Pickpockets are everywhere in Rome; at least, they are everywhere that you will want to visit. The first time I walked around Rome, I noticed two things (aside from the sites of course): more tour buses than I had seen in any other city and lots and lots of street-people (beggars, shady vendors selling on cardboard boxes, and women with fake babies in their arms ready to throw them at you). Now, Rome is by no means the only place with lots of street-people but, since you will visit this city some day, let’s talk about some common sense ways to stay safe.
Don’t Buy ANYTHING from Shady Street Vendors
There are many legitimate street vendors in Rome and you will recognize that they are legitimate because they have professional street vending machines and other assortments that make it difficult to quickly move from their spot when the police come. They are by no means inexpensive, but they are, generally legitimate.
However, there are tons of illegitimate street vendors that sell off of the ground, umbrellas, cardboard boxes, or sheets. Do not even think about purchasing something from them. The stuff they sell is crap and part of an organized ring of criminals. In fact, don’t even look at what they are selling or make eye-contact with one of these vendors; if you do, they will hound you and get in your face to try and force you to buy something.
If you have children with you, make sure to coach to not ever pick up something shiny that these shady street vendors are selling. This is important because they sell particular items geared towards children.
The more organized you are, the harder it will be to target you. If you have cameras, purses, and bags hanging from your shoulders, you are a much easier target than someone with one backpack and one small camera. And yes, you don’t need a freaking huge camera! Keep your children in check so that you aren’t running after them and losing focus of your belongings. And never take out large sums of cash, especially where others can see.
Basically, travel as light as possible within the city. Do you really need a backpack and a purse and a huge camera? NO. Take a small camera, no purse (ladies there are these things called pockets ;P ) and maybe a small backpack to carry a water bottle and a snack.
Don’t Look Like a Tourist
If you want to save yourself a lot of trouble in most foreign cities, try to blend in. This doesn’t mean that you have to buy clothes locally or specifically dress for each region or city, but there are some obvious things that you shouldn’t do.
When I was in Rome looking for the meeting point for a tour group, I saw a man that I knew could help me or could at least speak English. Why? Because he was wearing shorts (when all Italian men were wearing pants and a coat) and a New England Patriots jersey; he also had a giant camera hanging from his neck. I had to do everything I could to not laugh at the man. He was so perfectly an American tourist stereotype. So, you tell me who would have stuck-out more and been an easier target – him or me? I was wearing black pants, black shoes, grey shirt, and dark jacket. If I didn’t look Roman I certainly didn’t look American.
The point is that you don’t want to stick out.
Don’t Give Money to Anyone
Most of the beggars in Rome are controlled by organized crime or an organized ring of individuals. You can search for this on Google if you want more information on how it works. The point is that you are probably not helping the person to whom you are giving the money. Don’t exacerbate the problem. If you want to help the needy, give money to a reputable regional charity.
Situational Awareness – know what is going on around you!
No matter what, you may be targeted and your stuff may be taken from you. The best way to avoid this is to always be aware of your situation. This is particularly important in crowded markets, train stations, and crowded tourist sites (trevi fountain comes to mind).
In the end, just be careful. One of my friends, who is actually a priest and was wearing his clerical clothing with collar, was just standing in a train station with a backpack over one shoulder when a man came up to him and ‘spilled’ coffee on him. In the split instant it took to turn around and see what had happened, another person had taken his backpack off of his shoulder and ran away with it. Sometimes, they will use ketchup; sometimes a woman will thrust a ‘baby’ in your arms or face while little kids steal your stuff.
Just try to blend in with the crowd, stay organized, be aware of your surroundings, and enjoy the sites.