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'Tis the Season to Be Wary of Those Light-Fingered Grinches

December 19, 1985|JERRY BELCHER | Times Staff Writer

'Tis (also) the season to be wary.

Because out there among the happy holiday crowds of gift-laden shoppers, riding the elevators and escalators of busy department stores and malls, hanging around at jammed downtown bus stops and, increasingly, plying their trade on the packed buses themselves--out there are any number of trained, professional Grinches who can steal your Christmas with a single twitch of their skilled fingers.

Pickpockets.

They can ruin not just your whole day, but the entire Christmas season.

Ask the woman who went bargain hunting last Saturday in the downtown garment district and lost $6,000 in cash to an expert who dipped into her purse and came up with her bulging wallet. Or the diamond salesman who lost $15,800 in gems to a pickpocket in the San Fernando Valley a few days earlier.

"Traditionally," said Detective Sgt. Jose (Al) Alcantara, "Christmas has been the season when this (picking pockets) goes up. . . . It's the time of year when people are more distracted, carry more money in their pockets . . . get more careless, display it (money) more freely, and on their shopping sprees they're carrying a lot of packages."

Alcantara knows whereof he speaks. He has been a mainstay of the pickpocket detail for 17 of the 24 years he has served on the Los Angeles Police Department. He has headed the two-man detail since 1976.

Alcantara has trained not only his current partner, Detective Pat Riley, but scores of other Los Angeles officers, not to mention dozens of others from the Southern California Rapid Transit District and smaller law enforcement agencies across the West. Pickpockets, of course, are always at work in a city the size of Los Angeles. Last year, there were 3,360 incidents reported in the entire city, 784 in the downtown area, compared to only 468 citywide 10 years ago.

In the first nine months of 1985 there were a total of 1,375, including 409 downtown. Alcantara expects that when the final total comes in for this year it will be very close to that of 1984.

Alcantara estimated that only about one in 10 pickpocket victims actually report their losses--most because they don't realize that they have been hit and think that they have simply lost their wallets, but some (tourists, especially) because they don't know how or where to report the crimes.

Alcantara said that in recent years about 70% of the professional pickpockets arrested in Los Angeles are from Mexico and South America, principally Colombia.

Although the summer and fall tourist season also is a prime pickpocket period, the Christmas season is sugar plum time. Alcantara estimated that the number of pickpocket incidents rise 10% to 20% during the Christmas season.

There is no sure way to say how many pickpockets are working the streets at any given moment, Alcantara said, but this week he and Riley have counted as many as 20 known professionals working downtown on a single day and estimate that there may be twice that number working the rest of the city.

To cope with the Christmas rush, Alcantara has borrowed three detectives "from the back room" in the bunco division, of which his detail is a part. In addition, officers on the 47 foot-beat patrols (many trained by Alcantara) also are on the alert for pickpockets.

And because the rush-hour crowds at RTD bus stops and the bus passengers are favorite targets, undercover RTD police officers also are deployed on the buses and at the most vulnerable stops. RTD Police Chief Jim Burgess declined to say how many.

Because both LAPD and transit police have concentrated on bus stops in the last few years, many pickpockets have taken to riding the buses and lifting wallets from pockets and purses. So undercover RTD officers put in much of their time riding the buses.

"It's the rush hours between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. when they're busiest," said RTD plainclothesman Alfred Magallon, another Alcantara trainee. "They love to hit the elderly and the Orientals," in part because they wear loose clothing, Magallon said. But anyone can be a target.

As Alcantara pointed out, the hurly-burly of the Christmas season can distract even the most cautious shopper. And it is the person who is not paying attention who is the most likely to be hit.

His advice is to be aware. Be aware that pickpockets usually operate in teams of two or more, almost always in crowds.

One or more members of the team (the "stalls") create a diversion, usually by bumping, jostling or cutting in ahead of the victim, while the pickpocket (the "dip" or "hook") deftly fingers the wallet out of the "mark's" pocket or purse.

Beware, therefore, of any unusual occurrence that seems aimed at drawing your attention away from your valuables. Beware, too, of anyone moving in and out of crowds and whose eyes seem focused not on where he (or she) is going, but on other peoples' pockets or purses. Beware, too, of anyone carrying a newspaper or a jacket over his arm--it's there that the thief will hide your wallet once he's successfully picked it.

Women, the most frequent victims of pickpockets, according to Alcantara, should be sure to carry purses in front of them, not dangling invitingly on their backs, as so often happens when they are loaded with packages. They should also keep wallets in the bottom of their purses. Men should keep their wallets in front pants pockets, or in inside jacket pockets.

Most of all, Alcantara said, be alert and aware out there.

PICKPOCKETING REPORTS

Central Rest of Year Division City 1974 93 375 1975 94 302 1976 92 234 1977 95 347 1978 215 725 1979 306 785 1980 245 938 1981 427 817 1982 363 1,160 1983 1,030 2,588 1984 784 2,576

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