How to not get pickpocketed

Is pickpocketing bad in Rome?

One of the greatest concerns to tourists in Rome – which can sometimes give this city a bad reputation – are the dreaded pickpockets. We’re not going to lie – Roman pickpockets are skilful and tourists are usually their target. However, by taking the right precautions, Rome can be a very safe city for tourists.

Mugging here is almost unheard-of, though obviously taking the kind of sensible precautions that you’d take in any other city is advisable (e.g. don’t wander around alone in dark alleyways in sketchy areas at night and so on).

Before we tell you how to avoid being a victim, here are a few things that they are known to do. They really are artful dodgers: every trick you’ve ever heard of, they’ve likely already thought of it and put it into action.

The other thing the wise tourist should understand is that they already know that behaviourally you’ll be taking precautions; their techniques are all about creating circumstances that are so disorienting that you let your guard down.

What are typical pickpocketing techniques in Rome?

  • Gangs of kids running up and down the Metro carriage shouting and screaming and generally being a nuisance. While you look at them in outrage, someone else will be targeting tourists’ pockets and bags.
  • Bugging you in the street to buy some trinkets or flowers while their accomplice grabs your wallet or bag. There is a rumor that occasionally a woman will throw a ‘baby’ at you (actually only a doll) and you react so instinctively to catch it that you become totally helpless, but I suspect this one is just a myth.
  • Someone trips and falls while getting onto public transport. While you’re helping them up, their accomplice is taking your wallet or purse. This is often performed in tandem on the Metro, with the perpetrator already on the train and the ‘stuntman’ (or woman) waiting at the next station at a pre-arranged place on the platform so that they can ‘fall’ in the door next to their wingman. We have seen this one at work.
  • Sometimes it’s a case of spotting you with something valuable while your guard is up, and then waiting to act until you think you’re out of ‘danger’ and you drop your guard. (This author got his wallet taken by this technique – I was in a big crowd in a piazza in the middle of the day and felt unsafe, so I moved my wallet into the zip-up pocket of my backpack and left the piazza for an empty street. Then I relaxed. Somebody must have followed me, because shortly afterwards my bag got unzipped – and then zipped up again – and my wallet taken without me even noticing.)
  • The honey trap: an attractive woman will use her looks and/or body to distract you while someone else is dipping into your pocket. Usually only tried on men!
  • One person is acting really shifty and looks like they’re going to rob you. While you’re thinking about them, someone else is actually taking your stuff.

Thankfully there are easy ways to avoid wasting valuable vacation time waiting in an embassy or bank to try to replace what’s been lost at short notice.

How to avoid pickpockets in Rome, Italy

To avoid being pickpocketed in Rome, be aware of your surroundings at all times and take the common-sense precautions with your belongings. Don’t be discreet: usually pickpockets have a couple of seconds to assess whether you’re worth robbing before moving on, so make yourself look like you’ll be too much trouble, and they’ll move on.

Here are a few simple precautions you can take to make yourself look virtually unassailable to wannabe thieves:

  1. If you don’t need it, don’t bring it.
    Have you – for reasons known only to yourself – brought a big wad of cash? Do you have a spare credit card or three? Feel like you should carry your passport? Leave all of it in the hotel safe. Though by law in Italy you should always carry photo ID, in the unlikely event that you are stopped you can either plead ignorance, or the police will almost certainly accept either a photocopy of your passport or your driver’s license.
  2. Be aware of who’s around you.
    Pickpockets don’t always fulfil the stereotype of being shifty or dirty. Sometimes they may look like a regular commuter (though nearly never a tourist), clean and well dressed. If someone’s getting too close to you or acting strangely, no matter how respectable they look, be on your guard.
  3. Carry your bag in front.
    Whatever bag you’re carrying, always carry it in front of you. Small backpacks or purses should be worn across your chest or stomach, and if it’s crowded where you are, make sure you fold your arms over them. If you’re carrying a camera, keep it on a strap around your neck, and held in front of you too.
  4. Zip it up.
    You might have the most gorgeous Fendi or Mulberry purse with which you want to compete with the stylish population, but if it doesn’t zip up then don’t take it. Always make sure your purse or bag can be zipped shut – there’s nothing more tempting than a fancy bag with an open mouth!
  5. Don’t use your back pockets.
    Don’t carry your billfold, cellphone, or anything else of value in your back pocket: this makes things all too easy to lift out if you’re distracted. Similarly, pockets of jackets that aren’t in contact with your body – even inside pockets – or the back pockets of backpacks, even if they zip up, are vulnerable.
  6. Refrain from wearing a fanny pack.
    There’s a strong argument to be made that nobody should ever wear one ever on fashion grounds alone, but even if you don’t care about looking like an idiot these things are still a bad idea, because they move your valuables away from being in contact with your body, and therefore make you incredibly vulnerable to light fingers.
  7. Trust your intuition.
    Finally, the most important thing to remember: if something is happening that seems strange, or too good or bad to be true, then it probably is and you should remove yourself from the situation.

Putting into place these few simple precautions will allow you to enjoy the magnificence and beauty of the Eternal City without the misery and inconvenience of losing important things, and almost more importantly, without worrying the whole time.

Now make sure you don’t miss out: plan your visit in advance:

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Photo credit: AFP

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