How to Avoid Being Pickpocketed in Rome

How to avoid pickpockets in Rome
Crime in Rome is very low, especially violent crime (which includes mugging). And pickpocketing? It’s not something you have to be paranoid about. Really.

That said, it does happen—just as it does in Barcelona, or Paris, or Istanbul. And there’s no quicker way to ruin a vacation than to reach into your pocket and discover that your wallet’s been lifted.

Just remember that some pickpockets are very talented. Once they’ve picked you as their target, you can kiss that wallet goodbye. The key is to not get picked as their target to begin with.

Here’s how.

Forget trying to “not look like a tourist”

Dressing like an Italian

Even if you dressed like this girl, something else would still give you away

Unless you’re a gifted style chameleon and already have a wardrobe of Italy-bought items, you won’t look like an Italian. And even if you are wearing something lifted from an Italian fashion blog, something else will give you away—your hand gestures, your haircut, even your smile. That’s before you open your mouth and start speaking English, or Italian with a foreign accent.

So while it feels nice to blend in as much as possible, know that you probably won’t be able to “pass.” Not to mention that people who regularly encounter tourists—from waiters to tour guides to, yes, pickpockets—will be especially attuned to being able to tell if you’re a tourist or not.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a fact.

But do try not look like a clueless tourist…

Some items of clothing will mark you as not just a tourist, but one who hasn’t traveled much. And that can make you a particular target. I’m talking about the classics here. The big white sneakers. Fanny packs. Sweatsuits and sweatpants. T-shirts printed with “I LOVE ROME”.

Fairly or not, these items aren’t just interpreted as “I’m a tourist”; they’re interpreted as “I’m a tourist, and I’m on my first trip abroad ever!”.

Danger, Will Robinson. Danger.

Or to act like one

How to avoid being pickpocketed

When you’re focusing on your photo op, keep your wits about you

Put simply, you should always be aware of what’s going on around you, especially if you’re in a very crowded area or a very quiet, dark one. For example, here are some things not to do:

  • when getting that perfect photo, don’t focus on your camera so much that you wouldn’t notice someone coming up behind you
  • at an outdoor restaurant or cafe, don’t leave your purse dangling off the back of your chair, or sitting on the ground next to you
  • don’t get so engrossed in a conversation with a friend on the bus that neither of you notice the person taking the opportunity to lift a wallet out of your purse

I’ve seen all three of these situations happen. Every time, they could have been avoided.

Know the classic tricks

If you’re in a crowd and you’re suddenly, inexplicably shoved, that’s a red flag. As you catch your balance, your hands go up (away from your purse or pockets), you stop paying attention for a split second… and it’s the perfect moment to lift your wallet.

Or, if you’re on a metro or bus that’s packed to the gills and someone forces their way on—despite there being clearly no room at all on the bus—that could be a trick, too. Of course, lots of people try to shove on. But if you see someone squeeze on and then continue to work their way through the bus, despite the crowd, that’s a sign of something fishy.

Another classic pickpocketing trick: Boarding the metro right before the doors close, grabbing a wallet (perhaps with the shove-and-surprise move), and then exiting just as the doors are closing.

Finally, be aware when you see a group of several people (usually, unfortunately, Roma), begging on a street or along a crowd. There will be a child or two, or a cardboard sign, or sometimes both. Stop to read the sign, and a child gets you from your back pocket. Turn to the child, and someone’s pickpocketing you while using the sign as cover.

Clearly, you can’t know every trick in the book. And—since it isn’t likely you’ll encounter these scenarios on one or two trips to Rome—you don’t have to.

But if something strikes you as “off,” like someone jamming their way into a bus or knocking into you, trust that instinct.

Choose a purse or moneybelt that makes a pickpocket’s life hard

Look: I don’t think it’s necessary to have a moneybelt in Rome. It always strikes me as a little paranoid, as well as inconvenient—every time you buy a gelato or a museum ticket, you have to reach down under your shirt or pants and take out cash? (Without making the people around you think you’re about to expose yourself to them?). And if you’re in a high-risk situation, what’s to stop someone from pickpocketing you at that moment?

Still, we’re talking about the best ways to deter pickpockets here. And wearing a moneybelt can be one of them.

As long as it’s the right kind of moneybelt. One that goes over your clothes is useless. It’s really useless if it’s back-facing, like a fannypack. Front-facing, it’s still not much better than having a wallet in your front pocket or a purse over your shoulder. The most secure kind goes under your clothes (but then that inconvenience factor comes into play).

Otherwise, a purse or wallet can be fine. Wallets should always be carried in a front pocket, not a back pocket. In certain (crowded) situations, be sure to keep your hand on the pocket with the wallet in it.

Purses should have a zip top; no outside pockets (at least that you put anything important in); ideally a separate, zipped compartment inside for your wallet; and should still be carried at the front of your body, with your arm over the top, when in a potentially “high-risk” situation (see below). (I’d much rather you had someone like my guy Armando Rioda make you a purse like this here in Italy, but if that’s not in the cards, something like this cheap leather tote or this cute red Coach purse would work great).

As an aside, my wallet’s been lifted from my purse once in Rome. It was five years ago, when I was visiting before I moved here. And I’d made every mistake in the book: I had a big purse with my wallet lying right on top of everything else, everything was unzipped and open, and my purse was on my back, and I wasn’t paying any attention.

Don’t carry ridiculous amounts of cash

I just read a moneybelt review saying the traveler safely carried around €800 in cash on their trip. I guess that speaks highly of the moneybelt… because that’s an absurd thing to do!

I get it: You want to minimize the amount of ATM fees by taking out a lot of money at once. And you’re worried you won’t find an ATM when you do need cash. But you’re in a city. There are lots of ATMs everywhere.And I’d rather spend $5 or even $10 extra per transaction to not have to worry that, if something happened, I’d be out €800.

At the very least, don’t carry that much on you because, when you’re going into your moneybelt to take a bill out of that thick wad of cash, people (and potential pickpockets) will see that you’re Mr. Moneybags.

Perhaps the most important tip: Remember that context is key

Porta Portese market in Rome

At crowded markets like Porta Portese, be especially aware

You could make all of these mistakes while sitting on a bench in quiet Piazza Farnese, or looking at a mosaic in the Palazzo Massimo, or while sightseeing on the Palatine Hill, and—most likely—you’d still leave with your belongings intact. That’s because, although you should always be aware of your surroundings, these types of situations—where you’re in an uncrowded area, especially one where you have to pay to be there—are ones where you can generally let your guard down.

When you have to be careful is when you’re 1) in the tourist crowds and 2) it’s easy to access you (and your pockets) and leave, all without 3) much monetary investment on the pickpocket’s part.

So while you can relax a bit in the Sistine Chapel (seriously, what pickpocket wants to pay €15 and, if he’s caught, be stuck in an enclosed space?), do be especially aware at the Termini train station, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Porta Portese market, and Colosseum. Also be highly cautious on crowded buses and subway trains.

Finally, relax

Is it more likely you’d be pickpocketed in Rome than in a tiny town in Vermont or Utah? Yep. Is it still really unlikely anything bad will happen to you? Definitely. In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve never had a problem, despite taking public transportation constantly and often being in crowds.

So be aware, but relax. Pickpocketing isn’t the only way to ruin a vacation—pickpocketing paranoia can, too!

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Crimes and Other Nefariousness: Some Scarier Scams

Unfortunately, pretending to give you a free rose or a designer jacket aren’t the only ways that Rome’s scam artists try to get tourists’ money. Some of the crimes are worse — and much more dangerous.

Again, these last five scams, especially, are very unlikely to happen to you on your travels. Rome is a very safe city. And while I’ve heard of #5 and #4 happening to friends of friends, those after that, thank goodness, have never happend to me or anyone I know.

That said: It’s always smarter, obviously, to be aware. Here, the last five — and some of the scariest — of Rome’s top scams and crimes.

5. ATM fraud. You use an ATM to withdraw money — usually, the best way to avoid extra fees. When you get home and check your bank statement, you realize someone else has been withdrawing money, as well.

This is getting more common as more and more criminals are figuring out ways to install ATM skimming devices onto the machines, which can capture your account information by using a card reader and a tiny video camera to capture your PIN.

Usually seen: Unpredictable. Most likely victims: Anyone using an ATM. If it happens to you: There’s not much you can do, although of course once you file the fraud with your bank, you should get the money returned.

The best way to avoid this, though, is to always cover the keypad with your hands when you type in your PIN and to use the ATMs that are inside reputable banks. If it looks like you need to slide a card through a scanner to get into the vestibule, don’t worry — whatever your bank card is will work. Also be wary of any gaps or tampered appearance in the machine, and avoid card readers that aren’t flush with the machine’s face.

4. Any distraction technique. These run the gamut. Maybe you’re at a busy metro stop and someone collides into you. Maybe you’re out at a club and a guy dances up close to you… really close. Maybe a little girl tugs on your pant leg and asks you for help. Either way, by the time you’ve reacted, your wallet is gone.

Usually seen: Unpredictable — and, it should be noted, worldwide. Travel forums for Paris and Barcelona are full of them, too. Most likely victims: Anyone who looks capable of being surprised. If it happens to you: By the time it happens, it’s too late. Even if you can chase down the accomplice, your stuff is long-gone.

3. Theft-on-the-move. You’re walking; someone whizzes by you on a scooter and, bam! your purse is gone.

Usually seen: Also unpredictable, and also worldwide. This just happened to a friend of mine living in Paris. Most likely victims: Females walking alone. If it happens to you: It’s already too late. Just be glad that you weren’t hurt in the theft; the force can cause broken arms and collarbones.

2. Drugging and mugging. This post on the SlowTrav forum was the first I’d heard of this, but it’s pretty scary. Usually, it unfolds in a “befriending” scenario: You’re alone at a train station, restaurant or bar, someone starts chatting with you, gets you a drink, and before you know it you’re passed out because of the drugs they’ve laced the drink with. When you wake up, your valuables are gone and you may have been sexually assaulted. It seems the SlowTrav victim may not have even been befriended first, which is even more worrisome.

Usually seen: In the area around the Termini train station or near the Colosseum, Colle Oppio, Campo dei Fiori, and Piazza Navona. Most likely victims: Anyone, male or female, who’s out alone. If it happens to you: Call the police and, if needed, seek out a hospital immediately.

1. Flat-out assault. Again, please remember: For a city, this happens very, very rarely in Rome. But you don’t want it to happen to you.

Usually seen: In any dark, unlit areas at night. Be particularly wary of parks: I saw the immediate aftermath of one violent mugging (two Korean tourists who had been roughed up and gotten their cameras and wallets stolen) at the Parco di Traiano, the park overlooking the Colosseum, while they’d been (obliviously) taking night shots. (In case it’s not clear, this is not a nice park at night). Also be wary of the area right around the Termini train station, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, or in San Lorenzo. Most likely victims: Anyone, but especially tourists, especially those traveling alone or in small numbers, and especially those who aren’t aware of their surroundings.

The takeaway? Don’t be paranoid, but do be aware. Use common sense. And don’t get so caught up in taking pretty photos that you have no idea of what’s going on around you.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Crimes and Other Nefariousness: Rome’s Top Scams

As I wrote about earlier this week, Italy, including Rome, is pretty safe when it comes to crime — especially violent crime. But as with all cities, you need to be aware when traveling here. And because the same scams tend to happen over and over in Rome, it can be particularly helpful to know some of the most popular before visiting.*

So, from the simply-annoying to most-frightening, here are some situations to watch out for. This post will be in two parts. First: five of Rome’s most classic scams on tourists. Annoying — but easy to avoid.

5. The just-helping-you-with-your-ticket ploy. You’re fumbling at a ticket machine for the metro or train, trying to figure out what to press on the screen. Like magic, someone appears to help you. Once your ticket is printed, they then ask you for a few coins as a tip. Once you realize that you could have figured it out without them — it might just have taken ten seconds longer — you feel slightly foolish. 

Usually seen: At the Termini train station and at metro stations with lots of tourists, like the Colosseo stop. Most likely victims: Tourists, or anyone else who doesn’t look like they know what they’re doing. If it happens to you? Shake your head and say “no” when that ever-so-helpful someone appears. Be firm.

4. The “rose-as-a-gift” gambit. You’re female; it doesn’t matter your age, nationality, or level of attractiveness. A stranger (usually the same Bangladeshi guys that are also selling plastic throw-into-the-air-things everywhere, whatever you call those) comes up to you and tells you that you’re so beautiful, he just has to give you a red rose. You take it, thrilled. You and your husband/boyfriend/brother start to walk away. And then, after precisely five beats, the kind stranger suddenly reappears. “Please, two euros for the rose,” he says to your male companion. “Okay, a euro.” The poor guy is forced either to pay for the “free” rose, or to make you give it back, making himself look like a jerk. Don’t want to put your husband/friend in that situation? Don’t accept the rose.

Usually seen: At the Spanish Steps, Pantheon or Trevi Fountain, or at restaurants in touristy areas in the center. Most likely victims: Tourists in couples. If it happens to you? Unless you want the rose — and maybe you do! — hand it back politely, but firmly, and don’t feel guilty. These guys do this hundreds of times a day.

3. The many types of taxi scams. Many Rome taxi drivers are honest. Some are not. Those who are not tend to repeat some of the same ploys. One popular one is not using the meter, either by saying it’s broken, for “forgetting” to turn it on, or for giving you a flat fee up front — usually something absurd like €20 to get from the Colosseum to the Vatican. That’s not legal.

Another popular scam is to run the meter, but adjust it to make the fare higher. For example, the driver can put the meter on Zona (or Tariffa) 2; that should only apply for rides outside Rome’s beltway, and is a lot more expensive than Zona 1, the proper zone if you’re anywhere within the historic center. Or the driver might set it to the night rate, which starts at €5.80 rather than €2.80, earlier than its 10pm starting time. Or he might just take a circuitous route to get someplace (this is the toughest for tourists to tell, since many of Rome’s streets are one-way and getting around actually is tricky).

To avoid this, always make sure that 1) the meter’s running, 2) the zone is correct, and 3) the base fare is correct (€2.80 from 7am-1opm weekdays, €4 on Sundays and holidays, €5.80 from 10pm-7am, plus a €2 surcharge for cabs from Termini, €1 for each bag after the first one, and €1 for 5 or more passengers).

Usually seen: Anywhere in the center or at the airports, but especially with taxis whose drivers try to “hawk” you and at spots with lots of tourists, like the Termini station or the Colosseum. Most likely victims: Any tourists. If it happens to you? As soon as you notice the meter is off, insist that it be turned on or that the car stop and let you out. If the zone or base fares are incorrect, pipe up and be just as firm. If you’ve gotten to your destination and somehow (despite the legal surcharges above) the fare seems much higher than it should be, argue. Don’t hesitate to threaten to get the police involved before you hand over cash. Remember, they’re on your side.

2. The lost fashion designer. Here’s a classic: A guy pulls up next to you in a car and asks for directions, or some other way to start chatting with you. He’s suave, speaks English and dressed well. He tells you he’s a manager/designer/executive for Armani/Versace/Gucci and seems to “prove” it by showing you his designs. Oh, and just because you’re so friendly, he gives you a couple of coats he just happens to have in his car that are leather/silk/suede. That’s when he asks you for gas money, because he’s almost out — you know, €50 or €100. Because he just gave you a couple of coats and because he’s such a swell-seeming guy, you fork it over. This has happened again and again and again over the past few years. The guy must be making bank. Don’t be part of his profit margin.

Usually seen: Anywhere in the center, particularly in areas with lots of tourists. On more than one occasion, the car has been silver. Most likely victims: Any tourists who are walking. If it happens to you: Walk away.

1. The police impersonators. You’re shown a plastic sign with the word “police,” and the policeman asks in flawless English for your wallet, with ID and money. Unfortunately, some tourists are primed to obey, having heard how you need to always have your passport on you while in Italy and that police are everywhere. While this is true, I have yet to see a tourist randomly stopped and asked for their documents. Of course, your wallet then disappears.

Usually seen: In touristy areas. Most likely victims: Tourists. If it happens to you: Bummer. Always insist on seeing the official ID card, or documento, of the supposed policeperson, and remember that no official in Italy will ever ask you for your cash or credit cards.

*It’s likely that you will spend a week in Rome without any of the more harmful of these ever happening to you. In the past year as an American living in Rome, #5 has happened to me once, #4 countless times, #3 once or twice, and #2 and #1 not at all. It’s best, though, to know about them before you get here… not after!

Want more tips and tricks for exploring Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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How Safe is Rome, Really? (Updated for 2017)

Police sign in RomeMany visitors to Rome ask — worriedly — about crime in Italy’s capital city. They wonder if they can walk around safely at night. If they can carry a purse without it getting snatched. If they can relax on their vacation. (After all, doesn’t all the graffiti around alone mean the city is lawless?)

The first part of the answer: Like any city, you need to be aware in Rome. It’s an urban area. There are lots of people, not all of them stand-up characters. Don’t walk alone down unlit streets, be aware of your surroundings, don’t carry lots of cash on you, know the country’s emergency numbers.

But. Before you bemoan leaving the safety of San Francisco or Dublin or even Omaha, Nebraska for Rome, a little perspective on how worried you really should be… based on the statistics.

(A caveat here: I know that crime statistics aren’t perfect. I know that there are issues with crime reporting and with how to analyze the numbers. But I think some solid numbers are more helpful than yet more anecdotal evidence, which is already pretty plentiful on travel forums and elsewhere on the internet — and can be risky, since of course a traveler is much more likely to post about a mugging than to post about not having been mugged).

First, let’s take the most violent of violent crimes. According to the European Union’s statistics-gathering wing, as of 2015, there were 0.7 homicides per 100,000 people in Rome as of 2015. That makes Rome safer than Venice (1.1 homicides per 100,000), Milan (1), Turin (0.8) or Naples (3.9).

In the U.S., the FBI’s 2015 data — the most recent available — shows that most U.S. cities remain far behind in terms of safety. There were 3 homicides per 100,000 people in the city of Seattle, 10.6 in Omaha and 8.6 in Anchorage, for example. And as The Economist reported in 2016, out of the 50 cities in the world with the highest homicide rates, all are from Latin America and the Caribbean — except for South Africa and four cities in the U.S., led by St. Louis, with nearly 60 homicides per 100,000 people.

Okay. So that’s that for murders. But what about other crimes?

Here, the statistics get a bit tougher to find. Petty crime — like pickpocketing — is particularly difficult. I think these robbery rates by European country, though, are pretty telling. (Robbery includes mugging and bag-snatching, but not pickpocketing). In 2014, the most recent year available, Italy had 58,345 robberies, or about 97 per 100,000 people; Ireland had 2,648, or 58 per 100,000, and England and Wales had 50,236, translating to roughly 89 robberies per 100,000. Robbery in the U.S. remains much higher, including, again, in states including Nevada (217.5), Indiana (107), Maryland (164), New York (120) and Texas (116). In D.C., that number is an astonishing 556 robberies per 100,000 people.*

Sensing a theme here?

Of course, you have to keep one thing in mind: As a tourist, you are more of a target in Rome, at least for on-the-street property crimes like muggings and pickpocketing, than Italians are. And while you’ll probably be just fine, taking precautions, like using a money belt, might not only make you safer — but simply help you feel more comfortable.

And pickpocketing, always the one thing tourists really had to watch out for in Rome, has been increasing slightly in Rome in the last few years, as is noted by the U.S. Department of State.

Of course, these days, it also should be noted that one threat that wasn’t as major when I first wrote this post is a threat of terrorist attacks, of the type seen in Orlando, Brussels and Paris. Always be on your guard and alert for anything suspicious, including in iconic areas like the Colosseum and on public transport.

Finally, in one of the less welcome updates I’ve had to do since this post was first published in 2010, I realize that many travelers to Europe are no longer as concerned about random manslaughter as they are a terrorist act. This has not, thank God, yet been something Rome has had to deal with. But it is a concern. (Albeit one that Romans have responded to with typical humor: after ISIS made a somewhat enigmatic announcement about the fall of Rome, Romans took to social media to respond with things like, “Don’t come over lunch, everything will be closed!” and “Avoid the train, it’s always late!”). That’s why you’ll find security measures stepped up, particularly at some tourist sights. Recently the Colosseum banned backpacks from being taken inside, for example.

There is no way to know what will happen in the future. And it’s worth underscoring that you should always be alert for anything suspicious, including in iconic areas like the Colosseum and on public transport.

But as horrific as the acts are which we’ve seen in places like Paris, Istanbul, Orlando and London, a little perspective remains important. Despite the headlines, anywhere in Europe, you’re still more likely to be killed by a fall, a traffic accident or even a lightning strike than by a terrorist act. That isn’t meant to be glib; I can’t imagine many things more horrific than some of the scenes we’ve seen recently. But it is meant to point out that, as much as some tragedies have more emotional resonance than others, your actual likelihood of being affected is — and, even today, remains — very low.

It is also worth noting that, sadly, dealing with terrorism isn’t new for Europe (or the world, for that matter). In terms of numbers, we aren’t even in an especially dangerous moment, as much as it might seem otherwise. Many people in Italy today still remember the 1980 bombings at Bologna’s train station that killed 85 people, making it the fourth-worst terrorist attack in Europe, and which was one of a spate of bombings carried out by the Mafia over several decades. Or the numerous bombings by the IRA in Britain. As the BBC has pointed out, while terror attacks in western Europe have become deadlier since the mid-2000s, they affect fewer people than in the past. More than 150 people per year were killed by terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, compared to about 50 since 1990.

So. In sum, do you have to be alert and aware of your surroundings in Rome? Yes. But do you also have to be when you’re traveling in Paris, or Madrid, or London, or even you’re back at home in Dublin or Boston or Omaha? Absolutely.

In some cases, even more so.

Concerned about crime? Don’t miss my post on how to avoid Rome’s most common scams as well as its scarier, if rarer, crimes

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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