ROME — A new breed of thief, armed with refined techniques and a guile that baffles security forces, is preying on foreign tourists who have flocked to Western European cities this summer.
Whether he's a French highwayman or an Italian con artist, the new criminal leaves the old-fashioned petty thief miles behind in professionalism, and sometimes in ruthlessness, police officials say.
"These are thieves who feed precisely on the foreign tourist," said Guglielmo Incalza, deputy chief of Rome's detective squad.
European nations have no breakdown of crime rates for tourists as opposed to residents. But police departments around the Continent note an increase this year in bizarre and sometimes violent crimes against foreign visitors.
Although these crimes are reported on the rise in popular European tourist places, these big cities are not necessarily any more dangerous than major American cities, where foreign visitors are often victimized.
Bandits Aboard Trains
Elegantly dressed Italians, often described as charming and flirtatious, ride the nation's trains and politely offer foreign passengers drinks spiked with sedatives. While the victims sleep, the thieves rifle their bags.
"This is the kind of trick that's replacing wallet snatching at the railroad ticket counter," Incalza noted.
Police in Madrid and Barcelona note an upswing in a technique called "the spot." One thief spills food on an unsuspecting tourist. An accomplice approaches, commiserates and offers to clean off the victim's bag or briefcase, then runs away with it.
Southern France has been plagued for a second summer by pistol-waving highwaymen who run travelers off the roads at night and steal their cars, preferably BMWs. Police say the robbers go after cars with foreign plates because the occupants often carry cash, whereas the French are more likely to have checkbooks.
While no one has been wounded, this year the bandits don't hesitate to shoot, police add.
Officials in usually serene Scandinavia warn of professional pickpockets stalking capital cities.
Armed Gangs in Restaurants
This summer's novelty in Brussels are "armed gangs, say three to six persons, who enter a restaurant and demand watches, purses and jewelry," a police spokesman said.
Purse-snatching around Naples and Pompeii has soared more than 43% compared to the first six months of 1983, a government crime report says.
Host governments have responded by increasing security forces in tourist areas. But beyond recommending extra alertness, many authorities say there is little they can do to keep thieves at bay.