting coffeehouses in Fairmount.
The sergeant’s advice to potential victims is simple: Never leave your bag unguarded or on the back of a chair. And don’t be afraid to move if someone is acting suspiciously.
Pickpockets prey on politeness, he said.
Many victims, like Abbott, 21, whose Coach wallet was plucked from her hanging purse this month at a University City sandwich shop, tell police they noticed someone bumping or crowding them, but thought it would be rude to say anything.
Once the pickpocket has the wallet, there’s a mad dash to run up the credit cards, McAlorum said.
The crooks favor big-box retail stores, often taking a cab to the ones along Delaware Avenue for hurried spending sprees. They buy gift cards, McAlorum said, which are hard for police to trace and which can be profitably sold at a discount.
Making things easier for the pickpockets is that, as a policy, some of the bigger stores don’t ask for identification so as not to slow lines at the register, he said.
The average loss per person is about $1,300, he said, but sometimes it’s as much as $10,000.
If surveillance cameras did not capture footage of the actual theft, McAlorum and his detectives, Paul Guercio, Mike Harvey, and Joe Davis, track purchases made on the stolen cards, hoping cameras at those stores can lead them to the pickpockets. They do that while also investigating more serious crimes, like shootings and robberies.
Chief Thomas Nestel III, commander of SEPTA police, said his officers rarely see the kind of pickpockets who were masters of the art like the ones he contended with as a young officer in the 1980s.
“There were people who had specially made jackets with cutouts so they could put their hands through their jackets and not be seen,” he said.
“When it comes to pickpockets, we just don’t have the types of criminals we had 30 years ago,” he said. “And that’s not me wishing we did.”
The decaying skills of Philadelphia pickpockets have been remarked on for more than a half-century.
“Lo, the poor pickpockets. Whither they have wandered?” The Inquirer asked in 1932 under the headline “Dips Vanishing from Crooks’ Armies.”
In 1947, another Inquirer reporter wrote that the craft was dying. “The young crook of today won’t spend the years of careful apprenticeship required to develop the sensitive touch and fleeting fingers that left the victims unaware.”
By 1970, Detective John Kelly of the Police Department’s intelligence squad estimated there were only three professional pickpockets left in Philadelphia.
“Anyone can pick a handbag,” Kelly said then. “That doesn’t take an education. But picking pockets is an art.”
Though most modern pickpockets lack the skill of traditional “dips,” as they were known, the case of a Center City team of thieves offers proof some of the artistry of the larcenous trade remains.
Before McAlorum and his guys stopped the trio last year, Brian Lowery, Gregory Jeffries, and Wanda Singleton – who have 44 aliases and 95 previous fraud and pickpocketing arrests between them – were wanted in a string of Center City thefts.
They worked elevators and revolving doors, Jeffries playing the “stall,” acting as though his arm were stuck, while Lowery lightened the pockets of those who went to help. Other times, Singleton feigned illness as a distraction. Once, before he was caught, Jeffries sipped Dom Perignon at the Walnut Room, paid for, of course, with a stolen credit card.
But they are the exception.
The great majority of Philadelphia pickpockets operate like the ones Detective Joseph Murray caught this year at La Colombe near City Hall as he was walking home from court. Murray, 33, works Southwest Philadelphia as a beat, but he lives in Center City and is a coffee addict.
He keeps an eye out for pickpockets working the rooms. The coffeehouse thieves make a living doing it because it’s easy, he says.
“Look around,” he said while sitting recently at a table in the crowded cafe at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble. “Look how reckless people are with their bags. And some people are occupied not by one thing, but three. They have a book in front of them, their headphones on, laptop and iPhone on the table, and their bag hanging on the chair.”
“No one thinks about it,” he said. “That’s why it’s so prevalent.”
Sometimes, Murray taps people on the shoulder and tells them to be careful.
This year, outside La Colombe, he spotted two pickpockets in action through the large glass window.
They were sitting at a corner table, dressed like they had just come in from the cold. They weren’t talking or drinking anything. Murray knew something wasn’t right.
Then the woman leaned back in her seat, reaching her hand into the open purse of a woman sitting behind her. When she came up empty, her companion shook his head in disgust and slid a Metro newspaper across the table. Using the newspaper as cover, the woman stuck her hand back into the woman’s purse. As Murray called 911 for a patrol car, the woman fished out a red wallet and slipped it down her shirt.
The pair then stood to leave and Murray met them at the door.
“Stop right there,” he said, showing his badge. “Nice try.”
The couple – Joann Davis, 53, of Frankford, and Christopher Williams, 52, of North Philadelphia – had rap sheets pages long for pickpocketing.
Davis had been arrested 27 times, mostly for theft.
Murray went to court a half-dozen times on arrests, but the defense lawyer kept delaying the case.
In the end, a judge sentenced Davis to 36 months of probation, warning that she would land in jail the next time she picked a purse.
Davis nodded, then left the courthouse, heading into Center City carrying a tool of her trade: a rolled-up Metro newspaper.