Pickpockets In Rome - A Subway Experience
Beware of pickpockets.
The classic warning. For any visitor to Europe. Especially Mediterranean Europe.
Yes, pickpockets. The legendary, mythical ones of Europe. Who could waltz past you with hands in the open and spirit away all your valuables.
I heed these warnings. But I also tend to think most of the tales behind them are exaggerated. Able to clean your pockets without even coming near? Able to empty your backpack without you noticing? Right ... ... To me, most stories feel to be victims covering up their own embarrassing oversights. I heed the warning but I do not allow them to get to me. I tell myself that as long as I'm sensible, no pickpocket would ever make a living from my pockets.
And so I thought.
Crafty pickpockets in the Roman subway
This happened over ten years ago. I was on the Roman subway, Line B, heading towards Termini Station. It was noontime and the train was crowded with a mix of tourists and locals. At one station, I think it was Colosseo, a group of five or six girls swarmed into the carriage. Well-dressed, clean, adorable little ones whom you wouldn't suspect anything of. Without warning, the whole group surrounded me and went hysterical, waving their hands, blabbing away in Italian, looking fearful and frantic. More than a little taken aback, I reacted the only way anyone in that situation would. I tightened my grip around my backpack which I was holding with one arm. I also raised my voice and tried telling them I do not speak Italian. They ignored me and continued shrieking.
Pickpockets. As you must have guessed by now. The worst type too. The ones who try to catch you by surprise.
They would have succeeded had an unexpected character not intervened. An elderly, very gruffly looking Italian gentleman started yelling at them harshly. He kept repeating the same Italian word, which later on I concluded to either mean pickpockets or thieves. Intimidated by his voice, the girls went quiet momentary and I regained my composure. Hastily, I backed away and locked my other arm about my backpack. It was then that I noticed that the other passengers in the carriage had all shied away.
What followed was a standstill. My elderly saviour kept repeating his word. The girls acted oblivious and fiddled with their accessories. I never lifted my eyes off them till they coolly alighted at the next station. Once they were gone, I checked my backpack and discovered their grim accomplishment. In those brief few seconds of encounter, one or more of them had succeeded in unzipping my backpack by a few inches. A width enough for a young arm to slip in easily. They probably would have taken my camera had I not in my messiness swaddled that with my scarf and books and pamphlets. That saved me. Also, the yelling by the elderly gentleman.
Episode survived. Time for reflection? I chewed on the incident on and off for the rest of that Italian trip. Just how do you prevent such a blatant attempt? You are essentially shocked and overwhelmed. Everything happens within seconds. Worse, those girls were using the classic version of the trick. What if it was the Barcelona version, the one where ink is squirted on your clothes? After much reading and researching over time, I devised the following preventive measures:
Basic pickpockets prevention measures
- Be mindful of your surroundings, especially in hotspots like subway stations and trains. If you see a large group of people hurrying to you, move away or at least tighten your hold on your belongings. (Or cover the clasp/zip slider of your bag with your hand)
- Security measures like money belts do help. But you need to use them sensibly. In the case of money belts, do not keep everything you have in one. You don't want to create a scene, or drop something, by having to dig it out every time you buy something.
- To continue on (2), keep small change in different pockets. While this might not prevent you from being targeted, it does minimise damage when it happens.
- It takes training. But very quickly it becomes instinctive. Whenever any stranger approaches, I hug my bags and put a hand into my pocket to hold my wallet.
- Don't kaypoh. That's the street term in my country for a busybody. If you see a commotion of any sort, please move away. It could be meant to distract you while your pockets are worked.
- A nice tight rubber band over your wallet makes it that much harder to slide out unnoticed. I have to say, thank goodness, I have yet to verify the usefulness of this.
- It's saintly to be helpful. Just don't get carried away. To anyone asking you for anything, try not to release your hold on your luggage, bags, etc. In the case of a luggage case, straddle oneleg over it.
- Most importantly, bags always in front of you while in subways and buses. Never put valuables in back pockets. Try also to surround your valuables with other things, such as books. This makes them harder to reach even if your bag is sliced.
The final safeguard against pickpockets
Last but not least ... ...
Lock your bags. Most zip sliders nowadays allow you to do so. If you want to go all the way, then use one of those anti-slash, anti-theft bags, with a good lock.
The mere sight of that lock might be enough to discourage most pickpockets from trying.
Do check out this link about packing a theft-proof backpack!
Have you any experience with pickpockets while travelling? Please do share.
Helpful video on pickpocket prevention
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong