You may have overlooked Mahmud in the crowded New Market area. He always has an innocent look on his face.
But the 12-year-old boy is actually a professional thief. He steals mobile phones and money from women's bags when they are busy shopping, or bargaining with sellers.
"When I notice that a woman is not holding any mobile phone in her hand, I become sure that the phone is in her bag," said Mahmud, sitting at the state run vagabond shelter in Mirpur where he has been detained for nearly a month. "I can steal a mobile phone in the blink of an eye!"
His prime targets are women who have no mobile phones in their hands. He starts following them for around 10 minutes and finally when they get busy in buying something or talking to the shopkeepers, he unzips their bags in a second and disappears into the crowd.
"Most of the time, women become so engrossed in buying something that they almost forget about everything else and I do my deed at that very moment," said Mahmud, who was sent to the shelter by the police for the fourth time in the last four years.
Mahmud (name changed to protect his identity) has been in the profession for around four years and he has pickpocketed countless mobile phones and money.
After stealing the mobile phones, he along with other thieves, goes directly to the Gulistan area and stadium market to sell them. Many shop owners are ready to buy these stolen phones at a cheap price.
"We do not even have to say that we want to sell phones. If we walk along the road in front of the market, the buyers beckon us, asking how much they will have to pay to get them," said Mahmud.
He gets Tk4,000-Tk5,000 every day by selling the stolen items. In his four-year career, he has sold a mobile phone for as much as Tk25,000. It was the highest amount he ever got.
Usually they sell low-end mobile phones like those of the Symphony brand for Tk1,000 to Tk1,500.
"On a normal day, I can steal four mobile phones. On Fridays, I can steal at least five to six of them because on Fridays, the place bustles with shoppers," Mahmud shared with us.
However, he gives back many phones soon after stealing, especially the ones he takes from older and poor people.
"After losing their phones, many old and poor women burst into tears. I feel sad for them, so I walk around them and secretly keep the mobile phones somewhere close to them. They become happy after getting the phones back," said Mahmud.
"But, I never give back the phones I steal from the rich. The poor people do not have the ability to buy another phone but the rich have," he added.
There is no denying that always Mahmud goes scot-free. Many times, he has been arrested based on the allegation of stealing mobile phones and money from women's bags.
Some years back, the police arrested and filed a case which finally landed him in the Juvenile Development Centre in Gazipur's Tongi.
A young person under 18 charged with an offence can only be detained in a CDC by law. Mahmud had to be in the centre for 17 days.
"But most of the time, the police let me free if I can give them Tk500 at least. If I give them Tk2,000, they will not touch me," said Mahmud.
Sometimes police send children involved in criminal activities to the state run shelter in Mirpur as vagrants and shelterless children to avoid caseloads.
The latest incident which landed Mahmud in the shelter happened nearly a month ago.
"I had stolen a mobile phone from a young woman's bag in the New Market area in the evening and had just kept it in my pocket. At the same time, another man's phone was pickpocketed. The man and the woman started shouting at the same time," said Mahmud.
"When the woman shouted, the man caught me by my hand. He checked my pocket and got her mobile," he said.
The woman went away with her phone and the man filed a case with New Market police station against Mahmud. Then the New Market Police sent him to this place.
"I do not know who had stolen his mobile phone," said Mahmud. "I am not alone, many senior persons are involved in the business in the area."
He said that along with adult thieves, in different groups there are at least 60 children involved in stealing mobile phones and money only in the New Market area.
One group member knows the other group members. But, these group members work in their own ways.
"They say, you do your work, let me do mine. Many women come to steal phones and money with their babies on their laps, you cannot believe they are thieves," said Mahmud, "Even sixty-year-old men are involved in this work."
"On a normal day, you will find at least a dozen women pickpockets in the New Market area," said Mahmud. "Juthi is one of them, she also came to this shelter after being arrested by police." Juthi was sent there three times by police.
Mahmud said he also goes to steal mobile phones in a small group. Two more group members were also in the shelter some days ago.
He further said that their other group members including Shamrat, Faisal, Sakib, Shawon, Mobarok and Emon are on the loose.
"Most of the time, we stay around the roadside shops. Then we vanish into the crowd in the New Market and Nilkhet areas and look for potential targets," said Mahmud.
How Mahmud ended up being a thief
Mahmud used to work at a saree shop in the Eastern Mollika Shopping Complex.
The shop owner used to give him a monthly salary of Tk1,500. Later, he worked for a cosmetic shop as a salesman for a monthly salary of Tk4,500 for some time. The money was always insufficient for him.
After the death of his father six years ago, he has been living with two sisters in Kamrangirchar.
Last month, his mother died after suffering from tuberculosis for a long time.
One of his brothers works as a mason and another one works as a salesman in the Eastern Mollika Shopping Complex.
Four years ago, at the age of eight, Mahmud came to New Market as a roadside potholder seller. He used to sell a pair of potholders for Tk10. On a day, he would earn at best Tk400 from selling them.
There were some professional young thieves in the market area then.
"To my surprise, they used to bring expensive mobile phones in the blink of an eye and some people bought them on the spot," said Mahmud.
Then he followed them for several days and gradually befriended the ring. He saw how they pickpocketed mobile phones.
On a winter afternoon, he gave it a try for the first time and became successful.
One day, while selling potholders, he found that a woman was busy bargaining with another vendor. He unzipped her bag and brought out her phone.
"My hands were trembling in fear but I was determined and finally took out the phone. It was an iPhone. Immediately I gave it back to her saying I had found it," said Mahmud.
"Then she gave me a Tk500 note. I was on cloud nine! I went directly home," said Mahmud.
"I had heard that it was tough to sell an iPhone and it was easy to find out who stole it, for this reason I gave it back," he explained.
Later, he gave several tries and eventually learned the trick of the trade. Now he is a confident thief.
He said that in the New Market area, one has to keep looking back to see whether someone was following him or her.
"For women, they have to keep their phones in their hands. I guarantee that if one keeps her phone in her hand, it will be safe," said Mahmud.
SM Kaium, officer-in-charge of the New Market Police Station said that the allegation that police members take bribes to release thieves is false.
"Pickpocketing incidents are rare. Some take place, true, but nobody comes to the police station to file a case," said SM Kaium. "When this type of incident comes to our attention, we send them [the children] to the government shelter through the department of social services."
"Mahmud has gone away along with 9 inmates of govt shelter home by breaking the gril of 3rd floor of dormitory building at 3 am last night! He was the leader and did this, " Manager of the shelter center Nasrin Khan to The Business Standard this evening.