After 6 years in Los Angeles, where looking at someone the wrong way could lead to trouble, moving to Rome was a relief. It felt safe.
And Rome IS safe for the most part– but there is also so much petty crime. Pickpockets, break-ins, bike snatchings. If it’s not kept under lock and key, it will disappear.
As the summer crowds return, so do the pickpockets. Though they manage a year round business of ripping people off, this is their high season.
I have seen multiple pickpockets in action, but it is always hard to react. There is a surreal quality about the moment that always catches me offguard and I can usually only manage a belated “OH!” (The Roman equivalent of HEY!!!).
So here are some tips for not getting your stuff stolen when you come to Rome:
On public transport
Forget about blending in. You look like a tourist because you are speaking English and looking bewildered. I’ve been here nearly four years and regardless of how much longer I stay, I will always look like a straniera (foreigner).
The potential pickpocket has made you based on your shoes alone. Are you wearing neon Nikes into which you have tucked your pants? Wedge heeled sneakers with glitter accents? Perforated leather boots? I didn’t think so, Foreigner!
Here I am doing the wrong thing while waiting for the metro.
Shift your bag and keep your hand slung over it. Pull it in front of you as you enter the train, metro or bus. Don’t ever keep the zipper out of your sight (e.g. behind your back).
If you can avoid it once you enter the metro, don’t stand near the exit. This increases the possibility of a snatch and run as the doors are closing. While we’re on the subject: Put your fancy phone away.
The scenario I see play out time and time again at Piramide (our photo location) and the Colosseo stop is this:
Oh, hum. This metro is a bit crowded and the stop is popular. But I have an itinerary! I must get to the next place on your list as quickly as possible. So let me wait politely while people get off and on, then be the last to enter. (This is mistake number 1: I never wait politely. I position myself in front of the door, and as soon as people get off, I am the first one to get on).
Oh it really is crowded. These nice young teenagers with babies are pushing me because they need to get on this metro too! With babies! Oh god, I don’t want to hit the babies! Let me focus on that. All I need to think about is getting on this train and not hitting the babies.
Why is everyone pushing me??
The pushing is the distraction. I usually see them work in groups of two or three. A girl on either side pushes you, while the third girl sticks her hands in your purse/pockets. You are so focused on getting on the metro and avoiding being pushed that you won’t feel it. Then, as soon as they have your wallet, they get off the metro just as quickly as they pushed you ON TO the metro. The doors close. Off you go, minus all your cash and credit cards.
Please please please PLEASE trust me on this one: if the metro is too crowded- do not get on it. Just wait! There will be more. If you are determined to join the fray, the worst thing you can do is be the last person on– because there will be someone coming up behind you at the last second to relieve you of your valuables and then watch you ride safely off into the distance.
Here is the male version of what not to do.
But really: pickpockets have no problem getting all up in your personal space. They are going to stick their hands all the way into your front pockets, and you will let them! It will be too crowded and overwhelming to stop them. So again: as you enter and leave the metro- be aware of your surroundings.
Once on, if someone (or a group of people) gets on the metro, and you see a bunch of Romans instinctively move away? You should consider doing the same. They will be much better at spotting potential pick pockets.
Keep your eyes on kids or teenage girls in groups.
If anyone is too close, move. The unwritten rules of personal space are different in Italy, but there is no reason for someone to be smashed up against you– they are doing something shady. MOVE.
Don’t let your bag/pocket be covered. (This one is harder to explain, so bear with me while I try). I’ve seen well dressed Italian gentleman pickpockets run a scam with a newspaper. Opening the newspaper in the crowded metro so as to keep your bag out of view. While one guy rustles his paper, the other guy rummages through your bag. OR maybe it’s a map instead of a newspaper. A scarf that some lady is spreading out? A sign begging for money that has just been slipped over your pocket.
And once you escape the clutches of public transport and are out and about: stay aware. Protect your bag in crowds. At restaurants: do not put your bag on the back of your chair or on the ground. You should be able to feel it at all times i.e. on your lap, over your knee, between your feet. Same goes for all of your luggage and bags on trains, in train stations or at ticket machines. Watch them.
Rome is beautiful, and incomparable. You will love it here. But for the love of god, PLEASE watch your stuff.