Pickpockets in Italy

Theft by pickpockets in Naples, Rome, Florence and Milan, Italy

Armed robbery ("mugging") and violent theft are relatively rare in Italy, but Naples and Rome are right up there with Barcelona and Madrid as the pickpocket capitals of the world. Florence and other tourist cities are also plagued by pickpockets in Italy.

Conclusions on avoiding pickpocketing in Italy

Please do read this whole page, but also realise that no matter how aware you are, clever thieves have a high probability of succeeding if they decide to target you, because they target the vulnerable, and sooner or later you will be tired or distracted. To thwart pickpockets and sneak thieves in Italy, carry your money and credit cards in hidden money belts, pouches under your clothes etc. and use a slash-proof bag, a secure camera case and a mobile phone pouch. We recommend the range of secure travel items offered by Magellan's. These can be viewed by clicking the image below.

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Recent updates 2014

Florence - buses numbers 7 (to Fiesole) and 10 (to Settignano) are being worked by well-dressed professional pickpockets.

Pisa - theft is rampant on the train to and from the airport. The female gypsy thieves on these trains are dressing in normal clothes but still often carrying babies about.

Livorno to Florence trains - pickpocketing on this route has increased noticeably in 2012. This is probably because the route is popular with cruise ship passengers disembarking in Livorno for a one day shore excursion.

 

Precautions and non-precautions: foiling pickpockets, sneak thieves and bag snatchers in Italy

• Trying to "look like a local" won't help much, for two reasons. The first is that experienced pickpockets are expert at spotting tourists, no matter how much they try to blend in, and the second is that they don't really care - the vulnerable who might be carrying a bit of cash are their targets, tourists or not. Pickpockets are "rational" - they pick on the weak. They would prefer everyone to be blind and fragile, but the next best targets for pickpockets are the tired and/or distracted. Confused looks, hesitant steps, mobile phone pressed to the ear, newspaper before the eyes and open maps are among the perfect indicators of a distracted person. An arm in a sling is a "rob me" sign to pickpockets. Sort out your next steps while still in the hotel, restaurant, museum etc. before setting out and then pay attention to your surroundings .

• While drinking or eating, especially outside, NEVER put your purse, bag or camera on the ground or under the table, nor hang it on your chair behind you nor place it on the seat of the chair next to you. Put it on the table in front of you where you can see it at all times. Don't hang your jacket on your chair if there's anything in the pockets. Remember that pickpockets operate not just in crowded public spaces and public transport but also in standup restaurants (e.g. McDonald's, station buffets etc.), normal sit-down restaurants and even on open footpaths. Large railway stations are the el Dorado of pickpockets and bag thieves.

bag_sneak_thief.jpg (30257 bytes)

Thief stealing a bag placed under the table. She came in with one bag and went out with two.

woman_jacket_thief.jpg (20026 bytes)

Pickpocket stealing from a jacket hanging over a chair. Her confederate pretends to be using a cell phone. (Thief's arm outlined.)

• Pickpockets keep watch over ATM machines. DO NOT use an ATM machine in a big railway station such as Roma Termini nor in other congested tourist areas. Pick up your money from an ATM outside a smaller bank where there are few people about and stash it discreetly. Look around for gypsies before you start. Theft at ATM machines (Bancomats) works like this. A thief, usually a gypsy girl or girls, watches from a short distance away and at the right moment leaps forward and, using a begging notice as cover, presses the key to dispense the maximum amount of cash. Once the wad of notes is in the hand of the user, she snatches the money from the baffled user and runs.

gypsy thief at a cash machine

Gypsy girl holding a piece of paper in front of the ATM user while using the same hand to press the maximum amount button.

gypsies thieves at a bancomat

ATM user chasing off three gypsy thieves

• When you see a "beware of pickpockets" sign, try to resist the temptation to pat the pocket where your money is. This reflex is actually very hard to avoid but it's the kind of body language pickpockets readily detect and exploit.

• Use a money belt to keep your passport, credit cards and cash safe and out of sight. Access your money belt or pouch in a discreet manner - in the back corner of a shop, for example. Don't draw attention to where you store your money. Your pouch should not be visible through your T-shirt, nor should the neck cord be poking out and trailing down your back.

Possibly keep a bit of ready cash in your front trouser pocket - never your back pocket - but be aware that your front pocket is not much safer, especially if you use a wallet (see the picture below). The best place for a small amount of ready cash is loose in a buttoned shirt pocket, especially if you're wearing a jacket, or simply in your hidden money pouch.

Gypsy pickpocket in action

Gypsy pickpocket emptying
a tourist's front pocket in Rome.

gypsy pair stealing from tourists' bags gypsy stealing from tourist's bag

The same gypsy pair stealing from tourists' bags.

• If someone bumps you, especially on the street, you're being robbed. Check your pockets quickly and, if you're built for it, don't hesitate to jump the person who picked your pocket, no matter how well-dressed he is. Make a lot of fuss to attract the attention of passersby. The police will be on your side.

• When in crowded public transport, move your backpack around to the front of your body. If that isn't practical, think about buying a secure pack. Don't put anything of the slightest value to you in outside pack pockets (emphasis on "value to you" - thieves steal stuff "by accident" - the address book with every contact you've made in the past fifty years may not be of value to a pickpocket, but you'll surely be sorrier to lose that than to lose three twenty euro notes). "Fanny packs" are especially easy for pickpockets to access. Pickpockets particularly favour anyone whose hands are full. 

Very skilled pickpockets can slit open the bottom of your bag with a razor blade to steal your purse.

If you're approached on a bus by, usually, a couple, one of whom holds a map up at chest level asking for directions, move away immediately, closely holding your purse or bag.

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Crowded internet cafθs are now at the top of the list of favorite sneak thief haunts. Look from time to time for people hanging about too close while you're studying your email. Keep your bag, if you have one, in your lap or on the table right next to the monitor. Don't hang your jacket on your chair.

pickpocket internet cafe

Using his hung jacket as cover, this sneak thief
opens a zipped bag behind him and steals from it inside 10 seconds.

• Ladies, keep your purse on the shoulder furthest from the traffic side of the footpath. That makes life difficult for purse snatchers on motor scooters (a fairly rare activity outside of Naples).

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Choose bags and purses with short straps that keep the main compartment close to your body, optimally under your arm. Bag snatchers sometimes cut the straps so the shorter amount of strap you have to offer, the less they have to try and cut.

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Keep your eyes on your gear in crowded underground trains (especially the Rome metro from Termini to any tourist destination) and buses (in Rome, especially bus 64, the "pickpockets' express"; in Venice, crowded vaporettos and the area around the Rialto). Italian pickpockets in teams of 2-3 youths, normally a male and two girls, work the metro - the male crowds you, one girl, often very short, goes through your pockets while the other taller one shields her from view. Being near the door is often an unfavourable location - pickpockets like to slip out through closing doors.

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When staying in a hotel, leave any unneeded valuables plus spare cash in the hotel safe, either the room safe if there is a good one or the front desk safe. If your accommodation is an agriturismo or a B&B, talk to the management about the possibilities of safely leaving valuables somewhere on the premises. Note that some smaller places will hold everything except cash, the reason being that sometimes guests claim to have left more cash than they actually did.

• Since the replacement of many overnight trains by fast daytime trains, train thieves seem to have moved on to hotels. This means that unfortunately, hotel rooms, especially in budget hotels, are increasingly unsafe even when you're in the room asleep. This is because there are often no night staff in family-run hotels and pensioni and guests in budget places have a bad habit of propping open the outside doors so that those of their number without a key can get back in late at night. Secondly, the room door locks are often no barrier to sneak thieves unless chained shut from the inside. Try to make use of a safe or a locked and wired-down, hard-sided suitcase for your valuables.

Can pickpockets be detected and avoided before they act?

Sometimes.

Pickpockets in Italy who are career criminals are often well-dressed, sometimes middle-aged and always highly skilled. They cannot be detected ahead of time - and usually not at any time. Kosovar Albanians are also not easily recognised by appearance, and they are highly represented in the criminal population, especially in Naples. Italian teenage delinquents are also hard to detect except when they hang around in groups at well-known pickpocket areas, sometimes equipped with the inevitable newspapers and pieces of cardboard.

Professional pickpocket

A pickpocket bumps a distracted business man while picking his jacket pocket. Note that the victim's hands are full and he has a disabling briefcase under the arm on the attack side.

Pickpocket in milan

A delinquent in Milan steals from the tourist's bag mainly to show off to his friends who are watching.

Teenage pickpockets

Pickpockets equipped with a folded newspaper waiting outside a station.

Gypsy pickpockets

Two gypsy pickpockets scoping the terrain in Saint Mark's Square, Venice. One will distract the victim by aggressively begging using a cup while the other steals.

Pickpockets in Malpensa airport, Milan Pickpockets in Malpensa aeroporto, Milano

The same gang of gypsy pickpockets stealing from different victims at Malpensa Airport, Milan.

Gypsies

A large but often easily recognisable criminal group are gypsies who might number around 10 million worldwide and are a major social problem in Europe, especially since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. Most gypsies currently in Italy originated in Yugoslavia but large numbers are currently entering from Romania. They place little or no value on education and make their money mainly from seasonal work such as vegetable picking, from scrap metal and horse dealing, from social welfare and insurance scams, and by beggary and petty theft, notably as pickpockets and sneak thieves. Luckily, in this context, they are highly clannish and resistant to change so that their women, who do most of the thievery, are often easily recognisable by their long skirts, shawls and head scarves in garish colours. Both men and women have a distinctive coppery skin colour. In Rome, a proportion of gypsy girls have shed their traditional clothing and now dress in the latest fashions, and instead of hanging around their usual areas such as the Colosseum and Termini Station, they can now be found on fashionable boulevards such as Via Nazionale, Via del Corso and Via Condotti where the pickings are better.

Some gypsy pickpocket methods of distraction:

• gypsy children surround the victim holding cardboard notices at the victim's chest level while beneath it they steal what they can from pockets and bags.

• a gypsy woman passes or appears to drop a well-swathed baby (or plastic doll) which the victim ends up holding while a confederate does the stealing.

• a gypsy woman opens her blouse, fully exposing a breast as though to breast feed her child, while a confederate picks the pockets of the startled victim.


These techniques are quite crude but nevertheless effective partly due to the element of surprise and partly an unwillingness on the side of civilised people to behave rudely. Nevertheless, to nip these efforts in the bud, simply bellow as loudly as possible "Va via" when approached by groups of gypsies and don't hesitate to shove them roughly away, baby or no baby. They have no business in the centres of cities other than stealing and begging.

Gypsy boys and young women use more conventional pickpocket techniques, simply helping themselves to whatever they can from behind the victim. They have no fear because below a certain age they cannot be arrested, and even if they are arrested, they're released again within the hour.

Pickpocket gang

Four gypsies ready for action, trailing their victim (not in the picture) whom they have observed placing her purse in her shopping bag.

Pickpocket gang in action

The boy drops back as "rear guard" while two girls provide cover and the third steals the purse from the bag using her blue jacket for cover.

• Another common distraction technique involves a thief spilling ice cream, ketchup or some other mess on your back (or the confederate says he has), and while the confederate, often well-dressed and well-mannered, "helps" clean up, the pickpocket is going through your pockets or walking off with the bag you have put down. A single thief can also pull this stunt.

• If anyone points out money on the ground and ask if it's yours, ignore it. This is a standard distraction - while you're bending to pick it up, you will lose something, especially if you put a bag down while bending.

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Crowded shops and market stalls provide distraction on behalf the pickpocket. Keep your bag or purse in front of you while inspecting goods, reading labels etc.

Theft from cars in Italy

Theft from parked cars can easily be prevented by not leaving anything of value inside your car or the boot (trunk). However, if you are in transit, everything you have will be in your car and even when on an outing you will surely have a jacket or purse containing valuables. Car thieves take advantage of this in many ways, but one of the most common is some variant of the following. You pick up a rental car or fill your car with petrol and within a short distance one of the tires goes flat. Almost immediately a car containing two or three "good samaritans" stops to offer assistance. While one is helping change the tire and another is distracting your wife, the third is stealing from your jacket, purse etc or even walking off with your baggage. You are particularly vulnerable while operating the jack or taking a spare tire out of the car when this requires emptying the boot. These crooks work by loosening the valves on tires at rental car pickup points and petrol stations. This stunt is common on the autostradas around Naples and further south, but can happen anywhere near a big city such as Rome or Milan.

A variant on this is that you are waved down by someone in another car or on the side of the road. This individual tells you that you have a flat tire and his accomplice makes sure that's the case while you're distracted. The procedure then continues as above, or you're offered a ride to a service station while your car is being robbed.

Leather jacket sample scam

This scam is not so common now that it's so well known, but if someone pulls up in a car and says he's just back from a fashion show with a couple of leather jacket samples left over and would you like to buy them for some derisory amount, ignore the offer. The jackets are vinyl and the size is usually scraped away.

All the designer bags and other accessories offered by street vendors, mostly Africans, are fake. In Italy, it is also an offence TO BUY a counterfeit designer item.

What to do if you are robbed

Before you leave home, prepare two or three cards or pieces of paper with your credit card numbers and the corresponding emergency phone numbers written on them, as well as the appropriate details for any debit cards or bank cards that you plan to carry. Keep these notes on you in different places.  Carry only the credit and bank cards that you really need. If you lose a credit card or have it stolen, IMMEDIATELY phone the emergency number and block the credit card. Usually, a replacement credit card can also be arranged. In major tourist centres, a representative of the card company will meet you with the new credit card.

Once your credit cards are blocked, find a police station and file a report. You might need it for legal and reimbursement purposes. Large railway stations and airports have their own internal police stations.

If your passport is stolen, sooner or later you will need to go to your national consulate for a temporary travel document. It's not necessary to disrupt totally your trip to do this. Although hotels are obliged to hold your passport for the local police to inspect, you can explain that yours is lost. Once you have the opportunity to go to a town where there is a consulate or an honorary consul, you can attend to the task of obtaining a replacement. Border crossings within Europe do not require a passport so if it's more convenient you can visit a consulate in another country. It's helpful to have a photocopy of your passport and tickets in your baggage and even to leave copies at home with someone you can phone for the details if you need them.

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