Eurotrip Interlude 2: The Great Train Robbery

Or: How to Avoid Getting Robbed (or at least minimize risk)

Things don’t always go perfectly. Sometimes, bad things happen. All you can do is try to prevent it from happening in the first place and prepare for what to do after it happens. Traveling alone, one of the worst things that can happen is getting robbed/mugged. I suppose the bare minimum I need to travel on my own is a valid passport and a credit card. With those, I can usually buy what I need and get where I want to go (depending on visa requirements). Cash is always great, but that can run out, and it’s not a good idea to carry too much of it.

In my mind, Rome had a reputation for high thievery. I’ve read stories of taxi scams, friendly-looking people wanting to practice their English with you, old ladies throwing fake babies at you and when you catch it, your hands are occupied and they go through your pockets, or one guy throwing mud (or other stuff) on your clothes and a “nice guy” offers to help you clean it off while someone else goes through your pockets/bag. Yes, I know it can happen to travelers in all big cities, even in your own hometown, but Rome is reportedly one of the worst. I nearly became another statistic.

I already mentioned how crowded it was, even in winter.  On day 3, I took the Metro to Roma Termini to change lines to get to the Colosseum for my morning tour.  Being a weekday, there were people heading to work, and as the only transfer station for the entire system, it was packed.  If you’ve seen those videos of Tokyo station attendants helping pack people into subway cars, it was like that, without the help.  I waited with everyone else on the platform and even had to skip the first train that arrived as it was too full.  This meant I was near the front of the crowd to get onto the next car.  These are the ones targeted by thieves.  When the next train arrives, you’re one of the first ones on and get pushed deepest into the car, the thieves grab whatever they can and escape off the train while you are stuck inside and can’t pursue.  If you are one of the last ones on, you’re near the door already and can give chase.

When the doors opened and after the riders exited, it was our turn.  It was a mass of people moving at the same time, I barely needed to actually take steps, you’re practically carried onto the train.  Once I hit the middle, I could feel hands running down my leg, then a tugging, which I knew was someone going after my wallet.  I was quick enough to lean down, grab the wrist and squeeze, her hand let go of my wallet, but I didn’t let go of her.  I bent down and looked her right in her 20-something eyes as I put my wallet back in the pocket and zipped it up.  She jerked her arm away and ran off the train, no words were exchanged.  If she had been successful, she would have stolen €10 and some empty gift cards.  Even though she got nothing, it almost made me want to give up on the rest of the trip.

Here’s where my preparation helped.  The “spend” wallet was in a side pocket down my leg and the zipper is not that obvious, but an experienced pickpocket will know what to do.  In crowds where they can’t be seen, they run their hands down the leg until they feel something, then go after it.  She no doubt felt the wallet and found the zipper, but because it was a bigger wallet (British pound notes can be larger than US bills, so I brought a larger wallet so the £ wouldn’t stick out and be noticeable or get damaged), it needed a bit of finesse to get out of the pocket through the zipper, that’s what saved me.  If it were in the main front pocket, it would have been a smoother lift and run.

That wasn’t all my cash.  My older model REI Adventures pants have two open front pockets, two rear pockets with buttons, one zippered pocket down each leg, and a zippered credit-card sized pocket INSIDE the front pocket (the new model trousers in the link have zippered rear pockets instead of a button and no more card-sized inside zipper pocket).  This inside extra pocket seems the most protected, since a thief would need to get into your front pocket, then undo the zipper and get into that tighter pocket.  I had cash divided up in four locations, so a robber might not get all of it.  I had some cash in that inside zippered pocket, in the wallet in the zippered pocket that was almost stolen, and a bit more in the zippered pocket on the other side.  All cash had some tissues and scrap paper on top in case a thief would run off after grabbing the first thing they touch.  I also carry tissue packs (because I have lots of allergies) and it might feel like a wallet to a thief.  I also had a steel-cabled PacSafe camera strap for extra camera protection.

The last hiding place was an ankle wallet that had my ID and credit card.  That hides under my sock that is hidden under long trousers.  I don’t have shorts and don’t want any.  Shorts don’t provide sun protection, sometimes aren’t allowed in places like certain churches, museums, or restaurants.  Living in California, you are meant to be prepared for earthquakes, and long pants simply provide better coverage.  Same reason I don’t wear flip flops, you can’t run in them and are terrible if you need to walk over debris like broken glass or wood/metal shrapnel.  I thought an ankle wallet was less common than a money belt or neck wallet, both of which can be visible under certain circumstances and are likely well-known to pickpockets.  Adding it all up, I wasn’t carrying more than €30 on my person at any time, just in case (each pocket had enough to get the bus/metro back to the B&B and the room safe).  It also helps you stick to a budget by thinking about what you buy.

After the incident, I noticed that I entered the train at the middle of the platform, nearest the stairs.  This is where most people will wait, because of laziness or “convenience”, and allows the pickpocket a quick escape.  Every trip on the Metro afterwards (and repeated at the subways in Stockholm and London), I walked an extra 15 seconds towards the end of the platform and there were loads fewer people around, which meant fewer targets and a longer distance for a thief to run away.

  • Don’t put all your money in one place.  Use zippered or buttoned pockets.  It might inconvenience you, but it will also inconvenience a pickpocket.  Keep cash, ID, and credit cards separate if you can.  Front pockets are safer than rear pockets (even if it buttons/zips).  Perhaps get used to walking with a hand in your wallet/phone pocket.
  • Have the phone numbers of your credit card companies and local embassy if you need to cancel/replace cards and passport.
  • Don’t count your money in public, know how much you have in each pocket/hiding spot so you can grab and hand over the minimum.
  • Never reveal that you have a money belt/neck/ankle wallet in public.  Have the money ready when you get to the register.  Hide somewhere and prepare it discreetly, like in a bathroom stall or dressing room.
  • Be careful when carrying around maps and travel guides, you’re showing everyone you’re a tourist.
  • Consider carrying a decoy wallet with a couple of small bills, or colored paper (tear from a free newspaper/magazine if you have to), and some empty/expired gift cards so it looks real enough to a thief.  Use a cheap watch or costume jewelry instead of expensive accessories.
  • If you keep your mobile phone in a trouser pocket, consider a silicone/rubbery case to make it “stickier” to lift out of a pocket.  Don’t take your phone out when a stranger asks you what time it is, say you don’t know, guess, check your cheap watch, or ask another nearby stranger.
  • Pickpockets hang out at train/bus stations near signs that say “Beware of pickpockets” because people will see the sign and put a hand over their valuables to feel that they are still there.  Now the thieves know where your wallet or phone is.
  • Wear purses across your chest, and consider wearing your backpack in front, as a knife can slash into it from behind and you’ll never notice until it’s too late.  Don’t leave them under a seat or hanging on your chair at a restaurant, keep it on your lap or at least tie the strap around your leg.
  • Walking around wearing earphones or dragging wheeled luggage over cobblestones or bricks make you less able to hear someone sneaking up behind you.
  • Alcohol consumption or drugs/medication (even sleeping pills) can make you less aware of your surroundings and less inhibited.
  • Be aware and don’t make yourself an easy or inviting target.

Now you know how to be safer, and where I keep my money.  Please don’t try to rob me.  It will make me sad.

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