Here are five common scams I’ve seen firsthand in the streets of Europe.
• Forced friendship bracelet. A scammer grabs your wrist, loops a string around it, and before you can even comprehend what’s happening, begins tying it into a bracelet. Once he’s got you homemade-bracelet-handcuffed, he’ll demand you pay for it before he’ll let you go. (These scammers are especially notorious lining the steps up to the Sacré-Coeur basilica in Paris.)
• Rose for the ladies. Men carrying long-stemmed roses approach women and offer a rose for “free.” Maybe it’s not so much a scam as blatant false advertising, because the roses aren’t free, just a ploy to dupe you out of several euros and hassle you if you try to give it back.
• Shiny gold ring. A scammer approaches you with a gold ring and asks, “Did you drop this on the ground?” If he’s smooth, he’ll even attempt to slip it on your finger. Next he’ll claim that the ring is real gold but unfortunately doesn’t fit him — so you can keep it if you pay him some of the value. Big shock: the ring is fake.
• Alms for the mute. Groups of young girls pretending to be deaf and/or mute swarm around tourists. They carry clipboards and petition for donations with destitute expressions on their faces. Yep, even young people can be part of intricate scams — and that’s exactly what this is.
• Speak English? A scammer will repeatedly yell, “Does anybody speak English?” in desperation in a metro station or other crowded area. Gullible tourists who try to help get petitioned for money or are temporarily distracted while thieves have a go at their valuables.
We all feel guilty walking past someone who appears in need, but scammers exploit our compassion. Americans often get duped simply because we feel bad ignoring people, and want to be nice. It may go against your instincts, but to avoid getting scammed, you have to adopt a “don’t feed the bear” mentality. Or better yet, “don’t even acknowledge the bear.”
Experienced pickpockets are good at what they do. They work in groups, act nonchalant and slip in and out of personal space without getting noticed. Because their success depends on being discreet, quick and sly, they know just how to avoid getting caught.
While it may not be possible to outsmart pickpockets 100 percent of the time, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of being victim to their schemes.
• Be alert. Pickpockets are masters of distraction. If someone bumps you or otherwise enters your personal space, be suspicious. When it’s inevitable that people will be too close for comfort — like rush hour on the metro or in a crowded tourist spot — pay especially close attention to who’s around you and where your possessions are.
• Look focused. On public transportation, put on your “metro face” — it’s like the “mean-mug” of traveling. I perfected this during study abroad, and never had any trouble with thieves. When I got pickpocketed last month, I was smiling and (quietly) laughing with my husband on the bus. My carefree demeanor was like an “I’m preoccupied” sticker on my forehead.
• Skip the pat-down. We all do the routine check where we pat the places on our body and in our clothes where we keep our valuables to make sure they’re still there. Unfortunately, it just signals to pickpockets exactly where to go for the good stuff.
• Choose your bag carefully. Make sure to carry a sturdy bag that zips closed. You don’t have to line it with chain mail (actually, that’s not a bad idea…), but avoid using bags with easy access and a bunch of enticing pouches. I’m not a huge fan of money belts (I think fumbling underneath your pants/shirt to get to a “secret” money pouch is awkward and just draws attention to being a tourist), but if you don’t have much to carry, it’s a better option than keeping your wallet in your pocket.
• Leave major valuables behind. Keep the amount of cash and credit/debit cards you carry with you to a minimum, and leave your flashiest jewelry at home. The less you have to offer, the better.
Getting pickpocketed in Paris was my worst travel experience to date, and I’m still really bugged about it. In honor of my personal grudge against pickpockets worldwide, let’s rise up and outsmart these criminals.