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.
Forget trying to “not look like a tourist”
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
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?
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
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.
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.