Scams to watch out for in Italy

Travel Scams to Watch Out for in Europe

The last thing anyone needs or wants is to fall prey to one of the many travel scams that seem prevalent these days. Travel is one of life’s great pleasures, and usually you are more interested in researching for sites you want to see and which restaurants you would like to visit, instead of what scams you should watch out for in Europe. No one is immune to getting scammed, especially when in a foreign country where you may not be familiar with the local language, currency or customs. Scams often play on the traveler’s kind and trusting nature, desire to save on holiday purchases, and lack of local knowledge. With this in mind, here is a list of the most common travel scams to watch out for in Europe. It is better to be aware and have a great holiday, then not and fall victim to one.

Fake Police

Two thieves in uniform, posing as “Tourist Police”, stop you on the street, flash their fake badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills. You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Don’t hand your wallet to anyone, especially not to people posing as police officers who want to “check it for counterfeit money.” While this is a scam that has been mentioned to be on the lookout for, I have yet to hear or see this happening to anyone.  Always insist on seeing the official ID card, or document, of the supposed police person, and remember that no official in Italy will ever ask you for your cash or credit cards.

Tax Police

One potential event can prove tricky, because while it’s legit, many con-artists try to copy it. The tax police, called “Guardia di Finanza” in Italy, may ask you to produce receipts after leaving a restaurant or store. They approach you more to make sure the establishment owner recorded the transaction for tax purposes. These individuals are often in uniform, but they sometimes dress in plain clothes, which makes it hard to know if they are the real deal. If you’re worried, ask for the badge number, and if still leery, call the 113 emergency number and request a police officer in uniform. I always recommend to my guests to keep the receipt when leaving the establishment and, if it is one they do not wish to keep, they can throw it away after walking a few blocks.

Tricky Taxi Drivers

Dishonest taxi drivers the world over inflate prices, substitute bank notes you handed over for notes of lesser value they claim you gave them instead and take circuitous routes. In parts of Asia, a common scam is telling passengers their selected hotel/bar/restaurant is closed, but never fear, they know a better one just down the road. Always travel in licensed cabs and, if possible, agree on a fixed fare. Also, insist on going to your original destination and see if it is actually closed for yourself.

Research fares beforehand so you know exactly how much a trip should cost in the local currency – tourist offices or your accommodation staff can give you an indication of prices and reputable cab companies. Ideally, have your own map, so you know you’re getting taken directly to your destination. Don’t let drivers load your luggage until you’ve agreed on a price, and pay careful attention to denominations on payment. Always choose a well-marked cab. It should have a big, prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Avoid using unmarked ones with makeshift taxi lights on top.  In some cities, it’s easy to flag down a cab and in others it is not the custom; but in any city, you can find cabs at a taxi stand. These stands are often listed as prominently as subway stations on city maps; look for the T’s (or ask a local to direct you to the nearest one).

When you need a ride from a hotel or restaurant, you can have the staff call a taxi for you. This can dramatically decrease your odds of getting scammed, but be aware that in many places, the meter starts ticking from the time the call is received. Note that if you have an early-morning flight to catch, it’ll save you some stress (and cost nothing beyond the usual supplements) to have your hotelier book a cab for you the day before. Pay with small bills. Using small bills minimizes your chance of getting ripped off. If you only have a large bill, state the denomination out loud as you hand it to the cabbie. They can be experts at dropping your €50 note and then showing you a €20. Count your change.

Photo Ops

You’ve just arrived at an amazing site and are happily snapping away, trying to get that winning shot, when a local in costume or with an intriguing prop shows up and offers to pose for a photo. This person isn’t just doing this for a bit of fun. The costumed conman is after your cash. Once the photo has been taken her or she will demand a crazy amount of money from you. Even worse, if the person in the costume has a partner who took the picture, he might not return your camera until you’ve paid up.

Example: The costumed gladiators outside the Colosseum. Before you have your photograph taken with them, know that a ‘customary fee’ is part of the equation. Many a tourist has found themselves in a modern day battle to the tune of five Euros and up. In order to avoid unleashing any pent up, medieval aggression; don’t take any pictures with the gladiators, unless you’re prepared to hand over the funds.

Public transportation

Most people assume pickpockets are sketchy looking men but a large number of pickpockets are actually young girls and boys — usually around 10-16-years old. Most tourists don’t suspect a young child would steal from them so they’re less defensive around them. Additionally, Police can’t really arrest minors and most don’t travel with any identification, so even if they’re caught the police usually have to let them go. Other times pickpockets are well-dressed and you’d never expect them to be thieves.

The busy public transport networks of Paris and London and Rome are particular hot spots, but light-fingered thieves can be found around the world.  In some cities, like Rome, the local buses and trains can be very crowded. In situations like those, where you are literally shoved in sardine style, make sure you have nothing in your pockets, and that your bag is in front of you.  On the metro (subway) and local buses, a common tactic is for a group of 4-6 kids to push on a crowded train shortly before the door shut and crowd their target. They’ll swipe what they’re trying to steal and then they all hop off right as the doors begin to close. By the time the victim realizes what happened it is too late and the train has already left the station. They usually go for cameras, wallets and other small valuables.

Where Are You From?

When wandering through a marketplace, you know there’s going to be haggling. However, what you might not know is that store keepers start working out how much to charge you from the moment you open your mouth. Almost every shop owner will start a conversation with ‘Where are you from?’ and you need to be careful with your answer. If you say something obvious like England, America or Canada, they will assume you have a lot of money and, as a result, will instantly push up the price of their stock. The best answer to give is something a little obscure such as the name of your city (if not well known) or suburb. This will throw off the seller and leave you to haggle on a level playing field.

Bracelet Scheme

I always seem to see this one in Paris, especially around the Montmartre area (specifically, walking up to the Sacré-Cœur). There is also normally a group of them ‘working’ at the same time. They will approach people coming to and from popular tourist destinations, grab their hand, and then start weaving on a friendship bracelet. You’re often so surprised that they’re halfway through making the bracelet before you figure out what is going on and then ask  you for the money. The price is usually around 20 Euros!

Don’t let anyone get their hands on your luggage

No matter how lost or overloaded you might be, don’t let anyone carry your luggage at a train or bus station or help you onto a train or bus. At best they’ll invariably expect payment; at worst they’ll disappear with it. Some metro stations have lots of stairs so “good Samaritans” will grab a hold of your suitcase to help you carry it up the stairs. This usually takes people off guard a little and this is when their friend reaches into your purse or pocket. There are actually a lot of nice people who will offer to help carry a heavy suitcase but they’ll ask you before grabbing onto your bag. In some train stations they will also pray on those looking lost and respond to your query with the wrong information while volunteering to take you to the right location: whatever you do, if it is not a person in uniform do not accept their information.

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 leave. 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.

“Charity” Worker with Clipboards

This scam is very popular in Paris. It nearly always involves a group of young girls with clipboards. They’ll approach you and point to a clipboard while signaling that they’re deaf and mute. They want you to sign a petition for charity. If you sign they’ll ask for a donation to the charity. Of course the “charity” is fake — in fact, the money often goes to these girls’ handler. While the tourist is signing/reading the petition there is often an accomplice trying to pickpocket the victim.

The “rose-as-a-gift”

A stranger (usually the same guys from Bangladesh that are also selling plastic throw-into-the-air-things everywhere and what I call “splat balls”) tries to offer you a rose or suggests you buy a rose for your companion. You take it. You and your husband/boyfriend/brother/travel companion start to walk away. And then, after precisely five seconds, he reappears asking for a few Euros. Once you have the rose in hand, they will be quite persistent about getting the money, and usually you will have a hard time returning it. So if that is the case, just leave the rose on something around you and walk away. They are not pickpockets.

Usually seen: At the Spanish Steps, Pantheon or Trevi Fountain, or at restaurants in touristy areas in the center.  If it happens to you? Do not accept the rose, unless you would like one.

Did You Drop Something? (A variation of the Ring Trick)

This is common in Paris, the Montmartre neighborhood. It is a distraction technique guaranteed to draw your eyes, and your attention, off your wallet. Basically, if you’re standing somewhere and hear something drop to the ground, but you know you haven’t dropped anything, just walk away. The idea is to make you think you did actually drop something of value, and bend over to look for it, thus giving the person who really dropped it enough time to snatch your wallet.

How to Avoid the above Scams (and others)

  • Be wary of anyone approaching you. If you need someone or something, like a taxi, guide, tour or want to buy a souvenir, plan to source it yourself. If you see anyone coming towards you with a sprig of lavender or friendship bracelet keep your hands at your sides, turn away and firmly shake your head and refuse to take hold of anything if you are unable to exit the situation immediately.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. While the concept of personal space in Europe is often non-existent, make sure to stay aware of your personal space and who enters it. When in crowded places or public transportation, instinctively hold your purse a little tighter or put your backpack/wallet in front.
  • Guard your belongings at all times. Don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair or put it on the floor — you’re basically asking to get robbed in a city like Barcelona. Only take with you what’s absolutely necessary, and leave the rest (and any important documents like your passport) in the hotel safe.

Bottom Line

The real problem with scams is that it can stop people from having genuine interactions with locals as they view everything as a possible scam or an attempt to rip them off.  This small group of scam artists may have you wary of everyone you meet as you travel, but please remember that there are far more friendly, helpful locals then there are scammers. You just need to try and develop that gut instinct and use some common sense. No-one likes being ripped off, but if it does happen to you, don’t let it ruin your trip.  If you do feel like you have been scammed, don’t panic, contact the tourist police or regular police as quickly as possible to report any scams. Always keep a copy of your report. If you wallet was stolen, cancel any credit cards or contact the embassy if you need to get a new ID or passport. Don’t be embarrassed, as  scams happen to anyone, even expert travelers. Do not let it be a reflection of the place you are visiting, especially since most of these scam artists are not even native to the country you are visiting.

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About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.