Pickpockets and conmans in Rome
Rome is a beautiful city. Its architecture and history, along with its fantastic Italian food, is a perfect combination for a dream holiday. However, your perception and memory of your holiday can change drastically if you’re unfortunate enough to be pick pocketed or conned. It can happen anywhere, from the small street alleys of Rome to while visiting an attraction.
I’ve heard many stories of Rome’s notorious pickpockets. A number of my friends experienced it first hand. Below is a summary of the stories I’ve heard:
One friend told me he was standing in the metro, it was packed with people. Suddenly, a hand appeared from the crowd, moving slowly to the pocket in his jacket. He slapped the hand and the guy ran.
Another friend was walking in a street when somebody almost ran into him. He quickly moved away, carefully avoiding a kid standing nearby. Later he realised the guy trying to run towards him was a diversion. The guy did that to allow the kid to pickpocket him while he was moving. A Roman police said this is a common strategy used by pickpockets.
A friend’s friend was walking in Rome with his backpack to his back, unsecured. When he stopped at a cafe, he realised the bag is open and the envelope with his Euros was gone. Most likely somebody has been following him from the last point he took it out.
When I arrived in Rome, I was extra careful. I ensured that my wallet is not in my back pocket, my backpack is completely locked and all my important stuff (mobile etc) are inside my jacket and it’s zipped. Nothing is left exposed. I thought I was safe enough, until I went to the Spanish Steps on day 4 of my trip.
At the peak of the Spanish Steps, at the Trinità dei Monti church (the white building with 2 towers in the photo above), there were a bunch of people selling arts and souvenirs (refer to photo below). As I was standing there admiring the view down the Spanish Steps, a man started talking to me (he is seen in the photo below, standing on the left, with blue jeans and black jacket with a snow cap).
He asked me where I was from. He appeared friendly so I replied. He then made some comments about the nice view and the nearby historic attraction. I figured this guy should be decent as he is talking to me openly. I was wrong.
He then said “my friend, I give you lucky string, from Italia OK”. I just said “Erm, OK”. He quickly took my left arm, and tied 3 strings the colour of the Italian flag around my wrist. He tied it in such a way that I wasn’t able to open it without something sharp. Suddenly, a friend of his appeared and assisted him with the string. Then I realised something was wrong. They did it so fast that the whole thing lasted 10-20 seconds. After he was done, he said “OK now, 15 euros”. I was shocked! I argued back with him. I said he didn’t he say anything about a price. He said “for luck, my friend, just give me 15 euros”. I insisted, I said no.
Then his friend moved nearer and started threatening “just pay man, no trouble OK”. The 1st guy then gave an eye signal to a nearby guy (a 3rd guy), and that guy moved a step nearer. I realised that these guys must be some sort of a gang. Even the art seller nearby was ignoring what was happening. So I quickly said “OK OK, 10 euros? I dont have much”. He looked around, there were other tourists moving up the Spanish Steps, so he said “OK fine”. He took my 10 euros and I quickly left.
It took me a few minutes to calm myself down. I know why they were there. There are police patrols at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, so way up here near the church is a perfect spot for conning tourists. From a distance, I observed these conmans and noticed they do not approach European tourists. A few weeks later, a Malaysian friend of mine had the same misfortune of being conned by the very same people. I guess this sort of “direct con” works best on Asians as we are small and easier to be tricked.
I have to admit that it almost spoiled my entire trip. I had to convince myself really hard that not all Romans are like that. If not for the happy event that happened just a few hours earlier, Rome would be my most hated city. The authorities must step up their efforts in combating this sort of crime as tourists with bad impressions tend to tell their friends only the nasty stories. My friends from Story 2 and 3 now hate the Romans with a passion.
I hope the readers of this blog could learn from my experience and have a safer trip in Rome.