Pick-pocketing down - but for how long?

It's not an uncommon sight in the Prague metro or on the city's tram lines: a tourist confusedly patting down his pockets, then calling out for help, realising he's just been robbed. Pick-pocketing in Prague, as in most major cities, is a major problem: police say that the actual number of cases could be more than five times higher than the 8,000 officially reported each year. Still, there is now something to cheer about: according to police, pick-pocketing in Prague has gone down for the first time in a decade and arrests are up. Just as the city launches a new campaign warning tourists to "watch out", Prague police are saying they are having a greater impact than before.

Theft on the street: most of us have, or know someone who has had, experience with pick-pocketing. In Prague, especially for the trained eye, it's not difficult to discern professional pickpockets at work, but woe to the rest of us. Every year hundreds of visitors and Prague residents alike lose wallets, credit cards, and mobile phones for lack of care or concentration. Past campaigns have warned tourists to "watch out", one of the most recent a successful campaign - at least from a graphic standpoint - showing a set of eyeballs peering from a handbag. A simple reminder to keep your eyes on your things.

Now, the city has launched a new campaign along similar lines, this time showing a figure reminiscent of Peter Falk as detective Columbo, complete with rain coat and 70s hair. The slogan reads "My wife told me Prague was heaven on Earth. Unfortunately for pickpockets as well." How can you go wrong, with Columbo on your side? Well, for one the campaign unfortunately contains a grammatical error: "Look out your stuff, please" - instead of look out for your stuff, the poster reads. But you get the picture. If you don't take care, the damage will be done.

Perhaps more important in curbing pick pocketing has been the strengthening of the police unit known as "Kapsa" - or "Pocket", since the autumn. The unit of specialists has been increased from 30 members to 60, and officers say it is having an impact. In the last three weeks the number of cases - usually around twenty a day - dropped by half, and there has been an increase in arrests: forty-one in November, double the usual figures. Members of "Kapsa" may have also gained a slight advantage, since they should now be able to blend in more with crowds on the street in their effort to catch thieves. The question is how long this slim advantage will last.

Pick-pocketing in Prague is a problem - one that at times has proved an acute embarrassment, as when prominent visitors to this or that Prague convention have been fleeced.

For now, city police have seen a brief respite - but it is highly doubtful the drop in cases will last. After all, it's the Christmas season, a time when thieves unfortunately thrive. If you don't want to end up in Prague in tears as you turn out your empty pockets looking for your cash, your travellers' cheques, your credit cards, and your ID, "Look out your stuff". Please.