Where's Your Wallet? Pickpockets Hit the Square

Jan. larcenies increase 44 percent city-wide

While a recent spree of armed robberies may have alarmed students, a more pedestrian crime is hitting Harvard Square--and police are warning students to watch their wallets.

Pickpocketing is on the rise in the Square and Cambridge police are attributing the recent run of larcenies as mainly responsible for a 44 percent increase city-wide in January, even though crime is down10 percent overall.

"This is a continuous problem we have," says Frank Pasquarello, the spokesperson for the Cambridge Police Department (CPD). "Occasionally, we'll get two or three in a week. Then we'll go weeks without one."


The Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), which is responsible for University-owned properties--including the Square's landmark Au Bon Pain, has been fighting the thefts for years.

"We do have our share of wallet larcenies," says HUPD spokesperson Peggy A. McNamara.

The thieves are not particularly crafty, Pasquarello says; they have no need to be. They will enter a restaurant, look around for someone who has their coat on the back of their chair and ask for an adjacent table. From there, they can reach back and take a purse, pocketbook, or items in the coat pockets.

"People are lax when it comes to security," Pasquarello says.

The thefts usually hit women, who carry pocketbooks. Men, who usually carry their wallets in their back pockets, are less vulnerable.

Harvard Square is often the target of thieves for its close proximity of its restaurants and the high number of students.

In December, personal larcenies almost doubled from 1998, thanks again mostly to Square larcenies, the CPD's crime analysis unit reported.

HUPD places detail officers at ABP on weekend nights to deal with a variety of issues, and occasional plainclothes officer sweeps help to stem the larcenies, McNamara says.

Despite continued arrests, police know they can not stop all the pickpockets.

"We can't be in every restaurant, 24 hours a day," Pasquarello says.

Instead, police have been turning to the diners themselves, hoping a dose of education will be the cure. CPD recently produced a public service announcement about safeguarding valuables in public areas.

The single best way to prevent thefts, Pasquarello says, is to be aware of your surroundings, and not to hang valuable items on your chair--or, even worse, a coat rack.

"It's make it so easy for someone to reach out and grab one," he says.

Items should never be left unattended, McNamara suggests.

"Make it as difficult as possible for a criminal to take your stuff," she says.

While the thefts concern police--they are one of the few areas where Cambridge crime increased in January--they do not often publicize the crimes heavily.

"We're not going to put a billboard up advertising them," Pasquarello says. "You try not to make people paranoid."

Also, Harvard Square is not alone: similar patterns hit Porter Square and Central Square occasionally, Pasquarello says.

"These things happen in restaurants, regardless of where you are," he says.

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