Thiefhunters in Paradise http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters Pickpockets, Con Artists, Gangsters, Thieves, and Travel Sun, 21 Sep 2014 18:12:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 Claes is kind. Claes is gone. http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/claes/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/claes/#comments Sun, 21 Sep 2014 16:02:25 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6543 Bob Arno writes about his brother. Bambi interrupts. Over the years I have written about my mentors, my old friends who have had a...

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Bob Arno writes about his brother. Bambi interrupts.
Claes Munthe

Claes in July 2014

Over the years I have written about my mentors, my old friends who have had a significant impact on my career, as well as a few obituaries — friends who were taken from us way too early. Writing about mentors is not hard, just go back in time and analyze why they were unique and how they extended themselves and helped a young inexperienced entertainer.

But today I have a far more personal challenge, in the midst of my sorrow for the loss of my own brother. He passed away about ten days ago, at age seventy. That’s far too early for a Swedish man who lived healthy, never excessive, and always in great trim shape.

Bambi: It was only two summers ago that he lifted tall Frida from the ground when she hurt her ankle on a trampoline in Arizona, and carried her like a baby a long distance to a sofa. He carried her as if she weighed nothing. In retrospect, we know that Claes was already ill, though none of us knew it. But he was still strong as an ox!

How does one explain the random selection of cancer victims? In my work I am obsessed with pattern recognition and the logic of why some people become victims (to criminals)—it’s all very neat and clear when looking at the bigger picture. But cancer can strike anyone, young or old, with little warning, as was the case with my brother. A little over a year ago he noticed he couldn’t quite swallow food as easily as before. He suspected some sort a throat infection. In September 2013 the tests came in: advanced esophageal cancer, located at the bottom of the esophagus, as well as smaller tumors in the stomach. No option to operate, only chemo therapy remained.

The doctors gave him a year, at best, and that is exactly what he got. In this year he never gave up, never resigned, but knew deep down that it was probably hopeless. He prepared as most cancer patients do for the inevitable. The legal documents, the transfer of properties, the farewell parties with his closest friends. Nobody around him suspected the rapid deterioration. Yes, his weight became an obvious red flag, but he did not look gaunt, and his face had the same round, filled-out cheeks as before. When he was in a good mood, nobody could possibly suspect that we all counted days and weeks.

My brother, Claes, lived in Sweden, where end-of-life health care is exemplary and caring. Every evening a nurse came by and hooked Claes to a drip tube, connected to a port in his upper chest close to his neck. During the night he would then receive about a liter of a milky nutritious fluid, while sleeping. Every morning the nurse returned and disconnected the tube. No, it was not good “quality of life,” since he could barely eat anything at all for close to a year. Always nauseous, and during the last six months of his life steadily more in pain, as the tumors grew and pressed against spine and sensitive nerve centers. Strong doses of morphine only sometimes helped.

Claes Munthe

Claes—so often laughing

So why did he maintain the illusion that maybe there was still hope for a new miracle drug? Stronger men at age 69-71 might have said “I had a good life, enough is enough, let’s not pretend anymore.” But Claes enjoyed every minute he had on the telephone with his friends, with me and my wife, and simply living another day. For 365 days when I couldn’t be with Claes, I called him daily for about an hour. We stayed with him whenever we could and behaved like we always did. Sat around the dining table and joked around, talked over current events, old anecdotes, and memories. There were lots of those and lots of laughter.

Bambi: Like that utterly believable postcard Claes sent us from Naples, pretending to be a gang of thieves thanking us for visiting Naples, and complimenting the film National Geographic made about us and them. It was brilliant, the way he mixed a little Italian in with poor English. Did Claes, with his love of all things Italian, and his reverence for the ultimate practical joke, travel to Naples just to send that postcard? It would be just like him…

But I never brought up the obvious: what do we do for Claes’s funeral, who should attend, how should we deal with this or with that? We both pushed aside the inevitable, the closure of it all. But he was not living in a dream world. He knew full well that some things just had to be done, despite the great expense in terms of his energy.

Sweden does not seem to have an end-of-life option for the patient, as is the case in the Netherlands and Switzerland. But there does not seem to be a heated dialog, either, like in the United Kingdom, about patients’ right to request a doctor’s help to terminate life. Having watched my brother suffer for a year I must ask myself why there are no choices. I’m not going to list all the horrible and painful moments my brother experienced in front of my very eyes. In retrospect, when everything is said and done, I think he still would have preferred to live just the number of days he squeezed out of his treatment and the help from the Swedish medical support system. But I would have chosen a different tack, which only means that people have different preferences and there should be an option for ALL. Not forced medical support (for whatever reason).

Claes Munthe

Bob and Claes

My relationship with my brother was unique. During the early years of my career he helped extensively with the management of promotional material back in Sweden when I was traveling around the world. But my work in the sixties was mainly outside of Sweden with few visits to my home country and so we were not as regular or intimate as in later years. Long distance phone calls in those days were costly affairs, only to be used for urgent matters. It was not until the early eighties, thirty five years ago, that I re-cemented my close friendship with my brother and we started to visit each other’s homes. Eventually this grew to extended stays on two continents, permanent possession of each other’s house keys, and “my house is your house.” We regularly visited one another for months on end.

Claes Munthe

Loved to make others laugh.

Bambi: When in the U.S., Claes often referred to himself as an “Okie” or a country bumpkin when he felt unfamiliar with an American tradition. Like the time he drove alone to a plant nursery and his car was rushed by a gang of shouting Mexicans. Cold sweat, pounding heart, knuckles white on the steering wheel, Claes inched forward, terrified. Oh, did we ever laugh about that experience! Just a word of the story could forever after bring any of us to gales of laughter.

The friendship was equally warm between Claes and my wife. They were like brother and sister. We were a unique trio with shared interests and missed each other very much when apart. I would assume that only married couples or siblings can have the kind of close and warm relationship that years of sharing fosters. It was the humor, the jokes, the ribbing, the advice, the practical jokes, the insults, and the support, that was unique and is now missed.

Bambi: How could I not tease him about the creative way he shelved his books?

There wasn’t a dinner or a telephone chat (thank you Skype) when we weren’t laughing uproariously.

Bambi: Remember when Claes bit into a Chinese fortune cookie, made a face, and complained that there was paper in his cookie?

Claes Munthe

Bambi and Claes

Gags or lines often in bad taste or politically incorrect, but biting and pure. No facade or pretense, just gutsy and honest observations with ever-present sardonic over-tones. Guards-down: the sort of rapport you can otherwise only have with a mate from school or the military, and hopefully with your marriage partner. (Or as they call them in Sweden “sambo.” Only forty percent of Swedish people marry—the rest live together under the label “sambo.” Never any spousal support after a break up, but child support works the same way, married or “sambo.”)

Claes had two lengthy “sambo” relations, each lasting about ten years. But he lived alone for the last fifteen years. He felt he lived full life, but regretted that he had not found a partner to share his later years with. He had a preference for exotic appearance and had relations in Latin America and the Middle East which never materialized into something that could become reality back in Sweden.

Bambi: Maybe he lived alone because of his famous stubbornness, huh? Would anyone else behave the way Claes did when airport security told him he couldn’t fly with his pocketknife? He wouldn’t give it up to the security officer, whom he knew would keep the gorgeous little knife. Instead, he was determined to destroy it. Except… it was a strong little knife, a fine German one, and he almost missed his flight because it took him so long!

His love was travel, photography, and the study of ancient civilizations (art, monuments, and history). He spent fifty years taking magnificent photos in every corner of the globe. He was a lecturer in Sweden with a strong following and his appearances always drew an adoring crowd of fans. It was not a big financial reward since culture lectures are not exactly big money-makers, but he was re-booked over and over for the same venues, year after year.

Claes Munthe

He’s up there somewhere…

Bambi: Let’s not forget his love of tree-killing! Has any man felled more trees than Claes has? I was awed when I watched him single-handedly take down a huge mesquite in a tricky position at our Vegas house. But it was nothing compared to seeing him waving in the wind at the top of a giant fir on his country house property—a man with a fear of heights, yet! Over the years, I’ve watched his mountain of tree roots grow.

Oh, we did so much together. We gardened, we went on petroglyph-seeking road trips, we cooked. He taught me to make a killer Jansson’s frestelse. We made flädersaft together with the most old-fashioned tools.

Claes Munthe

The mountains of tree stumps in 2009.

All his friends will remember Claes for two things. His kindness and his desire to help. For many years he worked in human resources and it is amazing how many old friends have now come forward and expressed sorrow over Claes’s passing, always commenting on how much he helped them both professionally and with private trauma and complexities. He was a sensitive soul who wished well for others and always extended himself to others and their need for support.

When we were quite young, maybe about 12 years old, he wrote on a door to a tool shed that I had, “Claes is kind.”

I guess you could characterize Claes with those words—Claes is kind. I believe his friends will all remember Claes first and foremost as a kind and funny guy who passed away much too early.

Do you agree?

All text © copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bob Arno

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Nigerian torture officers http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/nigerian-torture/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/nigerian-torture/#comments Sat, 20 Sep 2014 15:46:07 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6531 “Torture has become such an integral part of policing in Nigeria that many stations have an informal torture officer, Amnesty International says. “Both the...

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Nigerian nightmare, Nigerian torture

A form of Nigerian torture

“Torture has become such an integral part of policing in Nigeria that many stations have an informal torture officer, Amnesty International says.

“Both the military and police use a wide range of torture methods including beatings, nail and teeth extractions and other sexual violence, it says.”

Nigerian torture

That was in the BBC News report Nigeria ‘uses torture officers to extract confessions’ published September 18, 2014, and the quote is from Amnesty International, who just published an illustrated report entitled Welcome to Hell Fire—Torture and other ill-treatment in Nigeria.

The report immediately reminded me of my friends Michael Griffith and Nancy Grigor. As they were departing Lagos, Nigeria, after a brief business trip, they were tortured with cockroaches. A whole filthy jar of them had been dumped on Nancy.

Michael, accustomed to extracting people from sticky situations, was at a loss. He’d pulled people out of South American prisons, choreographed an American’s escape from a Turkish jail, rescued the wrongly accused and the clearly guilty. Now, as he grabbed his delirious wife by her shoulders and tried to steady her, he saw the same overwhelmed eyes he saw in many of his clients. They bulged with a desperate plea for a savior, and of unspeakable horrors.

When Nancy and Michael told me what had happened, I thought of it as distraction in order for immigration officials to successfully bribe a little extra departure tax. Distraction!

In a new light and long after the fact, I consider what was done to them torture, meant to extract money, not confessions. Nancy certainly found the experience to be torture.

Why and how would Nigerian immigration officials torture departing visitors with cockroaches? Read the story if you dare. Nigerian Nightmare.

Fair warning: you may not sleep well afterwards…

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Massive smartphone theft ring busted in London http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/smartphone-theft-ring-london/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/smartphone-theft-ring-london/#comments Mon, 15 Sep 2014 12:00:49 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6506 Pickpockets are free to steal as usual on London’s Tube and trains, but they’ve lost their biggest buyers of smartphones. British Transport Police nabbed...

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London smartphone theft bust

Bob Arno in London, where the thieves are.

Pickpockets are free to steal as usual on London’s Tube and trains, but they’ve lost their biggest buyers of smartphones. British Transport Police nabbed 13 gangsters, including the ringleader, in a September 11 pre-dawn raid on multiple locations.

Smartphone theft ring busted

1,000 smart phones were recovered, all wiped clean of data, reset, polished up, boxed, and labeled. The phones were to be shipped to Dubai, eastern Europe, and northern Africa to be sold as new. This scheme reportedly netted the gang about 1.6 million dollars per year.

Excellent work by the British Transport Police and its “Dip Squad!”

However, the pickpockets remain at large. Public transportation passengers in and around London are no safer, and neither are their smartphones. Time to brush up on Pocketology 101 and Purseology 101 for smart-safe storage of valuables.

Actually, I suspect some of the pickpockets may briefly desert the trains and work the streets while “the tip is hot,” as they say. Uniformed and private eyes are on the lookout on the trains and platforms, and in the stations. Think thief. If I were one, I’d cool it on the trains for a week or so.

The pickpockets, doing the grunt-work for the organized crime ring, get paid like any grunt-workers, but enough for them to risk arrest, fines, and brief imprisonment.

The ringleader though, was living the high life in a million-dollar riverside apartment. He’s said to be an Afghan Sikh in his forties. His Audi Q7, parked in the basement garage, contained more than 200 smartphones.

My pet peeve: the persistence of the term “petty” when referring to theft by pickpockets. They’re taking wallets with credit cards they can exploit for thousands of dollars. They’re taking smartphones worth up to a thousand. And they’re doing the grunt-work for a business that rakes in $1.6 million a year.

Chief Superintendent Paul Brogden, leading Operation Magnum, said: “These are not petty criminals. They are in the upper echelons of the criminal network behind the pickpocketing that’s carried out on Tube and rail networks — particularly the West End.”

London Evening Standard, 9/11/14

Police Chief Brogden also reminds us that “Each of these stolen phones, of which there are hundreds, has a victim.”

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Romanian beggars http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/romanian-beggars/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/romanian-beggars/#comments Mon, 08 Sep 2014 05:33:23 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6481 I recently wrote about beggars on the streets of Stockholm. I observed that an abundance of beggars are now stationed in the streets, and...

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Romanian beggars

A gypsy girl in Romania

I recently wrote about beggars on the streets of Stockholm. I observed that an abundance of beggars are now stationed in the streets, and that they are mostly from Romania. I argued that these beggars are organized, and possibly trafficked, that a large portion of collected money goes to “bosses,” and that Swedes are naive and therefore an easy market for the begging enterprise, which is in large part social engineering. The article became quite controversial, especially in Sweden.

Romanian beggars in Stockholm

Roma beggars in Stockholm take a break

Romanian beggars

A street in Constanta, Romania

Romanian beggars

A street in Constanta, Romania

Romanian beggars

A street in Constanta, Romania

Romanian beggars

Gypsy family in Romania

Romanian beggars

A gypsy woman, mother of five children, who collects plastic bottles for a living.

Romanian beggars

A little girl’s rough living.

A gypsy woman, mother of five children, who collects plastic bottles for a living.

A gypsy woman, mother of five children, who collects plastic bottles for a living.

Romanian beggars

Constanta, Romania skyline

Now, after making a trip to Romania, I have some follow-up information. (But you have to read through my rant before you get it.)

Romanian beggars in Sweden

Swedes are reluctant to believe that their cities and towns have been besieged by professional beggars. Despite the thousands of Romanian beggars in evidence, Swedes stubbornly insist that these are simply individual unfortunate humans who can survive by no other means. For some reason, Swedes excuse them from working for a living. Despite the fact that the Romanian beggars (individually!) all use the exact same posture, the same dress mode, the same plastic bundles of personal effects, the same blanket-wrap and paper cup and laminated photo—even the exact same laminated photo of the very same children. Despite the fact that prime “locations” seem to be continuously occupied, with methodical rotations of personnel so that the position is never vacant, never vulnerable to being usurped by a competitor. Despite the fact that these locations follow a scheme favoring the doors of particular grocery and liquor stores and subway entrances, all over Stockholm and all over Sweden.

Really. Are these Romanian beggars—all the several thousands of them—each sole and separate individuals, each uneducated, each unable to work, each self-organized?

Is Sweden a country of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand? Not quite. Sweden holds a native population intensely dependent on social proof. Everyone is terrified of committing inappropriate behavior, voicing an unpopular belief, not conforming to the group mentality. Everyone’s afraid of appearing to lack compassion, sympathy, charity, and brotherly love. Everyone’s afraid of appearing racist.

For an excellent example of this attitude, take a look at an August 28, 2014 article in Metro, the free paper distributed on Swedish trains. “No, the beggars are not controlled by criminal gangs,” is a translation of the Swedish headline. Its main source of intelligence is a Swedish “homelessness coordinator.” I don’t know, but I would suspect that Romanians who occupy Sweden for the purpose of begging do not go to the state for housing. That’s why they have bosses! To organize them, find them places to sleep. Also note that they carry their possessions around with them in sacks, like old-fashioned hobos.

Other sources in the article tiptoe through their interviews, cautiously hedging with evasive statements like this police officer’s: “‘It is very difficult to say that begging is organized,’ says Stockholm Police Peter Enell.” The article also makes short shrift of the statements by “a police officer with roots in Romania.” To me, the Metro article is laughable. Have a look. Or don’t waste your time.

To find out more about Romanian beggars, Bob Arno and I went investigating in Romania.

We met with a highly experienced police officer and another official in the city of Constanta, neither of whom would like to be named. Both told us that Romanians who beg outside of Romania are definitely organized. (I did not ask about beggars inside Romania.)

I asked if poor villagers sought out begging gang-leaders for assistance, or if villagers were recruited by the gangsters. They are recruited, I was assured. They are desperately poor, and they are Roma. On their own, they could not afford foreign travel. They require the assistance of leaders (bosses, aka gangsters) who organize their transportation. Of course, these bosses must be repaid.

The police officer told us that local gangsters who head begging rings gamble away much of the bounty. Other investigations show that begging and pickpocketing proceeds transform destitute village shacks into relative mansions with European luxury cars parked in driveways.

The official pointed out a number of Roma men drinking on the sidewalks. They are robbers, he said.

The police officer said that people are still maimed for the purpose of begging. I did not get clarification, but I take this to mean that it is children who are maimed. The officer described a horrendous practice, in which adults push a child into slow-moving traffic. When the child is hit and injured, the adults demand cash on the spot from the driver in order to not involve the police.

It’s hard to believe that this barbaric savagery really happens. Yet, the officer told us that this exact atrocity had occurred only two days before our meeting, right in the center of town, in front of Tomis Mall (near where we found our pickpockets the next day). I can’t get the nightmarish image out of my head.

I must presume that the adults were not the parents of the child victim. Who is the child, then? Stolen? Purchased? Rented? I also presume that the child, with its unpredictable injuries, is intended to become a compelling beggar who will attract sympathy and more cash with its twisted limbs and scarred skin.

This anachronism is difficult to grasp in modern, civilized society. It’s impossible to imagine the desperation and cold-bloodedness that leads to such an industry.

(It brings to mind the 1989 novel Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, in which a circus family man concocts chemical cocktails for his pregnant wife, thereby creating his own deformed children for his own lucrative freak show. However, those children are loved. Great book!)

Roma in Romania

Bob and I spoke with a gypsy family that happened to walk past us in Constanta, Romania. Our translator begged us not to, insisting that it would bring trouble and they’d demand money. He said they wouldn’t speak much Romanian and he didn’t speak any Romany. Bob persisted, and the family sat down in a nearby park, amenable and unperturbed.

They were clearly penniless. The mother’s clothes were black with muck and she carried a grubby blanket. The children, eight and eleven years old, were bright and alert. They answered Bob’s questions with the same trepidation any shy children would, glancing at their mother, who smiled back and nodded. The children attended school. The mother had not.

I was enchanted by the little girl, whose scarred and dirty face was beaming one moment, serious the next. Her radiant smile baring two chipped front teeth hinted of a tough life. Her rubber sandals were cracked, broken, and dirty. Her feet were caked with grime, her toenails chipped and encrusted. She wants to be a doctor.

The mother has five children: 3, 8, 11, 15, and 20. They live in a house where they pay a small rent. The children’s father is very ill, she told us. He was hit in the head recently. But she doesn’t drink or smoke, she emphasized, as if to counter an unsaid accusation. Also, her brother has been arrested and is in jail for two years. She didn’t elaborate, but added that she’s not afraid of police. She’s sad that she doesn’t have her own house—that’s her dream. To support her family, she collects plastic bottles.

“You ask hard questions,” our translator said, “very personal.”

Now Bob beat around a bush. Without asking directly, he tried to find out if the family had been approached by human traffickers or gangsters offering them a better life. He spoke directly to the children.

Our translator was not familiar with our peculiar area of interest and had no idea what we were getting at—which is just the way we wanted it. No interfering, no answering on behalf of the family or spinning their replies. It was interesting to observe his change in attitude. He softened toward the children, he was charmed by them, and impressed by the mother’s candid and sincere statements.

When Bob invited the mother to ask him questions, she had none. She simply smiled and said “I’m glad that you asked us all these questions and pleased that you are interested in our life.”

The family did not ask us for money, though we gave them some at the end. The children handled the bills reverently, then handed them to their mother. The woman was surprised and grateful.

Criminal Romanian begging rings

I have not seen any children (Roma or otherwise) begging in Sweden. I’m sure it wouldn’t be tolerated. However, Romanian children beggars and pickpockets are plentiful in England, Italy, Spain, France, and probably additional European countries, but those I have listed I have personal experience with.

Here’s a 2-minute BBC clip on Romanian child-beggars, human trafficking, begging-ring bosses, and new riches in poor Romanian villages.

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Romanian Pickpockets in Romania http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/romanian-pickpockets/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/romanian-pickpockets/#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 22:37:01 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6427 The pickpocket pair was plain as day to us. And we were just as obvious to them: tourists—by definition, filthy rich and fair game....

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Romanian pickpockets in Romania

Romanian pickpocket in Romania today. Where will he be tomorrow? Paris? Rome? Madrid?

The pickpocket pair was plain as day to us. And we were just as obvious to them: tourists—by definition, filthy rich and fair game.

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

One of the two pickpockets who tried to work on Bob Arno

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

The Romanian pickpocket tries to work Bob Arno

Romania’s pickpockets are tourists, too. As some of the most traveled of thieves, they’re regularly found plying their ancient trade all across Europe and beyond. They send their earning back to Romania. (Hence their little Romanian shanty towns gone grand.) In our thiefhunting pursuits, Bob Arno and I have met Romanian pickpockets while traveling in Europe top to bottom, east to west, from Sweden to Spain, from England to Estonia, and everywhere in between.

Romanian pickpockets

Bob and I had come to Romania to see Romanian pickpockets on their home turf. It didn’t take long. Two minutes in the city, and there they were. We’d planned to visit Bucharest but learned at the last minute that on this long summer holiday weekend Bucharest would be empty. Everyone who possibly could would be at the beach; and following them would be the pickpockets. So we decided to explore Constanta.

The pickpocket pair laid in waiting on the corner of the pedestrian street. We probably spotted and identified each other at the same instant. For my part, it was easy. If I’d just seen the man’s diagonally-worn messenger bag, I’d give him a suspicious look. Noting the sweater he carried, the man was as good as guilty. After all, it was 80 degrees; yet, the sweater was not folded and forgotten. Rather, it was over his arm, then flourished, fiddled with, and finally folded over his messenger bag. A “tool,” for sure.

Yesterday, we’d met with the city’s pickpocket police officer, a man with 32 years’ experience—rare for the pickpocket detail, who usually move on to more interesting policing. The cop, whose identity I need to conceal, described the local pickpocket techniques.

Romanian pickpocket techniques

“Wrestling” is what he calls the first M.O. The pickpocket approaches his mark straight on with a big smile and familiar greeting. “Remember me, Andrei?” He picks a very common name. While locking eyes and insisting that the two know each other, the thief puts his hands on the mark’s shoulders and shakes him roughly. His partner comes from behind and picks the wallet during the commotion. The thief stops abruptly, apologizes, and departs, while the victim is still rattled, wondering if he really did know the friendly stranger.

“Belt-shake” is method number two. The thief compliments the mark’s shoes and/or clothing, and finally his belt. He shakes the belt and, during the distraction, either snags the vic’s wallet or his partner does.

The cop also described the back-to-back cafe-chair steal, and said there’s a lot of theft on buses.

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

A poser, early bathers, a stage, and 30 beer stands, ready for the holiday weekend evening on the beach in Constanta, Romania.

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

Constanta beach crowd just getting started

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

A building in Constanta, Romania

Romanian pickpockets in Romania

A grand old house in Constanta, Romania

So Bob and I went for a little stroll in this large Romanian coastal city and almost immediately, there we were, face to face with a pair of Romanian pickpockets in Romania.

With almost no English skills at all, the faux-friendly thief began chatting up Bob while his partner tried to head me into a different direction. “Where you from” is a phrase they both used. Bob’s guy claimed to be a tourist from Bulgaria and asked where the casino was. Then he began to compliment Bob’s clothes.

I had started taking pictures right away. Though the partner tried to distract me, I kept an eye on Bob’s encounter. The perp fingered Bob’s pants with an admiring smile. He ran his hand lightly over the fabric. This is called “fanning,” when a pickpocket tries to establish where the valuables are kept.

Bob maintained a smiley, gentle demeanor, hoping the thief would validate his designation by dipping into his pocket or getting his partner to do so. But something spooked them. Perhaps it was my picture-taking, or perhaps one or both of us didn’t play like regular tourists. In any case, my guy said something to Bob’s guy and pulled back, retreating to pace twitchily in the shadow of a building. His colleague continued to persist with Bob for several minutes longer. He slowly grasped that we weren’t playing our expected roles. Finally he too disappeared down a side street.

Upon seeing these photos, our police contact identified the pickpocket right away by name and said he’d just been let out of jail. Take a good look at him. You may see him next in Paris, Rome, or Barcelona.

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Fresh Swedish potatoes http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/fresh-swedish-potatoes/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/fresh-swedish-potatoes/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 18:12:40 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6168 In Stockholm, it’s that time of year. Fresh, delicious, Swedish potatoes. Get them in the neighborhood grocery stores, dirt and all. I’ve never seen...

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Fresh Swedish potatoes

Fresh Swedish potatoes

In Stockholm, it’s that time of year. Fresh, delicious, Swedish potatoes. Get them in the neighborhood grocery stores, dirt and all. I’ve never seen them sold like this in the U.S. Maybe I’m living in the wrong places. In Sweden, I gorge on these.

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Hotel Oddity #45 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/hotel-oddity-45/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/hotel-oddity-45/#comments Sun, 17 Aug 2014 13:23:17 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6190 Window magic at Hotel Luna Baglioni I was happy to discover that all three windows opened in my beautiful room at Hotel Luna Baglioni....

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Window magic at Hotel Luna Baglioni

I was happy to discover that all three windows opened in my beautiful room at Hotel Luna Baglioni. So many hotels seal up bedroom windows, forcing guests to rely on air conditioning.

Hotel Luna Baglioni

My room at the gorgeous Hotel Luna Baglioni on St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

This hotel, right on the edge of Piazza San Marco in Venice, was near perfect in every way. (I won’t gripe about the concierge’s bad restaurant recommendations.) Snuggled within the thickest, most luxurious bed linens ever, flanked by Fortuny chandeliers, I could almost forgo the streets of Venice for the comfort and ambiance of this room. Almost.

The windows opened from the top, tipping down slightly—just enough to get a little breeze going. It was both the heavy curtains and the window hardware that prevented a wider opening.

I had a daily battle with housekeeping: I’d leave the windows and curtains open. Housekeeping would slip in and close the windows and curtains.

One day I returned after breakfast, re-opened the layers of curtains, and re-opened the window. Lo! It opened sideways, and all the way!

WTF??? Is this my room? I felt almost dizzy with confusion, having opened this very window repeatedly with a different outcome each time.

Hotel Luna Baglioni

The window tips down from the top. Notice the handle is vertical.

Hotel Luna Baglioni

Turning the handle to a horizontal position opens the window horizontally. Brilliant!

Closing and opening the window a few times, paying close attention, I figured it out. Notice the handles. Straight up opens the top. Turning the handle further to the horizontal position opens the window sideways.

What complicated hardware! I rushed around to try the other bedroom window and the one in the bathroom. Both worked the same way. I like it!

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Stealing credit cards on trains http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/stealing-credit-cards/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/stealing-credit-cards/#comments Mon, 11 Aug 2014 13:00:45 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6378 So, we’re standing at a bar near the train station, drinking espresso with pickpockets in Naples (how we got here is described in Part...

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stealing credit cards

Pickpocket partners Tony and Mario as they steal Bob Arno’s wallet

So, we’re standing at a bar near the train station, drinking espresso with pickpockets in Naples (how we got here is described in Part One of this story) right after they stole our wallet. Bob attempts to describe his profession. In a combination of French, English, and a little Italian, he tries to explain that he’s an entertainer, a performer, a stage pickpocket—which leads to…

A Misunderstanding and a Proposition

“First let me explain,” Bob said, “I work in casinos. I do big operations. I also do theaters. I am an artiste.” He looked around for someone wearing a watch. “Let me show you.”

Bob reached a long arm out to a newcomer in the bar and lifted his watch, his customary proof of comradeship.

“Oh, bravo!” Mario and Tony laughed. “He took the bus driver’s watch! Good job, well done.” The driver got his watch back and faded into the background. Is it logical, or odd, that pickpockets and bus drivers hang out at the same bar?

Stealing credit cards

“Me, I steal credit cards,” said Mario. “Visa—wait, wait, listen to this! You speak all these languages. If you work with me we’ll make so much money. I know all the cities. Florence, Venice, Viareggio…. We can work in Rome, Naples…”

Mario clearly did not capish Bob’s explanation about casinos, theaters, and artiste.

“But there’s no money in Naples!” Bob scoffed.

“No, no, here is good! Here I steal credit cards. Then I go to a shop and buy Rolexes. Rolex! You understand? Then I sell them, get money, and I share with my friends.”

Mario was convinced that Bob worked at casinos and theaters as a thief—a real artiste. It was only later that we realized the ambiguity of Bob’s earnest attempt at a job description. Unintentionally reinforcing the error, Bob laughed, bumped into Mario, and lifted the wallet from Mario’s back pocket.

stealing credit cards

Bob Arno boards a crowded tram in Naples, Italy

“Oh, I see what you do! Multi-bravo!” Mario said, and in Neapolitan explained to the bartender what had happened. “He took my wallet, he’s pretty smart! We came in here to have coffee together.” Mario didn’t mention the other part, that he’d taken Bob’s wallet first. But the bartender probably knew that.

“I have some friends at shops who help with these things. We’d make a good team, you and me. If you work with me, I can give you each a thousand dollars a day!” Yes, each! “Have you been to Ischia? To Capri?”

Mario’s cellphone rang. “Bueno. I’m by the Vesuviana. Okay, I’m coming over there. Ciao.

Mario and Tony spoke to each other for a moment in Neapolitan, trying to figure out why Bob does this. He does it as a hobby, they concluded, just for fun.

“Madam, you want to try?” Tony offered me a taste of his almond milk, which looked intriguing but, was I going to drink from a stranger’s glass? A known thief? Bob and I were concurrently on the trail of the “yellow bomb,” in which patient thieves in Turkey spike drinks with Nembitol or benzodiazepine, then rob the knocked-out victim.

“No, grazie.” Looking at Tony, I pointed to the t-shirt he had draped over his shoulder satchel. I pointed to the t-shirt and smiled, tapped my head like “I know,” then waggled my finger and shook my head. The international pantomime worked, and Tony laughed. “No good,” he agreed, and stuffed the shirt into the satchel. I hadn’t noticed the hanging shirt when we were on the tram together but, if I had, it would have signaled “pickpocket” in a big way.

“Tomorrow I go to my family,” Mario said. “My wife is in Calabria with the children. I am driving to Calabria this evening to be with them, and I’m coming back tomorrow.”

I tried to picture this bus-working wallet-thief heading off to a seaside vacation.

“Here is my mobile phone number,” Mario said, handing Bob a piece of paper. “Call me. Any day is good.”

“But we’re leaving Napoli,” Bob began.

Mario interrupted. “Listen to me properly. The 18th and 19th of this month I will be in Florence. Florence is very, very good. I know everything about it. I can find out right away if the credit cards are good or not. And you would be a perfect partner because you speak French, English—”

“And I speak German as well,” Bob said. Wait—was he buying into this?

“So you come with your wife and we’re going to take credit cards only for Rolex. We’ll work on the train that goes from Florence to Monaco to Paris.” Mario made a stealthy swiping motion. “There’s a lot of good stuff we can do together.”

“That’s difficult for me.”

stealing credit cards

A typical coffee bar in Naples

“Listen. I get on the train that goes to these places, Vienna, Florence, Monaco, Paris. I go all day long and I take only credit cards. We make seven- to ten-thousand euros in one day. If you want, tomorrow, call me.”

Omigod. That’s nine- to thirteen-thousand dollars. Now I pictured Mario roaring down the highway in a Ferrari, adoring family eagerly awaiting the hard-working dad at their private summer villa.

“I can’t call you tomorrow, but maybe the day after. We’ll be in Venice for three days.”

“You work in Venice?” Mario looked surprised. “Okay, but you pay attention. Be careful there.”

“Yes, I know,” Bob said. By now it was too much to explain.

“If you do it properly, this is a fabulous job. Especially in Venice.”

“But there’s a vigilante group there.”

“I know, I’ve been there for Carnivale. I know the place.”

We said our good-byes and thanked Mario for the coffee.

“This is Napoli! You are my guest,” he said. Right, the same guest he’d tried to rip off half an hour ago. We ambled back to the buses, the four of us, splitting to opposite ends of the waiting passengers.

Bob and I, a bit stunned, wanted to get on the first bus that came along. As one pulled up and we moved toward the door, Mario shouted from thirty yards away: not that one, next one. Then he and Tony hopped on another and, presumably, went back to work.

Over coffee we had chided and joked with these high-end pickpockets, conversing easily in French. Having accidentally established ourselves as professional colleagues, we rode the misconception to our advantage, encouraging Mario to tell us about his world. As Mario spoke, I recorded him with a visible, hip-held video camera, which I tossed around casually. I was worried about being caught with the camera running. Bob and I were jolly and friendly, belying our nerves and disapproval. Tony was reserved, possibly due to his lack of French. Mario was enthusiastic and embracing, but was he feigning? We thought not.

Naples has a history steeped in crime and a people sincerely warm and jovial. It just might be the thievery capital of the world. I’m not sure, though; there are so many contenders. Myth and history tell us that it’s is the birthplace of pizza, but today this gritty, passionate, mob-infested city is better known for its pickpocketing. Who’s involved? Who lives in the underworld? Who’s on the fringes? It’s impossible for an outsider to know.

“Do you have any books on the Camorra crime family?” Bob asked later in a book shop.

“Camorra! The Camorra is a fantasy,” the shop owner replied dismissively. He was smiling though. In Naples, one only whispers about the Camorra.

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Six: Public Transportation—Talk About Risky…

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Coffee with pickpockets in Naples http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/coffee-with-pickpockets-in-naples/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/coffee-with-pickpockets-in-naples/#comments Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:00:30 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6369 Coffee with Thieves An August Sunday in Naples. Holiday time for all of Europe and most shops were shut. We bought bus tickets at...

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pickpockets in Naples

Tony laughs nervously on the tram when asked to return Bob’s stolen wallet.

Coffee with Thieves

An August Sunday in Naples. Holiday time for all of Europe and most shops were shut. We bought bus tickets at a kiosk with our last coins, dodged the wild traffic, and crossed to the narrow center strip to wait for a crowded bus. I carried a small video camera in my hands and wore a fanny pack containing my other camera. Bob had a hidden camera, its guts stowed in a shoulder-bag he wore across his chest.

A number one bus arrived, jammed. I didn’t think we’d be able to get on. The doors jerked open and a few passengers tumbled out like crickets escaping from a child’s jar. Bob and I shuffled forward with the mob as the people onboard compacted like empties. We would never voluntarily join such a scene were it not for the call of research. This was highly unpleasant; beyond funny.

“No way. Let’s wait for another,” I said to Bob.

pickpockets in Naples

Tony the pickpocket would rather stay on the bus than go for coffee with his victim.

Two clean-cut middle-aged men who’d gotten off the bus were now behind us, corralling the doubtful like sheepdogs. Somehow, with their encouragement, we all got on, filling spaces we hadn’t known existed. The good samaritans kept us from bursting off the bus in the pressure while one yelled “chiude a porta, chiude a porta,” close the door!

My chest was pressed against a vertical pole. A wiry man in front of me had his back to the same pole. Glancing down, I saw his hand behind his back, blindly trying to make sense of the zipper tabs on my fanny pack, which I’d paperclipped together. I watched, half amused, half outraged at his audaciousness.

Pickpockets in Naples, Italy

We’d already made half a dozen or so tram trips that morning and had been pickpocketed on most of them. We hadn’t yet seen the same thieves twice. By now it seemed a certainty: riding a crowded bus or tram in Naples meant intimacy with a thief. Well, let me qualify that to specify buses and trams on lines that tourists might travel; specifically those stopping at the ship and ferry terminal, the archeological museum, and the train stations. Looking at the protective behavior of local passengers, bus-bandits seemed to be an accepted fact of life, as if there’s one in every crowd.

The disembodied hand couldn’t solve the puzzle in its fingertips. It dropped, or crawled away of its own accord. No success, no accusation.

Bob suddenly reached for my camera and held it high above the compressed mob, pointing down.

pickpockets in Naples

Pickpocket Mario, Tony’s partner, convinces Tony to go with us for coffee.

“Give back the wallet,” he said quietly. “There’s no money in it.”

“Okay, okay,” said one of the good samaritans. He handed it back with a sheepish grin below ultra-cool wraparound reflective sunglasses. In the video, you can see him lower the wallet to his thigh and check its contents.

“Come talk to us,” Bob said in French as the doors popped open. “Just talk—and coffee.”

Café? Café?” He raised an invisible little cup to his lips, pinkie outstretched. “Okay.” But when the doors opened there was a cat-and-mouse game as we all four hopped off and on the bus with opposing motives. They were trying to ditch us. Finally Bob and I were on the ground with one of the pair while the other hung in the doorway of the bus, reluctant. “C’mon,” we all yelled to the last guy, and he finally joined us.

The men led us into a bar across the street and as we entered, I realized we had no money with us. Horrified, I pulled the last note from my pocket, not even enough for an inexpensive Italian espresso.

“No problem, you are my guests,” said the Italian who spoke French, with the hospitality of a Neapolitan. He ushered us in with the same warmth and efficiency he’d used to herd us onto the bus. He ordered three coffees, four glasses of water, and one almond milk.

“Bambi and Bob,” we introduced ourselves.

pickpockets in Naples

Mario, a high-end pickpocket who steals credit cards on trains to Florence, Paris, Monte Carlo.

“Mario,” said the one who spoke French. He studied us quizzically, as if he’d never been invited for coffee by a man whose wallet he’d just swiped.

“Tony,” said the reluctant other, and we all shook hands.

Mario was trim, 50ish, with smooth skin, curly salt-and-pepper hair, and a receding hairline. He wore a crisp white t-shirt tucked into blue shorts secured with a leather belt. With a watch, gold ring, cellphone, and snazzy shades, this was no lowlife, drugged-up desperado. Mario looked respectable, like anybody’s brother.

Tony was a little rounder, and clearly the junior partner. He squinted under a blue baseball cap, and—did you ever want to know where a pickpocket keeps his wallet?—in the pocket of his blue button-down shirt. It was Tony who’d first tried to take Bob’s wallet on the bus, but Mario who succeeded and slipped it to Tony.

Unlike most of the other cities we’ve visited, pickpockets in Naples are homegrown. They’re not immigrants, handy to take the rap, or despised illegals doing what they can for their very survival. These are Neapolitans practicing an age-old profession without, as far as we can tell, a shred of shame.

Next: A Misunderstanding and a Proposition

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Six: Public Transportation—Talk About Risky…

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Overcharge scam or accidental mistake? http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/overcharge-scam/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/overcharge-scam/#comments Sat, 26 Jul 2014 13:00:47 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6208 Overcharge Scam “Do you take credit cards?” “Si, signora,” the salesman replied. “How much is this pepper grinder?” “€12.90.” So why was the credit...

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Overcharge scam

The salesman who overcharged me in Rome’s Mercato di Campo de’ Fiori

overcharge scam

Kitchenware for sale at Rome’s Mercato di Campo de’ Fiori

Overcharge Scam

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Si, signora,” the salesman replied.

“How much is this pepper grinder?”

“€12.90.”

So why was the credit card slip made out for 15.90 euros? Accident? Or was this a little scam the market man thought he could pull on an idiot tourist? On a hurried customer, one who might not examine the credit card slip.

This was in Rome’s bustling outdoor market in Campo de’ Fiori, at the large kitchenware stand right next to a man pressing pomegranate halves as fast as he could and selling €6 cups of juice to an endless line of customers.

When I called him on it, the salesman wordlessly handed me three euros in coins. Not sheepishly. Just wordlessly.

Like a pickpocket who silently drops the stolen wallet on the ground. Not me… there it is… no harm done, right?

I can’t say for sure that this was a systematic overcharge scam used—perhaps vengefully?—on customers who have the audacity to pay with a credit card. But I have my opinion…

What do you think?

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Beggars in Stockholm http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/beggars-in-stockholm/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/beggars-in-stockholm/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 13:43:17 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6220 Beggars in Stockholm—everywhere! Just a few years ago, one never saw beggars in Stockholm. Today, one never sees Swedish beggars, but beggars from Romania...

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Beggars in Stockholm

A beggar in Stockholm

Beggars in Stockholm—everywhere!

Just a few years ago, one never saw beggars in Stockholm. Today, one never sees Swedish beggars, but beggars from Romania seem to be on every corner, at the door of every shop, and at every subway station entrance. It’s an orchestrated invasion; just like the organized Gypsy begging that has been investigated and documented in the U.K. However, in Stockholm, I haven’t (yet?) seen child beggars. Not even babes in arms. I suspect the kingpins are smart enough to realize that Sweden wouldn’t stand for that.

The Swedish government periodically debates the possibility of banning begging, but then, what would happen to the few homeless and drug-addicted Swedes who beg, and the few alcoholics out on the street? Where would they get cash?

Well then, let’s ban begging by foreigners! Good idea, but unlikely to happen any time soon, I think. Everything in Sweden happens by committee, and happens slooooowly.

Beggars in Stockholm

Tools of the trade: “family” photos and a paper cup.

Beggars in Stockholm

A Swedish citizen donates to a Romanian beggar in Stockholm

Beggars in Stockholm

This couple just gave 100 crowns, about US$15, to a beggar-woman.

Beggars in Stockholm

A beggar in the Stockholm subway.

When border control within the European Union went soft, it didn’t take syndicate leaders long to take advantage of the new freedom of movement. Transnational criminal activities increased, particularly human trafficking.

For now, EU citizens are allowed to come to Sweden and stay without permission for up to three months. The Gypsy bosses know the rules. They transport the poor Romanian villagers, house them, feed them, and ferry them to their assigned begging spots. They come along and empty the cash-cups periodically.

Like the employees of a global theme park, all the Romanian beggars in Stockholm seem to be clones, all carbon copies of a model with a signature style. They all sit, they’re all wrapped in a blanket, they all hold a paper cup, and they all show photos of children. They all have a number of plastic bags near them, stuffed with things. They all block the flow of traffic.

Sweden is perfect…

Sweden is an excellent venue for this racket. Its citizens are wealthy, compassionate, and to some extent naive. The government is hamstrung and afraid to act. Tourists are rarely the budget type. I see people contributing to the cups (to the bosses’ riches); I’ve never seen meanness or complaint toward the beggars, not even hey-you’re-blocking-the-way.

The issue, the poor-Romanian-beggar, abused-victim-or-system-abuser conundrum, fraught with racial implications, is a bush to be beat around. In Sweden, there’s a ubiquitous fear of “what others think.” Everyone’s afraid to appear incorrect.

We spoke to a couple just after we saw them hand over a hundred crowns (about US$15) with a kind word and pat on the beggar’s arm. They give often, they said, whenever they can. They know these people are poor and need the money to feed their children. The couple buys into the scam hook, line, and sinker. Oh, I believe the beggars are poor and, since they don’t work, need help to support their families. But even the Romanian ambassador to Sweden thinks begging should be outlawed (and acknowledges that the beggars are her countrymen).

The beggars’ bosses* keep track of time. When three months are up, the gang is packed up and moved on for another stint elsewhere. Meanwhile, those at the top of the organized hierarachy build palatial houses back in their dumpy Romanian villages, and poor Romanian parents who “rented out” their children to begging and pickpocketing rings likewise see relative wealth.

Beggars in Stockholm

Magician Charlie Caper performed well in spite of the beggar who hobbled onto the stage and disrupted his show.

Beggars in Stockholm

After the beggar-woman gains attention on stage, she heads out into the audience with her cup.

Beggars in Stockholm

After taking undue applause with the magician, the beggar proffers her cup and photo.

Beggars in Stockholm

The beggar smiled, pointed, gestured, and took the magician’s applause.

Beggars in Stockholm

The beggars are mostly women and usually have a number of stuffed plastic bags beside them.

Beggars in Stockholm

A beggar in Stockholm

Beggars in Stockholm

A beggar in Stockholm

Beggars in Stockholm

Romania’s Command Central in Stockholm? There’s always a cluster on the stairs at Sergel’s Plattan.

Bob and I strolled through Kungsträdgården, a central park area in Stockholm, while a street performers’ festival was in full swing. Magician Charlie Caper, surrounded by a good crowd, was mid-routine when one of these Gypsy beggars actually waddled on stage and joined him.

Atypical for her type and oddly gregarious, she seemed to thrive on the magician’s reflected attention. The brazen beggar gestured, she pointed, she ta-da’ed. And when the crowd applauded for the magician, she soaked it up all-smiles and headed into the audience with her cup and photo, as if she were collecting for her talented son. The audacity!

Is it good to give?

Let’s say for a moment that the gypsy beggars in Stockholm get to keep all the cash they collect. I know—but just for arguments’ sake. Then subtract what they must pay for transport from Romania and in three months, to some unknown point (by crowded bus?). And subtract what they pay for food, lodging, and local transportation (which is not cheap in Sweden). They must be gathering a pretty penny, to make their long days on the cold pavement (Sweden, winter…) worthwhile. Citizens and tourists fill the beggars’ cups and the Gypsies (often seen talking on their mobile phones) call their friends and relatives back home and urge them to hop on the next bus to Stockholm, the deal’s great.

Or let’s say it’s not like that at all. The beggars are basically slave labor, trafficked humans, forced to sit on the pavement all day, forced to follow company protocol behaving just so. Strict overseers collect the beggars’ takings periodically and they are given a small wage. Most of the money donated by good samaritans goes into the pockets of the ringleader who—it’s well-established by now—builds palatial mansions (relatively speaking) in Romanian villages otherwise full of wood shacks.* The whole enterprise is a social engineering stunt—one huge scam exploiting public empathy and generous social services.

Either way, depositing funds into the cup-accounts of bundled beggars on the street is not a smart way to help. It rewards the begging enterprise, feeds the criminal organization, and ensures the continuation of the practice. Donors are kindhearted patsies.

Of course Stockholm isn’t the only city under siege. In fact, all of Sweden, even small towns in the frigid north, has been invaded by organized Romanian beggars. Denmark made headlines when Trine Bramsen, justice police spokeswoman for its governing Social Democrat party, said “We don’t want to make Denmark a hotel with a reputation across Europe for free food and board.” She wants them to “choose another country, for example Sweden, where they know they have better possibilities.” Looks like that’s working.

Some parts of the Austria, for example Tyrol and Salzburg, tried to ban begging altogether. But the Constitutional Court overturned outright bans, ruling that begging is a human right.

Dublin has been cracking down on organized begging for years now. In Spain, almost 100 people have been arrested for running human trafficking rings in last three years. “Most of the detainees are Romanian nationals, as are their victims, who are brought to Spain by the rings. In nearly all of the cases the victims were promised well-paid jobs in Spain, but once here they were made to beg on the streets in exchange for a sandwich and a bed inside a shelter.”

The European Union is desperate for a solution but the problem is huge—far bigger than organized begging, even though these rings fall within the realm of human trafficking. “The problem of human trafficking in the European Union” is good read, freshly presented by the European Parliamentary Research Service.

A tool to combat trafficking, is knowledge of its causes and vulnerabilities of victims. This Romanian study of trafficking in persons for forced begging provides such a picture. It highlights the vulnerabilities of potential victims, the characteristics of traffickers and outlines recommendations on combating both these aspects. This study will assist in facilitating ongoing campaigns and cooperation to fight against this heinous crime, to fight for the protection, assistance to, and dignity of the victims and most importantly, to prevent trafficking.

Trafficking in Persons for Begging — Romania Study

Well-meant donations to beggars enrich the criminal syndicate leaders and further enslave the individuals forced into begging. Giving to beggars is misplaced kindness. The gift does not remain in the hand that receives it.


*Edited 7/29/14 to add support and sources:

“The leaders of a child-trafficking operation that put hundreds of beggars on the streets of Britain were targeted in a series of raids today in a remote Romanian town where opulent mansions have sprung up since the country joined the European Union. … at least 17 people were arrested after the raids on 33 homes in Tandarei [Romania] by a small army of organised crime investigators, assisted by 26 Metropolitan Police officers and two observers from Interpol. … Firearms, jewellery, luxury cars and large sums of money were found at the homes of suspects, according to local media, which said that 320 Romanian officers were involved in the operation. Tandarei, with its population of 12,000 people, 150km east of Bucharest, has undergone a seemingly miraculous economic boom in the past few years.” Police in Romania arrest leaders of child-trafficking operation in UK, The Times, April 8, 2010

If you don’t have a subscription to The Times and do not want to pay £1, the text is also here. Underline above is mine.

Also see the BBC documentary “Britain’s Child Beggars.”

All text © copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent

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Hotel Oddity #44 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/hotel-oddity-44/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/hotel-oddity-44/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 15:30:24 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6174 The mysterious case of the dirty toilet This time, the “hotel” is my own six-star guest room. We’d been away for six weeks and...

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Cockroach poop in the toilet

Dozens of tiny pellets were in and on the dry toilet before it was flushed.

The mysterious case of the dirty toilet

This time, the “hotel” is my own six-star guest room. We’d been away for six weeks and it was summer in the desert. The water in the toilet had dried up.

In the midst of some unrelated home improvements, the plumber wanted to check the toilets for leaks. I brought him into the guest bath and immediately noticed some spots on the closed lid. Opening the lid, I was repulsed to see a large number of tiny brown pellets in the bottom of the dry toilet. And all over the toilet. On the seat, on the rim, on the tank top.

My knee-jerk reaction: “Oh, disgusting!” And I flushed it. Stupid. Would have made a much more dramatic photo if I hadn’t.

At first I wondered if someone had been in my house (possible) and messily dumped something into the toilet (highly unlikely). What else?

cockroach poop

What’s in and all over my toilet?

After a visit from the friendly family entomologist, mystery solved. It’s… oh, ick… cockroach poop. There were many intruders—or one that stayed for a long time.

When the toilet water dried up, direct access was opened from the septic tank. The trespassers took full advantage of the new expressway and invaded, looking for food and water. My six-star accommodations being spotless, their exploration proved fruitless and they departed.

My plan of attack, or is it defense, will be to deploy a team of flushers to attend regularly to my toilets when I’m away on extended travels. And maybe a little strategically placed diatomaceous earth.

Any other ideas?

cockroach poop

Not the culprit, but perhaps a relative?

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Naples pickpocket Angelo sighted http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/naples-pickpocket-angelo/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/naples-pickpocket-angelo/#comments Mon, 07 Jul 2014 12:00:55 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6160 Guest Post Dear Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent, I want to thank you for your information. Before I went to Naples I searched for...

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Guest Post

Naples pickpocket Angelo

Naples pickpocket Angelo

Dear Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent,

I want to thank you for your information. Before I went to Naples I searched for info on street crime and pickpockets there and also saw your info and video.

As preparation I only had some cash on me in my front pocket and knew the tactics.

Naples pickpocket Angelo

Riding on the notorious R2 bus for a visit to Pompeii I recognised one guy (I think it was Angelo) [from Pickpocket King] and certainly knew that he had bad intentions even when he entered the bus in the front about eight meters from me.

He went out and in with some guys, looked me straight in my eyes and then went for my pockets. As I knew what his goal was I could move away from him while still noticing that they were checking my pockets.

The older Italians complemented me for my reaction and asked if I was robbed. I was not.

However, it was agressive that he went for me even though he must have known that I knew that he was up to this.

I have only experienced this agressive pickpocket behaviour in Naples and not in Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens etc.

One thing that I don’t understand is that these guys can continue their pickpocket work. A ten year ban on public transport would do the job maybe? But I think there must be a bribe.

But most of all I would like to thank you for the information that made me enjoy my trip. I will not go back to Naples and prefer the other cities.

Best Regards,
[Name withheld by request]

Read how we first met Angelo in 2004.
Read about Angelo-the-family-celebrity in 2014.

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Pickpockets on Rome Metro http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/pickpockets-on-rome-metro/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/pickpockets-on-rome-metro/#comments Sun, 29 Jun 2014 23:39:58 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6148 Hunting Pickpockets on Rome Metro As we rode the steep escalator to the depths of Rome’s Termini Station we marveled at the swirling, pushing,...

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pickpockets on rome metro

This young pickpocket has just returned Bob’s wallet and is now nervous and uncomfortable, trapped on a moving train with her victim.

Hunting Pickpockets on Rome Metro

As we rode the steep escalator to the depths of Rome’s Termini Station we marveled at the swirling, pushing, roiling crowd of passengers. Before we reached the bottom, we could see several uniformed officers on the platform. Bob groaned.

“Bad luck for us. There won’t be any pickpockets with the police around.”

It was nearly noon. We thought we’d have a quick look anyway, then surface for a lunch of Roman-fried artichokes and zucchini flowers. But as we were funneled off the escalator, we immediately recognized the abused-looking face of a pregnant pickpocket we’d filmed years earlier. Again, she was big with child. The woman, perhaps 20 years old now, swayed on her feet and smiled as she kidded with the police officers.

What was going on?

Had it not been for that familiar face, we wouldn’t have looked twice at a trendy teenager nearby. The girl wore cute, tight pants rolled up at the cuffs, a clingy, low-cut top, and the latest in designer eyeglasses. She wore a gaudy choker and makeup, her lips darkly outlined with pencil.

pickpockets on Rome Metro

Two female pickpockets in Rome’s subway. The one wearing a cap later stole Bob’s wallet.

In no way did she fit our previous pickpocket profile. Her dark hair was short and straight, neatly cut at shoulder length, sticking out beneath a black baseball cap. Slung across her chest, she carried the latest style shoulder-bag, the body-hugging, wide-strapped leather pouch with extra cellphone/glasscase/coin compartments attached to the broad strap. Smart and sassy, she resembled not-at-all her dowdy, pregnant friend. The girl was suspect by association.

The two girls conversed together, and with the uniformed officers as well.

At first we assumed the girls had been arrested and were awaiting police escort to the station. How silly of us. After five or six minutes of chat, the girls and officers wandered from the bottom of the escalator to the train platform, which was momentarily quiet. Their joking and laughing continued, and there was even a little friendly physical contact initiated by one officer.

A new crowd soon built up on the platform, and our attention turned to a perfect suspect, a pudgy male. We watched his eyes, and the way they locked onto another passenger. He moved to his chosen one and stood close.

The train swooshed in and stopped abruptly. Its doors slid open and clotted streams of human beings gushed forth, flowing, somehow, into the mass of bodies waiting on the platform, coalescing into a solid, writhing, determined organism. The new being contracted, then broke into bits, dispersing like grains from a punctured sack of rice.

The pudgy male followed his mark onto the train, shuffling in tiny steps so close, so close. He wouldn’t allow anyone to separate them. Bob and I followed, intending to film him, but we were roughly shunted to the right by a last-second surge of passengers as the train doors tried to shut. There was no way we could filter our narrow bodies through the dense pack to get closer to Pudgy.

Pickpockets on Rome Metro

Three of the many pickpockets surrounding us on the subway train in Rome.

Pickpockets everywhere

Before we had time for disappointment, Bob turned to me.

“All around us,” he said under his breath.

Yes, four young men, on three sides of Bob and one behind me. They were eyeing each other. The tallest, in front of Bob, already had Bob’s wallet.

“Give it back.” Bob said, firmly but quietly. “Give me the wallet.”

No response. Four pairs of wild eyes now flicked everywhere but at each other, everywhere but at their victim.

“Give me the wallet.” Bob hardened his voice and stared at the tall one.

Plunk. The wallet hit the floor and the men stepped aside.

I picked it up as the train reached a station. Bob was still glaring at the four. He intended to follow them onto the platform.

The foursome got off and we were right behind them. But there, on the platform, was the pudgy male we’d followed earlier. We dropped the four and snuck up on Pudgy, who was now behind a crowd waiting to board while a stream of others disembarked.

Bob’s camera was still rolling.

Pickpockets on Rome Metro

“Pudgy” prepares to lean toward his victim, whose wallet he steals. (I know, bad quality photo. It’s a frame-grab from video in a dark area.)

Behind the waiting passengers, Pudgy did a slow lunge, reaching his hands as far forward as possible. Bob leaned dangerously against the train, straining to see, angling his camera. Pudgy stretched toward a man who shuffled slowly toward the train door. With both hands, he opened the Velcro flap, then put one hand right into the cargo pocket low on the man’s thigh, and came out with a wallet. He turned and rushed away down the platform, suddenly followed by a cluster of children—like the Pied Piper. We followed him to an escalator where a security guard, watching our pursuit, shouted “Kick him! Kick him!” over and over. Obviously, Pudgy was well-known in the area, and frustrated guards have little authority over crimes they do not witness.

Where were we? I gave Bob the recovered wallet and he replaced it in his fanny pack. We turned to look for a station name and there, standing in a just-arrived train, was the trendy teenager in the black cap.

We dashed on before the doors slammed shut. The train lurched and gathered speed. Squashed against the door, we scrutinized the passengers. Now I noticed that the teen girl wore the small crude tattoos often associated with criminal tribes: two on her upper arm and at least one more on her hand.

“Give me back the wallet,” Bob said quietly. I didn’t even know she’d taken it. She tossed her hair and looked away, inching closer to the door.

“Give it back.” Bob pointed his sunglass case (containing a hidden camera) directly at her. He’d already filmed her hand in his fanny pack. Now he focused on her face.

She licked her made-up lips and blinked nervously, trapped beside her victim. Finally, she unzipped her shoulder-bag and removed Bob’s wallet. She handed it to him meekly.

The train came to a stop and the stealthy opportunist made a quick escape. Bob and I returned to Termini, ready for lunch. We’d only been three stations away.

Back at Termini, as we shuffled along with the mob toward the escalator, we saw the uniformed officers again, and with them, the pregnant pickpocket, the trendy teenager, and at least a dozen others.

Pickpockets and police: friends? or what…

Instead of surfacing for lunch, we lingered on the platform, watching the interaction. The area had cleared of passengers. Six or eight police officers sauntered around among the 15 or so in the pickpocket gang. There were women with babies on their chests, women without babies, and many children. All of them, pickpockets and police, loitered comfortably together in a loose and shifting association. Passengers began to arrive again, but the platform was still pretty empty. A clutch of women formed a huddle nearby, bending inwards. Soon they straightened, a knot opening like the petals of a daisy, or a fist opening to reveal a treasure. As the women moved away, each counted a wad of bills and stuffed them into a pocket or backpack. They made no effort to hide their swag.

Pickpockets on Rome Metro

“Pudgy” the pickpocket on the Rome Metro train

Later, analyzing the footage of our subway exploits, we were astonished to see the trendy teenager lift another wallet before she took ours. Her victim was a woman who clutched her handbag to her chest. Beneath it she wore a fanny pack. Bob’s camera, held low as we entered the train, recorded what our eyes had missed: the trendy teenager’s tattooed hand unzipping the fanny pack, removing a wallet, and rezipping the bag. Then she brought the stolen goods up to her own bag, and out of the camera’s range. Two wallets in two minutes! That could add up to serious money, depending on how many palms had to be greased.

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Six: Public Transportation—Talk About Risky…

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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Theft deterrent? http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/theft-deterrent/ http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/theft-deterrent/#comments Mon, 23 Jun 2014 22:19:14 +0000 http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/?p=6137 Stop, thief! All you have to do is ask. Rather, tell the thief: “Stop. I’m not yours.” Cute. This method hadn’t occurred to me...

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Stop, thief!

theft deterrent

Bag tag and polite admonishment

All you have to do is ask.

Rather, tell the thief: “Stop. I’m not yours.”

Cute. This method hadn’t occurred to me as a theft deterrent. I wouldn’t count on it working.

I saw this admonishment while boarding a plane in Oslo. The man was Norwegian. Maybe this sort of theft deterrent works in Norway. Maybe only against Norwegian thieves. Maybe only against polite Norwegian thieves.

All text © copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent

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