'20/20' Crew Gets Some Street Smarts

It can take just moments to ruin your vacation. While you're taking in the sights, someone just may have an eye on your valuables.

Every year thousands of tourists and travelers fall prey to scam artists and pickpockets.

So 20/20 traveled from Spain, to Italy, and finally Las Vegas, with hidden cameras to get an inside look at the tricks of the thieves' trade.

20/20 also brought along some secret weapons — Bob Arno and his wife, Bambi Vincent — who shared tips on avoiding cons, scams, and pickpockets.

In Barcelona's main tourist drag, La Rambla, one of con artists' favorite scams was under way — the shell game. Vacationers are lured in, betting $60 or more a shot to guess which shell is hiding the ball. But there's a catch.

$300 on a No-Win Game

20/20's Jami Floyd thought she was certain which shell was hiding the ball. But time after time she was wrong. Arno, who's an expert on crimes against tourists and even has a stage act where he showcases his own pickpocketing skills, says it's "utterly impossible" to win the shell game.

Arno said there's generally a team of six or more people orchestrating the shell game scam: the dealer, who moves the shells, a few others, called shills, who pretend to play a game or two and win, and a couple of lookouts who keep an eye out for police.

Floyd lost about $300 in less than 20 minutes, never picking the right shell. So how did the dealer do it?

Arno explained it's all a matter of sleight of hand — like a magic trick — the dealer secretly slips the ball out of the shell then slides it into another one, and it all happens out of the player's sight.

Arno and Vincent travel the world studying and videotaping con artists, pickpockets and thieves. In their new book, Travel Advisory! How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling, they share what they've learned over the years.

With Arno keeping watch, the 20/20 crew made these common tourist mistakes to try to lure thieves:

• hanging a purse off the back of a chair at a restaurant • leaving a wallet in plain view on a table • putting a wallet in a back pocket of loose-fitting pants

In each instance, thieves took the bait.

In Rome, the crew learned another lesson: There is no safety in numbers.

After boarding a crowded bus outside the Vatican the crew learned quickly that the jam-packed bus was ideal for the pickpockets.

The lesson in this case: Don't carry a purse at your side where it's out of your sight. A pickpocket used a sweatshirt draped to block sight of his hand as he opened Floyd's handbag and in an instant grabbed her wallet from inside.

On Rome's crowded subway, thieves worked together to grab a wallet. The distraction of the crowded, swaying train was all they needed. One got into position behind one of the 20/20 crew and swiped a wallet by carefully sliding it out of the back pocket.

The crew was victimized at least once a day during the trip but they gave the thieves every opportunity to steal from them. And that, says Arno, is exactly what tourists do.

"It's really simple to beat these people," Arno said. Stay alert, keep your purse in front of you and your wallet in your front pocket.

The same advice for travelers overseas should be followed in the United States, too.

The crew headed to Las Vegas and found that's it's just as easy to lose money to thieves as it is to the roulette wheel.

Again, cunning cons were at work.

Even though the casinos have thousands of security cameras, Tim Shalhoob, a sergeant with the Las Vegas Police Department's Tourist Safety Unit, says pickpockets can be so crafty that tourists still need to be on guard.

"They're looking for that guy who's had a little bit too much to drink, he's flashing his money around," he said.

The ‘Grope and Grab’

One man at the casino 20/20 visited became a target of the "grope and grab." In this scam, an overly friendly female gets very close and puts her hands all over the victim. While he's distracted by her seductive moves, she's actually reaching for the money in his pocket. In this case, though, the man realized what was happening and shoved the money back just in time.

While you're staring at the cards or the slot machine, your wallet or purse becomes an open invitation. "The minute you set it down, you create an opportunity for somebody to take your property. If it doesn't leave your body, it won't be stolen." Shalhoob said.

The ‘Creeper’

Shalhoob advises casino visitors to keep their purses on their laps while they're playing machines. But many gamers put their valuables at their feet, and they can fall into the trap of "creepers."

A creeper's trick is to bend down and act as if he's dropped something. In one instance, we saw a man use his jacket to cover a woman's bag and take it away.

Luckily, security came running, and he dropped the bag and raced off. The victim joined in the chase, but, remarkably, left her bag behind her on the floor.

The Condiment Caper

While some thieves look for the easy opportunity, others look for victims who'll supply the biggest possible payoff.

"They look for high-end jewelry, they look for extravagant spending, they look for a person who opens their wallet or billfold and they see a lot of credit cards or cash. And they look for expensive clothing," Shalhoob says.

We watched a sophisticated gang of thieves pull of a "condiment caper" on a husband and wife who fit their desired profile.

Here's how it went down: One member of the team threw some kind of condiment onto the wife's jacket. Then, another team member alerted the victim to the stain, and another offered to help clean it off. To help out, the husband took his wife's purse. In all the excitement, he looked up to the supposed source of the stain and put the purse down. While both husband and wife were distracted — the last member of the team swooped in and grabbed the purse — hiding it behind his attaché case — and moved on.

Shalhoob says the con worked because the thieves "did it in such a nice way" that the husband thought they were actually helping him.

You're vulnerable, of course, not just in Las Vegas, but in crowds everywhere from ballparks and amusement parks to the hustle and bustle of hotspots like New York's Times Square.

Like Arno, Shalhoob says you can go out and have a good time without becoming a victim. Just use common sense and stay alert.

You can post a question about travel safety tips for Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent questions here, and read some of their safety tips here.

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