Thursday, December 20, 2012

Watch Your Wallet!

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.

Another time, I was one of the last to board a very crowded bus, the 64 which is notorious for pickpockets. Three people climbed up behind me, trying to push onto the bus. A woman outside began shouting, “Watch out; they’re pickpockets.” She yelled and yelled. They were on the steps and the bus door couldn’t close.  Finally, the three realized that there was no room and stepped off the bus, which closed its doors and departed.

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.


Kath Marsh said...

WOW! Thank you. And once again you've taken what could be a dry subject and made it fascinating. Do you have a suggestion on how to carry valuables? In one of those pouches worn under clothes?

Patricia Winton said...

I think those pouches under clothes work well. I have on occasion stood in a corner while I retrieved something necessary to finish a transaction. Above all, men shouldn't carry money in a back pocket. Italian women wear their shoulder bags across their chests. And I'm serious about backpacks in front. I have a small one that I use for day trips and walking. If I'm in a crowd, I move it to my chest.

Fred McCoy said...

This reminds me of a routine from long ago when we used to listen to the Fred Allen radio show on Sunday nights:
FRED ALLEN: Henry! How was your trip to Rome?
HENRY MORGAN: Terrble! Those pickpokckets got me again. They're really, really slick.
FRED ALLEN: Didn't I tell you not to carry your money in a pocket?
HENRY MORGAN: I didn't. I didn't carry anything in any pocket. In fact, just to show them I meant business, I cut holes in the bottoms of all my pockets.
FRED ALLEN: Then what did they get?
HENRY MORGAN: They stole my underwear!

Sarah Glenn said...

Fred - hilarious. Wish we still had some of that humor today.

Patricia - this makes me very leery of ever visiting Italy. I suggest a Playtex bra with the extra side panels for anything you really can't afford to lose. ;-)

Patricia Winton said...

Funny Fred. You followed my advice when in Rome this year, as I recall, and lost nary a thing.

Patricia Winton said...

Sarah, it's really a question of being cautious. In the US I always carried a bag over one shoulder with the hold-all pushed to the back. When I first came to live in Rome a woman stopped me and told me pull it in front. It's just a question of being aware of the danger--and of your surroundings. If I'm sitting in an outdoor cafe, I have my bag on a hook, made for the purpose attached to the table, and I make sure my cell phone is not lying on the table if I'm immersed in a book.

Heidi Noroozy said...

Sounds like you've become a very streetwise Roman resident, Patricia. Pickpockets are a bit problem in Tehran as well, which is why I always keep my money in a pocket underneath my manteau, especially on trips to crowded bazaars. But my sister-in-law once had her bag sliced right off her shoulder by two men riding by on a motorcycle. One was driving and the other wielded the knife.

Patricia Winton said...

Oh, the motorcycle purse snatch is also a problem here. It's not quite as common as pocket picking, but it does happen. In fact, I had a paragraph about this and a photo in my original draft, but I decided that it isn't pocket picketing, but purse snatching.

VR Barkowski said...

When compared to the US, there is so little violent crime in Europe, it always makes me laugh that American's won't travel because they fear being pick pocketed. A few simple precautions (which you lay out beautifully, Patricia) and you and your valuables can move about in relative safety. I have a cross-body bag with a slash-proof stainless-steel wire that runs through the handle. I always carry it in front and keep a small lock on the zipper, a minor inconvenience that makes it not worth a thief's time. Why bother with me when there are so many easy marks out there?

Patricia Winton said...

Violent crime is not a serious issue here unless you play with the big time criminals. But theft....

I've seen those bags with the steel cable, and I think they are a good idea. So is a lock.

Thanks for your comments.

Beth Green said...

Great post, Patricia! As a lifelong traveler, I too am very wary of the things that can go missing in a crowded place. I have all kinds of stay-safe strategies (the most extreme being a dummy wallet containing only a couple of dollars to fool would be pickpockets). However for the past couple of years, I've been really in love with my PacSafe handbags. There are other companies that have the same kind of thief-proof components (latching zippers, wire mesh insides, RFID blockers) but I have two kinds of PacSafe purses that go everywhere with me. My favorite one is tiny--really just a wallet on an uncuttable string--and I use it when I want my hands free, or when I have to carry a backpack.

Patricia Winton said...

Beth, I hadn't heard of PacSafe handbags. I just looked at their site, and their products seem ingenious. Unfortunately, they don't have a store in Italy. But I'm certainly going to look for one when I next travel to the US. Thanks for a splendid reply.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, I traveled all over Budapest for a month with my small backpack on my back. It would have been easy for someone to slip open the zipper and grab my stuff. In Japan I never felt safer, but in Korea felt that I needed to be more careful. My coworkers went through my purse and desk when I was teaching a class. Ugh.

And here in the States, well, thank goodness I'm not a fan of cell phones. When I worked at an Apple store, it was a rare day that we didn't have a customer in tears from the theft of their iPhone, ripped right out of their hands. One day a customer came into the store to purchase a new phone. Some guy with a baby in stroller stole it from her in Macy's and then had the audacity to call her husband and demand a $200 ransom. Her contract on the phone was up, so she used iCloud and Find My iPhone to wipe the phone clean and then spent $199 on a new phone instead.

Patricia Winton said...

Carla, thanks for stopping by and sharing your stories with us.