That Time I Got Robbed in Paris, France

It happened. Here’s what I learned.

In hindsight, I’m lucky I didn’t end up worse off.

Following a few days in Vegas (and you know how those go), I flew back across the US and after one day of tending to the family jet-lagged in DC, I boarded a red eye Paris to attend an investing conference. I was so out of it by the time I landed that a Chinese tourist had to tell me while I stood on line to clear customs that my backpack was wide open with a clear path to my wallet and passport.

Despite that close call and the fact that I was traveling on an expense account, I decided to save the company a little scratch by taking the train from CDG into town. At what point I became a “mark” I still do not know.

The fun begins

I descended into the railway station, bought my ticket, and boarded the train. The conference was beginning in a few hours, and I needed to get to my hotel, change into business attire, and then walk to the conference venue. I checked the time on my phone and the conference schedule on my iPad. It would be a close call to arrive in time for the keynote.

Brandishing technology was clearly a mistake

This incident aside, I am a seasoned and savvy traveler. I keep excess cash and critical documents in interior pockets, but enough cash and important documents in accessible pockets to convince would-be assailants. I’m skeptical. I tip people for not carrying my bags. I hang on to everything. I even avoid wearing printed T-shirts that would reveal anything about me.

And yet…

Two stops in as I sat with my backpack and duffel a young man approached feigning (I think now) a knee injury. He said something in French. I must have looked bewildered because he switched to broken English.

— My leg. It’s hurt, he said. May we sit?
 — Sure, I said. I moved over and he and a friend sat down after putting a bag up on the overhead rack.

Mistake number two: I too moved my backpack to the overhead rack to make room. That mistake was compounded when his friend put another backpack on the overhead rack, bumping mine a little farther down. Randomly (or not), another passenger put theirs up as well, obfuscating my view.

Another stop. More people. I was boxed in and beginning to feel uncomfortable. I gave up my seat and decided to stand. I kept my eyes on my backpack and my hands on my duffel and moved to stand against the wall.

Another stop. The train was packed now, and I was surrounded. It was a weekday morning in Paris after all. Rush hour. We stopped somewhere just before the train plunged underground. As the doors were about to close there was a tap on my shoulder. Mistake three: I turned around.

— Which way to the airport?
 — What? I said to the young man who had stolen my attention.
 — Which platform to airport? This one?
 — No, uh, that one, I pointed. 
 — This train airport?
 — No, no.
 — No?
 — No! I was tense. This was strange.

Then the doors started to close. I wheeled around, but two more men were in my space. I brushed them off and looked to my backpack. It was gone from its spot on the overhead rack. Instead I saw it being handed off the train to a different man on the platform. The doors were closing. I had a split-second to make a decision.

I thought about jumping off and chasing him. Then the doors closed and the train started to move. I thought about pulling the emergency brake. But then what? I’d be stuck on the train, miss my conference, and still not get my backpack back. I thought about confronting the people on the train. But what good would that do? Who knows how many of them were in on it? What’s more, they were French. They probably couldn’t care less about my plight.

I’d been had.

It could have been worse

The good news is that thanks to that Chinese tourist who’d pointed out my open backpack back at the airport, I’d put the important stuff — cash, credit cards, passport — in a zippered interior shirt pocket. The thieves got my pens, notebooks, iPad, phone, and keys to a beat up VW wagon parked back in Virginia . A decent haul, but not a great one.

Arriving at my hotel I contacted our tech support team and they remotely shut off the iPad and phone. The worst that happened to me (apart from the next few years of stress associated with not losing the last spare set of car keys) was suffering the indignity of attending a conference with no business cards or technology, anonymously taking notes with a hotel pen on a hotel notepad.

Doing research after the fact, I learned a little bit about how they took advantage of me and my tired mind.

Cognitive crime

The person who decided I was a target, or “mark,” was called the “steer.” He or she may have seen me all the way back at the airport stumbling around with an open backpack full of technology and cash. I’d barely slept in three days, which recent research shows is the equivalent of being legally drunk. That means slow response times, poor decision-making, and an inability to process complex information. The airport train station at 6am was probably full of opportunities for them.

The steer may or may not have boarded the train with me. She could have just taken my picture and texted the next man on. Generally, gangs like this want as few members at the eventual crime scene as possible.

Next came the “stall,” or the person responsible for moving me into position. My guess is this was the guy with the knee injury and his friend. What’s interesting here is that if he had asked me to put my backpack up, I would have been onto him. Instead, he made a small and reasonable request to sit down that was easy to agree to. What’s more, I separated myself from my backpack, perhaps influenced by his act of putting his own backpack on the overhead rack.

This is all straight out of Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence. Commitment: I agreed to do something and then stuck with it to my own detriment. Social proof: Seeing other people putting backpacks up on the rack, I did it too.

A “stick” was at work in the guy who asked me how to get to the airport. His task was clearly to distract my attention for as long as possible. And not only did he get me to take my eyes off my backpack, but he briefly was able to get me to forget about it altogether.

See, our brains are bad at concentrating on two things at once. When he asked me how to get to the airport, I had to remember that I was coming from the airport and then intuit that a train going to the airport would be leaving from the opposite platform. Professional sleight-of-hand artist Apollo Robbins calls this “carving up the attentional pie,” and he uses it to separate all manners of objects from owners during his shows in Las Vegas. Here’s how he explained it during a TED Talk:

For me, I like to think of [attention] like a surveillance system. It’s kind of like you have all these fancy sensors, and inside your brain is a little security guard. For me, I like to call him Frank. So Frank is sitting at a desk.He’s got lots of cool information in front of him, high-tech equipment, he’s got cameras, he’s got a little phone that he can pick up, listen to the ears, all these senses, all these perceptions…for my job, I have to play with techniques to exploit this, to play with your attention as a limited resource. So if I could control how you spend your attention, if I could maybe steal your attention through a distraction. Now, instead of doing it like misdirection and throwing it off to the side, instead, what I choose to focus on is Frank, to be able to play with the Frank inside your head, your security guard, and get you, instead of focusing on your external senses, just to go internal for a second. So if I ask you to access a memory, like, what is that? What just happened? Do you have a wallet? Do you have an American Express in your wallet? And when I do that, your Frank turns around. He accesses the file. He has to rewind the tape. What’s interesting is, he can’t rewind the tape at the same time that he’s trying to process new data.

As I thought about how to get to the airport, I completely lost track of what was going on around me.

Then, when I wheeled around, I was met my two “shades,” individuals meant to block both my view and chance at recovery. There’s nothing intellectual about two dudes physically blocking your path, but hey, it’s effective. Same for the “tool,” or whomever took my backpack off the overhead rack and the “duke man,” who was the guy I saw walking off the platform with my bag.

The most practical application of psychology

There may have been more people involved, or there may have been less — with one person playing multiple roles. They short-circuited my weakened brain so effectively that much of it remains a blur, and I’m sure I missed hundreds of other important details.

As I finished the ride into Paris, I held my duffel tight to my chest and stewed. I was angry. All of these people watched me get robbed and no one lifted a finger.

When I reflected on it, though, and described what had happened to people at the conference and later friends and family, I grew impressed. The act of robbing me of my backpack was a very elegant and practical application of many of the same behavioral and psychological realities that I’d learned about and tried to apply in the pursuit of becoming a better investor. It became apparent to me then just how real and powerful these cognitive phenomena are, and the fact that they could be used so effectively by street criminals in Paris inspired me to learn more about them and apply them in more areas of my life.

So for that, merci mes amis.

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