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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.
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 are all ringers, and you can be sure that you’ll lose if you play.
The most rampant scams are more subtle, 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 goodbye.
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 now-worthless 500-lira coin looks like a 2-euro coin.
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 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 can still have a wonderful time.
Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Have you been a victim of a travel scam in Europe or other places? Share your thoughts with other travelers in the comments section.
The biggest loss ever was in NYC where my pocket was picked. I travel all over Western Europe without problems. So Americans beware in the USA
For decades I've been aware of the notoriety of pickpockets in Italy, but I still don't know all their ploys.
I was told about an Italian woman who, while leading a group of children, pushed an open newspaper in front of a tourist. The children's tiny hands emptied his pockets.
Keep valuables in a passport bag around your neck, in a zipper or velcro pocket, etc. Leave expensive jewelry at home.
We toured Venice with a group that ate in the hotel restaurant. A hotel employee knew when we'd be gone and stole cash from our room.
lol, come to India, you will be mugged in broad daylight with open eyes and you will never know it till the end of your life ;)
Steve give a visit to India.
Can I just punch a pick pocket in the solar plexus? Maybe steal their cash instead?
Seems some thing has hit our country :(
i am listening too.
The gypsies are everywhere. Perhaps, we should purge the monetary system in this world. It may eliminate greed and other evils from the environment. I do believe in a cleaner environment.
However, there are many ways to rob. Some try to steal joy from your life. There are people while employed with companies/organizations collecting a pay but will not earn it with their actions. Please define thievery?
I live in Costa Rica and one of our best pick pocket routines is the "lady on the bus drops a coin"......Older lady pretends she lost a coin and it has fallen around your feet. As she shuffles her hands around your feet looking for the coin, you automatically bend over to help find it, behind you is her accomplice, taking your wallet. I learned of this trick and it was played on me one day when I was on a bus. When she went down to shuffle her hands around my feet, I stomped on her hand and immediatley turned around to see this old guy starring me in the face.
I was the victim of a cab scam in Granada, Spain...the driver took my 20 Euro bill and wouldn't give me change...on a MAYBE 5 Euro ride I had just taken the day before (to/from the autobus station). My tip: always have smaller bills!! I didn't have any that morning and on top of it, had to skip breakfast and missed my original departure time because of time spent arguing in my limited Spanish with this jerk!
While walking to the Colosseum, in Rome, I had my arm grabbed by a young girl. She yanked on me so hard, my hand came out of my pocket and became unbalanced as she yelled,"Bambino,Bambino!" Instantly, a gypsy woman, with a baby in arms, reached into my pocket and extracted the wallet. All the while trying to remove the young girl from my arm, saying no to the begging of both the gypsy and girl. This distraction served to prevent me from reaching back into my pocket and discovering the loss. Not until 5 minutes later, after the departure of the two, did I realize what really happened. In Florence, I was a victim to the ATM machine scheme, but that's another story.
In Prague the a common place for pickpockets is crowded metros and trams, one person will block the door momentarily and in the push/shove of people trying to get off pockets are picked. Also, while the huge group of tourists that gathers every hour to gape at the astrological clock is staring waiting for the Apostles to pop out people just squeeze through to the crown 'in a hurry' and pick pockets.
Barcelona, Spain --- on a busy steet in our rental car a young well dressed man approached our car speaking fluent Spanish pointing to our rear passenger tire----I wanted to leave but my husband encouraged me to see what the problem was--leaving my door open as my husband was in the car, I got out and the young man walked around the back of our car up to the front on my husband's side -- foolish again we were ~ my husband got out thus leaving my handbags on the floor in the front passengers side exposed. We never saw the second person--he had to be crawling along the curb to our car. My one handbag with all our $$$, passports, airline tickets, etc. was taken.
They had to be in the tall building looking down at our rental car to know which bag to take. Both bags were almost identical; one with clothing the other with the items I described !!!
We thought we were astute travelors------------never leave a door open even if someone is in the car. Never get out of the car if someone is already out that is with you.
We will never do that again !!
We were at the Vatican (Sept 07) outside watching (TV) Pope Benedict ordain Cardinals, who was inside. My wallet was stolen(passport not) and enormous amount of checking credit card ($6000) taken within an hour. Police report was given and I lost some Euros but in a short time the VISA Group reinbursed me of all the money they took from my Charge side of the Debit card. Also, AX was great to stop the activity. About Jan. 09 I received in the mail from Rome my driver's license, Delta FF Card and Health card with no note. You know there are some honest people out there... HA.
Although I've never been the victim of a pickpocket, I think the biggest scam is the extra charge when cashing traveler's checks. Although we had Euros and ATM cards, we also had some traveler's checks. In Venice I cashed some in to the service charge of 65 euros. A bit too much for $400 in checks.
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