Tourist Scams and Rip-Offs

Woman Begging, Florence, Italy
Beware of beggars with babies — they may be out to pick your pocket. (photo: Rick Steves)
Shell Game, Berlin, Germany
In Berlin, the police teach the public the latest shell-game scam. (photo: Rick Steves)
By Rick Steves

Europe is a surprisingly creative place when it comes to travel scams. Many of the most successful gambits require a naive and trusting tourist. But don't think it can't happen to more sophisticated travelers too. There are many subtle ways to be scammed — a cabbie pads your fare, a shop clerk suddenly inflates prices, or a waiter offers a special with a "special" increased price. Be smart: Know what you are paying for before handing over money, and always count your change.

Scam artists come in all shapes and sizes. But if you're cautious and not overly trusting, you should have no problem. Here are some clever ways European crooks bolster their cash flow. (For more examples, look in the appendix for excerpts from my Graffiti Wall message board.)

Such a Deal!

If a bargain is too good to be true...it's too good to be true.

The "Found" Ring: An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground in front of you and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person examines the ring more closely, then shows you a mark "proving" that it's pure gold. He offers to sell it to you for a good price — which is several times more than he paid for it before dropping it on the sidewalk.

The "Friendship" Bracelet: A vendor approaches you and aggressively asks if you'll help him with a "demonstration." He proceeds to make a friendship bracelet right on your arm. When finished, he asks you to pay a premium for the bracelet he created just for you. And, since you can't easily take it off on the spot, you feel obliged to pay up. (These sorts of distractions by "salesmen" can also function as a smokescreen for theft — an accomplice is picking your pocket as you try to wriggle away from the pushy vendor.)

Leather Jacket Salesman in Distress: A well-spoken, well-dressed gentleman approaches you and explains that he's a leather jacket salesman, and he needs directions to drive to a nearby landmark. He chats you up ("Oh, really? My wife is from Chicago!") and gives you the feeling that you're now friends. When finished, he reaches in his car and pulls out a "designer leather jacket" he claims is worth hundreds of dollars, which he gives to you as a gift for your helpfulness. Oh, and by the way, his credit card isn't working, and could you please give him some cash to buy gas? He takes off with the cash, and you later realize that you've paid way too much for your new vinyl jacket.

Money Matters

Any time money changes hands, be alert.

Slow Count: Cashiers who deal with lots of tourists thrive on the "slow count." Even in banks, they'll count your change back with odd pauses in hopes the rushed tourist will gather up the money early and say "Grazie." Also be careful when you pay with too large a bill. Waiters seem to be arithmetically challenged. If giving a large bill for a small payment, clearly state the value of the bill as you hand it over. Some cabbies or waiters will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one in order to shortchange a tourist. Get familiar with the currency and check the change you're given: The valuable €2 coin resembles several coins that are either worthless or worth much less: the 500-lira coin (from Italy's former currency), Turkey's 1-lira coin, and Thailand's 10-baht coin.

Talkative Cashiers: The shop's cashier seems to be speaking on her phone when you hand her your credit card. But listen closely and you may hear the sound of the phone's camera shutter, as she takes a picture of your card. It can make you want to pay cash for most purchases, like I do.

Meeting the Locals

I want my readers to meet and get to know Europeans — but watch out for chance encounters on the street.

The Attractive Flirt: A single male traveler is approached by a gorgeous woman on the street. After chatting for a while, she seductively invites him for a drink at a nearby nightclub. But when the bill arrives, it's several hundred dollars more than he expected. Only then does he notice the burly bouncers guarding the exits. There are several variations on this scam. Sometimes, the scam artist is disguised as a lost tourist; in other cases, it's simply a gregarious local person who (seemingly) just wants to show you his city. Either way, be suspicious when invited for a drink by someone you just met; if you want to go out together, suggest a bar (or café) of your choosing instead.

Oops! You're jostled in a crowd as someone spills ketchup or fake pigeon poop on your shirt. The thief offers profuse apologies while dabbing it up — and pawing your pockets. There are variations: Someone drops something, you kindly pick it up, and you lose your wallet. Or, even worse, someone throws a baby into your arms as your pockets are picked. Assume beggars are pickpockets. Treat any commotion (a scuffle breaking out, a beggar in your face) as fake — designed to distract unknowing victims. If an elderly woman falls down an escalator, stand back and guard your valuables, then...carefully...move in to help.

The "Helpful" Local: Thieves posing as concerned locals will warn you to store your wallet safely — and then steal it after they see where you stash it. If someone wants to help you use an ATM, politely refuse (they're just after your PIN code). Some thieves put out tacks and ambush drivers with their "assistance" in changing the tire. Others hang out at subway ticket machines eager to "help" you, the bewildered tourist, buy tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. If using a station locker, beware of the "Hood Samaritan" who may have his own key to a locker he'd like you to use. And skip the helping hand from official-looking railroad attendants at the Rome train station. They'll help you find your seat...then demand a "tip."

Young Thief Gangs: These are common all over urban southern Europe, especially in the touristy areas of Milan, Florence, and Rome. Groups of boys or girls with big eyes, troubled expressions, and colorful raggedy clothes play a game where they politely mob the unsuspecting tourist, beggar-style. As their pleading eyes grab yours and they hold up their pathetic message scrawled on cardboard, you're fooled into thinking that they're beggars. All the while, your purse or backpack is being expertly rifled. If you're wearing a money belt and you understand what's going on here, there's nothing to fear. In fact, having a street thief's hand slip slowly into your pocket becomes just one more interesting cultural experience.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businesspeople, generally with something official-looking in their hand. Some pose as tourists, with daypacks, cameras, and even guidebooks. Don't be fooled by looks, impressive uniforms, femme fatales, or hard-luck stories.

Fake Police: Two thieves in uniform — posing as "Tourist Police" — stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or "drug money." You won't even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Never give your wallet to anyone.

Room "Inspectors": There's a knock at your door and two men claim to be the hotel's room inspectors. One waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you're distracted, the first thief slips in and takes valuables left on a dresser. Don't let people into your room if you weren't expecting them. Call down to the hotel desk if "inspectors" suddenly turn up.

The Broken Camera: Everyone is taking pictures of a famous sight, and someone comes up with a camera or cell phone and asks that you take his picture. But the camera or cell phone doesn't seem to work. When you hand it back, the "tourist" fumbles and drops it on the ground, where it breaks into pieces. He will either ask you to pay for repairs (don't do it) or lift your wallet while you are bending over to pick up the broken object.

The Stripper: You see a good-looking woman arguing with a street vendor. The vendor accuses her of shoplifting, which she vehemently denies. To prove her innocence, she starts taking off her clothes — very slowly. Once she's down to her underwear, the vendor apologizes and she leaves. Suddenly all the men in the crowd find out that their wallets have "left," too, thanks to a team of pickpockets working during the show.