|Rome, like any western European capital, is a "safe" place.
When Americans ask us if the town, or the quarter in which they live is "safe",
we do not understand what they mean. Some also consider it a bit offensive. We Europeans
never use this expression. Sometimes there are peripheral quarters where young boys might
steal mopeds or a car. If there is a robbery it is reported in the provincial or national
news because it is rare. Only in the poor regions of Southern Italy (which is another
world in its own right) there are "unsafe" quarters, although usually the major
concern is about fights between criminals themselves, in which innocent passers-by can be
hit by mistake. In Rome, and in all major European towns, one can walk everywhere at any
time without being harmed by anybody. We do not even think of this problem. In Europe we
believe that it is an American problem, and many Europeans will not visit the USA for this
The only problem one can find in Rome, like in any big town with many
tourists, is the presence of pickpockets. They are almost never Italian or locals, but
poor immigrants (the large majority of them are honest, and there are of course dishonest
locals, they simply do other things, more sophisticated than robbing tourists). The
gypsies are only a small fraction of the pickpockets, and not even the worse, if nothing
else because they can be recognized, increasing the degree of alert. In Rome, the base of
pickpockets seems to be the main train station Termini, and they are also very active in
all public transport vehicles (particularly bus 64, dubbed "the wallet
express"), and needless to say by the sights, where tourists are distracted.
Pickpockets are not a peculiar problem of Rome, as some tourists reporting on travellers'
forums describe. They are present in Rome simply because it is, with Paris, the major
European attraction. Every year 7-10 million tourists visit Rome, more in special years
like the Great 2000 Jubilee. There is a ratio between the number of tourists and
pickpockets. In other words, supposing that every 20,000 tourists there is a pickpocket,
this means that in Rome there are at least 350 active pickpockets. You would have the same
ratio everywhere else, in London, Paris, New York etc. The reason why the problem seems
evident in Rome is simply because there are more tourists than anywhere else. The author
of this article was robbed by pickpockets the first and only time in London. They were not
natives, but very sly immigrants.
What is sure though is that these people are extremely sly and "professional",
although doing the wrong profession. If you will be alert, and follow these suggestions,
they will not harm you.
The pickpockets techniques (internationally)
Out of many years' experience in assisting tourists, and listening to
their problems, this is a concise presentation of the pickpockets' tricks and techniques,
and ways of protecting yourself. Again, the problem and its solution are not a peculiar
feature of Rome, you will find it in any place where there is a high number of tourists,
(1) the common technique: they are two or three. One pushes you from
behind, or from the side, distracting you, as you will pay attention to his push. The
accomplice with feather-touch hands will then take your wallet or belongings from your
pockets or bag.
(2) while you are buying in shops, you will be distracted looking at goods on
offer. They can take advantage of your distraction, and slyly
introduce their soft-touch hands in your bags to rob you. This was the trick they used
with me in London. I was buying records. I had a purse hanging from my wrist, and I was
reading the tracks title of an album. While I was distracted reading, a pickpocket by my
side opened the purse under my own eyes (and it had a buckle, not a zipper!), and took the
wallet and even the pouch with the glasses. When I realized what had happened, he
scampered. Of course, do not drop or leave unwatched your purse while you are buying.
(3) they could throw an ice-cream at you, or dirty on purpose your coat, without
you realizing it. They will then come near you as if they were helping you
to clean your coat or jacket. You will trust them, and you will be distracted taking your
jacket off to look it well. While you do this, the thief or his accomplice will rob your
belongings, without you realizing it.
(3) in a very deceiving way, while you are in some tourist sight, they could ask
you to snap a photo to them. You will drop your bag for a minute to snap the
photo, and someone from behind will take it. You won't even have their photo, the camera
has no film!
(4) they could come near you with a paper hiding their hands, at work
only trying to rob you.
(5) gypsy children could surround you, and shamelessly start taking your
belongings, taking advantage of your surprise. They would then pass the
belongings to older gypsy women, which will put them beneath their clothes, so that
policemen possibly intervening will not put their hands beneath the clothes (usually also
smelling). Make sure that the gypsies stay away from you, and if they do come near you,
shout at them to go away ("VA VIA" - vah veeah - or "POLIZIA" -
Pohleetzeeah - in Italian).
(6) although it is reported in guide books, I have never seen bag-snatchers in action, at
least in Rome. They can possibly be found in southern Italy. The reason is that this
technique requires a moped, and poor immigrants, who are the majority of pickpockets,
don't have one, or it could be detected (they have a plate), or confiscated.
What you should do to prevent being robbed
By far, the most important measure is being alert.
Pickpockets consider good "clients" distracted or unaware persons, and
conversely will not take the risk of robbing someone who is alert and wary. I remember a
Japanese tourist with gypsy kids behind him trying to take his wallet from his back
pocket, by the Spanish Steps. The Italians were shouting at him, waving their hands in an
attempt to make him understand what was going on. The Japanese thought that the friendly
Italians were greeting him, and was waving back to reciprocate, without realizing that he
was being robbed from behind. This is one example to let you understand what you should
not be doing (of course, be friendly with the friendly Italians, but watch your back!).
Although when we are on holiday we all want to enjoy and forget about it all, this helps
pickpockets. It is not nice once on holiday to be concentrated and alert, but it is
something you will have to do. If you don't do it, you could be robbed. If it happens, you
will be hurt as you will have no money or less money. It will spoil in any case the
holiday atmosphere and your mood. You will lose confidence on locals, thinking that they
are all potential thieves (while they are not, they are victims like you, also having the
damage that they might not see you again next time because you will not visit). In other
words, you will have to live with the problem. While you enjoy visiting Rome's marvels,
remember to be a little alert to pickpockets. I know it sounds a little like working, but
it will spare you frustrations and from disenchantment.
Of course then there are many little practical measures you should do to prevent
being robbed. Always put the wallet in the front pocket, and don't put money in the other
pockets (unless you want it picked...). Use money-belts, the slim ones you can hide
beneath your clothes, not the flashy external ones which are an invitation for thieves.
Leave your passport and your most valuable belongings in your apartment or hotel, and
bring with you just enough money for the day, in reasonable denominations. Don't leave
bags, purses, or wallets in your car, not even in the trunk (it will not save you at all).
Once you are robbed: first of all call your bank or whoever is
responsible to stop your credit card, your chequebook, and also your travellers' cheques
(thieves shouldn't be able to use the latter as you need a double signature to cash them,
yet you still have to stop their payment). Second, you need to go to a local police
station (ask about the nearest one to the agency from which you rented your apartment, or
to your hotel management), and fill in or write down a police report, which you will need
for legal and reimbursement purposes (the policemen usually will help you writing it in
Italian, if needed).
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