Precautions to avoid thieves
and pickpockets in rome
In July 2000, the ex-Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was relieved of his wallet and the $4000 cash it contained by a small group of gypsy girls who accosted him on the famous Via Veneto in Rome. He gave chase but they outran him!!
The lesson is clear – Watch Out! Not only are these innocent looking children on the streets of Rome cunning thieves, they are also agile, well-practised and extremely fleet of foot…
Fortunately, mugging and violent crime attacks are relatively rare in Rome. However, there are many pickpockets in Rome, as in any large city, so the risks and dangers of theft are there, and tourists, even if accompanied by the best guide money can buy, still have to be extremely careful to ensure that their valuables and documents are not stolen. Although you can be robbed at any time in many different ways, from our experience the following are the main ploys used by thieves in Rome. There’s a sucker born every minute and ten thousand new suckers jetting into Rome every day, so the thieves and pickpockets don’t need to change their methods much; they just practice them until they’ve got it perfect. If they successfully rob you, it will be because their method was new to you, but not to them:
In the train while still in the station – especially if you are in a compartment alone – someone comes in and asks you a question in Italian. You reply that you don’t speak Italian and the person goes into the next carriage. Almost immediately another person comes along the platform to the window of your carriage and asks you for information or directions in English… You naturally go to the window to answer and while you are there, his or her accomplice sneaks into the compartment behind you and takes your bag, knowing already that as a non-Italian speaker you are likely to be a tourist with a bag of goodies, (rolls of cash in different currencies, passports, camera etc).
As in any city where you are a stranger, try to avoid looking and sounding like a tourist. This tactic can even save you money, as market-stall holders will often jack up the price of an item if they hear an English or American accent. And with the exchange rate as good as it is for Brits in Italy at the moment, they know you can afford to pay over the odds. Try to go shopping with an Italian friend and let them do the talking for you, while you keep a low profile. As a foreigner you will stick out like a sore thumb anyway and there is little you can do about that, but use discretion and try to make it less obvious, especially when you are alone and unsure of your directions.
Just like wolves, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells such as short con trick artists can smell their prey coming a mile off. They spend their entire day looking and listening for a vulnerable animal to pick off from the herd and make a meal of.
Try not to make a big show of getting a street-map out, or going through all your pockets looking for this roll of film or that bus ticket. It only serves to draw attention to you on the street and to better indicate to the pick-pocket which pocket your wallet is in.
On the street – the ‘mess on the back’ trick: Someone draws your attention to a mark on the back of your jacket (usually ketchup or mayonnaise squirted on, or cold water squirted on the back of your shirt in hot weather) and offers you a tissue to wipe it off.
While he is helping, he is also helping himself to your wallet. (This happened to me, but I was ready for it and asked him to do the wiping, which he declined! I walked off, but he was most insistent that I really did have something on my back, and followed me to ‘assist’ me further. I still ignored him, and when I got home and checked, sure enough there was absolutely nothing there, except his damp palm print on my shirt which had remained in the intense humidity!) Both here and on the train, the thieves are usually well dressed. Our advice is to trust no-one who accosts you out of the blue. In our modern society, where no-one gets involved with strangers if they can help it, ask yourself what possible reason a stranger could have for getting into a conversation with you on the street..?
Interestingly we can also observe a trace of the Italian sense of humour here, bound up in their culture and even expressed in the craft of the pickpocket. It’s almost a slapstick routine which you’d be less likely to come across in England. Likewise the next trick:
A group of gypsy children approach you holding pieces of card or newspaper which they hold under your chin. While you are reading it one of their number nips underneath and clears your pockets or bags. It’s the absurdity of these routines which catches the staid Brit or American off guard! We are just not expecting such a zany, impudent way of being ripped off…
In summer 2003, a new gypsy scam was reported to us by tourists in Rome – ‘Baby Tossing’!
A young gypsy girl, woman or man will appear to accidentally drop her baby, or even throw it into your arms… While you reach out to save the baby from falling, you’ll probably drop your camera or wallet, allowing other gypsies to quickly move in underneath you to pick up what you’ve dropped or rifle through your pockets like lightening while you hold the baby. They then obviously run off with your possessions, leaving you holding the baby – which you’ll then realise is only a plastic doll. Cute, eh?
Some gypsies may even start attempting this with a real baby – They’d sooner have the cash… The real baby may be one they’ve actually kidnapped from another tourist, something else they’re adept at.
So watch out. These people will stoop to any depths to fleece you. As tourist figures drop in the low, off-peak, winter seasons, and as word of the gypsy’s filthy criminal ways gets around more via websites like Romebuddy, it’s probable that we’ll start to see more and more new examples of these extreme varieties of gypsy street-crime in Rome.
Also, we note this year that teenage gypsy girls in central Rome have smartened up a lot. A lot of them have shed their traditional shawls and headscarves, and now dress in the latest fashions, and instead of hanging around their usual areas such as the Colosseum and Termini Station, these girls can now be found on upmarket fashion-shopping streets such as Via Nazionale,Via del Corso and Via Condotti, posing as normal Roman office girls. No, prostitution is not their aim – That would be too obvious and the police would pick them up straight away. Instead, it’s just business as usual – they will simply be trying to distract you with momentary eye-contact to manoeuver you into a suitable position in the pedestrian traffic for an unseen accomplice to pick your pockets.
If you carry a bag with a shoulder strap on the streets of Rome, beware of thieves on scooters coming up behind you and snatching or cutting the strap. Wear the bag on the side away from the road, and unless you want to show off the Chanel buckle, wear it flap inwards and put the strap over your head. Of course, you’ll look even more like a tourist like this, so the trick is not to carry too many valuables with you anyway, or learn to look more like a native of Rome and less like a tourist. It’s a bit of a balancing act between common sense and street-hipness really.
You must also be especially careful of your bag around the main Rome railway station (Termini). If you have left any baggage in the station left-luggage office and the bag you have retained with you is stolen with the ticket inside, return immediately to the left-luggage office (before the thieves do) and report it, before reporting to the police or the Consulate. Otherwise you will be left in Rome with nothing but the clothes you stand up in.
If you put down your bag and your attention is distracted, even for a moment, your bag will quickly disappear.
On a crowded bus, if a group of gypsies and/or gypsy children get on, keep a hand on your purse.
At the beach, don’t leave your bag unattended while you swim. Don’t leave your luggage or valuables in a parked car.
The Italian police are the first point of contact for reporting the loss or theft of documents, property or money. They will give you a multi-language form called a ‘denuncia’ to complete. They will then stamp it and give you a copy, which you will have to show to the Consular section of the Embassy if you need a new passport. Your insurance company will need to see the copy if you are making a claim to them.
Any thefts which happen in or around the main railway station (Termini) or on a train arriving at Termini, should be reported to the Railway Police (Polizia Ferroviaria) at the station. Otherwise reports from foreigners will normally only be accepted by the Foreigner’s Branch of the main Police station (Ufficio Stranieri della Questura di Roma), Via Genova. (off Via Nazionale). Telephone 46861 and ask for the
Ufficio Stranieri – Denuncie). Outside Rome you should contact the nearest police station (Commissariato di Polizia) for help or information, though naturally it is not always possible to find an English speaking police officer.
when taking a taxi…
…especially from the airport or the station, make sure it is an official cab, white (sometimes yellow, the older colour) taxi with a light on top, and a large yellow ‘Comune di Roma’ shield-shaped sticker on the doors. The taxi fare is indicated on the meter but can be increased by supplements for night fares or luggage. In case of a dispute over the fare write down the number of the taxi, the pickup and drop-off location and the route taken (if you can figure this out!). This should then be taken or sent to the Rome Tourist Board (Ente Provinciale per il Turismo di Roma, Via Parigi 11, 00185, Roma, tel. 488 1851)
You may be approached on arrival at the airport and train station by people fraudulently claiming to be employees of the Rome Tourist Board who offer to help you find a hotel. Do not trust them.
This information is by no means exhaustive, and hopefully you won’t have cause to need it, but you have been warned…