The group, which operated in Paris and Disneyland, had stolen valuables worth an estimated total of at least €1 million over a period of six months, before being busted in a joint operation by Romanian and French police last month.
As well as cash, the group had nabbed leather goods, mobile phones, jewellery and other valuables in over 1,000 thefts – most of which were carried out by young children against foreign tourists.
Their total loot in just a few months was believed to be worth over €1 million.
A police source described the pickpocketing ring as “a very organized system, even a lifestyle,” adding that one of the young girls was able to bring in monthly profits of €100,000 for the group.
But just how do they bring in so much cash and valuables? And just because one pickpocket network has been broken, it doesn't mean there aren't others out there ready to employ similar tactics to take your money.
Here are some of the most common ways thieves in Paris, who are often disguised as tourists, take your money, and tips on how you can avoid falling victim to one of them.
This trick often targets people in the fancier districts of Paris, and involves a passer-by spilling something on your clothes – often a hot drink. Whoops! Amidst profuse apologies, they’ll try to wipe off the stain – all the while using the shock to distract you from the fact that an accomplice is going through your pockets or running off with your suitcase.
Many of the dirty tricks take place on the city's Metro network, where passengers or potential victims are crowded together.
If you see a fellow traveller drop their Navigo pass or even their wallet right in front of you, your first instinct might be to pick it up and return it. Pickpocketers know that and they take advantage of people's good nature, deliberately dropping something while an accomplice waits to snatch valuables from your back pockets or bag when you bend over.
The ‘woman shows her breasts’ trick
This sounds like something out of a comedy sketch, but it does happen in Paris.
This hustle is used to target young men, usually at ticket or bank machines. Once a man has put his card into the machine, the female trickster seizes her chance, exposing her breasts and distracting the victim. Before he's had time to process what's happening, an accomplice of the woman has made off with his money or even worse, his card.
While the victim may be thinking about breasts, the thief is almost certainly thinking about the pin number she saw him type in.
The ‘back to back’
This technique is popular in Paris’ crowded cafes and bars. Quick-fingered thieves will choose to sit directly behind someone who has left their coat or jacket hanging over the back of their chair. Sometimes aided by an accomplice seated opposite them, they will proceed to go through the contents of your pockets, without ever turning around. The key here is to keep your valuables on your person, where you can see them, at all times.
The cash machine hustle
Always be wary around cash machines, particularly in deserted areas or late at night. Hundreds of tourists have fallen victim to a scam carried out by groups (often children) who loiter close to cash machines (pretending not to know each other) and wait for unsuspecting victims to key in their PIN code. Once that's been done, one member of the group grabs the victim or distracts them while others make a withdrawal for the maximum amount, before making a swift getaway.
The distractions can involve children shoving pieces of paper in front of you to block your vision or someone spilling a drink over you.
This one's tricky because you may feel safe if there are several other people around – but that's no use if they're all in on the trick. Try to limit your cash withdrawals to well-populated areas at daytime, and if possible use a machine situated inside a bank.
The selfie trick
In Paris, you might often find your path blocked by a group of selfie-taking tourists. Usually it’s no more than a mild annoyance, but if you’re unlucky, they could be thieves, aiming to cause a bottleneck which allows an accomplice to go through pockets and bags without anyone noticing. And if someone asks you to take their photo, make sure you don't focus so much on getting a good shot that you lose track of your own valuables – again, an accomplice may be standing nearby to snatch something out of your pocket.
When you pass through the barriers to get on the Metro, occasionally someone might slip in after you. But it's not always just a free ride on the Metro they're after – opportunist pickpockets will use the close proximity to grab any valuables that are in easy reach. The key is obviously to make sure that none of them are.
The 'frail old lady'
In this trick, an elderly lady might ask you to help her cross a street, or up the stairs. Only the coldest-hearted person could refuse, but some people have found themselves minus a watch, or with their pockets emptied, after obliging, sometimes by an accomplice, who took advantage of the victim's attention being elsewhere.
We aren't suggesting that everyone who asks for help is out to rob you, or that you should leave them to fend for themselves, but it's another reminder to keep track of your valuables at all times.
The escalator trick
Crowds on escalators and stairs – particularly to Paris' Metro stations – provide ample opportunity for thieves, as it's a confined space with everyone going in the same direction. A common trick is for someone near the front to drop something, usually just as they get off the escalator, causing confusion and holding everyone else up as they slowly retrieve the object. Meanwhile, an accomplice standing further back helps themselves to other people's valuables, which are now in easy reach.
The 'terrace table trick'
This trick targets people who have left their valuables on a table – especially mobile phones and tablets. A passer-by will approach and ask if you can direct them somewhere, placing a map on the table and covering up your phone. Or they could just shove any kind of paper in between you and the phone you have left on the table. While you are trying to work what they are asking you, another hand is swiping your phone. This technique is also used when thieves see that you have paid your restaurant bill in cash and it's on the table in front of you.
The dawn raider
Police arrest a man who allegedly robbed a sleepy passenger. Photo: AFP
Some groups of thieves target the Paris Metro in the early hours of the morning. Their prey is not the unwitting tourist, but the sleepy commuter who is too exhausted to notice the nimble fingers finding their way into their pockets or bags or those who've been out drinking all night and are sleeping it off on the first Metro of the day.
The false thief
This is one to be particularly vigilant for. One member of the group will yell “Thief!” or loudly shout that their wallet's been stolen. Your instinctive reaction would probably be to pat down your pockets to check that you haven't also been robbed. You'll be relieved to discover everything's still in place – but probably not for long, as the real thief has just been alerted to the location of your valuables. Another tactic of thieves is to loiter around signs warning of pickpockets, which are on display in many of Paris' public areas. Travellers passing these signs often have the same reaction of patting down pockets.
Fight or even firecrackers
Efforts to distract potential victims are getting more elaborate and more scary. While groups of children have been known to have fake fights to cause a commotion and divert attention, one gang of thieves recently threw firecrackers onto a Metro train. It scared the life out of passengers, while thieves tried to take advantage of their shock.
(Police in Paris arrest a group of suspected thieves. Photo: AFP)
So how to avoid these scams?
You'll have noticed that distraction is key to most of these tricks, as well as preying on people being good-natured enough to stop and speak to or help strangers. Keep valuables out of sight at all times – preferably divided among a few inside pockets of jackets and bags. If someone stops to talk to you, particularly if they seem to be part of a group, don't feel bad about ignoring them and carrying on walking.
The groups are known to prey on tourists and, while you shouldn't spoil your time in Paris by steering clear of tourist hotspots, it might be a good idea to try to blend in with the locals a little bit (make sure you've looked up directions before you leave your hotel so you don't look lost, and avoid any clothing that seems to scream 'tourist'). And don't be afraid to say 'no' if someone asks if you speak English – this is often just a way of singling out gullible Anglo victims.
Finally, remember that professional pickpocketers will go out of their way not to look like criminals. The children in the Disneyland ring reportedly wore Disney merchandise including Mickey Mouse ears to blend in with tourists. Anyone – particularly anyone who finds a reason to get close to you – could be a thief.