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 I – Collect 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 II – Process 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 III – Response. 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:
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.
Lastly, here is the Ted Talk Apollo gave on the Art of misdirection.
A few weeks ago a few of my buddies and I hired two Medical Professionals to come in and give us a class on IV’s. It was a four hour class on the reasons why you’d give an IV in an emergency situation and the procedure to do so.
There are four major reasons why you’d give an IV. Diarrhea, Nausea/Vomiting, GI Blockage and Bleeding. For three out of the four replacing fluids in the body is the goal. We are about 98% water and once you begin to disrupt the balance of cels the body begins to weaken and break down. The fourth is to try to lubricate the GI track by pushing fluids in to relieve the blockage. The body can be in one of three states: Isotonic, this is where everything is in balance. Hypertonic, where there are increased levels of solutes in the body and Hypotonic, where there is a reduction of solutes in the body. Think of Hypertonic like this: in layman’s terms salt will suck out moisture so if someone has head trauma and their brain is swelling the ICU may give a Hypertonic IV to pull the swelling out of the skull. Hypotonic may be used for when someone is having issues with their Kidneys and we need to flush the kidney. For all our needs we will only be dealing with Isotonic IVs because we don’t want to disrupt the bodies balance, we just want to keep it going to fight another day.
Once we got through theory we broke down the items in our kits: In a basic IV kit you need Nitrile Gloves, Alcohol Wipes, IV Catheter, the tubing with valve to regulate flow, the IV Start Kit which has the sterilization prep solution, tourniquet, and skin shield, finally for size the 500ml .9% Sodium Chloride bag.
After going over the gear it was time to let the blood start flowing. We all practiced on a specially designed artificial arm then got to go live with the practice. Here’s a couple shots from the class.
There are obviously many factors involved with why you’d give someone an IV and how to do it properly. How many of you will add this level of trauma care to your 72 Hour Bag is probably very few, but none the less there are ways of learning this stuff and it is possible to get the equipment required to accomplish these life saving techniques. Remember it is illegal to use these techniques on someone without having the proper medical licensing but there is no law saying you can’t use this stuff on yourself. Knowledge is power, you can take it with you and it weighs nothing.
Alphabet follow up, your Trauma Kit
So after last weeks post I got a lot of questions about Trauma Kits, what should be in an Individual Trauma Kit and who should carry one. Well to answer the last question first I think everyone who lives any place where there is a chance that there will be a natural disaster should carry one at the very least in their 72 Hour Bag. If you are law enforcement or a person who goes to a shooting range then you should have one IN your leg pocket. This isn’t because we’re afraid you are going to shoot yourself… It’s because some knuckle head at the end of the range doesn’t know what they are doing. Here’s an image of a guy who was hit at the range through both legs. I can not begin to say how many things they’re doing wrong in this image but just know you need to have your own Trauma Kit for you – it just makes sense.
So what’s in a leg pocket Trauma Kit? Here’s the leg kit I carry in my 72 Hour Bag and is small enough to fit in my leg pouch when ever I go out and do things which are on the riskier side. Let me open it up and take you through the Items I keep in there. Most came from the Falcon Operations Group Tactical Medic class, but I’ve added a couple small items just to round it out.
When I unzip my kit I want the first two things that are available to be my tourniquet and my H bandage. The reasons are obvious, blood loss is the first priority in the new CAB methodology. From here I try to assemble things in order of importance, but really it’s how stuff fits into the pack.
Right below the H bandage are two rolls of tape. Nestled in one of the rolls of tape are nitrile gloves. If you are trying to save your own life don’t take the time to put these on. They are there to protect you from some one else’s blood.
Along with the immediate layer is my H and H Compressed Gauze, it’s a handle little bundle for plugging holes.
Next I have my package of Celox handy, it’s quick and simple to use.
Under the tourniquet and H and H Gauze is the Nasopharyngeal Airway. This is a device used to open an airway of a victim who may have had head trauma and they are having difficulty getting air through their mouth. The size I carry is a 28 French, which is the most common size for an adult. If you are taking care of kids you might want to get a smaller size.
Right after these items I have a trauma card. It’s some light reading when you have the time and can be tossed aside if you’re in a hurry.
Next is your Ascherman Chest Seal. This is used if a patient has a sucking chest wound, meaning there is a hole in the chest cavity which causes air to leak into the cavity collapsing the lung. The seal has a one way valve which allows the lung to build pressure back up and evacuate the air from between the lung and the cavity. Notice on the corners I’ve pre tabbed the package to allow easier opening when things might get slippery from blood.
Here is a package of Petroleum Gauze, this is good to use on things such as burns because it is non adhering to the wound. It’s to package em up and get them to a facility which can deal with a traumatic injury of this kind. This puppy also has an expiration date so be on top of it.
Tucked into a little pocket I have a zip lock baggy with a few items: Surgilube, surgical lubricant for the Nasopharyngeal Airway. In a pinch get a little tube of KY Jelly for your kit. I also have Antimicrobial wipes, two 2-0 sutures and a condom. If you are at the point where you need to start suturing a wound then you had better be on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after the plane has gone down or the ship has sank. The condom has many uses other than the preferred.
At the very back of my kit I have a couple of sleeves which allow me to tuck my tools neatly in a position which are easy to grab even though they are deepest in the kit. There is a large tube of Super Glue which you might want to try first before sewing your buddy up. I can tell you that if you have a wound on your arm and you’re alone I don’t care how good you are – you aren’t going to be able to tie a suture easily with your one good hand. Try the glue and save yourself a headache. Next are my Trauma Sheers, Forceps which act as a needle driver for the sutures and are a handy tool for a lot of other jobs. The next item is a Decompression Needle. This is if there has been trauma to the chest cavity causing a collapsed lung and pressure is building up inside the chest cavity – say from a broken rib puncturing the lung. This device is about the most advanced piece of gear in my kit and I’m not even going to describe how to use it. The decompression needle needs to be taught to you by a medical professional – PERIOD. Below this are two safety pins. they can be used for all sorts of reasons, one being in extreme cases to pin a persons tongue to their lip to prevent choking.
There are a couple on line sellers where you can get smaller IFAK kits, such as NARESCUE. This link leads to a kit which is $130 and requires a medical device authorization. Another site I like is ITS Tactical, they have a version of a personal trauma kit as well and ranges in price from $99-120. If you don’t want to get something as elaborate or as technical ITS also has an EDC kit which addresses blood loss only, but it’s a kit small enough to fit in your back pocket and it on;y about $70. Once again, you might want to take a class in all this stuff. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but knowledge is power, you can take it with you and it weighs nothing so knowing is better than not knowing.