The “secret code” that identifies the houses to be robbed? An urban legend

A rumor circulates as old as social networks, yes, more: that according to which thieves make use of some secret codes to tag houses and decide which ones are easier to commit a theft. Usually, the theory circulates along with real lists of hieroglyphs, which are shared by those who believe they have revealed the secret language of malicious people. But this story does not convince us: that is why.

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  • Several pictures are circulating claiming to depict a secret alphabet
  • It is claimed that the signs would be used by thieves to communicate with each other and to mark houses attractive for a robbery
  • Indeed, the legend has existed for years, but its validity has never been proven. In fact, the evidence and logic lead to it being labeled as fake news


A triangle to identify the house of a woman living alone. Three signs to communicate that a given house has already been visited. An “x” to be reserved for the homes of the richest. These are just some of the signs that are shared on social networks, along with an alarm: If you find one outside the place where you live, on the wall of the building or on the intercom in the condominium, lift your guard. The thieves are coming.

A post that went viral in May 2022. The content has been removed by the author.

The sheet in question shows a dozen characters in red, each accompanied by its supposed “hidden” meaning. But the reported language does not seem to be universal.

The different versions

In another image that went viral, shared along with the words “The signs of the gypsies – PAY ATTENTION !! WE POLICE FOREVER »(sic), for example, rich houses are not identified with an” X “, but with a kind of square” C “. The sign to identify the presence of a dog in the house is no longer composed of 5 lines arranged horizontally, diagonally and vertically, as in the first picture, but by a drawing that appears to represent a stylized staircase , or alternatively of only two lines.

It does not end here: in fact, another version circulates where the “rich houses” must be marked with a square “C”, but containing a line inside, and the stylized scale does not indicate the presence of a dog, but suggests that avoid a particular joint. However, it is not clear how this last indication could make sense on a house door. Just as it is not clear why one should review the newly broken down houses, or to highlight the attractive targets for potential competitors. Furthermore, the residences of public officials are not marked with a kind of triangular fish, as in the aforementioned image, but with two overturned checkpoints that intersect a diagonal line. In terms of the presence of a dog in the house, we finally find a new sign that is different from the first two.

We could go on and on citing this division, this and this one, each with its very personal variations. In short, there is no doubt that the “secret” language has been burning for Facebook users for some time, and that everyone has been trying to translate and decode it in their own way.

The origins of the urban legend

However, the roots of this urban legend can be traced back long before the advent of social networks: for example, my colleague Paolo Attivissimo pointed out in the distant 2005 (article updated in 2015), which already in 1997 an article by New Humanity talked about the so-called “Gypsy Code “ describes it as a scam that appeared in many regional newspapers and news programs. Attivissimo had also added:

Paolo Toselli, coordinator of the Contemporary Voices and Legends Collection Center, an authoritative site dedicated to this type of appeal, writes to me that “in Italy the case exploded in the 90s, but there have been reports since the 60s. According to the Corriere di Chieri, in June 1997 it became the so-called “Code for gypsy thieves” it is also finished “On the table of Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano since the Northern League senator Luigi Peruzzotti asked to send it out to ensure greater security for citizens”.

It resembles a chain of Sant’Antonio, therefore scattered from before the new millennium began. It is not clear why, if the alleged criminals ever used this code, they should have continued to do so after such a decade and clear discovery of their secret language by the victims. The Carabinieri in Rome, which in 2003 answered a question on the subject, had written: «Considering that there is no “catalog” of symbols which helps to understand the intentions of persons who are preparing to commit theft in apartments or other criminal acts, but it is likely that various criminals use signs in code (only known by them) to pass on information that is useful to them for committing criminal acts’. Therefore: it is not excluded that the evil ones have their own tools to communicate the places they are to hit, but it is highly unlikely that in order to do so they use an alternative alphabet that has been thought to have been decoded in decades.

In any case, the rumor has not only fascinated the Italians: the aforementioned Paolo Toselli mentioned similar episodes in Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, but we have news of similar beliefs circulating in the US and UK as well. But unfortunately, as he remembers Snopes, to rob a house, it is not necessary to draw attention to the behavior and habits of its inhabitants through cryptic signs left outside its walls. Today, with all the tools available, it is more likely that “thieves” will send messages on WhatsApp or Instagram to exchange information about the possible purposes of their robberies, instead of going out armed with chalk to smear others people’s homes with the risk of being caught in the middle of the business.


The leaflet, which claims to reveal the “secret language of thieves”, is as viral as it is baseless. There is no evidence that the characters it contains are actually used for the purpose for which they are attributed. On the contrary, their varying and conflicting significance suggests the fact that the theory has existed for decades and that it is so well known by the alleged victims that it is very difficult for a malicious person to decide to resort to it.

This article contributes to a Facebook project to combat fake news and misinformation on its social platforms. Lion here for more information about our partnership with Facebook.

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