WIESBADEN, Germany -- Christmas markets around Europe appeal to many Americans because of their unique old-world charm. But pickpockets love them, too, because they attract people with money and the crowds that make it easier for them to steal valuables and get away. Within a few seconds, a purse, credit card or car keys can disappear.

According to German police statistics, 117,277 pickpocket cases were reported in Germany in 2012. In 2011, there were 120,790 cases. Despite this slight decline, the value of good stolen in 2012 was 9.5 percent higher than the previous year, amounting to more than 32 million euros.

Experts at the Hessian State Investigation Bureau in Wiesbaden say pickpockets work mainly in groups: while one distracts the victim, another steals the loot and passes it to a third accomplice who vanishes into the crowd. This trick works best in large gatherings of people such as Christmas markets.

The experts say people can sometimes recognize pickpockets by the way they look for targets, avoiding direct eye contact with victims as they look for loot. Generally they watch their victims closely for a long time, then bump into them, engage them in a conversation with phony questions, offer an excessive amount of help with some task, or even spill something onto a victim's clothing to come into contact with them.

These thieves are usually professionals who are active all over Europe, the investigative authorities say, and most cases are never solved because the victims do not immediately notice the theft. But, they add, people who are attentive and follow a few security tips can make it difficult for pickpockets to target them.

They recommend that people:
-- Only take as much cash with them as they feel they will actually need.
-- Carry money, credit cards and identity documents in various closed inside pockets of their clothing, as close as possible to the body.
-- Keep the bags they carry closed.
-- Carry hand or shoulder bags with the lock side facing the body.
-- Never leave handbags or coats unattended.
-- Pay extra attention to their valuables while they are in a crowd.

For more information on thwarting pickpockets, the police in Berlin offer an online flyer in English at www.berlin.de/polizei/english.html#pickpockets