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Default Sometimes, It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief

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Apollo Robbins won't say whether he's ever stolen anything in his life, but it's clear he could if he wanted to. Having grown up in Missouri with three half-brothers who were all involved in various criminal activities (one of them is in the witness protection program after testifying against former colleagues of his), the 34-year-old Robbins was indoctrinated at an early age into the finer aspects of pickpocketing and con games.
He eventually developed those skills into a successful career as a sleight-of-hand artist and performer in Las Vegas. His latest act, though, has him starring as a corporate security consultant. In this role, it is less his dexterous hands that appeals to his clients than his mastery of all aspects of criminal cons, grifts, and social-engineering ploys.
"When you're trying to steal something, you find the weakest link and work that," Robbins says. "Nowadays, as technology gets better and security systems get harder to break through, the weakest link in any system is the human running it."
Robbins founded his consulting operation, Whizmob Inc. (the name comes from the street term for a team of pickpockets working together), two years ago while still performing full-time.
After doing a show a few years back in which he pickpocketed Secret Service agents accompanying former president Jimmy Carter, the resulting publicity led several law-enforcement agencies and other groups to contact him about his techniques.
"At first, I'd refer them to security people I knew," says Robbins. "Then I realized that instead of being a referral service, I could capitalize on this."
It was a good time to get in on the act. Information security consulting, which barely existed in the mid '90s, has become an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion business as the need to protect sensitive information stored on computers and servers has become a more central concern.
Today, Robbins counts the N.F.L., TNT, and several Fortune 500 companies among his customers. He recently advised the N.F.L. on information security protection at this year's Super Bowl in Phoenix to combat the expected flow of thieves and con artists lured by all the deep-pocketed spectators coming to town.
His work included getting a major hotel to upgrade its WiFi security so that fake access programs known as Trojans couldn't extract valuable data and password information from unsuspecting guests' computers. And at the stadium where the game was held, Robbins and his team identified areas where pickpockets would most likely operate—specifically, places with lots of traffic where bumping into people would be customary, and easy access to exits for escape purposes.
Besides the shadier elements of Robbins' childhood, his father, a blind minister, instilled in him a strong sense of morality. "It was like living in two worlds," Robbins says.
In many ways, he still is living in two worlds, since he keeps in regular contact with some professional thieves he knows in order to stay abreast of the latest cons. (While he doesn't pay them, Robbins says that "a lot of these guys are really good at what they do but they can't exactly discuss it with a lot of people.") But increasingly, Robbins is spending time in the more staid settings of the corporations that hire him to vet their security systems.
"It's a good time to be in the business," he says.

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