Ferne Arfin  3 March 2018

Tricky scams that target tourists

Bring your caution with you on your European city holiday. Don’t be a target for the tricky scams of increasingly creative petty criminals who plague places popular with visitors.

This is a great time of year to visit Europe. Nice weather brings everyone out into the streets to sunshine and relax at sidewalk cafes. But warmer weather also brings out the conmen, pickpockets and scam artists who prey on tourists. From all over the continent they arrive in Europe’s biggest cities – London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona – for the rich pickings to be had from vacationers who  have left their everyday cares and their normal caution behind.

You can stay smart and avoid becoming a victim by wising up to a few of these latest and most common scams that target tourists.

The Key Drop Scam

Wherever crowds of tourists, travelers and students mingle, dine and drink, you can expect pickpockets, purse snatchers and all sorts of opportunistic grifters.

As an experienced traveler, I thought I could see a con game coming a mile away but recently I nearly became a victim in a neat and nasty little scam. Here’s what happened:

Dining alone in a popular, crowded square, I was seated near the edge of an outdoor café. “Watch your handbag,” the headwaiter warned and I stowed the bag safely on my lap, out of sight of passing pedestrians but where I could both see and touch it.

Just as the bill arrived, a well-dressed man, chatting on a cell phone, sat nearby and tossed his keys on  the table. They skidded across the white linen tablecloth and landed on the ground between his table and mine.

He didn’t seem to see where they landed so I pointed them out to him. He continued chatting on his phone, nosing about for his keys and speaking to me in a language I did not understand; he seemed to want me to pick the keys up for him.

Normally, I might have. But there was a structural column next to my chair that made reaching over for his keys difficult for me. And he seemed fit enough to get up and fetch his keys himself.

That’s probably when my wine and food befuddled brain finally kicked in. “I’m not going to get your keys for you,” I said and put my arm across my handbag just in time to prevent his accomplice, another well-dressed man, from nipping in behind me and snatching it.

Americans, with their lack of standoffishness and their instinct to be helpful are probably specifically targeted for this scam.

So if a well dressed man – or a beautiful woman – drops some everyday object like a set of keys or a magazine near you, think twice before you spring to their aid. Better to be rude than to be a victim.

Here are a few other scams and con games worth looking out for:

  • The Busker’s Accomplice – Street entertainers are called buskers in Britain. They can be a colorful and entertaining addition to the street scene. And some parts of London, like Covent Garden – where they are licensed and scheduled, are famous for them. But an audience focused on a street entertainer is a prime target for pick pockets. Be particularly careful if you come upon a busker with a minimal skill – juggling a few objects, singing with a karaoke machine, or delivering a line of not very comical comic patter. Some of these “entertainers” are just a distraction for their pickpocket accomplices.
  • The Shell Game – The shell game is a scam that has gone on forever, just about everywhere and no one ever wins. The performer hides an object – a bean, a coin, or a ten pound note perhaps – under one of three cups, then moves them around and asks you to pay to guess which cup hides the object or the money. It’s a slick illusion and usually the ordinary bloke in the crowd who does guess correctly is an accomplice whose job it is to draw the unwary in. But other, less obvious accomplices are the gangs of pickpockets who work the crowd at the same time. I thought you really had to be born yesterday to fall for this one. But on a warm,sunny day recently, as I crossed Westminster Bridge near Parliament, the shell game teams were so thick on the ground and surrounded by such big crowds that it was actually impossible to walk on the sidewalk. I bet a lot of wallets were parted from their owners that day. 
  • Pass the parcel – I’ve seen this scam on London’s South Bank  and at an outdoor market in Northern France. Pickpockets work in teams of two. One lifts the wallet or the handbag or the smart phone, then quickly passes it to his accomplice. Even if a member of the public or the victim sees the pickpocket in the act of thieving, by the time the authorities are summoned, the stolen goods have vanished with the accomplice into the crowd. In the case I witnessed, in France, the victim swore she had seen the thief take her phone and felt his hand in her handbag. Another member of the public had seen the crime taking place as well. The man accused volunteered to be searched and of course the missing phone was not on him. What followed was a performance of Gallic shrugging worthy of Jacques Tati.
  • The heavy ring Someone tried to pull this on me in Paris but I have since heard of it happening in Edinburgh during festival. It is apparently popular with Eastern European criminals operating solo. A man stops you to ask you if the ring he just found is yours. It is a massive man’s ring – often a wedding ring – and clearly quite heavy, heavy enough to be made of gold. The grifter says he doesn’t know what to do with it and doesn’t have time to turn it in at police station or lost and found. But he needs money for his train fare/dinner/shoes/hotel room etc. He offers to sell it to you for some ridiculously low amount, say £20 or £50 – ridiculous that is if it really is the two ounces of gold that it seems to be. Of course it’s not gold and probably isn’t even gold plated. It is just some other heavy metal – probably lead – plated with shiny yellow metal to look the part. Don’t be taken in.
  • The backpack hustle – You’re standing at a busy bus stop in a city center – especially in the popular entertainment areas. It’s the rush hour and occasionally people bump into you.  Then a bunch of lively teenagers surround you. They seem to be having a whale of a time and maybe they are drunk or a little high. One or two of them ask for directions. Either they pretend to be too thick to understand quite simple directions, or else they ask how to get somewhere really complicated. Meanwhile, their girlfriends and boyfriends are making a lot of noise and jostling you from behind. It’s not high spirits. They are trying, while you are otherwise distracted, to get their hands into your back pack. Fortunately, they never find a wallet, money or anything valuable in the accessible pockets of mine. If you do wear a back pack keep your valuables in the most difficult to reach and hardest to open compartment – the one right against your back is best. Or better yet, leave them in your hotel safe and carry a minimum amount of money or an insured credit card somewhere on your person where it cannot be snatched by a casual opportunist. 
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