The most common crimes in Italy are theft, burglary, and pocket picking. Pickpockets are such a big problem here that all public transportation carries warning signs. Unlike most public notices, which are routinely announced in Italian and English, the pickpocket warnings are posted in Italian, English, German, French and Spanish. The Asians are left to fend for themselves!
I’ve witnessed many pickpocket incidents and have myself been the victim three times. The first successful event occurred when I visited Rome in March 2002 before I actually moved here. On a crowded tram, someone lifted a small black zippered bag from my purse. I still delight in the look I imagine on the face of the pickpocket when he—or she—found only my asthma inhaler and lipstick while my money stayed safely close to my heart!
The second time, I stood on a crowded bus. I answered my cell phone, and when the call ended, I put the phone in a zippered compartment of my backpack. At the next stop, a man of great politeness edged past me to exit. I later discovered my phone was missing. I’m certain that gentle man took it. As luck would have it, the phone was on its last gasp, so the thief who took it actually did me a favor by compelling me to buy a new one.
The third time, I got off a metro train—not an especially crowded one—and strolled to my destination only to discover that my wallet had been lifted from my backpack. I had had that wallet for about four hours, having purchased it earlier that day. Fortunately, I didn’t lose much money. What I did lose was my American driver’s license and getting that replaced proved to be very difficult.
Do you see a pattern here? Every theft involved a backpack. I learned my lesson. If I use a backpack now, I wear it in front if I’m in a crowd or I use a lock.
I’ve also had a couple of near misses. Once I was walking along in mid-afternoon when I heard, rather than felt, the zipper on my backpack move. I turned to find two young gypsy girls, about 12. When I yelled at them, they looked up at me without fear and blew smoke in my face! The other instance happened on a crowded metro platform. I tried to board a train, but it was too full. As I tried to turn, I discovered a woman’s hand in my purse. My purse hung on a short strap under my arm, clamped close to my body with my elbow. She had still managed to get her hand inside, expecting the crowd to shield her. It’s highly likely that she would have taken something—though probably not my money—had I not striven to turn at that moment.
Crowds are the pickpockets’ best friend. Once I waited for a tram around 8:30 p.m. at a stop near the station. It was raining, and lots of people waited, many with luggage. When the tram finally arrived, the crowd jostled to enter, juggling suitcases and umbrellas. As I stepped onto the tram, the man in front of me courteously excused himself and stepped off. Ahead of me a woman struggled with the above mentioned accoutrements, an open purse dangling under her arm. She caught my eye, reached into the bag, and discovered her wallet gone. She left the tram and began chasing the thief—something I would never do.
A woman standing nearby then began acting strangely, wriggling past me and into a crouch. I thought, “Aha, here’s the pickpocket,” and grasped my purse with both hands. She then pushed herself upright, holding a wallet aloft, having retrieved it from the floor where the pickpocket had dropped it. A man nearby (British) claimed it. And we all sighed.
The stories of things I’ve witnessed go on and on: a young guy (again British) discovering that his back pocket had been neatly Xed with a knife and his wallet extracted; a crowd of people pulling a woman back onto the train as she tried to exit because they suspected her of pocket picking (I didn’t see the outcome of this one).
One day, on an uncrowded train, two scruffy guys sitting near me suddenly jumped from their seats and lurched for a man sitting across from them (and me). I thought I was witnessing a mugging until one of them pulled out handcuffs and shackled the guy who had deftly picked the pocket of a woman nearby. These undercover cops ride the rails in search of pickpockets, it seems.
In the ten years I’ve been here, I’ve learned to take precautions, and I haven’t had my pocket picked in a long time. My first piece of advice to anyone visiting Rome is to be aware of the likelihood of pickpockets and to take precautions.
I blog on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers. I hope you’ll stop by and join the conversation. Next week, I’m writing about an unusual Italian festival.