Life on the local: The life and times of train(ed) pickpocketshttps://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/life-on-the-local-the-life-and-times-of-trained-pickpockets/

Life on the local: The life and times of train(ed) pickpockets

There are categories, specialisations and division of labour in this class of pickpockets, explains a Government Railway Police (GRP) officer.

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Illustration: C R Sasikumar

LIKE OTHER Mumbaikars, they travel in overcrowded trains in peak hours for their bread and butter. But while the average commuter has learnt to live with the crushing crowd, they live by it. Several pickpockets, say police officers, make their living by targeting only suburban railway commuters, with the peak hour chaos providing them the perfect opportunity to make off with wallets or mobile phones of commuters struggling to get a toehold on an overcrowded train.

There are categories, specialisations and division of labour in this class of pickpockets, explains a Government Railway Police (GRP) officer. Some slip wallets and phones out of commuters’ pockets, some are experts in getting off with bags from luggage racks, some specialise in hiding behind signal poles and surprising commuters on the footboard with a cane, leading invariably to a dropped phone or bag. “They build expertise in a particular type of crime and then stick to it,” the officer says.

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So how do pickpockets select a target? The modus is fixed, say investigators. Before the train approaches the platform, the gang members keep a watch out for expensive cellphones in use. Once the target is picked, it’s easy to see where the phone has been stowed — a bulging jeans pocket or earphones usually reveal that.

One pickpocket then stands behind the target, while two others surround him as he enters the train.

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One member will deliberately press against him in the rush, and will use the crush of bodies against him to push the cellphone up from a pocket. A second pickpocket will simply slip out the phone while the victim is still pushing back against the crowd. A third man, usually behind the victim, will then flee with the phone. “Even if the victim realises that his phone is gone, he won’t find it on the people around him,” the officer says.

Statistics reveal that the number of mobile phones stolen on trains has gone up over the past few years with 2015 seeing 2,092 mobile phones, worth approximately Rs 4 crore, being stolen; the highest in the past three years. In 2016, the GRP has already recorded 171 thefts, worth Rs 30 lakh, till the first week of February. The railway police claims it has an almost 50 per cent success rate in tracking down stolen phones. An officer said a lot of these stolen phones can be tracked to a market in Indore, which has nearly 500 mobile shops.

“While we are able to track down the phones, we normally find they are being used by someone who bought them at a low price from the accused, not knowing they were stolen,” said an officer.

Another problem the GRP faces with mobile phone thieves is that more and more youngsters, who primarily target women’s compartments, are being initiated into the crime. “Even if we arrest a juvenile, we have to send him to a children’s home by evening and cannot question him. All we can do is cajole them with eatables or chocolates to reveal who commissioned them,” the officer said.

When asked for a safety tip to prevent mobile thefts, the officer said caution is the best defence. “Keep your hand on the pocket where you have kept the phone while alighting or deboarding a train. If you can be alert while getting in and getting out of the train, chances are you will reach home with the mobile phone still in your pocket,” he said.

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