“Ghost pickpockets” – or white-dressed beggars?

Are they just white-dressed beggars?

Ghost pickpocket or white-dressed beggar?
One of the more aggressive white-dressed beggars.
Ghost pickpocket or white-dressed beggar?
White-dressed beggar pretended to speak Italian.
Ghost pickpocket or white-dressed beggar?
White-dressed beggar in Stockholm’s Hötorget. Why the bride theme?
Ghost pickpocket or white-dressed beggar?
White-dressed beggar in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (old town). She was not happy being followed.

White-painted, white-draped “ghosts” are picking pockets in Stockholm’s most beautiful district, the national paper blared. Police are quoted: “The thieves are constantly finding new methods. Most often, prior to the theft, there is a distraction of some sort. These people are very aggressive and pushy which causes people to become quite perplexed.”

What? This sounded fishy to us. We’d noticed these people in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, all summer. Some approach with a begging hand or cup. Others appear abruptly and, oddly, lean in closely making kissy sounds, then bound off. Others offer to pose for photos.

How could these be pickpockets? Why would a pickpocket dress in such an obvious costume? Why would she face her victims so imploringly? How would the thief disappear once he’d stolen?

Sometimes they’re just a distraction, the police explained, according to Dagens Nyheter. They have partners who do the stealing.

So thiefhunters went looking for ourselves. Yep, they’re still there.
Costumed: dramatically.
Aggressive: yes.
Stealing: no.
Sometimes we saw partners, sometimes we didn’t. No matter—this M.O. did not make sense.

We tried to speak to a white-faced man in a sheet. He claimed to speak Italian but none of Bob’s rudimentary Italian worked. We’re pretty sure he’s from a country east of Italy. The man was cagey, but polite. He smiled blankly. He didn’t try to break away, but occasionally shook his cup at Bob, as if to remind us of his mission. If he understood anything we said, he didn’t let on.

Later, when approached by a begging white-clad female, I raised my camera and took her picture. She tilted her head and tipped her cup. I shot another few pictures and backed away a step. She advanced with a bland smile, apparently willing to continue this dance as long as it took.

But, of course they smiled and waited patiently. As we observed the ghosts in the act of begging, we saw almost half the people they approached drop coins into their cups! I’ve never done a survey of begging methods, but this seems like a high rate of return. These ghosts have a successful operation. They’ve found an M.O. that works. They’re smug.

But are they pickpocketing?

We called on our friends in the Stockholm Police Department. “The white-robed and white-painted people in Stockholm are beggars. There is no evidence whatsoever that they are pickpockets,” Officer Rolf Edin said emphatically. Their pushiness may cause people to believe that they are pickpockets, he posited.

Also, the policeman said, some of these white-robed beggars do some sort of performance, which gathers a crowd. “And pickpockets are drawn to a crowd like flies to a sugar cube,” he said, but that doesn’t mean that the white-robed beggars are in collaboration with the thieves.

Then what of the big bold newspaper headline, Police warn of white-clad “‘ghost gang’?

“So far, it has not been possible to stop the ghost gang, which is believed to be behind several pickpocketing thefts,” the paper quoted police. Well, the named officer claims to have been misquoted, we were told.

Right. The paper ran the sensational headline. The writer chose to interpret every general statement about pickpocketing in Stockholm as an indictment against the mysterious white-dressed beggars. She didn’t answer my questions to her, except to acknowledge that she did speak with the officer she quoted. Somehow though, she got the story terribly wrong.

Thiefhunters are myth-busters

We surreptitiously tailed many of the white-dressed beggars as they looped the streets. In addition to the Stockholm police, we spoke with many people who work on the streets that the white-dressed beggars haunt. Shop owners, managers, living statues who see everything all day… They all said yes, they see the white-dressed beggars many times each day. No they haven’t seen them steal, haven’t seen any problem, haven’t had any complaints. Most of them had not even seen the accusation in the newspaper, though one had seen the suspicion raised in a tv news report.

Thiefhunters’ take: Nope. The white-dressed beggars are not pickpockets. They’re beggars. Why are they dressed in white? Good question. But why call them “ghosts”? One is wearing a wedding dress and veil. Another is in rainbow clown hair, for goodness sake. Answer: “Ghost Pickpockets” is a great headline! It sells papers.

The white-dressed beggars who jump into your face are certainly irritating; but pickpockets they are not.

© Copyright 2008-2013 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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15 Comments

  • Yesterday in Barcelona I came across three women dressed in white and their faces were painted white. One darted towards me making kissing sounds and tried to shake my hand, I turned her away. Then she tried to get in on a picture I was taking of my wife and she was attempting to put her arm around my wife. My wife and I quickly told her no thanks and asked her to leave. I don’t know what she was up to but my street smarts told me she was up to no good.

  • I just stumbled upon this post now as I’m currently living in Florence, Italy for a few months studying. I was curious because these “white faces women” often blew kisses and wore all white while begging. I knew they were gypsies as my school warned us of these women but I have never had an unpleasant experience. Just the normal begging/asking for money. However, the gypsies in Paris ? BRUTAL. They’re horrible. They’re so clever , quick, and sly. Definitely beware by Notre Dame.

  • I was on a school trip to Florence in March of 2016, and some friends and I were approached while walking around by a lady in white paint and dress, with neon-coloured shoes. She kissed my friends on the back of their hands, and gave me a kiss on each cheek, then proceeded to ask for money very fervently, showing a 20 euro bill as an example. We managed to get away with leaving some 50 cent coins and booking it down the street. By the time we met up with our main group, we had see two or three money of these women in white with neon shoes wandering the streets. I wondered if there were beggars or part of a scam of a sort, since I had seen no mention of them in compilations of travel scams; glad to here I’m not the only one who’s encountered them.

  • We were approached in Pisa by a white faced woman who made kissing sounds as she proffered her empty cup. Most of our tour members ignored her, some gave her small coins. I watched her turn and walk away from our crowd while counting the coins and pocketing them. Then I noticed her “designer” rhinestone wedge shoes and thought “a-ha”. Mom said she saw the woman get into a high dollar car before she left.

  • In response to your question… My partner informed me that the white faced kisser pulled up her long white robe exposing herself from the front, that she was wearing no underwear at all and that many passers by were horrified by her demonstration of full frontal nudity! Her demonstration was accompanied by an angry and defiant demeanour,
    It his is tantamount to being accosted, in a busy street full of families and children it is totally unacceptable. It’s my opinion that authorities need to take a much firmer hand to the people who perpetrate acts of of humiliation against ordinary citizens and travellers. I know this much, if somebody tried this type of behaviour on in My home town of Melbourne , Australia they’d last about as long as a snowflake in summertime before they were arrested and prosecuted!!

    Cheers

  • Well, that’s a first! But wait, HOW did the white-faced woman expose herself? In back, like “mooning”? Because that’s pretty common among Roma gypsies. It’s a grave insult. I’ve seen them actually pull down their pants and underpants to wag their butts at us.

  • I was walking through Florence today about 10 metres or so ahead of my partner (She’d stopped to window browse) when I was approached by a white faced woman who shook my hand and kissed me on the cheek before a cast of thousands. As I turned from her kiss a passer by yelled out “Attention sir” to caution me and I immediately recoiled from the white faced kisser and walked on embarrassed but hoping to appear composed and dignified. I heard some commotion behind me but walked on purposefully avoiding further embarrassment.
    My partner caught up to me, having witnessed the entire event, and after consoling me she informed me that the white faced young woman raged at the crowded street and lifted her white robe, exposing herself as a gesture of defiance.
    A truly horrible experience.

  • PDXFosters, that’s exactly the way I feel: that there’s something more to their game than in-your-face begging. And, for the record, I saw plenty of these white-robed, face-painted oddities strolling through Oslo in June.

  • We were eating outside in a restaurant in Crete when I observed a woman approaching several tables. Her face was painted white, her hair was covered and she had a white robe on. When she made it over to our table, she kept repeating manga, manga with her fingers to her mouth. I sat and stared at her for a moment assessing the situation. I had a half of a sandwich on my table wrapped for take away and handed it to her. She didn’t smile or express any gratitude, she just took the sandwich and walked away. I am left to believe that she approached others for more of the same, however when my husband and I got up to leave, shortly after, I saw the same woman carrying the bag and eating the sandwich as she strolled though the city. I still am perplexed, but feel ok because I will always give food if I have it to whomever asks or appears to be in need. I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there is something more to the game than in your face begging. Also strange that there are no other reports of this in Greece only Stockholm and Italy.

  • Thanks, Suzi! The M.O. of these “ghost” people fascinates me. If they’re pickpockets, why make themselves so recognizable? Thanks for your report, Suzi.

  • Hi. I was at an eatery in florence today for a good 4 hours waiting for my hotel to allow me to check in. We got friendly with our server and picked his brain on what to do where to go while in town. I got startled when a white faced man made kissy noises to me and my kids saw him coming up and thought it was hilarious i screamed. We asked our server maybe a half hour later when we saw a few more white faced creatures pass by. So we asked.
    Our server is born and raised in florence. And he described them as pickpocketers that pretty much have thier cover blown. So they white out so they can go more time before having to make out of the city. Pose a picture with them and they pinch ur bottom and pull ur wallet. Or do something sly of sorts.

    He called them white gypsies.

  • Thanks for your report, Rick. I’ve heard those kissing sounds, too. I just haven’t seen them try to steal. I’m pretty sure these people come from Eastern Europe. I don’t know if they have nearby team members with knives, as some pickpocket gangs do. If you fight them, be careful!

  • Accosted, but not assaulted by a “ghost beggar” in Florence, Italy, June 8, 2016. Came up to me on a crowded pedestrian walkway near the river making “kissing sounds” to distract me while he/she gently but forcefully tried to steal the ring off my right hand. Unsuccessful as I curled my hand into a fist. If it weren’t for the fact that my guide was a half block away and she provided my and my wife’s transportation back to Livorno and our cruise ship, I would have beat the living crap out of this person. Authorities and crooks beware, some of us can and will fight back and at 5′ 11′ and 270 pounds, I can put a hurtin’ on these low lifes….

  • Interesting to hear where else this group, or technique, exists. I’ve heard that some of these white-painted beggars are aggressive, but I haven’t experienced it myself. Thanks for commenting!

  • We have just spent a day in beautiful Sestri Levante on the Italian Riviera and been harassed by two different men dressed in white tunics with their faces painted white. They both carried cups and held them out for donations. They were aggressive and rude, even barging through our little group and pushing us aside when we did not give them money. One on the railway station one even spat at us. They then boarded our ongoing train. Very unpleasant experience and we hope the authorities can discourage them.

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