Apartments in Rome

Personal security (safety) in Rome

by Mauro Abate

Rome, like any western European capital, is a "safe" place. When Americans ask us if the town, or the quarter in which they live is "safe", we do not understand what they mean. Some also find the question somewhat offensive. We Europeans never use this expression.

In peripheral quarters young boys might steal mopeds or a car. If there is a robbery it is reported in the provincial or national news because it is rare. Only in the poor regions of Southern Italy (which is another world in its own right) you find "unsafe" quarters, although usually the major concern is about fights between criminals themselves, in which innocent passers-by can be hit by mistake.

Rome police in uniform in the street
In Rome, and in all major European towns, one can walk everywhere at any time without being harmed by anybody. We do not even think that "safety" is an issue.
Italian police in the street, a rare event, occured to watch the crouds during the funeral of Pope Paul John II


In Rome, like in any important tourist city, the only problem you might come across are pickpockets. They are almost never Italian or locals, but poor immigrants. The large majority of immigrants are honest, and there are of course dishonest locals - they simply do other wrongdoings, more sophisticated than robbing tourists. Gipsies are only a small fraction of the pickpockets, and not even the worse, if nothing else because they can be recognized, increasing your degree of alert.

In Rome, pickpockets are more active in the main train station Termini, and also in all public transport vehicles (particularly on bus 64, dubbed "the wallet express"). Needless to say, they are also active in the tourist sights, where tourists are distracted.
Rome pickpockets, Safety in Rome, personal security in Rome, pickpockets techniques, Is safety a problem in Rome, safe and unsafe quarters in Rome

From Rossellini's film "Bicycle thiefs": after being robbed. Follow the tips not to end this way!

Pickpockets are not a peculiar problem of Rome, as some tourists reporting on travellers' forums pretend. There are many pickpockets operating in Rome simply because it is the major European attraction - with Paris.

Every year 7-10 million tourists visit Rome, twice as much in special years like the Great 2000 Jubilee. There is a ratio between the number of tourists and pickpockets. In other words, if for ex. every 20,000 tourists you have a pickpocket, in Rome you would have at least 350 active pickpockets. Yet you would have the same ratio everywhere else, in London, Paris, New York etc. The reason why the problem seems evident in Rome is simply because it is visited every year by so many tourists.
beggars in Rome
I was robbed by pickpockets the first and only time in London. They were not natives, but very sly immigrants.
In any event, these people are extremely sly and "professional" - although the "profession" is harmful. If you will be alert, and if you will follow these suggestions, they will hardly harm you.
A gipsy beggar: most gipsies are honest. The precarious condition in which they live makes a small part of them be tempted by wrongdoings. Gipsies are not Hungarian, Slavs etc. as many believe: they come from India, where they migrated from appr. 1000 years ago. Probably they were the poorest and exploited part of the population within the Hindu hierarchy (the so called "Untouchables").

The worldwide pickpockets' techniques

Out of many years' experience in assisting tourists, and listening to their problems, this is a concise presentation of the pickpockets' tricks and techniques, and of ways of protecting yourself. Again, the problem and its solution are not peculiar features of Rome, they occur in any place with a high number of tourists, attracting pickpockets.

(1) The common technique: they are two or three. One pushes you from behind, or from the side, distracting you, because you will pay attention to his push. The accomplice with feather-touch hands will then take your wallet or belongings from your pocket or bag.

(2) While you are buying in shops, you will be distracted looking at goods on offer. They can take advantage of your distraction, and slyly introduce their soft-touch hands in your bags or purse to rob you. This was the trick they used with me in London. I was buying records. I had a little purse hanging from my wrist, and I was reading the titles of the tracks of an album. While I was distracted reading, a pickpocket by my side opened the purse under my own eyes (it had a buckle, not a zipper!), and took the wallet and even the pouch with the glasses. When I realized what had happened, he scampered. Of course, do not also drop or leave unwatched your purse while you are buying.

(3) They could throw an ice-cream at you, or dirty on purpose your coat, without you realizing it. They will then come near you as if they were helping you to clean your coat or jacket. You will trust them, and you will be distracted as you will take care of your jacket. While you do this, the thief or his accomplice will rob your belongings, and you will not realize it.

(4) In a very deceiving way, while you are in some tourist sight, they could ask you to snap a photo to them. You will drop your bag for a minute to snap the photo, someone from behind will take it. You won't even have their photo, the camera has no film!

(5) They could come near you with a paper hiding their hands, at work only trying to rob you.

(6) Gypsy children could surround you, and shamelessly start robbing your belongings, taking advantage of your surprise. They would then pass the belongings to older gypsy women, which will put them beneath their clothes, so that policemen possibly intervening will not put their hands beneath the clothes. Make sure that the gypsies stay away from you, and if they come near you, shout at them to go away ("VA VIA" - vah veeah - or "POLIZIA" - Pohleetzeeah - in Italian).

(7) Although it is reported in guide books, I have never seen bag-snatchers in action, at least in Rome. This technique is used frequently on the contrary in southern Italy. The reason is that this technique requires a moped, and poor immigrants, who are the majority of Rome pickpockets, don't have one, or also it could be detected (it would have a plate), or confiscated.

What you should do to prevent being robbed

By far, the most important measure is being alert. Pickpockets consider "good clients" distracted or unaware persons, and conversely will not undergo the risk of robbing someone who is alert and wary. I remember a Japanese tourist near the Spanish Steps with gipsy kids behind him trying to take his wallet from his back pocket. The Italians shouted at him, waving their hands in an attempt to make him understand what was happening to him. The Japanese thought instead that the friendly Italians were just greeting him, and waved back to reciprocate, without realizing that he was being robbed from behind. This is one example to let you understand what you should not be doing (of course, be friendly with friendly Italians, but watch your back!).
Although when we are on holiday we all want to enjoy and forget about it all, being alert will help enormously not being robbed by pickpockets. It is not pleasant once on holiday to be concentrated and wary, but it is something you will have to do. If you will be robbed, you will be hurt not only for the loss of your money or of your belongings, but also because you will not trust anymore the locals. You will start thinking that they must all be potential thieves (while they are not, they are victims like you, also having the damage that they might not see you again next time because you will not visit).
The bottom line, you will have to live with the problem during your visit. While enjoying Rome's marvels, you always have to be a little alert about pickpockets. It sounds a little like working, but it will spare you frustrations and from being disenchanted.

Finally, there are many little practical measures you can or should do to prevent being robbed. Always put the wallet in the front pocket, and don't put money in the other pockets (unless you want it picked...). Use money-belts, the slim ones you can hide beneath your clothes, not the flashy external ones which are an invitation for thieves. Leave your passport and your most valuable belongings in your apartment or hotel, and bring with you just enough money for the day, in reasonable denominations. Don't leave bags, purses, or wallets in your car, not even in the trunk (it will not save you at all!).

Once you are robbed

First of all you should call your bank or whoever is responsible to stop your credit card, your cheque book, and also your travellers' cheques (thieves shouldn't be able to use the latter as a double signature is needed to cash them, yet you still have to stop their payment). Second, you need to go to a local police station (ask for the nearest one to the agency from which you rented your apartment, or to your hotel management), and fill out or write down a police report, which you will need for legal and reimbursement purposes (the policemen usually will help you writing it in Italian, if needed).

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