European Tourist Scams (by Rick Steves)

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European Tourist Scams (by Rick Steves)

Postby long_way » Sun Dec 14, 2008 11:44 pm

Rick Steves has traveled all over Europe ten times over and one may say he is a professional tourist, yet as you can see in the text below not a few times he has fallen a victim of more or less skillful fraudsters.

Although these particular scams may not be very useful to those heading to China I included them here just to illustrate that China is nothing special when it comes to scams aimed at ordinary tourists.

After reading about Rick's experience with con artists in Europe I may even say that their Chinese colleagues are (still) lagging behind...

Here it is:


Distillation: Tourist Scams, 2005

• If you see someone playing the shell game or three-card monty, be careful. No matter how easy it looks, only the “plants” in the crowd will win. These guys operate in teams of several people. If any native is playing, then he or she is a plant. My friend and I fell victim to the shell game on one of the alleys leading up to the Sacre-Coeur church in Paris. Yeah, we were stupid, but our initial intention was only to watch. Of course, it all looked so easy. We lost about $70.

• In the Paris Métro or similar places, if you want to determine who the thieves are, then simply watch what others are watching. Thieves look to see what others are carrying. On the Métro, thieves love to walk up and down the aisles until just before the doors close. They time their grab with the closing of the door and quickly jump through as it shuts.

• I met a wonderfully friendly young man in Istanbul who suggested we stop by a bar close to my hotel for some beer. Inside, we were having a beer when a girl sat next to me. My new friend ordered her a drink. At that point it clicked on my head...this is that scam I read about. Sure enough, there was no one in the bar other than the big guy standing by the door and the mean-looking bartender. The bill was $80 for my beer and the girl’s drink. I had no choice but to pay.

• My wife and I were ready to leave Rome after a great 10-day visit. We were picked up at our hotel by a cab and asked to be taken to the train station. The cab driver asked if we were leaving to fly home, and we said yes. He then proceeded to tell us that there were major problems with the train to Fiumicino Airport, the line was down, etc...but he would be glad to take us to the airport for €80! Thank God I had built enough time into our schedule so that I could investigate the train situation myself. I told him no thanks and asked him to take us to the train station anyway. There was no problem with the train and we made it home sans difficulty.

• While in Paris, the only problem with pickpockets we encountered was on a very crowded elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. A group of young men was horsing around a bit. One of the men pushed one of his friends, causing him to bump into my husband and allowing him to stick his hand into the pocket where he expected to find a wallet. Fortunately for us, the day wallet was deep in his front pocket, and most of our money and cards were in his moneybelt.

• On my last trip, two men claimed they were police and flashed IDs (and quickly put them away), then asked for my identification with the casual afterthought, “Passport is okay.” I said, “Hold up your ID so I can read it carefully.” The men looked shocked, then became abusive. I said, “I am now going to scream at the top of my lungs for a real policeman. Would you like to wait and talk to him?” They ran away. This type of scam always takes place away from crowds and out of sight of uniformed policemen. Never be afraid to scream loudly for assistance. I did that once on a bus (yes, #64 in Roma). I screamed “Aiuto, ladro!” (“Help, thief!”) and the Italians on the bus almost killed the poor thief, shoving her off the bus.

• Beware of fast-talking, fast-moving taxi drivers! I got into a taxi at the Spanish Steps in Rome, only to have the driver turn around and begin talking loudly in broken English, asking for “yellow euro” while patting the bags my purchases were in, waving frantically, and generally being distracting. I pulled out the remainder of my cash for the day in frustration to prove that I had money for the cab ride. He reached over for the €50 bill (which is yellow), reassured me that that was what he needed to see, and handed it back to me (or so I thought). He then said that his cab was not allowed to go to the church that was my destination. (Later I realized it was only two blocks away.) He advised me to take a ”radio taxi.” After I got out, he sped away, and only then did I realize he had replaced my €50 note with a blank piece of paper in a fast sleight-of-hand move.

• In Madrid, be careful of strangers who approach you and ask to see what euros and U.S. dollars look like. They will try to take the cash right out of your hand. Trust no one who approaches you in public with a strange request.

• I have lived in Europe for nearly eight years. I’ve loved every second of it. I have been accosted many times, but never with success. Although I wouldn’t recommend this tactic to everyone, here’s my secret: If you are forced to walk somewhere dodgy, such as the Albayzin or Sacromonte areas of Granada in Spain (tiny thousand-year-old streets, a labyrinth where masked thieves — usually little punk kids — like to prey), one thing I’ve found that works is putting on the “Oh man, what have I done?!” face. This is the kind of face one may have as they are thinking to themselves: “Oh man, I shouldn’t have hit that last person so hard...I wonder if they’re dead?” Imagine it. It’s the face of a person who has absolutely cracked, gone off the deep end, and just killed someone. This may sound really weird, but trust me, if you wear that face, and you round a corner and catch the eye of some shady punk, he will jump out of your way. Being a tough guy will invite a challenge. Being a sheep will get you eaten. But being a total psycho... NOBODY wants to play punchy punchy with Hannibal Lecter. With all my years here, I still don’t look like a local, but that face really works.

• Budapest is a wonderful gem of a city, surprisingly cosmopolitan with very warm, attractive people eager to practice their English and help you with Hungarian in return. That said, young, single men should beware of women, usually walking in pairs, who approach them on the Váci Utca pedestrian drag. They may invite you to have a drink at a “private restaurant,” usually run by the Mafia. If you don’t have the $200 to pay the large bill you find yourself saddled with, you may be in trouble.

• I made a solo trip to London a few years ago and spent an evening visiting the pubs in the Soho area. A woman called me over to one, and being the naive Midwesterner, I stopped. She described the place as being a strip joint. I thought to myself, “what the hey.” Once inside, I realized it wasn’t a strip joint at all, and that I was in serious trouble. I excused myself to visit the WC and decided I was going to calmly walk out. I made it across the room when I was confronted by one of the girls. She yelled “Security!” as I breezed past her. I was about 15 feet from the stairs and freedom when a huge guy burst through a fake wall and tried to tackle me as I rounded the corner and headed up the stairs. He went low but couldn’t hold on. I dog-paddled my way up the stairs before getting my feet under me. I saw a silhouette of a man blocking the door. I hit him low and shot into the street like a bullet. He was another punter and must have been shocked when I took his legs out from under him. Once in the street, I turned on the burners, and he gave up somewhere along Regent Street. It’s hard for a bodybuilder to chase down a scrawny little track athlete like myself.

• My husband and I arrived at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station in the early evening, and proceeded to read the map to find out how to get to our hotel via the Métro. One guy came up and advised us to buy tickets from the ticket machine. When we were at the machine trying to read the French, another guy came out and “helped” us to buy tickets. Later, what was supposed to be a three-day ticket turned out to be a one-way, single-use ticket. We paid him €48, the price shown on the ticket machine, but he must have cancelled the transaction and bought us the single-trip ticket instead.

• I spent some time working in Egypt and noticed that when tourists paid to ride camels (especially at the pyramids), they would always get stuck having to pay twice for their rides. The owners of the camels would kindly ask for the fee before the tourist got up on the camel, and then, when the ride was done, would not let the tourist off until they paid the fee again. It’s a big, difficult jump down from a camel!

• Be careful if you are parking at the Tronchetto garage in Venice and want to take a vaporetto into the city. Men surrounded us, told us where to walk, and directed us to private taxi boats. They refused to allow us to go to the vaporetto. They raised their voices at us and insisted that we take their private taxis. I pulled out my Rick Steves book and showed them I wanted the vaporetto, but they yelled at me and made us walk to the taxi boats. When we arrived at the taxi, the man asked for more money than we were told it would cost. When I questioned him, he yelled, “Get out!” As we walked back to the parking garage, we saw signs pointing to the vaporetto and found it easily. We later realized that the men kept positioning us so that we could not see those signs when we originally entered the parking garage.

• Pickpockets on the Lisbon subway were very active. They didn’t get anything from me because the money was in my moneybelt, but my purse was opened twice in the same day! And I thought I was alert!

• On the overnight train from Paris to Florence, we shared a couchette with a younger Spanish couple who seemed very nice. The only time my husband and I left the couchette was for about 15 minutes to allow the other couple to prepare for sleeping. In the morning we got ready to leave the train. I went to retrieve my tote bag from under my bunk and it was nowhere to be found! I woke the other couple and they swore that they had never left the room while we were out. We had only been gone 15 minutes, I was awake all night, and the door never opened. So who took the tote? Luckily all of my real valuables were on my body throughout the night. We have gone over this many times, and the other couple either robbed us and threw the bag out within the 15 minutes or they put it in one of their larger suitcases. Do not trust anyone with your belongings for a minute.

• I have only heard of this happening in Spain on the Costa del Sol, but it could happen anywhere. This scam depends on you paying a restaurant/bar bill in cash, usually with a €50 note. The waiter will take your payment, then return shortly after, apologetically telling you that the note is a fake and that you need to pay again. He will return the "fake" bill to you, and any change you're due. Of course, you gave him a REAL note, he gave you a FAKE note, and you gave him a second real note, so you paid €100 for a €50 meal. What I do now is write unobtrusively on all large notes I get, so I can challenge them if it happens to me.

• In Paris, at a boutique across the street from the Louvre, the shop owner presented me with a receipt for €25 for my two T-shirts, but gave me a receipt for €250 to sign for the credit-card purchase. When I called him on it, he claimed it was a mistake. I have no doubt that it was intentional, so consider yourself warned, keep track of your decimals, and watch what you sign.

• We went into a small bar in Rome near St. Peter's, even though our tour guide told us not to. We ordered two cokes and a sandwich. We paid €20 for the cokes and €13 for the sandwich. The next day we met the guide again and told him, and he said you should always ask how much it will cost before you sit down or take the goods into your hands.

• When we visited France — mainly in Paris — we as Americans started wondering why we were getting quarters in our pockets from change. We finally figured it out when we realized that the €1 coin is the same size as the American quarter. I finally caught on after we bought tickets at a Métro station and realized that the cashier had made this exchange. What a bundle she must be making!

• While riding in the RER (Paris Métro) a man came through the car and dropped a package containing a notepad and pen beside each of the four of us. I immediately told my traveling companions not to touch it, and they didn't. A short while later, the man came through and took the packages back, but those passengers in the car who had picked them up found themselves on the receiving end of a demand for payment. The lesson: Don't allow ANYONE to give you something you may not want; you'll have a battle giving it back.

• When arriving in Rome for the first time, we made the mistake of taking a cab from the train station to our hotel. The driver charged us what seemed to be a huge amount. We argued with the driver outside the hotel, and when he appeared to get agitated we just gave in. We asked the hotel manager what the cab should have cost, and we did indeed get ripped off. The advice the manager gave us was that if you feel the driver is scamming you, politely say to him that the best way to resolve the dispute is to go into the hotel and ask them what the fare should be. Then do it! According to the manager, the cab driver will immediately admit he may have made a mistake.

• While we were in the Milan train station seated in a first-class compartment, four well-dressed Italian men joined us. One announced, "These seats are taken!" We said no — we had checked the slip posted outside — but my husband stood up. Immediately, the other three guys entered the compartment and started a sort of Marx-brothers shuffling around. My husband got manipulated all the way outside to the hallway with one guy facing him. He later said the man was surely looking for the right pocket to pick. (My husband was wearing a safari-type jacket with multiple pockets!) Being in the train station, they were on and off the car in minutes without any danger of police. Never get up if this happens...tell them to find the conductor, just hold your ground, or lean out the window and yell!

• Be warned when buying from street artists. A lot of the "original" artwork (mostly the watercolors) is actually just printed by computer on watercolor paper.

• In Prague, our baggage was being taken off the bus when a gentleman offered to help a woman in our group. He removed her bag from the luggage hold. She thought that he was from the hotel and laid her purse down next to her carry-on bag. By the time the suitcase was out of the luggage hold and she got her bearings, her purse was gone. Be especially vigilant right after your transatlantic flight; you are tired and it's easy to let your guard down.

• In London, only the familiar "black" cabs can be hailed from the street. If any other kind of car stops for you, tell them to get lost, no matter how insistent they may be.

• At a hotel in Paris, I handed over a wad of €50 bills and told the clerk that there was €600 there. She counted the bills and said, "This is only €550." I had no way to prove that it was really €600 since I didn't count it in front of her. (I had counted it earlier.) We both searched around and didn't find the missing €50. I gave her another €50, figuring it was the only thing I could do. I learned that it would have been better to have counted out the money to her rather than just handing over the cash. I still don't know what happened; it is possible that I dropped a bill someplace. It's also possible that she palmed it. The irony is that I was paying cash, rather than using a credit card, in order to save a few euros!

• I had just arrived at one of the big train stations in Paris and was looking at the Métro map to figure out how to get to my hotel when a friendly French guy came over and asked me where I was going. After showing me the best route to take, he offered to help me buy a ticket at the automated-ticket machine. He asked me how many days I would be in Paris for, and I said seven. He selected a seven-day Métro pass for me — or that's what he told me it was, but how would I know if I can't read French? It cost €77 (which I saw on the screen), and I put my credit card in the machine to purchase. When it didn't work he touched a few buttons and quickly put in his credit card. The ticket came out and he had me give him the cash. I knew something was wrong, but it happened so fast that I didn't walk away like I should have. It was a €1 single-journey ticket, which I found out later when I tried to use it on my second trip on the Métro.

• Beware of letting your round-trip tickets out of sight on the overnight train from Kraków to Prague (or any number of Eastern European routes). The "conductor" took my round-trip ticket as I got into the couchette and assured me that I'd get it back in the morning. Come morning, he said he gave it to me, then later said he said he put it in my couchette. Then he went through the motions of looking in his pockets, but I was screwed. My roundtrip ticket was gone and he'd likely sell it for the 25 bucks it was worth. If possible, get a round-trip ticket that is physically two separate pieces of paper, and then only give the conductor the one necessary for that leg of the trip.

• On a Sunday in Barcelona, I was going from the Picasso Museum to the Palau de la Música Catalana. In order to get there as quickly as possible I headed through one of the side streets — a big mistake! I vaguely noticed three young men standing off to the side. Everything happened very fast. One came in front of me, snatched my travel purse — which I carry across one shoulder and round my neck — with enough force to break the tough strap. He took off down an alley. Fortunately, I lost little of real value because I wear a moneybelt. The incident made me more conscious of keeping to the more frequented streets.

• While renting a car going from Granada to Seville, motorcyclists punctured our tire. After yanking out the luggage and jacking up the car to change the tire, a "good Samaritan" came along to say, "There's a mechanic over here, look, over here" to my wife. While she was looking, another thief tried to steal her purse from our car. Luckily, I stood up just in time to see the thief in the car with the purse (with our credit cards and passports inside) in his hands. He let go and began to run. I nearly clobbered him with the tire iron.

• When traveling, use ATMs only when the bank is open. An ATM machine ate our card, and when we went back to the bank in the morning, we found out that it was missing. There were charges already made before we could cancel the card. Train stations and airports often have the best ATMs, with lots of people around to help.

• While driving through Naples to get to Sorrento, we noticed boys on mopeds pass us in the opposite direction. Shortly after, we stopped for a train crossing. My husband happened to catch sight of the kids approaching from behind and immediately hit the power door locks the INSTANT that two boys jumped off the bikes (they were passengers) and tried to pull the side door and rear hatch open. They would have had my sister-in-law's bag from her lap with everything in it and my camera and camcorder from the back. The kids were checking us out as they passed, and then returned when we were stopped with nowhere to go. Lock your doors!
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