BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Friday, 15 June 2007 11:18 UK

Watch the watch

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Magician Michael Gee
Magicians give the watches back, pickpockets are not so kind

How easy is it to swipe someone's watch from their wrist? As the White House denies George Bush had his timepiece lifted while on walkabout, we take some expert advice.

We all look at signs warning about pickpockets and like to think "not me". Only the naive put their wallets in a back pocket or open bag, inviting it to be lifted.

And yet it seems it is remarkably easy for a magician to lift watches off wrists without being noticed. It's all a question of distraction.

"I use magic and misdirection to hide the evidence," says stage magician Michael Gee, who specialises in picking pockets.

Wear a Velcro strap
Keep your distance
Spot distraction efforts
Be careful in crowds

As he demonstrates his watch-lifting skills for the Magazine in a bustling High St in London, it's soon obvious that some watches are easier to take than others. Loosely-worn ladies' watches with old leather straps are simple. Any watch with a plastic strap, or one that is new and stiff, prove more of a challenge.

Watches with metal bracelets are not easily do-able. And there is one sure way to avoid your watch being snaffled - pick a Velcro strap, or some other fabric fastening device. A ripping sound is harder for a magician - or pickpocket - to mask than surreptitiously undoing a buckle.

Simple trick

Misdirection is the key for magicians, an artful form of distraction that's the other side of the same coin that pickpockets use.

Michael Gee lifts a watch
Gee distracts with a magic trick while lifting a watch (circled)

Gee, who has been practising magic since he was six, does a simple trick involving placing sponge balls in the victim's hands. Not only are they distracted, but the trick gives Gee an excuse to hold his victims' wrists.

He refuses to divulge the exact method he uses but the trick involves using the middle finger to pull the strap out of the loop and with one smooth motion, pulling it the other way, unhooking it and removing it, almost with a pinching motion. The watch is later returned to its owner, usually possessing a face shot with astonishment.

Of 20 victims who volunteer to see a magic trick, only two notice that any attempt is being made. One woman fails to notice a valuable watch, given as a present, leaving her wrist, while a man doesn't see his timepiece's departure despite the pronounced tan line underneath.

Man of steal

Fellow magician James Freedman, who has advised on the set of Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist and also helped the makers of Hustle and Real Hustle, says spiriting a watch away is a skill that requires lots of practice to build up dexterity. He can steal watches, cufflinks, belts and even people's glasses off their faces.

President Bush greets a crowd of Albanians
George Bush meets and greets

"There are skills that are common to pickpockets and magicians, a body of psychological tools that is a common denominator.

"What the guys on the street do is to look for natural distractions. Someone will walk in front of you, the blocker will walk slowly to slow you down."

He agrees that Velcro straps are the hardest to crack.

"If you don't have some background noise they will hear it. When I've travelled around the world I've worn cheap Velcro watches. The best protection is distance. That is why pickpockets love crowded places. You will find them hanging around on the Tube."

It is possible to watch out for the choreography of the pickpocket, because it has echoes of the magician, Freedman says. He cites the example of a man who approached him at London's Victoria station, claiming to be short-sighted and asking which train was coming to platform one.

Pickpockets also look for those who react to signs warning of their presence. "As soon as you see that sign, you tap your wallet," Freedman says.

So the next time somebody makes a transparent attempt to divert your attention, watch out.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Which is why I never wear a watch - don't actually need to know the time except to catch the train. And I try never to carry handbag, only carry the card I actually need, keep my cash and cards separate, and keep the cash loose in a jeans pocket - more difficult to grab. It sounds like I've really thought about this, but in London, it's second nature to take safety measures like keeping a purse at the bottom of a handbag.
Nona, London

As a New Yorker, this would never work here. Any attempt to distract would be seen as a red flag for some scam.

We've been targeted a few times, but the best was in Paris: at the top of an escalator in the Metro, a man dropped his cigarette lighter and bent over to pick it up as it bounced around the up-coming steps. I banged into him as he blocked the top, and his accomplice a step down banged into me, hard. I felt the accomplice lifting up my jacket and I turned around and kneed 'im a good one. They ran off together.
Lane Trubey, Azores, Portugal

I believe the key is to make the items in the wallet worthless. Unusable credit cards because of good security at the POS, debit cards requiring PIN. Very little cash. Remove the motive for committing the crime, and it will go away all on it's own.
Dave Rawlinson, London

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