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How many soldiers lose their hearts in European bars and train stations and fall in love, the U.S. Army Europe provost marshal cannot say.

But the number of soldiers and civilians who lose their wallets to pickpockets?

On average, 23 a month.

In Italy, in fact, it’s the most likely crime to befall a U.S. servicemember or civilian, the provost marshal’s office says.

In much of the rest of Europe, pickpocketing is the third most commonly reported crime against Americans associated with the military, after assault — mostly outside bars — and having one’s car broken into.

USAREUR authorities are dusting off these statistics and posting them on the USAREUR Web site in time for the holiday season, when Americans are likely to travel to tourist areas where pickpockets practice.

“This can happen to you anywhere. But usually it’s in the cities, basically any crowded place,” said Robert Szostek, spokesman for the USAREUR Provost Marshal’s Office in Mannheim.

According to Szostek, soldiers are most likely to have their pockets picked at a bar or club. Family members and civilians, on the other hand, are more likely to be victimized in the more usual tourist places: train stations, airports and areas where crowds gather to see the sights.

Last November, 13 soldiers and civilians throughout USAREUR reported their wallets or purses had been taken, according to the provost marshal, and 14 reported the same crime in December. In January, the number was seven, the lowest of the year.

In February, the numbers started going up, with 17 cases reported that month, followed by 22 in March, 21 in April, 31 in May, 35 in June, 38 in July, 22 in August and 30 in September.

Szostek said the numbers reflect annual trends. Pickpockets usually strike more frequent in the summer, he said, possibly because more people are traveling to tourist spots or because they’re wearing fewer clothes and valuables are easier to filch.

One’s chances of being targeted aren’t spread equally throughout Europe, either, Szotek said. Although his office’s statistics were not broken out by country, Szotek said there were more incidences in Vicenza and Naples than in Heidelberg or Darmstadt.

According to the U.S. State Department Web site, petty crime such as pickpocketing is a serious problem in Italy.

“Most reported thefts occur at crowded tourist sites, on public buses or trains, or at the major railway stations.… Travelers using the Circumvesuviana train line, which links Naples to popular tourist destinations like Pompeii and Sorrento, should be especially vigilant.…,” the Web site said.

“Pairs of accomplices or groups of street urchins are known to divert tourists’ attention so that another can pickpocket them.

“In one particular routine, one thief throws trash, waste or ketchup at the victim, a second thief assists the victim in cleaning up the mess and the third discreetly takes the victim’s belongings. Criminals on crowded public transportation slit the bottoms of purses or bags with a razor blade or sharp knife, then remove the contents.”

As for Germany, the State Department Web site says: “Violent crime is rare in Germany … Most incidents of street crime consist of theft of unattended items and pickpocketing. American travelers are advised to take the same precautions against becoming crime victims as they would in any American city.”

Szostek said USAREUR soldiers and civilians should report crimes to U.S. military police if an MP station is nearby, or failing that, to the local police.

How to avoid pickpocketsKevin Coffey, a police detective who founded California-based Corporate Travel Safety, and Bob Arno, an expert on pickpockets, write and lecture on the topic. Here are some of their tips:

Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t allow a stranger to get too close.If you’re in a crowd, be particularly aware of your valuables. Be suspicious of bumps or jostles. They may be a distraction technique.Carry only what you can afford to lose. Remove unnecessary credit cards and other items from your wallet.Don’t carry a wallet in your back pocket, also known as the “sucker pocket.” Put your money in a front pocket.If you must carry your wallet in your back pocket, put a rubber band around it or a comb through it so it’s difficult to pull out. Always button the back flap and avoid roomy pockets.Women should put wallets in the bottom of their purses, covered with other things. Keep purses under your arm or in front of you, not behind you. Keep the flap facing you.— Nancy Montgomery

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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