Thieves on the Autostrada

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January 2007

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a true story.

I like to think that I'm a pretty sensible elderly lady. I have driven at least a 'zillion' miles, all over the world (often alone) in my lifetime. Like many of you, I'm sure, I was always very dismissive of drivers who during their travels allowed themselves to be 'conned' in any way by any one! So it came as rather a shock when in September 2000 I got well and truly caught!

Beware it is so very easy to fall into a thief's credible trap. For me ?this is my story?

Driving to Italy for my autumn holiday, I had stayed overnight at my usual hotel (while the Mont Blanc tunnel was still closed) near Lucerne. I set out for the last leg of my journey to Milano after breakfast. Overnight I had swapped my English £'s and French Francs in my purse for Swiss and Italian cash. These were put in my overnight case in the car boot (thank goodness). I took a leisurely drive down to Chiasso and Como on my way to visit the family in Milano. I paid my final 'exit toll' and joined the famous Milano Tangenziale to travel just a matter of about five miles before I needed to exit.

Bear in mind, my car is a right hand drive, and at that time it still carried UK registration plates. I was travelling in the near side lane and noticed a Citroen alongside me with a young lady pointing towards my rear offside wheel? I know ?I should have ignored her, but I didn't. The driver of the Citroen signalled me to pull over onto the hard shoulder and he pulled in front of me and did just that.

Now daft I might be, but (at this point) stupid I was not. I had the doors locked ?they always are when I travel ?and my handbag was on the floor in the passenger foot well by my side. The young lady came to my car door (on the 'safe' nearside, don't forget), and I lowered the window a little. She spoke 'reasonable' English and told me that there was something wrong with my rear offside tyre. I told her I spoke Italian but she wasn't too fluent in Italian (still no warning bells). By now her companion had got out of his car and had gone to the back of my car. She urged me to 'come and have a look'. So I got out of the car TAKING THE KEYS WITH ME (thank goodness). I joined them both at the back of the car ?the guy, very well dressed and clean, showed me a bolt and said he thought it had come loose under the car. He urged me to get down and have a look for myself. I am disabled (he could see that as I had my walking stick with me) and I could only bend down and not kneel down. He explained that it would be better if I came off the 'tangenziale' and went straight away to the nearest garage to have this checked out. I said I was due off at the very next exit so I would do that. During this conversation he was on the offside of my car with all the huge TIR lorries thundering past just inches from him ?I told him to be careful?and he said he would get back in his car. I returned to my car and the girl (back in the Citroen) waved to me as they pulled away. It was when I got back in my car and was doing up my seat belt that I realised (YES you've guessed it) that my handbag had gone.

I looked up, but there was no sign of their car and it was totally pointless to try and pursue them.

So I exited the tangenziale at the next exit ?which I had planned to do anyway, and drove to the nearest Polizia Stradale Office ?which luck would have it is literally next door to where my niece lives. I phoned my niece and told here what had happened, then went in to report the theft. I was clearly so shaken that the female police officer sat me down and got me a glass of water immediately, then took time to take my statement. She was so kind, and for that I will be eternally grateful. I explained what make and model the car was, what they had stolen and the fact that even though I didn't get the registration number, I would certainly recognise BOTH thieves again. I was asked to go as soon as possible to the Police HQ and look at the 'mug shots' to try and identify the pair. I did this, and once again found nothing but the very best courtesy from all the police officers who helped me. But alas I didn't see their photo's in the NINE huge books I looked though slowly for nearly three hours.

So the theft of my handbag left me with countless problems ?as do all ladies, I had just about everything but the kitchen sink in my bag. Thank goodness it was new though ?so there weren't the usual 'scraps of goodness knows what' floating around in the bottom (I'm sure you all know what I mean?.

But this is what DID go: Passport ?Return ferry tickets ?Driving Licence ?Credit card (Visa) ?Bank Debit card ?reading glasses, and of course my purse/wallet containing 220,000lira and 410 Swiss Francs.

But worse was to follow! Despite Visa pulling out all the stops to get me a new card via courier, within 36 hours (bless them), and my bank arranging for me to collect £100 from a local bank in Milano immediately (remember, I was ?to all intents and purposes ?totally without money!) Well the following afternoon my bank (the Alliance & Leicester) called me and asked if, before the theft, I had purchased any goods from a music shop in Piazza Duomo in Milan. Well of course I hadn't done anything of the kind ?but those blo*dy thieves HAD! Within 30 minutes of the theft they had used my Debit Card to spend £672 on goods without giving a signature that even vaguely resembled mine! Well thank goodness this was covered by the bank's policy as I had a crime report number showing that I was actually reporting the theft as they were using my debit card in Milan.

So the moral of my story? Well there's more than one. They are quite simple:

  • Don't stop for anyone who waves you down from another vehicle on an autostrada. Pull into the next services where there are other people.
  • Always keep your car doors locked when travelling ?especially if you are female and alone.
  • I now keep my handbag on the floor in front of the passenger seat and the strap wrapped once around my gear lever. It does NOT impede the use of the gears, but during hot weather a thief cannot just poke their hand in and lift the bag if I'm stopped at a junction or traffic lights (another popular crime here it seems).
  • If anyone pulls in front of you having waved you down ?let them stop, then reverse and drive away! (Getting their car registration if you can)
  • Don't ?if at all possible ?have all your documents/money/cards etc. etc. in ONE place? I now also carry a small wallet that hangs under my blouse/dress and that has a long enough soft cord to be able to 'fish it out' without too much embarrassment.

Just be careful ?and be safe. There are some pretty nasty people out there just waiting for fools like me to turn up!


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