MARY Wallace was thrilled to be exploring the streets of Rome during a much-anticipated holiday last month.
However things quickly took a bad turn for the tourist, from Western Australia, when she was targeted by thieves not once, but twice during her eight-day jaunt.
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Mary’s nightmare began when she, accompanied by a friend, tried to use an ATM at a popular tourist spot but found it extremely glary due to the angle of the sun.
She found herself moving back and forward and side-to-side in a desperate attempt to make out the words on the screen. In hindsight, she would have been better off giving up and trying another ATM, as this was the moment a scammer made his move.
“A tall man came right up behind me and started ‘helping’ me to do the transaction by giving me advice,” Mary said.
“He was pleasant, non-threatening, well-dressed, helpful. But I asked him to stand back, I had it under control.”
However, he didn’t back off, instead continuing to use distraction techniques to rob her.
“He kept going, distracting me, having me look to my left and reaching over my right shoulder and taking my card out of the slot while I was getting the cash out of the other slot.
“I didn’t actually see him take the card and he told me that the ATM had swallowed the card, that it often happened in Rome … Initially I believed him and this time gave him the chance to go off with the card and empty my account.”
Mary cancelled her card when she realised it was missing, but it was too late.
“He had watched me enter the PIN number and had made several purchases within about 20 minutes. I was grateful I only had about $300 in my account and a back-up account and debit card with me.”
Mary said she felt confused and “a little in awe that it was such a slick job”. Grateful she wasn’t injured or left penniless, she shrugged it off as the actions of a desperate man but did report the theft to the police and is attempting to get the funds reimbursed by her bank.
Unfortunately, that’s not where Mary’s bad luck ends.
Two days later she caught a bus with her friend into the popular Trastevere district for dinner. It was very full and they just squeezed on, with one of Mary’s arms holding a hand rail and the other around her large handbag. In this moment, she was targeted again.
“The people surrounding me were pressed tightly against me on every side,” she said. “I felt grateful my bag was secure tightly under my arm which was across the top of the bag.
“After two stops I felt uncomfortable enough to get off the bus and immediately on exiting I put my hand down into my bag, my wallet was gone and so was the bus.”
This time, Mary felt enraged.
“I was furious. I also felt very vulnerable, was I an easy mark, did I look frail, stupid? Why had it happened to me twice in two days? I felt unwilling to leave the apartment, unsafe and suspicious. I was on edge and angry.”
The next morning, Mary found herself back in the same police station to report yet another robbery.
The unlucky traveller snapped photos of the bus stop and street where the theft occurred, and went back to her apartment and cancelled her cards. She also logged in to her savings account and transferred money to her daughter’s account.
Mary had the following advice to fellow travellers, having learnt the hard way.
“Firstly, keep a receipt or evidence of purchase for everything you travel with. Yes really! If you don’t have proof of purchase you wont be able to claim it on your insurance.
“In general for Italy, read the travel blogs and forums to find out the lowdown on the city you are visiting,” she said. “If you are robbed report all incidents to the police if possible in the district where it happened.
“Make sure you have access to international calls from your mobile so you can immediately call the bank and have your cards cancelled. Keep a back-up bank card and back up sim somewhere that is not in your wallet.”
Regarding the first robbery, Mary said: “Don’t use an ATM with the sun shining onto the screen, it’s hard to read and while you’re squinting at it gives time for an approaching opportunist to move in. It also makes you look unsure.
“Don’t use an ATM beside a busy tourist spot — this was at a hop-on-hop-off tour bus stop with lots of buses coming and going, (creating) confusion. It was also by a subway station so was an easy getaway for him,” she said.
“If someone tries to talk to you while you’re doing a transaction — never engage. Tell them loudly to back off. If they don’t, cancel your transaction, retrieve your card and walk away. If a person seems unusually nice/helpful/too good to be true then they probably are.”
Regarding the second robbery, Mary said: “Buses in Rome are infamous for pickpockets. Use a body belt if you do use these buses as when it is crowded you can’t tell if someone is putting their hand in your pocket never mind your bag. Try to situate yourself with your back to a window so you can watch what is happening in the bus.
“I will remember Rome for the experience of being robbed twice in 48 hours (yes really) and what I have learned from that, but I will ultimately remember the kindness of strangers and my beautiful friends with offers of help, the crazy Romans, the beautiful art and the fabulous food.”
EUROPEAN ‘SUMMER OF CRIME’ TRENDS
Travel insurance company Travel Insurance Direct (TID) has issued a warning to tourists to be aware of the more commons scams in Europe at the moment including:
• The “there’s something on your shirt!” scam: A foul substance such as fake bird droppings or mustard is splashed on to your shirt, and while a “helpful stranger” cleans it off for you someone picks your pocket.
• The infamous “gold ring” scam: A passer-by stops you and says you’ve dropped something, and shows you a “gold” ring. It’s either a distraction technique — and your pocket is picked — or they insist you pay them a reward for finding it.
• “There’s something wrong with your car!” scam: As you’re driving a car pulls alongside and the driver indicates there’s something drastically wrong with the rear of your vehicle. You stop, and as you and the stranger go to inspect the problem an accomplice makes off with your wallet/purse from the front seat.
You may think you’ve heard it all before, but Ash Zaman from TID urges travellers to be aware of emerging scams too.
“Hotel rats and Moped gangs are new trends, we anticipate they will be big this European summer,” Mr Zaman said. “While there have been cases of people having their hotel rooms broken into and valuables stolen, we’ve not seen anything on this scale before.”
• Hotel rats of Paris: Gangs of thieves are disguising themselves as tourists and infiltrating hotels around Paris. Some of them are opportunistic and will hang out in the lobby waiting for luggage and personal belongings to be left unattended before swooping.
Others are a bit more sophisticated and will actually check into hotels popular with tourists and then break into other hotel rooms to steal valuables.
Luggage left unattended in a public place like a hotel lobby generally isn’t covered by travel insurance. If you have valuable items stolen from a locked safe in your hotel room you are generally covered by travel insurance. You just need to ensure you get a police report of the incident within 24 hours of the theft happening.
• Moped gangs of London: Groups of armed thieves are roaming the streets on mopeds and scooters mugging and assaulting unassuming pedestrians and motorists. This includes tourist who are seen as easy prey. These gangs have a propensity for violence and are usually armed with bats, axes, knifes and won’t hesitate in using force to get their way.
If you are mugged and or assaulted your insurer will generally cover you for both the valuables that were stolen from you and any medical expenses you incur as a result of any assault.
Ensure you notify the police immediately if you are a victim and contact your travel insurer’s Emergency Assistance team should you need any medical assistance.
“London is fast becoming the crime capital of Europe and these moped gangs are a big driving force behind this,” Mr Zaman said. “If you should be unlucky enough to cross paths with them do not resist — they are usually well armed and have no problem with using violence to get what they want.”