Watch your back, and your front, and your sides


The following message is brought to you by me, your common sense.  Have you not heard my voice recently?  I’ve missed you too.

It was about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, October 3 (the date is unimportant, because events of this sort occur all year long — but the factors of Sunday and Afternoon are significant because they are synonymous with “lots of people in a limited space not paying attention”).

“People” as in two American tourists.

“Not paying attention” as in “had 2,400 euros ($3,347.28) in cash and eight credit cards stolen.”

A moment of respectful silence would be appropriate here.

I'm just guessing that this family's cash is not what they're thinking about right now.  Though I wouldn't know where to start digging, I have no doubt that a professional would see where to go.

I'm just guessing that their money is not what this family is thinking about right now. I wouldn't have the least idea where to start digging for it, but I'm not a professional.

The reason I want to relate this event to you is not because I assume you’re going to travel with all that cargo, nor is it because it is so unusual. The only thing that makes this story worth telling is not that it happened, but the electrifying amounts involved.

Pickpocketing is by far the most common crime here in the most beautiful city in the world.  There could be as many as 200 events a day in high season, usually accomplished not by gypsies with babies who are easy to identify, but by professionals you will never see but who are all too well-known to the police.  They even have nicknames.

So, back to October 3. The vaporetto #2 was trundling along the Grand Canal and was coming up to the Accademia stop, an important node where there are typically many, many people getting on and off the waterbuses.

This is a vaporetto on a Thursday afternoon, one stop before "Accademia." It's a beautiful sight to the purloiners.

This is a vaporetto on a mere Thursday afternoon, one stop before "Accademia." It's a beautiful sight to the purloiners.

The vaporetto was, as usual, crammed with people, most of whom are usually thinking about lots of other things (whether they’ll make their train, where to find a bathroom, what to have for dinner, how to get their kid to stop yelling) than the people around them.  This is perfect for thieves.  In this case, a youngish Rumanian couple.

According to the report in the Gazzettino, they lifted the wallets of the two Americans smoothly and quickly (two crucial elements of the craft), but not sufficiently secretly, because the deed was observed by a few passengers, including — this is a nice bit — an American policeman.

As soon as the vaporetto tied up to the bus-stop dock, the Rumanians fled, but the alarm had already been given, people were running after them, the police were alerted, they sent two boats, and all these people plus two employees (I don’t know what sort) of the transport company managed to nab the crooks.

Seeing that only minutes had passed, the swag was still warm, and was returned in its entirety to its rightful owners.

One wallet contained  three credit cards and 1,300 euros ($1,813.11) in cash; the other contained five credit cards and 1,140 euros ($1,589.96) in cash.

Of course you would feel safer if the streets all looked like this. But what fun would that be?

Of course you would feel safer if the streets all looked like this. But what fun would that be?

So now my questions shift from the dark imponderables of the life and mind of a pickpocket, to the more vivid imponderables of the two extremely lucky victims.  My questions are perhaps also yours: Why would anybody be carrying that much cash?  Especially if they’ve got five pounds of credit cards?  Or do people with that much money not need to think?

Here’s another thing I wish I knew: Do pickpockets have any idea of how much plunder any particular pocket or bag is likely to hold? I realize that heavy gold jewelry and fistfuls of shopping bags from Ferragamo and Fendi might be pretty good clues.  But most of the tourists I see out there are not the Ferragamo/Fendi sort, nor are they bedecked with any accessories more noticeable than a backpack, water bottle, map(s), hats, and anything else needed for a trek across the Empty Quarter.  Or do all those tireless Fagins now recognize this get-up as the perfect disguise for people carrying hundreds and hundreds of crisp crackling banknotes?

If I knew any thieves, I’m sure they could explain.  But  meanwhile I’m left with the urgent desire to flip the switch on a large, blinking, neon WARNING sign for you that says:

Do not carry anything with you out of your hotel room that you would really miss if it suddenly  were to be gone.

And don’t think just because you’re not in the Piazza San Marco with a batch of mass tourists that you can’t get stung.  A friend of mine from Chicago who travels a lot was visiting and we went to the weekly market on the Lido, a large assemblage of vans selling everything from fresh fruit to buttons to wine-making equipment.  Hardly a touristic site, but there were — yes — large numbers of people crammed into small spaces thinking about something else. And her wallet was stolen. (What?  She’s no tourist, she’s with me!). So we spent one of her two days here dealing with reports to the carabinieri and phone calls home to work out a cash transfer.  Fun.

And don’t think you’re sneakier and smarter and more alert than they are.

And don’t think that there are somehow “safe” zones, the way certain stores are for lost children.  A German tourist guide had her wallet stolen while she was with a group.  In the basilica of San Marco. (There it is again: Lots of people not paying attention.)

Still, if you were to have your wallet lifted while you’re on a vaporetto, you’d actually be in pretty good shape.  Because as soon as you notify the mariner (who ties the boat to the dock at each stop) or the driver, he will stop the boat right there in the middle of the water and call the police.  If that had been possible in the case of the two Americans, it would have saved a whole lot of running like crazy.

So let me suggest this, even though I do not want you to come here thinking you’re putting yourself at some appalling risk.  Just imagine that your wallet gets stolen in Venice.  Then think about what you would be thinking about when you realize it’s gone.  You’d be thinking about what you should or shouldn’t have done.  So before you go out the door, do or don’t do that.

Now get out there and have a great time.

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Categories : Problems, Tourism


  1. John Garrett says:

    Good advice, applicable to any city. One explanation for why anyone would carry that much cash is that the rent for a tourist apartment in Venice must normally be paid in cash, on arrival. Visitors have two options: a)bring the cash with them when they come, with the risk of losing it on the way b)draw it out of automatic bank machines after they arrive, with the risk of being observed and followed.
    Thanks for the blog – it’s always interesting and entertainingly written.

  2. Yvonne says:

    It sure is easy to stop paying attention in Venice!

    I echo what John has said. That would be the time when many of us would have considerable cash on us, in order to pay our landlord/lady.

    I always look forward to your blogs, keep them coming!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      To John and Yvonne, thanks for your useful observations. I had forgotten about that paying-in-cash bit and it seems highly plausible that that might have been the case here. (To my other readers: It’s not that every apartment here is going to cost you thousands to rent. But the cheaper ones fill up fast.) But as you see, carrying cash here brings to mind the classic advice to gamblers: Don’t bet more than you can afford to lose. Which, as John points out, is applicable to any city, up to and including the one you call home.

  3. Walt Mettler says:

    This happened to me on New Years Eve in San Marco Square, there were thousands of people and I (like a moron) had my wallet in my back pocket. 400 Euro and 6 credit cards, drivers license and valued “challenge” coin gone. Revisited the scene of the crime in the morning to find one credit card trampled on the ground. Made a Carabinieri report, but not hopeful. We needed to carry the cash because the restaurant required cash (100/plate) and we were planning on paying the babysitter when we returned, she’ll have to take a rain check. Sad New Year.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      This is a very distressing story and I’m really really sorry it happened. I hope you have at least some happy memories of Venice. And that whatever year began this way turned out to be a good one for you.