International pickpocketing gangs must be treated as serious and organised criminal networks

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International pickpocketing gangs
By Guillaume Goudreau, Illicit Trade News Network

While most members of the public perceive pickpocketing as a petty crime, conducting the activity at scale can be a hugely profitable business for organised criminal networks. So much so in fact, that gang bosses in Eastern Europe routinely send cells of pickpockets out on to the streets of major cities such as London, Paris and Oslo to fleece members of the public of their cash and valuables.

Taking advantage of EU freedom of movement laws, these groups are dispatched to target people in city centres, on public transport networks, and at major sporting events and music festivals.

The substantial sums of money that can be made from organised pickpocketing make it possible for gang bosses to regularly move the petty thieves who work for them around Europe as part of their efforts to make sure police in one location do not become too familiar with their faces. Thanks to the cheap and easy availability of budget air travel, pickpocketing cells can be sent out from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to work in one location for a few weeks, before returning back to their home countries and then being sent off somewhere else.

In most cases, the foot soldiers used by pickpocketing gangs will be paid relatively small sums of money for their work, and are considered largely expendable by the bosses for whom they work. Conversely, those at the top of the criminal organisations that run these types of operations are able to fund lives of luxury, all the while keeping themselves at arm’s length from the illegal activities from which they profit. This makes it much less likely they will be apprehended by law enforcement.

For the most part, the pickpockets themselves are vulnerable people such as the homeless or migrant children who would be better described as victims of human trafficking than organised criminals. Most often recruited from the streets of their home countries, they are sent out to thieve from people in the streets of Europe’s major cities, while typically living in extremely poor conditions themselves.

Instead of treating the issue as a petty crime, law enforcement agencies across Europe and in other countries are belatedly beginning to view this type of activity for what it is; serious and organised criminality that has the potential to fund other illegal acts. Earlier this month, Europol held a conference on the subject at its headquarters in The Hague, convening scores of experts from member states and beyond to share their experiences of tackling organised pickpocketing gangs.

Delegates agreed that stronger international cooperation would be required to defeat the criminal organisations behind these types of operations, and that law enforcement agencies in different countries must become better at “exchanging information and to support each other in investigations, operations and regarding strategic approaches”.

Europol and its partners are right to take the problem more seriously than it has been in the past, with a number of recent cases highlighting how organised pickpocketing gangs are continuing to capitalise on the fact that the crime is widely perceived as being petty and low-level in comparison to other forms of organised illicit activity such as drug trafficking and immigration crime. In September 2017, police in Greece broke up a prolific Albanian pickpocketing gang, members of which were said to be raking in more than €3,500 ($3,910) a day while targeting visitors to tourist hotspots and on public transport in Athens. It is thought the gang may have operated in and around the city for nearly a decade.

In Paris last year, members of an organised Bosnian crime gang that was thought to have made almost €3 million by forcing migrant children onto the streets of the French capital to thieve from members of the public were charged with running a human trafficking network. At the end of April, Extra.ie reported that organised pickpocketing gangs from Romania were flying multiple cells of street thieves into Ireland on budget airlines to target pensioners as they took cash out of ATMs.

Currently, it is all too rare that the leaders of the networks behind organised pickpocketing operations face justice for their crimes, the most heinous of which is arguably the exploitation of the vulnerable foot soldiers they compel to do their bidding. While arresting and imprisoning Individual street thieves much lower down the pecking order might temporarily slow incidents of this sort of crime in any given area, they are quickly replaced by the gang leaders for whom they work.

If global law enforcement agencies are to stand any real chance of reducing organised pickpocketing on the streets of the world’s major cities, the practice must be treated with the same vigour as any other form or serious and organised crime, and that means going after the gang kingpins who profit most from it.