A Conversation with the World’s Greatest Pick Pocket

Apollo Robbins: How not to be a target


When I first me Apollo Robbins he was working as a guest star on the show Brooklyn Nine Nine. I didn’t really know who he was but there was something about him which caught my attention more than any other guest star we have had on the show. I first noticed him while we were setting up a shot in the bullpen. I saw him in the corner of the set watching what were were doing. But he wasn’t just watching, he was observing. That’s what Apollo does, he gathers intelligence on a subject – learning their behaviors in what seems like an instant and he acts upon them exploiting a person’s weaknesses.

I went home that evening and found an article in the New Yorker about Apollo.  It highlighted some of the incredible things he has achieved, showing he is truly the world’s greatest pickpocket. Under the employment of Caesar’s Palace he would greet tour groups as they would check into the hotel. While greeting them he would pick their pockets as part of the show. He estimates that over those years of working for Caesar’s he picked 81,000 peoples’ pockets. It would prove to be his graduate school education in mis-direction.

Another time he was able to pick the pockets of President Carter’s Secret Service team, getting ahold of their badges, watches, wallets, the keys to the motorcade and the President’s itinerary – something he did not have the security clearance for. He stopped short of taking the agents’ guns, which was probably a wise choice.

The coup de gras was pulling the wool over Penn Jillette of the famed Penn and Teller. After Penn goaded Apollo at a cocktail party filled with magicians, claiming Pickpockets were a few of the lowest rungs of show biz – even below hypnotists, Apollo accepted Penn’s challenge to pick his pockets. Apollo claimed he was at a disadvantage being in a room full of magicians and asked Penn if he could do a trick instead, Penn agreed. Apollo asked Penn to remove his wedding ring and use his pen to trace a circle around the outside of the ring on a cocktail napkin. Penn pulled off his ring and reached for the pen in his breast pocket. When he unscrewed the cap his face went pale. He looked up at Apollo, and said “Fuck you!” Apollo had the ink cartridge in his hand. That trick earned him the respect of Penn Jillette and the community of magicians.

Over the course of the shoot I began to speak with him and became intrigued as to how he was able to pull these things off right in front of people. I had watched him on set taking crew members watches and wallets so effortlessly and right in front of their eyes.

I asked Apollo if he would have coffee with me and talk about what he did, more importantly how a person could guard against becoming a target. The afternoon we had  coffee proved to be a Phd level class in psychology, human behavior and dexterity.

I will say upfront that Apollo is brilliant; sitting and speaking with him is an amazing ride. Neuroscientists have become his students and have learned from him because he approaches human behavior from a practical standpoint in ways they couldn’t even begin to imagine.

So how is it that the pickpocket or con man will target their victim? How do we not become a target?


There is no way you can be on Red Alert at all times when you are out in the public or traveling – it is just impossible. So I asked: How is it that the pickpocket or con man works? Perhaps learning their behaviors will help guard against them. For the next hour that’s exactly what we spoke about. We chose to specifically not address the specific techniques people are using these days to pick pockets. The techniques will change and evolve over time, but human behaviors do not change, and becoming aware of these behaviors will allow you to strengthen the force field we all have around us.

How do they do it?

Apollo has broken down how pickpockets approach a target, they are not really aware of why they are doing these things but Apollo has discovered how it is they are able to do them. Pickpockets will look for someone who is distracted, “An occupied mind is missing the present,” he says. They will exploit this. They will look to see if you have an internal focus (looking at your cell phone, a tour book or a map) and they will attempt to numb your senses. There are three phases to pulling off an attack on a target:

Phase ICollect information. What is the person doing? Who are they? Native or tourist? What are they doing? Are they in a hurry? Are they sight seeing?

Phase IIProcess and Understand. The thief will try to get inside a person’s mind, trying to understand why a person is doing what they are doing. Are they texting? If so does it look like they are responding to a text from their spouse and do they look angry, happy, sad? Are they distracted by looking up at sights? They will try to infer as to what the motivations are behind the persons actions – this will give them context to build an attack.

Phase IIIResponse. They will attempt to enter your personal space or “force field” and gain the things which you have in your possession.

When you are standing talking to some one you have your own personal space, everyone has their own circumference they feel comfortable with. When someone enters this space you get a weird feeling in your stomach, this is your “force field” and it’s a “Bottom Up” response, from your gut. It’s not really a “force field” but it’s an innate trait which has allowed us to evolve as human beings, it’s protected us from danger throughout the years and it’s easy to visualize. What a pickpocket needs to do is enter this space. There are three zones to what we call our personal space:

1. Social Zone – The buffer zone around us when we have a conversation.

2. Intimate Zone – When someone is so close their body can touch yours.

3. Personal Zone – When someone has actually been able to reach inside a pocket or a bag you are carrying without you being aware.

Each time a pickpocket passes through one of these zones they must first pay a “toll”, meaning the pickpocket has to offer the target something to distract them allowing the pickpocket entry into the next zone.  One question the pickpockets should ask themselves is “What is my motivation to enter this zone?” However, most pickpockets do not have this higher understanding of why they are doing what they are doing, often times they will execute some kind of action which has worked time and time again not really knowing why it has worked. If it fails they retreat, but Apollo has figured out the why and how with science. Just how they pay this toll is amazing. Pickpockets exploit some of our greatest strengths which are also our greatest weaknesses: they use our “Top Down” responses. Top Down responses are your cognitive function, giving you the ability to choose what you will pay attention to. What pickpockets do is bait you to pay attention to what they want you to be aware of.

Humans have the great ability of vision and there are two ways we use sight. One is Saccadic Eye Movement. Think of a person holding each of their index fingers up in front of you like they are pointing up to the sky and telling you to look back and forth between the two fingertips. Your eyes will dart back and forth. What you see are the two fingertips and what is in-between as your eyes look at each. But this is not really what you see. As your eyes shift focus from one fingertip to the other you loose everything in-between and your mind fills the gaps based on what it saw before you began the task. During these times a person can literally hold your wallet in front of your face and you won’t see it. This has been proven in the video of people passing a ball back and forth.

The other way we move our eyes is Smooth Pursuit Eye Motion, this is what allows us to hunt and track objects. Think of a person holding up their index finger and making wide sweeping shapes in front of you, say figure eights. Your eyes will smoothly track the object. If you try to make the same movements without an object in front of you your eyes will stutter – it’s nearly impossible with out an object moving. During the time you are tracking an object you are virtually blind to what is happening elsewhere.

During each of these two eye movements we have our Visual Spotlight. Imagine using a flashlight in a darkened room. Depending on how good our peripheral vision is will depend on how wide the circle of light is, but no matter what, the high resolution part of that circle is no bigger than a thumbnail. The thumbnail sized image is all we can see and focus on, and pickpockets understand this.

If someone were to look you in the eye and move closer to you – you would back up because your force field will be energized and you’ll feel threatened. But by breaking eye contact with you and getting you to look at something while they move closer allows them to enter your personal space past your Zone I into your Zone II, your intimate zone. They are paying a toll by sharing something with you. Many thieves will do this in a variety of ways, the important thing is to recognize when someone is trying to exploit one of these weaknesses.

There are two ways they will try to attack. One will be Masking, allowing the attacker to exploit the way we see things. Perhaps a man has a coat draped over his arm, he is called a Matador. This allows him to do things behind or under the coat you can not see. Or if they can block your sight line to your front pants pocket with their arm then they are able to get inside your pocket without you ever knowing. And please don’t think your front pocket is safe.

The other method is Diversion, this is when they will attack and block your sight lines by getting you to look where they want you to look.  Say a person has tripped on a sidewalk and fallen to the ground, almost everyone around them is looking at the person on the ground except one or two people. If so, who and what are they looking at? But more importantly why? Those are the people to be aware of. Look for people who are pretending not to be together but are clearly sending each other covert signals. A head nod, finger tapping on their shouldtrremoving a hat and putting it right back on. You don’t need to know what the signals are, just that there is a communication going on.

Here’s a great video of Apollo:

 Threat Reduction:

Above all, these are all forms of deception. When some one tells you a joke, the joke isn’t funny, your interpretation of the joke is funny. Pulling off deception is much the same way, they get your mind to become attentive to something they want you to pay attention to while an event is unfolding before your very eyes without you even being aware. Your mind has deceived itself, the thief is merely exploiting this. So the trick is to become aware of the cues the thief will use to try to attack and deceive.

1. Most pickpockets don’t work alone, so as I said, become aware of people who are trying to look like they are not together but are sending each other covert signals. Look for gestures and postures which are out of the ordinary and tune in to anyone who is watching those signals.

2. Never, ever leave anything out on a table like a cell phone, wallet, credit card or anything of value. Keep them tucked away in their secret safe spots.

3. Do not let someone enter your personal space. This is difficult because they have spent generations passing down tricks which allow them to gain access. They prey upon our weaknesses. You may go to someone’s aid, perhaps helping an old person who has fallen, only to be brushed up against by a secondary attacker when the older person puts their weight upon you and your wallet is gone without you ever feeling them touch you.

4. If traveling, sew flaps inside your waist band big enough for cash and passports. Do not ever access the pocket on the street, only access it in a private rest room or dressing room. Carry a small amount of that cash in your regular pocket so if you are pick pocketed they get something and will then let you go. It is seldom people have absolutely nothing in their pockets. Some people will carry muggers wallets in their rear pocket merely as a diversionary tactic with a little cash, some receipts and a couple expired credit cards.

5. Make sure any backpack you carry can be worn in the front of you so you can keep track of all the pockets. Do not think they will be kind enough to unzip the backpack, often times they will bump into you and in reality they have used a razor blade to slice the backpack or your pants pocket open. They will then follow you and patiently wait for whatever is in the pack or your pocket to fall to the ground.

6. Make eye contact with people and don’t get distracted by shiny objects. In other words don’t fall for their bait. Pickpockets do not want you to look them in the eye, it shows them you are aware.

7. Try to avoid touching the pocket where your valuables are, this just shows the pickpocket where your stuff is.

8. Avoid being the first through a doorway or subway entrance.  You could be preoccupied by getting through the doorway with a crowd and won’t notice someones hand in your pocket or them going into your bag.

9. A Con Artist will gain your confidence, their goal is to get you to cross a moral boundary. Once you cross a moral boundary there is no Better Business Bureau for you to call. Be wary of anyone trying to get you to do something out of your normal boundaries.


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Lastly, here is the Ted Talk Apollo gave on the Art of misdirection.

One comment

  1. MissFifi

    Interesting guy this Apollo and a great name no less. Now I have to watch his TED talk.

    Under Threat Reduction. #1 happened to my brother when we were in Rome, They surrounded him, using a pretty girl in front of him, but the male pickpocket wasn’t slick enough and my brother saw him going for his waist belt.
    #5 Happened to a friend in Thailand. Someone sliced his backpack without him even knowing it. Passport, money, all gone.

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