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NBC News
updated 12/19/2003 6:14:10 PM ET 2003-12-19T23:14:10

A warning as you're elbowing your way through the mall this season: You may have your eye on the holiday merchandise, but someone else may have their eyes on you: pickpockets. They're more than clumsy street thieves. These are slick, sophisticated con men. How can you avoid being a victim? NBC’s Keith Morrison talked with a master, who knows every trick in the book.

His name is Gary Scott. He is a consummate professional, world class. Surveillance cameras seem oddly drawn to him. Why? Because he picks people's pockets.

Keith Morrison: “Thousands?”

Gary Scott: “It's got to be up there. It's quite a few, quite a few, quite a few.”

it's rare that such a man would allow you to visit his highly illegal world. and yet,  after years on the take, Gary's says he wants nothing more than redemption. So with the help of more surveillance video, he'll give up some of the tricks of the pickpocket trade.

Scott claims he's not your average pickpocket. He is the big gun, the one with the skills to actually pull off a lift. In his world they call him “the cannon.”

Scott: “To be a cannon is like a high paid movie star. You - the camera is rolling, action. It's on. You are performing.”

And nowhere is the performance more lucrative than in Las Vegas, the land of chance and, some believe, of golden opportunity. 

The city's downside is surveillance, and Gary's longtime nemesis, the pickpocket squad of the Las Vegas Police Department. Over the years, they've gotten Gary more than 20 times.

So it's not unusual to have found Gary in the Las Vegas County Jail. His most recent charges include five counts of what the call larceny from person. In other words, pickpocketing. It’s also where he agreed to share, for the first time, the seamy details of a long time in petty crime.

Scott: “I had to live. That's the occupation I chose.”

As in most professions, Gary started his career at the bottom.

Scott: “The more you play the better, you know, the better you get. I started off as a stick.”

Yes, the life has its own bewildering language. The cops call pickpocket teams "distract artists" and their choreographed moves the "distract for the extract." distract teams vary in number, but the single key member of any team, after the cannon of course, is the one who creates the distraction. In Gary's vernacular, he's called the stick.

Morrison: “So what would you do as a stick?”

Scott: Come across you, bridge you, bump you and—“

Morrison: “Fall down in front of you so you'd trip over them?”

Scott: “Oh, we used to do some stunts.”

Several of these maneuvers are seen on Vegas surveillance video over and over again. Gary Scott agreed to watch some of the tapes acquired by Dateline, and acting as an expert of sorts, to call the plays as he saw them.

The first video shows a team of pickpockets casing a hotel elevator. The cannon is shown. Again, he's the one who will actually execute the lift.  The play this team is about to run is known, aptly enough, as "the elevator caper." The stick will distract the victim by pretending to get his foot caught while getting out of the elevator.

The cannon tries to take advantage of the chaos which ensues, bumping the victim from behind, while at the same time, slipping the wallet from her purse, all before the stick is even back on his feet.

Staging a distraction at an elevator is likely to pay off, so to speak, because of the natural logjam created as groups of people get in and out. 

Morrison: “It was a little old lady, little old defenseless lady. Hitting little old ladies is sort of low isn't it?”

Scott: “Yeah.”
Morrison: “Yet that happens all the time?”

Scott: “I wouldn't have played her. She don't look like she had no money.”

Another tape with an "escalator caper," pulled off in a Vegas mall, features Gary himself, as the cannon. His accomplice is a man in the front, playing the stick.

Morrison: “You had your hand right in her purse as you're going down the escalator.”

Scott: “I'm beat, she's done, it's over.”

And Gary never even solicits the stick's assistance. He doesn't need it. There is no bumping, no tripping, no fall. He finds this picking easy, right from the top. but why? Well, says Gary, the answer is in the bag. Bags with zippers or drawstrings are difficult to open, but bags with outside flaps which are easy to open and help hide his hands, those are just easy pickings.

In another shot Gary, goes to work, this time in yet a third team position. This one is called the shade. And as the name suggests, the job is to block the crime from public view. The play in this case is a standard elevator maneuver, much like the first video we showed Gary. The stick will set up the distract: he'll trip. Gary will create the shade: he'll block. And the cannon, of course, will execute the lift. But this time, the victim gets his going in. A second camera captures the scene from inside the elevator, showing the stick faking a fall flat on his face. While the victim helps the stick to his feet, and while Gary shades on the right, the cannon goes for the man's back pocket. 

It's a classic distract-extract, with perfect timing and execution. A stick trips in a crowded spot and a victim loses his wallet when he's bumped from behind. A jostle in a crowd, says Gary, should be automatic cause for suspicion -- and should remind you to check for your belongings, as it turned out one victim did.

Scott: “He threw his wallet back down on the ground.”

Morrison: “Because he was caught?”

Scott: “Yep, that's the proper thing to do.  If someone, you know what I'm saying, wakes up on you.”

Morrison: “What? The moral thing to do? Steal it, but if they see you stealing it, you give it back.”

Scott: “You give it back.”

Ethical thieves? Caring felons? Who's he trying to kid? It's anyone's guess whether Gary, when he does get out of jai, will stay away from the pickpocket game. But he remains insistent that the life of a cannon is a life he has left behind.

Scott: “Look, even though I might have had this and had that, but look all the trouble, look all the heartache I done took peoples through."

He is not as young as he was. And by the time we finish talking, a bad leg is acting up. They take him back to his cell, Gary Scott, the Las Vegas cannon, who once had a dream he'd be a somebody.

Gary Scott is now serving time for pickpocketing -- one to three years in prison. There are some precautions you can take, whether you're heading to Vegas or anywhere else: Use a fanny pack instead of a purse or a wallet, they're harder to break into. And keep your credit cards in a separate place from your cash.

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