I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler. A cautious one too. I have never been robbed or pickpocketed (top tip for that: Look poor! Totally works), I have never had anything disappear from my hotel or hostel room. I have never been kidnapped by traffickers forcing my father to use his specific skill set to free me (wait, my life isn’t a movie, and my dad is a retired English teacher. If I was ever kidnapped, all he could do about it would be to correct the grammar in the ransom note with a VICIOUS red pen. That would teach’em!).
BUT, I have been scammed. It can happen to anyone. By now, the scam I fell for is fairly old, but you can still see it done around Europe (cause it works, obviously).
Here’s how it happened.
This is Dôme des Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb, which means I was in Paris (love love love! The cheese, the wine, the chocolate, the history, the art, the music, the buildings, the shopping…it has something for everyone! And speaking of chocolate, you should check out Maison George Larnicol up near the Sacre-Coeur. It’s a chocolate shop and museum! I mean, you can take in the monuments of Paris without ever going near them!) and I’d spent the day sightseeing.
See what I mean? That’s the Notre Dame – made from chocolate!!!
Anyway, I was tired, cause it’s a big city. The underground network is very efficient and easy to use, and you’re usually never more than 500 meters from a station, but you will still be walking a lot!
I was at the entrance to a park called Jardin des Tuileries, which connects Champs-Elysees and the Louvre, there were a lot of people around, street artists and souvenir sellers, and of course, booths selling hot crepes (okay, we have time for a little bit of food-porn, right? Yeah, we do).
Yuuuuuuuuum! Am I drooling? Mais oui!
Anyway, so in the middle of all that distraction, I was very aware of my purse an keeping a tight hold on it in case of pickpockets, when a very sweet young woman came up to me. She was smiling and talking with her hands towards, gently leading me towards an official looking person with a clipboard a little to the side of the milling crowd.
Well, she was mute! What was I supposed to do? Brush her off? Why yes, that’s exactly what I should have done, but it seemed very rude so I just went along with it.
The woman I was led to handed me her clipboard and a pen, and spoke to me in French.
Now, I took French for a few years in highschool, but the only phrase I can really say is “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please repeat that?” so I was lost, but once again, it seemed rude to interrupt and hey, I’m an intelligent person, I could figure out what they wanted.
So I studied the form on the clipboard. It was a letter with a symbol in the corner of a pair of hands using what looked like sign language, and below was some writing with a string of numbers, it looked like an org ID. Below that again was a list of names, with email addresses and numbers. I figured out that the numbers were euro amounts ranging from 10 to 50. The names were all in different handwriting and it honestly looked very authentic.
I mean, the woman had a clipboard! What’s this world coming to if we can’t trust people with CLIPBOARDS???
So I wrote down my name and email (fake, cause I may be slightly gullible but I’m not a COMPLETE idiot), and I handed over a tenner. They both thanked me profusely, one in French and one with some very convincing hand gestures, and I walked off.
But that crepe booth called to me (it still does), so I doubled back barely a minute later, only to see the “mute” girl screaming harassment at a policeman who was escorting her away, while the one with the clipboard was nowhere to be seen.
Yep, I’d been had. And that’s just one of many scams being run on tourists. Some of the most common ones I’ve seen is the rose-handout. It’s free, they insist, but if you take it then they will turn to the nearest man and demand that he pays for it. After all, he’s a gentleman, right? And if he does pay, then they might run the change-scam. The man only has a tenner on him, so he receives a five euro note in change. Moments later, the rose seller comes running, insisting they in fact handed over a 20-euro note. I actually got into a fist fight over just such a scam in Rome, two sellers were trying to scam some of my passengers. They threw the first punch, but my “gravitas” (read: weight and impressive boobage) came in handy and I chased them off. Oh, and by the way, some places they run the exact same scam but with “friendship bracelets” instead of roses.
Some other scams I’ve never experienced myself, but I’ve had passengers who’ve been victims. Taxi-scams is a common one, but these days, opening google maps and making sure the driver knows you know the route will usually take care if that.
One sinister one is what’s sometimes called “door-whores”. These are beautiful women (I suppose they can be men too, but I’ve never heard of any) whose job it is to hit on men, get them into specific nightclubs where they flirt and get men to buy them drinks. I’ve seen people run up tabs of thousands (!) of euros this way, so watch out!
Pickpocketing is something most people are cautious of, especially in crowded areas like on public transport of busy squares. But also be careful of the “drunk lean”, where you’re out partying and someone stumbles into you. Or they could even chat with you, buy you a drink, throw an arm around to point something out or be your “wingman”, and then an hour later they’re gone and so is your wallet.
There’s many more, too many to list, but the main rule of thumb is simply to be careful. If you wouldn’t trust someone or do something at home, then don’t do it while traveling!
Since I have experiences these scams myself, I know how easy it is to fall for it. The thing is, we don’t like to be rude, we don’t like to make a scene. I have learned to be more careful, but honestly, I don’t worry overmuch about it. In fact, I cherish my naivety and trust in dealing with strangers, and I want to believe that people are mostly good. Even Harry here, who I met on a street in Paris. The city of love, indeed!
By all means, be aware and be safe, but don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of a trip. And if things DO go wrong, that’s what travel insurance is for!