Foreigners should take care when travelling in the south of Italy, where highway robbery and kidnappings of foreigners occasionally take place. Despite the fearsome reputation of the Mafia, however, there’s less violent street crime such as muggings and robbery with violence in most parts of Italy than in many other European countries, and it’s generally a very safe place for children. Sexual harassment can be a problem for women in some areas, although most men draw the line at cat-calls and whistles.
Burglary is rife, and vacant holiday homes are a popular target. Many residents keep dogs as a protection or warning against burglars and have triple-locked and steel-reinforced doors. However, crime in rural areas remains relatively low and it’s still common for people in villages and small towns not to lock their cars and homes (in some small villages keys are left in front doors).
Car theft in Italy
Theft of and from cars is widespread in cities, where foreign-registered cars are a popular target, particularly expensive models, which are often stolen to order and spirited abroad. Theft of small items such as radios, luggage, mobile phones, cameras, briefcases, sunglasses and even cigarettes from parked cars is especially common.
Thieves in the south often take items from cars at petrol (gas) stations, if necessary by smashing car windows, and from occupied vehicles in traffic jams or at traffic lights. It’s therefore wise to keep windows closed in cities and major towns, doors locked at all times, and all valuables out of sight. When parking a bicycle, moped or scooter, you should also use as many high-security locks as you can carry.
Bag snatcher in Italy
In towns and cities, beware of bag snatchers ( scippatori), who operate on foot, on scooters and motorcycles or even in cars. Always carry bags slung across your body with the clasp facing inwards; make sure they have a strong strap that cannot easily be cut – if they don’t, carry them firmly in your hand. Bags that are worn around the waist (‘bum-bags’) are vulnerable and should be avoided, as should back-packs, which can easily be cut.
One of the most effective methods of protecting your passport, money, travellers’ cheques and credit cards is with an old-fashioned money belt (worn under your clothing) or a pouch on a string or strong cord around your neck. It’s also recommended to keep money and credit cards in separate places and a copy of important documents such as your passport in a safe place.
Never tempt fate with an exposed wallet or purse or by flashing your money around, and hang on tight to your shoulder bag. Don’t carry a lot of cash or expose expensive jewellery, watches or sunglasses when out walking.
Confidence tricksters are also rife in Italy, where it’s wise to avoid all strangers trying to attract your attention. Many stage ‘accidents’, such as spilling something on your clothes (or pointing out something which has been done by an accomplice), in order to rob you. Be alert to any incident that could be designed to attract your attention and keep strangers at arms’ length. Don’t accept an offer from someone to take your photograph with your camera (they’re likely to run off with it); if you must ask someone to take a photo, ask a tourist or a waiter.
Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are a plague in the major cities, where the street urchins (often Albanians or Gypsies) are highly organised and trained pickpockets (if you get jostled, check for your wallet). They try to surround you and often use newspapers or large pieces of cardboard to distract you and hide their roaming hands. Keep them at arm’s length, if necessary by force, and keep a firm grip on your valuables.
If you’re targeted, shout va via (go away) in a loud voice – a loud whistle can also be useful to scare off prospective attackers or pickpockets. Always remain vigilant in tourist haunts, queues, on public transport (particularly on night trains) and anywhere that there are crowds. Thieves on crowded public transport slit the bottoms of purses or bags with a razor blade or sharp knife and remove the contents.
Crime in Rome
Italy is infamous for its organised crime and gang warfare, which is rife in some areas, although it has no discernible impact on the lives of most foreigners there (particularly in the north of the country). The term ‘Mafia’ is used to describe five distinct organised crime groups: the original Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra in Naples and Campania, the Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Sacra Corona Unità Unita and La Rosa in Apulia.
These groups operate both separately and together, and their activities range from drugs and contraband dealing to protection and gambling rackets and prostitution. They monopolise lucrative contracts in most fields throughout the country and it’s estimated that their combined turnover is billions of euros, possibly over 10 per cent of Italy’s GNP.
The Mafia holds a death grip on the south of Italy, where business people are often forced to pay protection money ( pizzo) to the mobsters to ensure their businesses are safe – it’s estimated that half the businesses in Naples pay protection money – or are prey to loan sharking ( usurai – lending money at extortionate rates of interest).
Despite many high profile arrests in recent years, rumours of the Mafia’s demise or loss of influence are premature and they reportedly have their fingers in every facet of government right up to the Prime Minister’s office in Rome! In recent years, Albanians, Russians and other foreign gangsters have established their own ‘Mafia’ in the north, where they’re heavily involved in illegal drugs.
Don’t let the foregoing catalogue of crime put you off Italy. You can usually safely walk almost anywhere at any time of day or night and there’s no need for anxiety or paranoia about crime. However, you should be ‘street-wise’ and take certain elementary precautions.
These include avoiding high-risk areas (such as parks and car parks) at night and those frequented by drug addicts, prostitutes and pickpockets at all times. You can safely travel on the underground ( metrò) at almost any time, although some stations are best avoided late at night. When you’re in an unfamiliar city, ask a policeman, taxi driver or other local person whether there are any unsafe neighbourhoods – and avoid them!
If you’re the victim of a crime, you should report it to the nearest police station ( commissariato di pubblica sicurezza) or to the local carabinieri immediatel. You can report it by telephone but must go to the station to complete a report ( denuncia), of which you receive a copy for insurance purposes. Don’t, however, expect the police to find your belongings or even take any interest in your loss. Report a theft to your insurance company as soon as possible.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.