CSI Bologna: The pickpocket

Justice Served: Papers filed, Polizia working "the case"

A cautionary tale about a pickpocket and a tourist with a fat wallet and loose pockets

The art (and craft) of pickpocketing is universal. It can happen anywhere, anytime. This time, it happened to us in Bologna.

We had just passed the elegant window displays at the Galleria Cavour, one of the most upscale shopping centers in Bologna and, perhaps, all of Italy. Located behind the arcades on Via Farini in a high-rent district, the mall houses luxury brands like Armani, Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. A very nice neighborhood.

After just having turned the corner on Via Giovanni Massei, I stopped to gawk at a white Maserati displayed in one of the windows. As usual, my trusty photographer was a few steps behind, soaking in the scenery as he captured a photo of one of the arcades.

Photo of the distracting arcade
Photo of the distracting arcade

I continued walking towards the end of the block but turned around as soon as I heard my husband scream, “Ladro! Ladro!”

The last time he used that term for “thief,” we were also in Italy. Many years ago in Rome, we were descending the stairs from a train to the platform. My then-young son was in tow and Jerry was juggling two large suitcases. An unkempt passenger approached my husband from behind and reached down into his pocket, attempting to steal his wallet. Thankfully, this brazen attempt was thwarted by my husband’s “fat wallet” that wouldn’t budge out of his pants.

This time, I worried we might not have been so lucky. I turned around and saw the Bologna perpetrator walk away from us. Now Jerry was pursuing him, yelling “Ladro, Ladro, You tried to steal my wallet.” Just like the time before, passersby pretended not to notice. (I’m not sure I would get involved had I witnessed something similar in New York.)

The thief had been so stealthy in his approach that my husband didn’t hear him until he felt his hand. Fortunately, once again, the pickpocket was foiled by the “fat wallet.”

Not skipping a beat (although my heart was racing), Jerry snapped a couple of pictures of the pickpocket.

Another side view of perpetrator
Another view of the perpetrator
Pickpocket leaving the scene of the crime
Pickpocket leaving the scene of the crime

A middle-aged Good Samaritan ran up to us to see if we were okay. The man was an artist carrying a partially finished painting. He apologized for his city, reminding us that in Bologna, like most large cities, thieves are waiting in prey for opportunities like this was. He urged us to be more careful—advice well taken—and offered us a restaurant recommendation as a way to show his caring.

“Excellent food and very cheap,” he said.

Bonding with the Good Samaritan
Bonding with the Good Samaritan, a life-long Bolognese

When you are balancing a camera in both hands, you are an easy mark—especially if you have floppy pants pockets, “fat wallet” or not.

The inviting "loose pocket"
The inviting “loose pocket”

With such a clear mug shot on our camera, we decided to file a report with the Questura di Bologna, the local police precinct. Hopefully, this would benefit other tourists.

Entrance to the Questura di Bologna/Police Station
Entrance to the Questura di Bologna/Police Station

A huge sign read “Attendere in sala d’attesta” (wait in the waiting room) and “wait” was surely the operative word. For almost two hours, we waited in a holding room with locals who were reporting lost passports or papers, or trying to settle minor traffic offenses. It was an interesting group including a man who had worked at the Carpigiani Gelato Museum, where the first automatic machine for making gelato was created. Much like an emergency room, people were triaged and cases were processed one at a time.

We finally got to file the report of attempted robbery (providing the Polizia with photocopies of our pictures of the ladro). We wondered whether they, who seemed to take the matter as seriously as we did, might put up a Wanted Poster around town or show the perp’s picture on the evening news. Our guess: That won’t happen and the guy won’t ever be caught. Unfortunately, even if by chance he is apprehended, we are certain that there will always be others.

Justice Served: Papers filed, Polizia working "the case"
Justice Served: Papers filed, Polizia working “the case”

Tips for travelers:

  • Since you never know when or where pickpocketers are lurking, you always need to be vigilant, especially when traveling. (We were caught off guard because we felt comfortable in the upscale setting of the neighborhood; the attempt didn’t happen  on public transportation or in a crowded square.)
  • Pickpockets are clever enough to realize that tourists not only are likely to carry passports, credit cards and cash but are likely to be distracted by their new surroundings.
  • People over-50 may be viewed as “soft targets.”
  • Tourists are especially vulnerable when they are trying to take photographs: Your hands are extended away from your body holding the camera, and you are focused on the subject in front of you, not on what may be behind you.

Jerry’s lesson:

Fat wallet or not, horizontal pants pockets are probably more pickproof. However, wearing a vest or jacket over them adds another layer of protection.

My lesson:

I’ll keep a closer eye on my photographer and stop looking at Maseratis.

Also on More Time To Travel:

Two links from my fellow travel writer Mary Margaret Hansen who experienced a pickpocket at the Pantheon in Rome:

Thanks for sharing them, Mary Margaret!

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  1. Cautionary tale elements are beautifully couched in what is the most entertaining account of an attempted robbery that I have ever read. The picture are great. You are my hero Jerry!

  2. I love Italy but I think it is, without doubt, the worst country for pickpockets. I’ve never used the Termini Railway Station in Rome without some incident or other. Either to myself or to someone in my group. My own incident involved a fellow who insisted on “helping” me with my suitcase and carrybag into the train. I didn’t like the look of him, so when he “surreptiously” kicked my carrybag sideways along the carriage while “helping” me up with my suitcase, I looked for it at once and retrieved it promptly. When he tried to put my suitcase on a high shelf in the compartment, I lost my patience and said “Get Out! Just Get Out!” loudly to him, in front of others. He got out promptly and nothing was amiss — but, wow, he tried hard.
    At the same station, on another occasion, my friend put her laptop with a cluster of luggage while our group was gathering. It was picked up and the thief disappeared too quickly for us to catch him in a crowded station. Another friend managed to foil a pickpocket. I can go on! TAKE CARE IN TERMINI RAILWAY STATION, ROME!

  3. I’d heard so much about pickpockets in Barcelona that I was quite nervous about it when I visited last summer. Fortunately we did not fall prey to pickpockets and had a great time, but I took a few precautions. I carried a minimum amount of money in a small secure purse with a cut-proof strap. I had emergency cash under the sole of my shoe should we fall victim and a back-up credit card stored at our lodging. We were constantly warned not to hang purses or bags on backs of chairs in restaurants or set them on the table, but to keep them in our laps. I was surprised to see how careless many travellers were – walking around with open backpacks for example. A friend had his wallet stolen when he set it on the counter at a museum while paying for entry.

    1. I had heard the same thing about Barcelona before we visited and also about Paris. Tourists are vulnerable in any large city and really need to be vigilant. It’s important to tell and hear these stories and learn from them!

      Just an aside: We were very disappointed when we learned that the apartment where we were staying in Bologna didn’t have a safe so we had to carry everything valuable “on our backs” so to speak.

      Best, Irene

  4. For whatever reason I do associate petty theft with Italy more than say France or Spain. So far I have been lucky – but I have also taken to wearing a t-shirt with a zippered pocket in front for my passport and other key documents + some money. Last year I reviewed a belt that hid hundreds of dollars worth of bills – a very useful traveling company where petty theft is a concern.

  5. Great tips! It’s good that you went through the process of reporting the attempted theft as hopefully it will prompt the authorities to introduce measures to combat what sounds like a growing problem. The only place I’ve been pick pocketed was in Madrid Spain where the thief managed to grab a leather notebook that looked like a wallet. So he (or she) didn’t get any money but instead got all my notes from a month long culinary trip through Galicia. That was very painful. I was also with a woman who was robbed by a guy on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City and he dragged her behind the bike until the strap on her purse broke. She was quite injured so those cross-chest bags can be quite dangerous. I’m glad Jerry wasn’t hurt

  6. So far we’ve been very lucky with regards to pickpockets even though we’ve traveled in some very poor areas in Mexico, Central and South America. The only attempt (that we’re aware of anyway) occurred in Antigua, Guatemala, during Semana Santa week when the streets were overflowing with tourists and people were packed together tightly to view the processions. We later found a four-inch vertical cut in the pocket of my husband’s cargo pants (which he’d left empty). I know there’s a debate over whether it’s safer to leave your valuables at “home” or carry them with you. Personally, we carry copies of our passports and take only what we need for the day.

    1. Glad you were lucky (except for the cut in your husband’s pants!). We tend to carry our passports on our person for two reasons: 1) There are times when you are asked to produce your passport: e.g. when you buy a SIM card. 2) There often isn’t a safe alternative in terms of leaving them behind!

  7. Seeing the photo of Jerry’s wallet in his pocket made me want to try lifting it myself! I can see why he was targeted. My husband, Pete, is a pickpocket’s mark waiting to happen. He is fond of cargo shorts and pants with so many pockets that he forgets where he put what in them. While some have velcro closures, he is very cavalier (or absent-minded, take your pick – ooh a pun!) about his cash, wallet, etc. sticking out and pooh poohs my caution. It’s exasperating – I don’t like to foretell the future this way! In Europe, I made him start carrying things around in our Hawaiian wallets (little mini-wallets on a string sold in the farmers market) under his vest. At least I weaned him off the fanny pack years ago, but he actually started looking for one in a Munich leather goods store. Thankfully, it was far too trendy an establishment to even consider the item. What does Jerry plan to do now that he’s experienced the consequences?

  8. Thankfully, your pick pocketing adventure turned out badly for the would be pickpocket. Too bad he will probably never be caught. Always wise to be vigilant with wallets and phones, etc. However, so difficult when you’re intent on getting that photo (as I so often am). I usually have a bag will lots of zippers, and make a habit of having it across my chest so hard for anyone to access. I also try to remember to not have anything valuable in my pockets.

  9. Had a pickpocket try to get my wallet on the subway in Rome one time. Like you, I was lucky and felt the hand in time. Didn’t get a picture though, as the would be crook timed his attempt so he could jump off the train as it stopped. Glad it worked out OK…. thanks to our “fat wallets.”

  10. I was strolling along an interesting street in Jerusalem with a backpack on my back feeling quite safe and secure. Unfortunately, I left the top of the backpack open and suddenly I felt something land on my back and then a couple of teens on bicycles rode past me. I took off the backpack and discovered one of them had ripped off the leather camera case that was on top. Thankfully I had the camera in my hands . . . but it was a shocking experience.

    Now, when traveling, I wear a photographer’s vest with several zippered compartments, and keep my passport, wallet and other valuables in one of the hidden inside pockets. My husband wears either a pocket with velcro that goes around one leg or a special sock with a pocket that holds money, charge cards, etc.

    Hope this helps. Arline

  11. Good tips and such important info to remember. It’s so easy to get distracted when you are trying to take in everything in a new destination. I always wear my bag messenger style and now I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. I have a photographers vest that is starting to show it’s age, time for some shopping! Kudos to you for waiting in the police station to report him, I’m don’t know if I would have been as patient.

  12. Oh poor you, it’s such a horrid thing to happen and it shakes you up a bit doesn’t it. We were pickpocketed on the metro in Paris – well my hubby was, and I thought I would have been the softer target.

  13. Irene, I’m so glad the thief didn’t get anything. One time we were in Portugal and a thief had his hands on my husband’s hand which was holding his wallet in his pocket. He practically had to fight him off. Pickpockets will go to many lengths to get some “fat” cash! Great article and tips.

  14. I’m so glad to hear the thief did not get away with anything. I need to be more careful about zipping my pocketbook which I always forget to do. Thank you for sharing your story and tips!

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