Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Tourists make easy targets.
Whether it’s because we’re so busy staring up at the multi-colored facade of a Gothic church to notice our surroundings, snapping photos of our pretty lunch for Instagram to care about being overcharged, or simply not well-versed enough in local languages or customs to follow what’s going on, we are easy prey for petty thieves. And unfortunately, that means much more than a simple pickpocket.
There are seemingly countless scams directed at travelers the world over. Some are the stuff of legend, discussed by generations of tourists. Some are new, as swindlers realize that we’re onto them. This collection of some of the most common travel scams found in Europe is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg, meant to give you an idea of what to expect.
While some of the scams listed below require unique responses in order to not be a victim, there are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe from thieves and scam artists and to make yourself a less appealing target in general.
- Wear a money belt. Keep the majority of your cash, all but one credit card, your passport, airline ticket, Eurail pass, and any other valuable documents (that you aren’t stashing in the hotel safe) in a money belt, worn under your clothes.
- Leave the Rolex at home. If locals see you as a wealthy visitor, you’re a much more interesting target for them. Default to more subtle attire and accessories.
- Make your valuables difficult to access. Front-pocket wallets for men make a pickpocket’s job much harder, as do cross-body purses for women (especially those that close firmly with a zipper). Put away your camera when you’re done with the photo – a camera dangling from your wrist is a carrot to a thief. And don’t throw your bag over the back of the chair at the outdoor cafe. Use a purse hook to hang it under the table in a hard-to-reach spot.
Above all, do your research before you leave home. Find out what scams are most common in the places you’ll be visiting. Review what the currency looks like so you don’t get flummoxed counting change. Look up official rates on things like taxi rides to/from the airport and gondola rides in Venice. Being armed with information is often your best defense against the scam artists. And don’t let these scams put you off visiting. Despite some petty crime, Europe has some of the safest countries in the world.
Here are the top travel scams to watch out for in Europe.
Unofficial guides or taxis
In many countries, tour guides and taxi drivers must be licensed by official organizations – sometimes going through required training first. Those licenses aren’t free, so there will always be people who skip the license and head straight for the unwitting traveler.
They may quote you one price up front and then add a zero or two to the end of the number once the tour or ride is over, citing some random extra thing they supposedly gave you that hadn’t been discussed at the outset. And you’ll either believe them or be freaked out if they get aggressive, paying the extra just to get out of the situation.
Not all unofficial guides or taxi drivers are out to scam you, but the lack of a license means that you have no recourse if you find out later that you were overcharged or if you feel hassled. Stick to officially licensed guides, and only get in the taxi if there’s a license on display – and a working meter.
Italy has a law requiring shops to give customers a receipt at the end of a transaction, so that there’s a record of the sale and the government can track whether they pay taxes on it. Because of this, there are genuine police officials working for the tax division who are tasked with randomly stopping customers upon leaving a shop to double-check that they’ve gotten a receipt.
What this means, however, is that some fake “tax police” have been popping up around Italy, demanding you pay whatever fine they insist you’ve incurred in cash into their hands right away.
In other countries, fake “police” have been known to stop travelers and ask to see their wallet. They often say they’re on the look out for counterfeit cash. Either they’ll find some counterfeit bills in your wallet and confiscate them, or they won’t find anything but you’ll realize (only later) that some of your money is missing anyway.
The bottom line? Don’t hand over your wallet to a stranger, period. Ask to call their supervisor to confirm their badge information. Tell them you’ll go with them to the police station to examine bills there, but not in the street. (They won’t want to do this, obviously.) And, in Italy, always get a receipt before you leave the store.
Gold ring scam
We all drop things now and then, so when someone approaches you and asks if you dropped this ring he/she is holding in an outstretched hand, you might think nothing of it. You’ll say it’s not yours, at which point the scam artist will try to push the ring on you anyway as a “gift,” then showing you some fictitious mark indicating that it’s real gold (it’s not) and asking to be paid for it.
Another version of this scam skips the part where the ring is given as a “gift” at first, going straight to the, “Hey, this is real gold, do you want to buy it?” line.
Unless you really did drop a ring, don’t accept any supposed gold rings foisted on you by strangers.
Causing a commotion
There are many scams that can fall under the category of “distract the tourist.” Thieves working in groups will cause some kind of ruckus, either somewhere around you or directed right at you, and while you’re busy trying to figure out what’s going on someone else in the group will lift your wallet or camera or some other valuable off your person.
James of The Savvy Backpacker once worked for a vacation rental company in Paris, where a guest told him he “had his hands full with two suitcases and was riding up an escalator at a train station. Someone at the top of the escalator created a commotion and created a pileup on the escalator. Of course, there was someone behind the guest who grabbed his wallet out of his pocket.” They lost all their passports, cash, and credit cards.
You might find a placard or newspaper pushed into your face by a beggar. It’s probably hiding pickpockets from view as they grab your valuables. You might have a “helpful” person offer to give you directions when you’re looking at a map, only to have said map opened up under your nose so you can’t see your purse while someone else is digging through it. You might have something spilled onto your shirt or dress, followed by an apologetic person enthusiastically wiping up the mess while simultaneously pawing at your pockets.
One of the classic distraction scams is that of a woman dressed as a beggar holding an infant. She’ll throw the baby in your direction, and of course you’ll try to catch it – it’s a baby, after all. Only it’s not. And then you’re left, panicked, holding a doll while she (or a cohort) has made off with your purse.
It’s always a good idea to keep a tighter hold on valuables in crowded markets or train stations, but the same holds true any time you notice a commotion nearby – and especially if the commotion involves a group of people clustering around you. Extricate yourself as quickly as possible from the melee and – again – this is a time when you’ll be thankful most of your money, credit cards, and other valuable documents are in a money belt safely out of a pickpocket’s reach.
This is another umbrella topic, under which there are many variants.
There are the guys who walk up to couples and push roses into the woman’s hand, then demand an overly high price for it from the man. There are people who look like religious devotees who will, the second you make eye contact, hand you a rosemary branch or cheap jewelry trinket or card with inspirational verses on it, after which they’ll want a sizable donation. There are people who will tie a string bracelet on your exposed wrist before you can blink, then ask for an extortionate amount of money for it.
There’s a more involved scam in which someone claiming to be a leather merchant asks for directions, strikes up a conversation with you (and therefore, you think, a friendship), gives you what he says is a valuable leather jacket in thanks, and then mentions that his credit card isn’t working (or is lost, or is at home) and would you please give him a little cash so he can buy gas?
That valuable leather jacket, by the way, will turn out to be a worthless fake.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as the old saying goes, and the same is true here. Just say no to free gifts from strangers, since they usually turn out to cost quite a bit. And don’t hand over cash unless you genuinely want that rose/bracelet/rosemary/fake leather jacket.
When you’re not as familiar with the currency in a foreign country, it’s much easier to get taken by a shopkeeper or taxi driver who hands over less change than you deserve. They’re relying on you feeling rushed (perhaps by a line behind you at the counter, or by the desire to get out of the cab) and not counting your money until it’s too late.
Sometimes the scam is an exaggeratedly slow count of your change, the hope being that you’ll get tired of the time it’s taking and just leave with the bills offered. You won’t realize until later that the total is less than what you were owed.
Familiarize yourself with what the bills and major coins look like, either before you leave home or very early in your trip. Then, count your change before leaving the shop or the taxi, or let the slow counter take as long as they want to give you the proper change.
Maybe the line at the train station ticket counter is too long for your taste, or there’s no staffed ticket window in the Metro station. You head over to the ticket machine and begin to muddle your way through, trying to figure out what tickets you need, when out of nowhere a helpful stranger appears at your side to walk you through the whole process.
The scam here can take different forms, from a person taking enough cash from you for two (for instance) day passes on the subway while only buying two hour-long tickets and pocketing the difference, to someone actually helping you to buy exactly what you need while a colleague rifles through your bag since you’re so distracted.
Using automated ticket machines can be a real time-saver when you travel, so don’t give up on them – just be wary of any strangers offering to help you out, and definitely don’t give them your cash. If you put your own cash in the machine, even if you don’t end up with the ticket you want, at least you don’t lose a bunch of money to a thief.
It’s possible you avoid signature gatherers even when you’re at home, but when you’re traveling there can be an added layer of discomfort if you’re approached outside a tourist attraction by someone (often someone pretending to be handicapped) with a clipboard.
Perhaps you support whatever charity or rule change the petition is about, and maybe you believe that you can sign even if you don’t live there, but sometimes the petitioner will ask for money after you’ve signed. When you decline, he/she might get somewhat verbally aggressive, and you wouldn’t be the first person to hand over some money just to get out of the situation.
Legitimate charities exist all over Europe, so if you want to contribute to the cause make a mental note to investigate genuine charitable organizations later. (The International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are good places to start.) It might make you feel a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay to say no to signature gatherers and keep walking.
Overly friendly locals and the secret bar
Solo travelers can be easy targets for some scams, as thieves prey on the fact that you might be a little lonely and more receptive to company.
One scam (particularly common in Budapest, Bucharest, and some other major European cities) involves being befriended by a local or two (it’s often an attractive woman, since this scam appears to be targeted mostly at men traveling alone) who know a “great little place” for drinks. It’s not widely known, this bar, or at least that’s what your new “friends” are telling you – so you might not be put off by the the lack of signage on the street or weird entrance that you can only reach via an elevator.
You might be shown a menu with what look like reasonable prices, only to have a completely different menu with grossly inflated prices presented when the exorbitant bill arrives. You might never see a menu at all, wrongly assuming that a simple well drink can’t possible cost as much as a night in a fancy hotel.
When Leif, author of the book Backpacking With Dracula, wrote about this scam on his blog, he got so many variations on the theme in the comments (many from experienced travelers who fell for the scam) that the entire thing is an educational (if cringe-worthy) read.
It’s questionable if a bar or restaurant doesn’t have a prominent enough entrance that one doesn’t need a local guide to find it, and it’s not a bad idea to be wary of locals who get really friendly really quickly.
My memory card is better than yours
This scam is apparently quite common in the Canary Islands, though not elsewhere (which may mean it’s just a matter of time before it’s more widespread).
Joanne of The Road To Wanderland says that she and her parents were convinced to pay €70 for a new camera memory card after a shopkeeper seemed to demonstrate how much better his was:
“He took Mum’s camera, took a picture outside the shop, then showed us the result on a screen in his shop. It looked terrible. Then he put in a ‘new, fancy HD card,’ gave Mum her camera and asked her to take the same picture. Sure enough, the difference in picture quality was superb.”
Joanne was bothered by the exchange later that day and did her own research. The scam, it turns out, is for the shopkeeper to take the first picture with the customer’s camera – the one that shows how poor the existing card is – so he can change the quality settings on the camera first. Then, after the memory card is swapped for his “fancy HD card,” he’ll change the quality settings back again so the customer can take the second picture.
Luckily for Joanne’s parents, they were staying in town long enough to return to the shop the next day, where Joanne managed to get their money back (after a “nasty argument” with the reluctant shopkeeper). She says that in the Canary Islands, at least, it’s best to “avoid the independent electronics shops in tourist resorts.”