Traveling to Spain, Italy or France? Good luck! Pickpockets are most prevalent and successful in the major cities of these countries as opposed to anywhere else in the entire world!
Pickpockets often work in teams, one as the "grabber" and the other as the "distracter." Usually, your attention is kept away from the Grabber by having the Distracter bump into you, ask for directions, or aide them in gathering dropped items. This makes it easier for the Grabber to undetected and allows for the thief to get away without you ever seeing them. Some work in groups or alone as well. If they are working alone they will look for people who seem lost, paying attention to their children and traveling companions, street shows, or pretty unique things in shop windows.
Unfortunately, pickpocketing is widely considered a petty crime. Therefore, there isn't any data to prove that this is a big issue. This crime will continue to be a real danger for travelers as long as it isn't recognized for the dangerous problem it is. Until that happens we have to take measures to make ourselves and our belongings as safe as possible.
A good rule of thumb is to always follow your instincts, if you are uncomfortable or get that weird ominous feeling in the pit of your stomach, take steps to feel safer by getting into a better lit area and avoid any disturbances. Remember, thieves will take use this distraction as an opportunity to steal your items and get away undetected. Befriending locals and staying in a group is a good way to remain safe and avoid being an easy target. Locals will know which areas to avoid and the best places to grab a drink or get some great local cuisine. Leaving valuable in your hotel room and only bringing necessary items with you will make travel and exploring easier and you will become less interesting to undesirables. Any bags or purses you must take should be kept in constant contact especially in large crowds. Learning a few key safety phrases in the native language is always a good idea so if there is cause to ask for help the people around will understand you and come to your aide.
There is absolutely nothing as fun and exciting as traveling. Discovering interesting places while experiencing new cultures is an amazing opportunity that shouldn't be marred by having your wallet or passport stolen. Keep these simple, easy tips in mind while enjoying your explorations, and memories of frantically filled out police reports or phone calls to friends for airfare home will be part of someone else's journey. To all of you, I wish happy safe travels!