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Pickpockets in Italy

Phyllis from NY

I thought of writing this because of the large number of cautionary notes on various chat boards commenting on the pickpocket crime scene in Italy's large cities. I have read many that warn against staying near the train station in Rome or Florence because of the problem.

There are general cautions to be observed traveling nearly anywhere in the world in a large city. The way one looks and dresses makes a difference to pickpockets everywhere. They are far more likely to pick on someone who looks like a tourist (such as shorts, t-shirt, too much jewelry, black dress socks with sneakers, cameras everywhere, obvious wallet in a back pocket) or who looks vulnerable (age maybe, or looking lost, or too entranced with the sights and not paying attention).

The first time we saw pickpockets was on the French Riviera in 1987 -- they got the wallet of a companion with us because he was feeling sorry for the little sleeping baby and was distracted. The way it is done is -- there are usually 2 or 3 women, with at least one holding a sleeping baby (probably drugged) and a couple of small children (under 8 yrs). They surround you and distract you by holding the baby out, while one of the small children picks your pocket and runs around the corner somewhere to pass the wallet or money on to an adult man, probably in a car. This way, the child, if caught, has nothing on him or her.

Two years ago while in Rome, we had dinner with a Colonel of Police-Interpol Division. He is a native Roman. My husband is a retired NYPD detective as was another man with us. Naturally, the topic turned to crime. The Colonel told us that the problem of pickpockets and theft in Rome, was unmanageable because they mostly use young children and teenagers, who are not prosecutable in Italy. Besides, it is easy to pick on tourists who are not going to be in the country very long, have language problems, and may not even immediately know they have been robbed. He also told us that the Japanese tourists are the easiest marks because they are more trusting than many other ethnic groups traveling in Italy. I would think this is because there is so little crime in Japan. The Japanese are not "streetwise," perhaps as much as a New Yorker or an Angeleno would probably be.

We were in Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, and Padua in May, 2001, all places we have been to at least twice before. On this trip we reserved rooms in Rome at a 4 star hotel, Starhotel Metropole on Via Principe Amadeo and Via Viminale, about 2 blocks from Roma Termini. Obviously, I was not intimidated by the numerous warnings, particularly on the AOL travel chat board, about the dangers around the train station. The hotel was lovely, the rooms were fine, breakfast was abundant, and it was very convenient.

As we arrived in a cab and exited to go into the hotel, there were two women with a baby and a small boy behind us. We knew enough to say loudly -- GO AWAY -- VA VIA. They immediately ran away because they do not want to attract attention.

Coming and going while in Rome we saw many such groups, but only in the area of the train station. There were also groups of 4 and 5 young teenagers (girls as well as boys) who walk around carrying large pieces of cardboard. When they see a likely prospect, they quietly come up behind, surround the person(s) and hold the cardboard up in front of you and jabber away to confuse you. While you are concentrating on the cardboard in your face, one of them is picking your pocket -- then they run like h---. We knew what to expect, so as soon as we saw such a group we were aware and watched them and they knew it. If they got too close we would say the same thing LOUD -- GO AWAY -- VA VIA. This is enough for them to leave you alone. We saw the same groups of women and teenagers again and again, and observed the local Italians watching them like hawks, but not doing anything.

Although we were warned that there were pickpockets all over Italy at the main sights and that they looked like everyone else, we did not have a problem because we were cautious about jewelry, dress, wallets, etc. In fact, we have even been warned to beware of nice looking friendly strangers who volunteer to take your picture with your camera -- so we don't do that either, unless they are from New York, like us (Ha, Ha).

In Florence and Venice, one finds a very old woman, or perhaps a younger woman holding a baby or small child, sitting against a wall in a shopping area or on the steps of most churches. They all have the same cardboard sign, which translates: "I am poor and have 3 (or 4) children. Please for the love of God help me. I depend on you to have food to eat." They moan and repeat this constantly as people walk by. I did not see roaming groups, only women sitting alone or with children. I felt very sorry for those children -- the babies are drugged -- they are invariably sleeping, and the children even as young as 18 months or 2 years are already trained to sit still next to the woman for hours at a time.

My conclusion and recommendation is stay wherever it is convenient. In Rome at a hotel and in Florence at an apartment we were less than 3 blocks from the main station, and had no problem at all. We ate, shopped, and walked in these neighborhoods with no hesitation. I think the cautions I have read on the chat boards are self-perpetuating and create a situation that scares people unnecessarily.

The burden is on us to be aware of our surroundings and follow the sensible guidelines for travel anywhere:

  • Do not wear a lot of jewelry
  • Do not dress too much like a tourist
  • Be careful where you place your purse while in a public place, etc.

The Italians (and the government) just shrug their shoulders and say, "What can you do?" In fact, talking to people in cabs, hotels, restaurants, and stores, we found that many Romans know of Mayor Giuliani of New York and jokingly expressed a desire for him to come to Rome to straighten out the pickpocket problem.

I just know that it would take a lot more than this problem to keep us from Italy.

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