No matter if he's watching the world through a camera lens or observing human behavior with his naked eye, Bob Arno has a unique way of looking at things. Arno and his observations will be the subject of "Pickpocket King," a new documentary debuting on the National Geographic Channel on Dec. 2.
From Photographer to Pickpocket
When reached in Las Vegas by phone, Arno talked about his background. In his early 20s, Arno said he started his career as a photojournalist in Asia. "I had a mentor, his name was Larry Burrows. He was a Time-Life photographer. He somehow took a liking to me and helped me be in the right place at the right time. In those days, I was very hungry for the ultimate picture," Arno said.
While working as a photographer in the Far East, Arno practiced his hobby, namely finger dexterity. "I covered stories that had to do with con men and in the hotel where I stayed, half of the people who lived there were con men. When you were hanging with these people in the evening, you got to see things and understand. It fascinated me how they used people in a quick way, how they never looked at the person as a warm friend," he said.
Arno also did a story about con games for " Stars and Stripes ," a military news service. His story dealt with how young G.I.s were being ripped off. "They were always ripped off -- jewelry scams in Thailand, shortchanging in Korea, pickpocketing in the Philippines," he said.
Military officials asked Arno to tour some of the camps, talking to the soldiers and performing demonstrations. "I'm 23 years old at the time, tall and gangly, and my English wasn't as fluid. I couldn't hold their attention until I did audience participation. It created my act," Arno said. "I got my chops from doing those military camps."
Conning the Confidence Men
The son of a judge and a mother with a talent for reading people, Arno said he developed his own instinct for reading people as a teenager. "I had a huge interest in reading people's reactions, cause and effect, social engineering. I never looked at my surroundings like the rest of the kids."
Arno's onstage persona as a pickpocket is a great cover, he said, allowing him to walk up and start talking to professional thieves anywhere in the world. "I can show him a clip on my iPhone (of my act) and I can get close to him. He starts to respect you and you break down barriers. I can immerse myself in cultures all over the world in a quick and easy way," Arno said.
The National Geographic Special shows Arno heading to Italy and interacting with some members of the Camorra Crime Syndicate. "It covers me going into Naples and letting them steal my wallet and then see what happens to that wallet. With very small cameras, we had people on the bus that filmed" the theft, he said. "Then I go up to one of the guys who took it when they get off the bus and I say, 'I do the same as you. Give me back the wallet and I will give you back this.' I had taken something small from him," he said.
Staying Safe in Unfamiliar Territory
While traveling, Arno said the environment around you is the key word in staying safe. "If you are traveling to unknown places, be it Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro or Moscow, you need to take certain precautions. Ask friends, your travel agent, and hotel clerks if it is safe to walk around."
Arno also is of the opinion that carrying more than three credit cards is unnecessary. "Keep the third card in the hotel safe to be used in case something bad happens," he said.
"Pickpocket King" debuts on the National Geographic Channel on Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. E.T.
- National Geographic Channel
- Bob Arno