We spent some time observing this woman in Rome. She carried a child in a sling and walked with another woman. We thought we knew what they were up to, but we never confirmed anything. When they stopped for ice cream, Bob tried to talk to her. They spoke a bit in a garbled mix of French and German, but there was no real content. She allowed herself and the child to be photographed.
Bob and I looked at each other in disbelief. Only we knew the incredible odds we’d just beaten. To stroll into Rome’s Termini, the main train and subway station, pick a platform, peg a pair of old men as pickpockets, position a victim, and have it all work as if to a script, in under twenty minutes, on Take One… we were flabbergasted, giggly.
The fact that the film crew’s hidden cameras captured it all was merely the cherry on top. This had been our hope and our plan, but we never dreamed we’d pull it off so quickly, if at all. Our prey were Italians; ordinary-looking, regular citizens. Not ethnic minorities, not immigrants, not identifiable outcasts. We’d begun this project for ABC 20/20 with this, the toughest challenge of them all.
Just last night, at dinner in a wonderfully touristy trattoria, investigative reporter Arnold Diaz and segment producer Glenn Ruppel had expressed their severe doubt. They wondered why ABC had allowed this frivolous endeavor, invested the time and significant expense in so improbable a venture. Hidden camera expert Jill Goldstein, serious videographer though she was, just seemed pleased to be along, on her first trip to Europe, her first trip abroad. The five of us ate an innumerable procession of courses any Italian would have pared by half, toasting luck first with Prosecco, then wine, grappa, and finally little glasses of thick, sweet limoncello.
Bob and I had worried all the previous two weeks, fretting over myriad potential obstacles. How could we be certain to lead the crew to thieves, get Arnold Diaz pickpocketed, and get it all on film? How would we find the perps in all of Rome?
Our hopes slipped a little when we first met Arnold. With his refined Latin looks and flair for fashion, he blended right in with the local Italian crowd. He didn’t look like a typical American tourist, who may as well have the stars and stripes tattooed across the forehead. Arnold didn’t look like a tourist at all; rather, he looked like a European businessman. So we gave him a five-minute makeover. We slung a backpack on him, put a guidebook in his hand, a camera around his neck, and a “wife” by his side (me!) and, poof—there he was: a tasteful tourist, ready to be ripped off.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Two (part-g): Research Before You Go
Rome, Italy—Termini Station serves up buses, trains, and the subway. Four long rows of ticket machines busily dispense tickets and confound travelers. Traffic is brisk. Meanwhile, thieves and con artists loiter, watching. Bob and I loitered, too.
An unkempt man pushed in close to a family trying to figure out the machine. The man kept offering advice, though he clearly hadn’t a clue about the machine. The family repeatedly waved him away. After a while he moved to another group at a machine halfway down the row, where he was equally unwelcome.
A pair of cops sauntered past and Bob had a conversation with them. Berlusconi’s drastic anti-immigrant program has not made a dent in crime, these and other cops told us. Bob strolled with the patrolling police while I took up a position next to the new plexiglass wall that protects ticket-buyers at agent windows from pickpockets and bag thieves. No longer do mobs press against passengers who must set down bags and fumble with wallets while buying tickets.
Unattended luggage caught my eye. A large suitcase topped with a sleeping bag stood several yards away from the ticket machines. Who could have turned his back on his belongings in such a place?
Bob returned with the police, who removed the troublesome wastrel from the midst of the ticket machine crowd. I could be wrong, but it appeared they photographed him first with a mobile phone camera.
Bob and I scrutinized the messy line of machine-users, trying to guess who the unwatched bag belonged to. Few by few, people left the machines and the bag remained. Eventually, only one young couple remained, the rest of the crowd being freshly arrived and unattached to the lonely luggage. But this couple never glanced toward the baggage at all. Either it wasn’t theirs, or they were part of a sting, as demonstratively ignoring their stuff as I had years before in a casino coin-pail operation.
As the minutes went by, Bob’s and my amazement grew. We discussed the possibilities: police baiting bag thieves; a daring drug deal in which the suitcase contained cash or contraband; a frazzled traveler who’d shortly return for the forgotten thing, panting and train long gone. We kept our eyes on the bag.
A man came up to us and began a long tale in Italian. He was 60 or so, and looked like a grizzled businessman dressed in city-casual: a button-down shirt tucked into belted gabardines. He might have worn a sport coat, I’m not sure. We glanced at him and let him ramble as we kept watch on the suitcase, wondering what his scam was. His tone was moderate, a little confidential, a little urgent. He asked a question and from his baggy pants pocket pulled out an enormous wad of euros, bound by a thick rubber band. He switched to mostly unintelligible English, something about a bank, and persevered.
The suitcase was gone.
How? We’d been determined to see its resolution and barely looked at the interloper who’d accosted us. Had he come just to distract us? He’d certainly succeeded by flashing his money roll. We left him and rushed to the ticket machines, not twenty feet away, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bag, but it was gone without a trace.
We were angry and disappointed in ourselves. But not to despair: this was a good excuse for a consolation dinner. By accident, we found Ristorante Pizzeria da Francesco, and they had fresh porcini! Porcini will always perk me up, and Francesco served them the ultimate way: on thin, crisp pizza with a bit of mozzarella. No wonder the place was jammed with locals—well, anyway, the waiters didn’t kiss me.
In a quick visit to Rome last month, Bob and I found it pretty quiet on the streets, theft-wise. Granted, we only spent a few hours on the prowl, but given our 15 years experience thiefhunting in Rome, we know where to look. We usually find an eclectic mix of Italian, Roma, North African, and East European thieves, plus many we don’t speak to, many who won’t tell, and many who lie.
On this visit, we spent at least half an hour shadowing a mixed-gender threesome halfheartedly preying. As they trudged along the tourist trail, one of their members entered each souvenir shop along the way and stood among the customers. Another spent time among the postcard stands. They were an extraordinarily scruffy group, whose appearance certainly limits their access and proximity to targets. After a lethargic effort, they disbanded at a bus stop. We engaged two of them as they scattered, and learned that they were Polish.
Other than this group, we saw very few “suspects” in the Metro, on Bus 64, hanging around at the usual favorite bus stops, or on the streets. Termini, the main train station, was littered with dodgy characters, as usual, but we didn’t linger, preferring to survey the scene outside the station.
Are Italians finally fed up enough to do something about crime? At least crime committed by immigrants, it seems. A couple of telling surveys reported in The Guardian hint to a new, anti-immigrant climate in Italy, and especially anti-Gypsy.
81% of Italian respondents said they found all Gypsies, Romanian or not, “barely likeable or not likeable at all”, a greater number than the 64% who said they felt the same way about non-Gypsy Romanians.
Romanians were among the 268 immigrants rounded up in a nationwide police crackdown on prostitution and drug dealing this week, after new prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s likening of foreign criminals to “an army of evil”.
Word has been out on the street for some time. “Jaga” and Ana, a Romanian pickpocket couple we interviewed at length in Rome in 2003, told us they were planning to move to Spain, where it is easier to live and to conduct their business. They are not the only thieves to express this sentiment, which helps explain why Spain has such a preponderance of pickpockets.
Pisa, too, was empty of the sticky-fingered women and children we usually find at the train station, bus station, and all around the Piazza del Duomo. Locals there said they had noticed the pickpockets’ disappearance about a month ago.
But just when we thought Italy might be cracking down on crime, we heard last month’s terrible story of the American couple served drugged cappuccino in a Rome train station, where they were then robbed. Upon awaking, the man stumbled onto the tracks and was killed by a train. The article continues:
Gangs using narcotic spray to carry out train robberies are also on the rise in Italy, police said. The gangs board sleeper trains and drug passengers in couchettes before hopping off at stations with valuables.
I tend to think the crime lull we sensed in our short survey of Rome’s previous hot spots was actually an anomaly. Or the balloon has been squeezed and the thieves are just elsewhere. I hope that we soon find another opportunity to re-investigate Rome.
Sadly, though, porcini season will be over by our next visit. There is nothing like porcini pizza, especially in Pisa.
…continuing the story Tourists and thieves: a collision course
ROME POLICE OFFICER CELINI remembered us from previous visits and greeted us warmly. Without asking, he assembled an incident report with carbon paper, in triplicate. I filled out most of the report for Sugohara, and he wrote in his name and address. He had only lost about $100 worth of cash and two credit cards.
We offered to show our video of the crime. Celini first fetched Police Chief Giuseppe D’Emilio. Bob positioned the four-inch monitor of our digital camera and pressed play. The two policemen and Mr. Sugohara put their heads together and peered at the screen as the girl-thieves splashed their faces in the fountain.
“They have both participated in pickpocketing since before they were born. Their pregnant mother worked the buses. Then, as infants, they were carried in a sling by their mother as she worked these same streets. And when their mother wasn’t using them, one of their aunts would.”
Sugohara’s face was close to the screen. He watched intently as the sisters caught up with him so purposefully, arranging their sheet of newspaper and positioning themselves on either side of him. He watched himself leap and skitter backwards.
“The big one, Maritza, she has her own child now,” the police chief continued. “She usually carries her baby all day. A relative must be using the child today.”
Using the child?
Sugohara turned to us, his brow knitted. “Play again,” he demanded.
Bob rewound and Sugohara leaned in. The source of his frustration became apparent. The video showed the moment of contact, but from a distance. Still, that must have been when the wallet was stolen. Then the film showed Sugohara bolting backwards and the girls hurrying away ahead of him and turning the corner. After that, the next full minute was a swinging sidewalk and Bob’s right shoe. Sugohara had hoped to see what the sisters had done with his wallet. But as they hastened along Via Alessandrina, as Bob rushed to catch up with them, as they stowed or stashed or emptied and threw the wallet, the camera filmed only a sea-sickening flow of auto-focused sidewalk. Whatever the girls had done with the wallet was done off the record.
Chief D’Emilio went on. “The only time these kids aren’t stealing is between the ages of seven and eleven, when their parents sometimes let them go to school. Just enough school to learn to read and write, and that’s all.
“I’ve seen them work as young as two years old,” the chief said with eternal amazement. “The father carries the child and gets into a crowd. He leans close to a man. The baby is trained to steal from a man’s inside jacket pocket!” He threw up his hands and exhaled with exasperation. “No wonder we can’t fight this. We have an average of 50 pickpocket reports filed every summer day at this station alone!”
[Note: These photos are not from the book. Neither are they of Maritza and Ravenna. Notice that the girl carries a baby in a sling, as well as a newspaper, which she holds over the pocket or purse she is trying to steal from. Begging is just an excuse to approach marks.]
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter One (part-k): High and Dry on the Streets of Elsewhere
Bob and I began our field research on street thievery in 1993, when we quit our steady jobs in Las Vegas to combine freelancing with travel. As our work took us around the world, we got into the streets, among the tourists, in cities and at historical sites, watching who was watching the visitors. Our early successes gave us an enormous charge and encouragement to continue. We were hooked on tracking. But I don’t think either one of us believed, in the beginning, that we’d succeed in identifying so many perpetrators.
Rome was our teething ground as pickpocket hunters. We began with modest ambitions. We’d hang out at the Coliseum in hopes of photographing child and teenage pickpockets, who had become easy for us to recognize. They’d always carry a section of newspaper or, better for its stiffness, a slab of corrugated cardboard, with which they’d shield their dipping hands. Although the Coliseum was sometimes crawling with Carabinieri with not a thief in sight, we soon built up a healthy portfolio of red-handed-children on film and footage.
The following year, 1994, we were decked out like pros. We lugged a video camera monster, a JVC 3GY-X2U, which is 24 inches long and weighs 25 pounds without its case. I wore a battery belt of about 30 pounds, which threatened to slip off my hips if I didn’t keep a hand on it. Bob carried the camera and a huge, heavy tripod. In addition, we needed my purse, a 35mm camera, and a bag of video accessories. Thus burdened, we traipsed around the ancient city, filming ruin after ruin, milling crowds, establishing shots, and potential danger zones (pickpocketly-speaking).
We usually began with the intention of filming the elusive urchin pickpockets who seemed always to congregate around the Coliseum, often in large family groups. But they, apparently, were polar opposites to video cameras, which repelled them in a great radius. I wondered that year if the police knew about this great tool for clearing the area of crime.
Sometimes we’d get a few minutes of unexciting footage and I’d take a few stills. Eventually, our prey would escape into the subway or onto a bus. We’d decide to go to the Spanish Steps, another popular venue for a theft-show. Then, perhaps in an alley or side street, a couple of girls carrying cardboard and babies would pass us. We’d about-face and follow stealthily, keeping downwind as if they were big game animals who might sniff us out. We’d get plenty of footage and photos before they’d notice us, then still, we’d follow. Round and around the back streets of Rome, we’d tail as they’d lead. But we’d no longer try to hide, and they wouldn’t dare try to steal.
Eventually we’d give up on the girls and go back to the exclusive shopping streets around the Spanish Steps. The area is always mobbed with tourists, and with police, too. If there was nothing happening, off we’d go to Trevi Fountain, another popular spot.
We were exhausted by the end of those days. If we hadn’t found much to raise our spirits, I’d be dragging around like nothing more than a pack animal pining for its stable. Except for quick lunches and a few standing-up coffees, that’s how we spent countless ten-hour days in Rome. True, it’s cheaper than shopping!
One day, on our way toward Trevi Fountain from the Spanish Steps, we spied a gang of suspect children. A pregnant girl of about 16 led the younger ones. Each carried a large square of cardboard, announcing their intentions. Incredibly brazen, they tried for the pockets or purses of tourists every few yards, but with little success. The children eventually noticed us and our huge, tv-news-style camera, but we continued to follow. They were confused by our interest in them. Why were we following? Why taking photos?
Finally, they came right up to us and asked. But as they spoke no English, we just waved them away. No polizia, we said. They walked on, pausing to try for pockets here and there, and every once in a while tried to duck away from us. We remained close behind. Then, just as they tried for a man’s pocket, a police car zoomed up, officers jumped out, and the kids were rounded up against a wall. The police questioned them angrily while the kids pointed accusingly at us. Bob kept filming. One officer grabbed the kids’ cardboard squares and threw them into a corner. They let the kids go, shooed them away as they were all too young to arrest, and drove off. We waited. Sure enough, the scoundrels came back for their cardboard and we all continued where we’d left off. They led, we followed and filmed. Eventually, they ditched us.
Yoshi Sugohara stood stoic and penniless in a phone booth, using our phone card. He called a number given him by the Rome police, where he could report all his stolen credit cards at once. A Japanese-speaking operator was put on the line for him. Next, he called the Japanese embassy.
Mr. Sugohara owned a small chain of sushi restaurants in Osaka, Japan. He was in Italy to design a sleek new amalgam of Japanese and Italian decor for the three new restaurants he was about to open. He had traveled to Milan for business, then Rome for pleasure. He had granted himself two extra days away from his family in which to see the splendors of the ancient city.
We first saw him in a little triangular park between the Coliseum and the Trajan Column, while everything was still all right. Bob and I stood behind a low fence on Via Cavour, steadying our video camera on a stone column. We were observing a pair of young girls on the far side of the park as they drank at a fountain and splashed their faces.
Maritza, we later learned from the police, was about 16 years old. Her sister Ravenna was about 13. The two girls looked like any ordinary children, except for a few subtle details. They weren’t dressed with the inbred Italian flair for style and color. And they seemed directionless, loitering in a tourist area where children had little reason to roam.
The girls cooled themselves in the punishing August heat, then turned toward Via Alessandrina. Maritza carried a telltale newspaper.
Mr. Sugohara had just rested on a shady bench. Now he, too, headed for Via Alessandrina. He wore a bright white cap and held a telltale map.
With their props displayed, both players advertised their roles in the game. The girls recognized the Japanese as a tourist; but a tourist couldn’t possibly recognize the girls as thieves. The two parties were on a converging course.
Maritza and Ravenna swiftly caught up with Sugohara. They skittered around him as if he were daddy just home from a business trip. Walking backwards, Maritza extended her hand as if begging. She had laid the folded newspaper over her forearm and hand, so only her fingers were visible. Ravenna trotted along beside Sugohara.
One of the girls must have made physical contact immediately. In our viewfinder from across the park, Sugohara leapt right out of the frame. He ran a few steps backwards, then turned and hurried off. It was a very brief encounter.
The girls skipped away ahead of Sugohara, quickly putting space between them. Bob and I, still on the far side of the park, picked up the camera and hurried to catch up. As we came around the corner, Sugohara was groping his front pants pocket, just realizing his wallet was gone. He looked ahead at the two girls and ran after them.
Maritza and Ravenna did not run away. In fact, they stopped and turned to face their accuser. Sugohara, who didn’t speak English or Italian, nevertheless made his charges quite clear. There was shouting and confusion. A group of British tourists got mixed into the melee. Their concern was for the girls.
“The child will not be injured!” one woman kept insisting.
“They’re pickpockets,” I explained while Bob filmed.
“I don’t care what they are, the child is not to be hurt.”
“That girl just stole the man’s wallet, that’s why he’s angry.”
“Jeez, Sally, they’re pickpockets, can’t you see?” someone in her group said with disgust.
Sugohara was surprisingly aggressive; not what one might expect of a Japanese victim. The girls could have run away. Instead, they faced him, yelling back in their own language. Then, without warning, Maritza lifted her t-shirt over her head, revealing enormous breasts in a purple bra. She brought her shirt back down, and Ravenna followed suit, showing her bare little breasts.
Then both girls pulled down their pants and did a quick pirouette. Sugohara was dumbstruck. The girls then strutted off jauntily, having proved their innocence. They looked back again as they walked away, and pulled down their pants once more for good measure. Then they turned off the sidewalk onto a narrow path through the ruins of Augustus’ Forum and into the labyrinth of old Rome.
Where had the wallet gone? The girls had clearly taken it. By their comprehension of the Japanese accusation, by their practiced reaction to it, one could suppose that they’d been accused before.
To my mind, they’re guilty without a trial. So where was the evidence? Was the victim so bamboozled by bare breasts that he never thought to look in their pants pockets? Could the children be that brazen? Or had they tossed the wallet down into the excavation site of Nerva’s Forum to be later retrieved?
In any case, the girls scurried off, and Sugohara stood alone, high and dry.
“Would you like to go to police?” we asked him.
“You police?” said Sugohara. He appeared more sad than angry.
“No, we take you. We help.” I hate pidgin. “Suri,” we added, Japanese for pickpocket.
Sugohara looked mournfully at the Trajan Column as we hurried him past it on our way to the central Rome police station. He mopped his brow and followed us obediently.
High and Dry on the Streets of Elsewhere
Chapter One, part-e, Travel Advisory –
A somber crowd was gathered outside the police station. While Bob helped a Japanese tourist file a report inside, I interviewed the congregation of victims.
Mary from Akron was waiting with her daughter while her husband told his sad story upstairs. Her husband’s wallet had been stolen on bus 64. Mary still had her cash and credit cards, so she was rather jolly about the loss. The family was scheduled to go home the next day, anyway.
“We’d been warned about these nuisance kids,” Mary admitted, “but my husband is just too kind. He knew they were close but he wouldn’t shoo them away. Poor Wilma here, though, she never had a chance.”
Wilma from Tampa had just arrived that morning. She and her husband had flown into Rome and taken the airport express train to the city. They’d been hit at the airport train station.
“This was no kid!” Wilma spat out angrily. “It was a man, a regular Italian man.”
“Take it easy, honey,” Mary patted Wilma on the back.
“He lifted my husband’s suitcase onto the train for us, then came back down to get mine. Before I could even thank him he was gone.”
Wilma had fresh tears in her eyes. Mary rubbed and patted her arm.
“In that instant, he got the wallet from my husband’s pocket and the purse from my tote bag. He got all our money, all our credit cards, our airline tickets home, and our passports.” Wilma was crying now. “We have nothing,” she whimpered, “not even the name of our hotel.”
“Sure you do, sweetheart,” Mary soothed her. “It’s going to be all right. I gave her $100,” Mary explained to me. “They had absolutely nothing.”
These two women had only just met, here at the police station half an hour ago. Now they were sisters of misfortune.
I turned to two young men who had been silently slumped against their backpacks, listening.
“They got him on the bus, too.” the blond one said. He sounded like a Swede.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“In the back,” the other said.
“I mean, where was the bus?”
“Oh. Bus 64, like her. At the Vatican.”
“And you guys?” Another family had appeared.