It's the most wonderful time of the year -- for pickpockets and thieves! While you're busy bustling to find the best buys and making sure everyone's stockings are filled, pickpockets and ID thieves are making sure they've stocked up on plenty of credit card and Social Security numbers to get them through the next few months.
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"The holiday season is especially attractive to thieves, because they often rely on the environments created by hustling, bustling crowds," says Bob Arno, a professional pickpocket, author and entertainer. All the bustling creates the perfect distraction.
To prevent your information or money from falling into the hands of those on Santa's very naughty list, CreditCards.com picked Arno's brain because he says he can separate someone from a wallet, a watch, a belt, keys, anything, before they have a clue -- though that's not the limit of his expertise.
CreditCards.com: What are some of the most common times of day for a pickpocket to strike?
Bob Arno: Outdoors and after dark, like in a parking lot, may hold a fraction more risk. But the real indicator is how busy an area is. Pickpockets don't care about the time of day, just the time it takes them to grab your wallet and make off with your money and identity. And they need hustling and bustling to help them blend into the crowd and not be spotted.
Large, tight crowds are the preferred venue for pickpockets, but certainly not a requirement. As long as they have a credible reason to get up close to you, they can operate.
When on the hunt for holiday gifts, shoppers are not really thinking about protecting their money. Their minds are on other things like the long lines, finding gifts and trying to stay within a budget. They are distracted and they are rushed.
Slow-walking shoppers and those who are overweight are also more likely to become a target -- often with a ruse -- because they're easy to "pick." It's harder to hit a moving target.
CreditCards.com: What are some common ruses deployed by pickpockets?
Arno: Asking someone a silly question, holding up a map or newspaper asking for directions, and smearing something gooey on the victim and offering to clean it up or off. These all create distractions and turn a person's attention away from their purse, wallet, money, etc.
CreditCards.com: Where is a person must vulnerable and at a greater risk for being the target of a pickpocket?
Arno: Thieves love coffee shops, theater and cinema lobbies, floors in crowded clubs where the bags can be slid out from under you with a long hook crafted from a metal hanger, food courts, entry-points in large department stores -- especially at the revolving doors because there's a blind spot between the doors -- and the vicinity of ATMs if crowded.
Shoulder surfing at ATMs located at train or public transportation stations where a passenger pays with a credit card and uses a PIN is also popular now. The actual theft will happen maybe 10 minutes later. But because people generally don't protect their PIN numbers as carefully when they only purchase a ticket, the thief has all that's needed to shop on your dime.
CreditCards.com: What are some mistakes people make with regard to where, either on them or in their purse, they keep their wallet?
Arno: Carry your wallet in your tightest pocket, front or back. And don't wrap a rubber band around your wallet because that helps the pickpocket -- they like that! A rubber band keeps the wallet compressed for easy extraction.
The best pickpockets can extract cash without even removing the wallet! To make getting your wallet or cash as difficult as possible, place it in your pocket sideways, and upside down.
CreditCards.com: What are some mistakes people make about what they put in their purse or wallet?
Arno: No. 1 rule: don't carry your Social Security card! If you have a medical ID card with your Social Security number on it, cut off the last four numbers. A Social Security number is a gift to a thief.
You can keep some cash separate if you want, but my take is that if you spread your valuables around, you've got many things or pockets to guard instead of one. So instead of tucking things into a lot of pockets or compartments, keep one credit card separate. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you'll still have one to use. This is especially true when you're traveling. Leave one credit card in your hotel room safe or locked into your largest luggage.
If you carry your wallet in a purse, make sure the purse is securely closed and fastened, and not carried behind you. If you keep your wallet in a backpack, don't use the small outside pockets. Try to secure the zipper tabs with a paperclip or something.
The placement of phones is also problematic.
CreditCards.com: Why is where a phone is stored a risk for ID theft or being the victim of a pickpocket?
Arno: iPhones and similar smartphones are especially popular items to steal, and in many cases easier to extract than a wallet. Phones are not usually covered in a handbag the same way a wallet may be. Phones are kept higher up in a purse or bag or in an outside pocket for easy access.
Not only is a stolen phone a hassle, the small SIM-card inside the phone can also open up the owner to ID theft. Depending on what network the owners are using, some networks are easier to manipulate than others.
CreditCards.com: How might a phone's SIM card make a person susceptible to ID theft?
Arno: There are dedicated rings that specialize in this type of crime. When you check your bank balance, email or anything else that has a tie to your personal life, you usually enter a password. If a password is put into a note on your iPad and the iPad is stolen, special tracing software can quickly find all your passwords. It is the syncing between your devices that increases the risk if you store a lot of personal information on your device
To protect against this, set a password to start up or access your phone. It's harder to steal data stored on your phone if the thief can't wake it up or get beyond the login screen.
CreditCards.com: What are some ways to stay safe and not be a victim of pickpocketing?
Arno: Do NOT hang your backpack, purse, bag, etc. on the back of the chair. Keep it on your lap and make sure you have an arm through the handle at all times so it can't quietly slip away.
Do NOT put your purse, bag, etc., on the floor, unless you put your leg through its strap.
Never ever leave your phone, wallet, camera, etc., on the table, even in front of you, when it's not in use. A moment's distraction is all it takes. Thieves have ingenious methods of swiping stuff right under your nose.
And it goes without saying: you don't walk away from your bag or laptop, even briefly.