Ah, to be a free spirit and spread love all around the world! Wouldn’t it be nice, to find kindness at every corner? To stop grumbling at least while on vacation? To go back home with a bunch of nice stories and all your belongings? Yet, that’s not always the case. Bonding with the locals can easily be the best part of your travel; but for any good samaritan out there, there’s one with a hand already in your pockets. The ‘better safe than sorry’ approach will make your spidey sense go off and prevent that feeling of wanting to punch a wall – which doesn’t really match with the idea of a relaxing vacation. So here’s the most common scams tourists fall for and some tips to deal with them scammers!
1. The one where street cons play with you
There are many variants of this scam: the shell game, the three-card Monte, the cups trick. But the essence is always the same. Either on a street or a bridge, you’ll find a group of people loudly playing while betting their money. The scene is always the same: the con artist shuffle three cards (or three shells), and the guy in front of him would pick one – only to miserably lose and openly sigh about it. Sadly, it’s all staged: the con artist, the participant, sometimes even some people in the crowd – think of them as paid actors. There’s no such thing as easily winning 50 euro. I first run into this scam back in Paris, and noticed so many curious passersby stopping to have a look. My attempt to get it all on camera was met with absolute rage by the con artists, and I had to make a run for it. I saved the footage though.
2. The one where the taxi overcharges you
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this world for, I’m sure you heard about this already. I’m not a fan of taking cabs, mostly because of the number of scoundrels ready to rip you off. But in some places, there’s no other alternative, or not a better one anyway. Some taxi drivers will force themselves on you right out of the airport, grabbing your luggage and shoving it into their taxi before you can utter a shy “no”. Others will convince you their meter is broken, but their good faith isn’t. And some will just take you for a nice trip around the block, blatantly bamboozling you into thinking that’s the right or the best route.
Are you smelling it? Yep, that reeks like a scam, all over. Before traveling, do your research on the standard fares of your destination: that way, if the driver gives you the meter story, you can still huggle your way through it. If the driver won’t budge, get out of the taxi and look for another one. Always take a look at the directions beforehand: if the driver insists on choosing his own route, be firm, protest or abandon the ride.
3. The one where they give you a (free) bracelet
This scam is pretty common all over Europe, and I’ve seen it many times around Italy. It’s one of my least favorites, since scammers can get physically aggressive. These people often lurk anywhere near big attractions and landmarks. Whenever tourists swing by, they would place a bracelet on their wrists, sometimes grabbing them and tieing the bracelets quite firmly. That way, tourists are not even able to take them off, and the scammers have yet another excuse to expect money in exchange. Upon chasing you, they’d tell you the bracelets are free, only to demand a compensation once they put them on you.
It’s not always a bracelet. Sometimes, it’s a rose. Sometimes, it’s blessed rosemary. Don’t let these scammers get too close to you, and swiftly walk away with a strong “no”.
4. The one where they help you at the train station
To my personal experience, this scam is pretty common both in Italy and Portugal. For a foreigner, it can get tricky to understand all the rules to follow when it comes to public transportation. For example, in Italy, you always need to validate your ticket before taking the train – and as a tourist, you might not know about it. “Kind” strangers will approach you, tell you about this rule, and bring you to a machine to punch the ticket (which is probably behind you anyway!). But a thank you just won’t do: they’ll ask you for money, and at times, they’ll pickpocket you. In Portugal, some men noticed I had trouble with a ticket machine and tried to sell me their tickets for a discounted price. I didn’t need to check to know those tickets were probably empty and unusable. Even after I refused, he kept insisting and wanted to help me with my purchase – so I had to walk away.
Be wary of strangers that stick around for too long and ask proper instructions to the appointed office, if you’re in doubt.
5. The one where they take a picture of you
I feel like it’s a silly scam to fall for – yet, don’t take it wrong: it’s nice to trust in humanity that much. These scammers prey on tourists that are all about holiday pictures. They would often stop you to ask if you can take a picture of them, as to gain your trust more easily. Because, why would another tourist be interested in pulling a fast one on another tourist? After that, they’d offer to exchange the favor and take a picture of you. And that’s when you hand them your expensive camera, and look at them jetting out at the speed of light with it. Other times, they actually pretend to take a picture of you, so you’re distracted and smiley enough to be pickpocketed by an accomplice.
Never, ever give your precious gear to strangers that stop you. If you’re longing for a shot, be the one to ask and go for the touristy looking people.
6. The one where they have you sign a petition
I first noticed this scam back in Paris (oh Paris, what’s with you and scammers anyway?). This one starts out as emotional extortion. Some innocent-looking woman or man will convince you to sign a petition, without being clear about it – or pretending to be deaf. Of course, the philanthropist in you would sign in a heartbeat, what bad can it do anyway? However, the scammers will then ask you for a donation. You might feel so already involved that you’ll surrender to the pressure; or, they will succeed in robbing you while you’re trying to get away from them.
What did we learn today? Never sign anything on the streets.
7. The one where they heavily flirt with you
I never fell for this one, but I won’t make it into a gender thing. Honestly, it could happen to any of us, regardless of gender. It’s ok to indulge on rom com meet cutes and adventurous hookups while on holiday. But if a beautiful stranger starts flirting with you in a pressuring way, you should be cautious. I’m not calling you ugly, nothing personal here. But if the woman or man approaches you out of nowhere, makes it clear she/he knows you’re a tourist and immediately hands you an alcoholic drink – start questioning things. At best, you’ll be forced to pay an absurd amount of money for those drinks and will receive threats if you refuse. At worst, they might drug you and take advantage of you while you’re unconscious.
Have fun, but in a safe, conscious way. Don’t follow strangers into unfamiliar bars, don’t offer or accepts drinks, and stay sober if you’re among unknown people.
8. The one where they act all clumsy
This scam involves two categories of scoundrels: the spillers and the droppers. The first ones, “mistakenly” splash you with some goo or nasty liquid; and there goes your new jacket. While being extremely apologetic, they get all touchy in an attempt to help you clean yourself up. Yet, their hands take way more liberties than that, as they roam into your pockets.
The second category is a sucker for shined shoes. These scammers would walk around with their shoes shining gear, and “accidentally” drop one of their tools right in front of you. What a cosmic coincidence, that today you get to play the nice guy and retrieve the lost item! As they really want to prove their gratitude, they’ll offer to shine your shoes for free. And I think you know how this story ends. (Spoiler alert: they’ll ask you for money).
9. The one where they want to lead the way
This one is widely common in Morocco, but it’s pretty easy to stumble upon this scam in any big city. Some people will notice you’re lost, and offer to guide you through the streets. Others, will promise you the greatest tour you can possibly find, out of the kindness of their hearts. As you probably already guessed it, it all comes with nasty consequences.
Some scammers will lead you to wherever they want: best-case scenario, you’ll end up in their shop and they’ll pressure you to buy something. Worst-case scenario, they’ll rob you in a dark alley. Others will indeed give you a tour, on the false pretense that you don’t owe them anything. Eventually, they’ll demand a money reward, making you feel bad if you say no or give too little, as if you’re disregarding their kind service.
Only ask for directions to store clerks and go for licensed tourist guides – the ones with cute badges and umbrellas!