Tourist, beware: Europe’s latest travel scams

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 63 of the November 2009 issue.

• Gelato in hand, you’re strolling down a street in Italy when suddenly an attractive woman starts arguing with a street vendor. A crowd gathers as he accuses her of shoplifting. To prove her innocence, she starts to strip. Once she’s down to her underwear, the vendor apologizes, the woman leaves and the onlookers disappear… and so have their wallets, thanks to a team of pickpockets working the show.

This is just one of the new, inventive ways that European scam artists operate. The good news is that if you’re wise to their tricks, you can just marvel at their ingenuity.

Beware of beggars with babies. They may be out to pick your pocket.

The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businessmen, generally with something official-looking in their hand. Lately, many are posing as tourists with fanny-packs, cameras and even guidebooks.

No matter what country you’re in, assume beggars are pickpockets and any scuffle is simply a distraction by a team of thieves. If you stop for any commotion or show, put your hands in your pockets before someone else does (or, even better, wear a money belt).

• Set-up scams are time-tested and popular. On the busy streets of Barcelona, Berlin and Florence, you’ll find the shell game or its variation, the pea-and-carrot game. Players pay to guess which of the moving shells hides the ball. It looks easy, but the winners all are ringers, and you can be sure that you’ll lose if you play.

• The most rampant scams are subtler, such as being overcharged by a taxi driver. Some cabbies will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one, then tell you that you didn’t pay enough. Others will select the pricier “night and weekend” rate on their meter, even on weekdays.

To decrease your odds of getting ripped off, call for a taxi from a hotel or restaurant. If you do hail a cab, choose one with a prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Either way, insist on using the meter, agree on a price up front or know the going rate. If, for whatever reason, I’m charged a ridiculous price for a ride, I put a reasonable sum on the seat and say good-bye.

• Whenever cash is involved, it pays to be alert. If someone offers to help you use a cash machine, politely refuse (the person wants your PIN code). If a cash machine eats your ATM card, check for a thin plastic insert with a little flap hanging out; crooks use tweezers to extract your card.

Cashiers and even bank tellers thrive on the “slow count,” dealing out change with odd pauses in hopes that rushed tourists will gather up the money early and say “Grazie.”

Also, be careful when paying with large bills in restaurants and stores, and always inspect your change. In Italy, the old 500-lira coins (worth nothing) look like 2-euro coins (worth nearly $3).

Don't confuse the 2 euro coin (left, value $3) with the old 500-lira coin (right, value $0).

• Some thieves hang out at train-ticket machines, eager to assist you in buying tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. And skip the helping hand from official-looking railroad attendants at the Rome train station. They’ll lead you to your seat… then demand a “tip.”

• In Spain, scruffy women offer you sprigs of rosemary (as if in friendship) and then grab your hand, read your fortune and demand payment. Don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a sprig, and say firmly but politely, “No, gracias.”

• Just because someone looks official doesn’t mean he or she is. In Italy, “Tourist Police” may stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave.

Never open your door to “hotel inspectors.” One waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you’re distracted, the first thief slips in and snags valuables off your dresser.

In Vienna, official-looking women decked out in long velvet capes roam famous sights, claiming to work for the opera house and offering to sell you tickets. The tickets are fakes, and the only seats you’ll be buying are the ones on the bus back to your hotel.

• I don’t mean to paint Europe as a dangerous place. In fact, it’s safer than America. Muggings in Europe are uncommon. Thieves want to separate you from your money painlessly.

Scams are easy to avoid if you recognize them. But, remember, even the most vigilant traveler can get conned. If this happens, don’t let it ruin your trip. With the right attitude and lighter bags, you still can have a wonderful time.