A robbery victim's plastic Bic lighter and his loose change, both in the right pocket of his jeans, deflected a gunman's bullet and helped prevent serious injury, Nassau County police said Tuesday.

The 22-year-old victim, whose name was not released by police, was on Morrell Avenue near Morton Street in Hempstead about 9:20 p.m. Monday, heading home from his job as a busboy, when three men tried to rob him.

"Give me everything you got!" one of them demanded, according to Det. Lt. Raymond Coté, commanding officer of Nassau's Third Squad detectives, the unit investigating the case.

As the victim backed away from the would-be robbers, one of the suspects opened fire, he said.

The bullet, likely from a 9 mm gun, shattered the lighter and hit some change in his jeans, preventing the slug from potentially piercing his femoral artery but leaving him with just a bruise on his thigh, police said.

The gold-colored bullet landed in his pocket.

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Both the victim and the robbers ran away. The robbers left with no stolen items.

The victim was treated at a hospital and released, police said.

"It's probably the one occasion where a guy's bad habit of smoking cigarettes could have saved his life," Coté said.

Also responsible for saving the man's life was the robbers' deficient weaponry: The bullet shot by the robber didn't pack the firepower that a properly functioning 9 mm semiautomatic handgun would have launched.

With John Valenti