A traveler's guide to spotting and foiling gypsy pickpockets in Italy

A gypsy woman begging--with an infant for sympathy points--outside a market in Bologna, Italy.
A gypsy woman begging outside a market in Bologna, Italy.

First off, I've got nothing against the Romany people (sometimes spelled Romani, or Roma, or, in Italy, Rom)—which are among the proper names for the traditionally semi-nomadic people from south-central Europe (some academic theories trace them back even further to India) and who are commonly referred to by the slightly derogatory term "gypsies."

(Actually, most Italians refer to them as zingari, which means "mosquitoes" and is a rather nasty racial epithet.)

The majority of Roma are decent, hard-working folks struggling to survive in a wider culture that often represses them and keeps them in third-class citizen status where poverty is widespread (in 2007, UNICEF reported that up to 70% of Romany households had no running water).

The problem is that it is unlikely you will meet any of these—or that, if you do, you wouldn't even know they are Roma any more than you'd "know" whether a random person on the street might be Italian, or Bulgarian, or Albanian.

Learn more about the Roma
There is no room here to go into all the details behind centuries of persecution of the gypsy people—and not just in Europe, but America and elsewhere—and which continues to this day with incidents of state-sponsored ethnic cleansings in France, Italy, and Germany—no, not just the Nazis (though them, too). I'm talking about since 2007.

Here are a few articles and resources where you can learn more—and learn why, yes, this is all a concern for the tourist who doesn't want to be pickpocketed, but the real concern should be over what has led to this state of affairs, and how egregiously backward and racist most official policies about the Roma remain:
Instead, this is a brief essay about those Romany that—as a tourist in Italy—you are likely to notice.

These are the ones who dress the part (see below) and hang around tourist-heavy spots like major sights and transportation hubs for one reason and one reason only: to squeeze money out of you.

They tend to take one of two tracks to this end. One is begging, which is fine. The other is pickpocketing, which is not so fine.

Of course, there are pickpockets and thieves of all races, creeds, and colors working all the tourist spots of the world.

(For the record, the closest I've come to being pickpocketed in Italy was when I caught a guy with his hand deep inside my backpack on a bus in Rome—and he was not Romany, but rather a unremarkable, thoroughly Italian-looking man in a suit.)

To reiterate: I am not trying denigrate the Roma, as a people, in any way. I do not mean to imply in any way that gypsies = thieves. If anything, gypsies = heavily persecuted minority group (see the box to the right above).

No, I am merely pointing out that those few Roma who do choose (or are forced) to pursue the lifestyle of "gypsy pickpocket" are (a) pretty easy to spot, and (b) employ a few unique techniques that bear watching out for.

Gypsy techniques and how to foil them

Gypsies begging outside a bank in FlorenceGypsies are often easy to spot for their colorful clothes, often (with the women) in layers of thin scarves and shawls.

They tend to congregate where the easiest marks are (that means you, tourist), especially around major tourist attractions like the Colosseum and St. Peter's in Rome, and on tourist-heavy trains like the Circumvesuviana that runs from Naples to Pompeii and Sorrento.

The adults mainly beg—though they can be very pushy about it. No problem. You can give or not at your discretion.

Some, unfortunately, will instead (or also) engage in surreptitious pickpocketing. For that, you just have to take the regular precautions.

However, some—especially the kids—take a different approach. (Sadly, many Romany children are forced into thievery, either by circumstances or—increasingly and worryingly—by criminal gangs taking advantage of legal loopholes regarding criminal acts performed by under-aged children. In recent years, gangs have stolen Roma children from Romania and elsewhere, trafficked them to Western Europe, locked them in shacks, and exploited them as slave labor—and the labor, in this case, is stealing.)

Some engage in the age-old art of purse-snatching (or camera-snatching), so wear any straps across your chest, bandolier style, not just slung over one shoulder.

Others will work in groups, swarming you, babbling excitedly, and sometimes holding up bits of cardboard with messages scrawled on them to distract you.

Then, faster than you can say “Hey!...”, they'll rifle your pockets while the cardboard shields their hands from view.

Near walls and in subway tunnels, they might even be so bold as to pin you against the wall with the cardboard so as to fleece you more easily.

They aren’t really physically dangerous, but they are very adept at taking your stuff. I've seen it happen on more than one occasion.

The best defense is to be on the lookout. If a group of scruffy children approaches, jabbering, yell “No!” forcefully, glare, and keep walking. If they persist, yell “Polizia!” as loudly as you can. Most will back off.

If they get near enough to touch you, push them away—don’t hold back just because they’re kids. They are trying to rob you.

A gypsy begging outside the baptistery in Florence
A gypsy begging outside the baptistery in Florence.
Take a page from my dad's book, a technique he invented on the fly while strolling through a Rome Metro tunnel with two month's rent (in cash) in his pocket when, suddenly, we were beset by one of these crowds of kiddie criminals: Act just a wee bit crazy.

Jump up, do a full spin, and come down in a karate stance with a primal scream.

Dad sure didn't win awards for his Bruce Lee impression (and I doubt the would-be pickpockets seriously believed he knew karate), but those kids bugged their eyes and scattered fast.

All thieves prefer befuddled, clueless-looking targets and would rather steer clear of the wackos.

(For more of my dad's patented traveler crime-fighting techniques, see the page on losing things.)

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