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Corona and cutpurses

COVID-19 saw the beginning of a new fashion segment — a designer piece of cloth, cut and stitched, worn on the face, the mask. While one business opened up, another age-old business dependent on a not-so-fashionable piece of cloth — the pocket — is at its nadir.

Videoconferencing and streaming apps may have made a fortune during the lockdown, but most businesses and professions have suffered a body blow. But this one is different. Really different. We are talking of the “pickpocketing” business, which depended critically on individual skill, with one single failure sealing the fate.

During pre-COVID times, as we checked into a hotel in Barcelona, the first thing the smiling receptionist said was, “Sir, pickpocketing in Barcelona is not considered a crime; it’s an art. Be careful with your wallet. These people here are very fine in their work.”

The legacy, the dexterity, the artistry made “pickpocketing” a unique profession worldwide. Plastic money and ATMs sounded its death knell, but COVID-19 was like carpet-bombing, flattening the centuries-old profession to dusty non-existence.

Contrary to what most people think, in the right place and time, pickpocketing is a safe and profitable profession — as profitable perhaps as intermittently successful armed bank robbery, but with little chance of arrest or a prolonged prison sentence.

Mind-boggling techniques

The techniques employed by a cutpurse are varied and mind-boggling. Since the pocket is close to the body, any intrusion is likely to be felt by the target. So the need for finesse is essential, but not enough. A diversionary contact at some other part of the body is needed to distract. It’s also the fine art of hitting someone in a crowd, outwardly accidental and profusely apologising, while another relieves the target of his wallet.

“Attention diversion” has gone to hi-tech levels in this profession. It seems pickpockets themselves put up “beware of pickpockets” signage in buses and public places; as you read it, you are likely to touch and feel the spot where the wallet is, saving them time and effort on “target localisation”.

But things have changed over time as wallets contain less and less of cash and only plastic. Credit cards are part of the booty, but using them in an ATM involved much more organised team work and higher levels of criminal fraud, which many artists didn’t want to dive into.

With the lockdown and strict physical distancing and the stoppage of public transport, the business is gasping for breath. And the art is at its nadir, with no one to write a paean.

tinynair@gmail.com

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 1:10:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/corona-and-cutpurses/article32935976.ece

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