From "free gifts" to dropped bags—don't fall victim to these classic scams.
It’s an unfortunate fact of travel: in many tourist centers, scammers prey on the unfamiliarity, gullibility, and jetlag of travelers to make some cash. Some of them are even so sophisticated that even savvy travelers can fall victim if they let their guard down.
Most of the scams have a common purpose—to distract, confuse, or disorient so that you won’t notice you’re being pickpocketed, or to take advantage of situations where you’re unable to give chase.
Here are a few of the most common scams prevalent in heavily-touristed areas in major European capitals. These often splinter into several variations, so keep an eye on the basic pattern.
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The Baby Toss
Often deployed on shoppers heavily laden with bags or on public transit, a stranger may ask you to hold their baby—or may even outright toss it at you, hoping you’ll drop your belongings to catch it. In the confusion, you may be pickpocketed or any of the bags you drop may be run off with by accomplices, and you’ll soon find out the “baby” isn’t real.
The Camera Scam
This scam cuts two ways. A friendly stranger may offer to take your picture with your camera or smartphone, then run off with it. Conversely, a stranger may ask you to take their picture, dropping their camera or smartphone while handing it over, and demanding that you pay for the damages, hoping you either pay up out of embarrassment or get so involved in the argument you don’t notice you’ve been pickpocketed by an accomplice.
A stranger may spill a drink or squirt an ink pen on your shirt, and in the ensuing fluster attempting to clean it or offer to pay for the cleaning, may lift your wallet, or be successful in cleaning it and then cause a scene, demanding a fee for the “assistance.”
The Fake Cop
A police officer approaches you on the street, asking to search your wallet for bags for contraband (counterfeit bank notes are a favorite), verify documents, or collect entry fees. Many visitors, unaware of local laws, may acquiesce, but most European countries have laws protecting citizens from warrantless search. Request to handle business at the local police station, and the fake police will disappear quickly.
The Street Performance
Buskers, street dancers, and other performance artists abound near tourist areas in many European cities. Many of them are harmless—and some of them are part of large organized scam networks. It doesn’t hurt to stop and watch a bit, but don’t get too distracted by the performance—the crowds are sometimes worked by pickpockets who have just watched you take out your wallet to throw some coins in the hat.
The Gold Ring
A stranger approaches you on the sidewalk with a gold ring, claiming you must have dropped it, or that you have otherwise jointly “found” it on the sidewalk. They proclaim the ring to be of great value and will part with it for a seemingly low price. The ring will prove to be worthless, and the scammer has some cash. Just ignore them and keep walking.
The Bar Friend
A friendly stranger strikes up a conversation, and after you seem to hit it off, suggests you go to a trendy or new bar, restaurant, or club for a drink. When you get the bill from their accomplice, it’s exorbitant, the new friend is nowhere to be found, and scary bouncers will demand payment. If you really think you’ve hit it off with a new friend, Google the venue first or pick one yourself.
The pile-up may seem like an honest accident: someone drops their bags at the bottom of an escalator, causing a pile-up behind them, while their accomplice lifts the wallets or bags from those caught in the commotion. This is a common scam in malls or train stations where the thieves have just observed a mark getting cash from an ATM and noting where they put their wallet before heading toward the escalator.
Avoid this scam by not getting cash from freestanding ATMs at malls or train stations (use ATMs inside a bank branch) to avoid being identified as a mark; when using escalators with luggage keep it in front of you on the escalator instead of behind. If you do get caught in a pile-up, immediately assume they’re after your valuables, and keep them close. Another variation is causing a scene about who caused the pileup or claiming injury—if this happens insist on involving the police (they’re present at all train stations, which also have closed-circuit cameras), and the scammers will disappear in short order.
The Free Gift
This is a straightforward scam—you’re approached and a string bracelet is tied around your wrist or a flower or sprig of herbs tucked into your lapel, then you’re asked for payment, or a scene is caused to get you to pay up out of embarrassment. Stay vigilant, keep your hands close, or swat away free items firmly when approached. If necessary, cause a scene yourself—the scammers don’t like to work hard on their marks, and they’ll quickly move on if you make it clear you’re going to be difficult.
The Ticket Helper
When buying tickets for public transport from a vending machine, a friendly stranger approaches, offering to help. Invariably the machine will be “broken” and won’t accept cash, so the stranger offers to pay on their card, while you pay them cash for the tickets. You’ll find the tickets will be unusable (a one-way child ticket when you paid for a day pass, for example) and the scammer will have vamoosed. Sometimes the scammers will wear nametags and look like official transit workers, but self-serve ticket machines are designed to be fully self-serve.
On public transit, an assailant will snatch a purse or bag, particularly if standing or sitting near an open door. Once the door closes and the train or bus moves on, they’re gone. Avoid this by sitting or standing away from the doors, and stay vigilant about your belongings when passengers are getting on or off.
On city streets, assailants will snatch bags from motorbikes or mopeds from pedestrians, or through open windows or unlocked doors of cabs or cars. Avoid this by making sure cab doors are locked and windows are closed or by walking with bags on the side of your body away from the street. Some high-end fashion stores will even deliver large dollar amount purchases to your hotel.
What to Do if You’re Victim of a Scam
It’s embarrassing to be robbed, but there are a few antidotes. The first is to keep a GPS tracking device like a Tile or similar in your wallet or bag. In many situations, the scammers are only after cash and salable valuables, like jewelry. Bankcards are of no use to them, and they’ll usually discard anything of no value, often in a trash bin quite close to where the items were taken.
It’s also worthwhile to go to the police. Some European capitals (like Paris) have separate, English-speaking police forces for tourists. They may not be able to recover your items, but they can keep a record of the methods used by scammers and deploy patrols based on the geographic location of reports.
If a U.S. passport is among your lost items, report it immediately to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Keep a photocopy of the original on your person; it will expedite the emergency replacement process.