You may look good. But it's unlikely that you look good enough to attract a swarm of pretty locals. If the drinks are free-flowing, you might just want to watch out that you're not stuck footing the bill. | Manori Ravindran
You prepared for chilly airplanes, heat waves and temperamental volcanoes, but did you anticipate getting scammed into paying a 500 Euro bar tab? Probably not. Few of us expect to get conned abroad – you're too busy having fun to be suspicious of anything more serious than a weak Guinness – but, unfortunately, that’s when vacations can go south, along with your bank account.
Parts of Europe are notorious for scammers, and most finger-wagging relatives will take it upon themselves to ensure you watch that wallet in the Paris Metro or hold tight to your purse on Barcelona’s La Rambla. But don’t think keeping a sweaty travel wallet strapped to your thigh will prevent scammers from taking advantage. Europe’s small-time crooks are crafty and seasoned from swindling unsuspecting tourists, and you may not realize you’ve been conned until you’ve willingly handed over money and walked away.
Tom Summerfield, co-founder of The Active Backpacker blog with his partner Trudy, quit a bank job in Australia to live in Europe and travel the world. He’s only been fooled once, but he’s been exposed to the gamut of European cons. While falling for a small-scale scam can be a bittersweet educational experience, the blogger advises for crimes such as getting robbed or losing personal belongings, travellers should always get a police report in order to claim travel insurance and corroborate unauthorized transactions on credit cards.
The truth is that scamming isn’t as frequent as we think, and a little common sense goes a long way. But if you do find yourself in a shady situation, many of the tricks out there are variations of the same tried-and-true ploys: if you have these in mind and look out for more than the closest bar, there’s no reason to spoil your holiday with needless paranoia.
The Friendship Bracelet
This gesture of friendship starts out innocently enough, and is common in areas like Paris’ Sacre Coeur. Summerfield explains: “You will be approached by a man who will place some string around your wrist and begin weaving a bracelet. He won’t let you go (which is slightly intimidating, and they will resist if you attempt to pull away), and once he’s completed the bracelet, he will expect you to give him what he considers the bracelet to be worth, which is essentially whatever he thinks he can get from you.”
The blogger says the easiest way to avoid this scam is to smile and keep walking past with your hands in your pockets. If someone tries to make one for you anyway, be prepared to assertively say you are not interested and pull away, or offer a couple of Euros and explain they can have the bracelet back if that’s not good enough. Summerfield adds that it rarely becomes physically aggressive, but these scammers rely on the fact that most tourists want to avoid any conflict whatsoever.
The “Found-A-Ring” Distraction
One of the most common scams in Europe is the distraction trick. It comes in many varieties, but a common one is the “found-a-ring” ploy. You’ll be walking along when an innocent-looking person – often dressed as a fellow tourist – will stop you and point to a ring on the ground.
“Is it yours?” they’ll ask, and you’ll say it’s not. They then pick it up and insist you take the ring. While you’re refusing the gesture, their accomplice will usually come up and get into your wallet or purse, which you won’t notice since you’re distracted by the ring. The distraction device can be used with just about anything, so any time a stranger forcefully tries to get your attention, make sure all valuables are at hand, or in sight.
The Leather Jacket
This elaborate trick capitalizes on most people’s desire for a good deal. Summerfield says a pleasant, well-dressed man will approach you and explain he’s a leather jacket salesman in need of directions. When you’re able to help him, he will “gift” you an expensive designer leather jacket, which he says is worth hundreds of Euros.
As he is leaving, he will quickly explain that his credit card, for some reason, isn’t working and he needs cash for gas – are you able to help him? Since he just gave you this amazing deal, he figures you lending him some money is the least you can do. Once he’s gone, all you’re left with is a near-worthless vinyl “leather jacket.”
The 3-Monte (A.K.A The Shell Game)
Summerfield admits this was the scam he fell for at 18, during his first European backpacking trip. The 3-Monte (also known as the “shell game”) sounds harmless, but like most street games, a number of people fall for it and lose a fair bit of cash.
Summerfield explains that a man has three cups or match boxes and one ball, and he rotates them in front of a crowd, flicking and moving the ball between the boxes. He stops, and if you’re willing to put money down you can guess where the ball is and win slightly more than what you were willing to bet.
The scam is that you can never guess correctly, because the scammer will use sleight of hand to ensure the ball is never there, even if you did guess correctly. The other people playing are usually working with the scammer and that’s why you will see them win, and think you can correctly guess where the ball is as well.
As more travellers use computers on their trips, there are increased risks associated with entering personal information on public, unprotected computers. Summerfield provides the example of keyloggers (Trojans that infect a computer and monitor keystrokes) being installed on a hostel computer to look out for banking and/or e-mail access.
You can alleviate risks by using your own device, or activating two-step verification for logging into e-mail or Facebook, he says.
These are the platforms generally used for the “fake post scam,” where someone pretending to be you will post to social media or e-mail desperately asking for money to be wired to a “friend” because you’ve lost all your ID, cash and belongings. If you’re regularly in touch with family and friends while travelling, they may fall for the scam.
The Flirty Local
You’re on vacation and you’re looking good. So good, it seems, that a group of pretty, local girls really wants to befriend you. You join them at a bar they recommend where you expect to buy them a couple of drinks. Little do you know that the bar in question is incredibly expensive, and when it’s time to pay, you’re the one footing the bill.
“What results is a massive bill that some roughs will attempt to help you pay,” says Summerfield. “From the various stories I’ve heard, things can get quite heated. Avoid this by being the one who chooses the drinking spot.”
If you’re travelling by car, it’s safe to assume you won’t have to worry about pickpockets and conmen, but even drivers get scammed. For example, if you run into a flat, be cautious of eager locals looking to help — they might be the ones who caused your flat by planting something like a nail in the road. At some point, while they’re supposed to be helping you, they’ll make off with all your belongings from the car.