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.
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.
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.
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.
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…