One of the pitfalls of travel is not knowing whether something is legitimate or a scam. Travel can be stressful, so you might not always have your wits about you or be thinking as lucidly as you would at home. And, many of us are trusting and empathetic by nature. This makes us even easier targets for someone wanting to divest us of our cash.
My husband and I like to think we’re savvy travellers, always aware of our surroundings and keeping a watchful eye on our belongings, especially in crowded tourist attractions. But over the years, we’ve been caught in a few scams ourselves. Here are a few of the scams that we’re embarrassed to admit that we fell for.
The Friendship Bracelet (Milan, 2006)
Well, ok, I like to think that we were patsies for this one because it was our first visit overseas. We were young, we were naive, full of bright-eyed wonder at the world around us.
Mark and I were walking around the Piazza del Duomo, when a man with a handful of woven friendship bracelets approached us. “Free gift for you,” he told us. We politely declined, but he persisted. “It’s free, no money. A welcome gift, it brings good luck!” Again we said no, but he wouldn’t give up.
Before we knew it, he was tying a bracelet on my wrist. I wasn’t completely green, though; I’d read stories of how one person will distract you while another picks your pocket. So while he tied the bracelet on me, I made sure to keep my free hand on my purse and one eye trained on the people around us. Then the man grabbed Mark’s arm and deftly tied a bracelet onto his wrist as well.
“10 Euros,” he said suddenly. Um what? “You said they were free,” we reminded him, “10 Euros” he said again. I presented my wrist to him. “Take it off,” I said. He refused. I tried to unknot it myself, but he had triple-knotted it. Defeated, Mark and I gave him a few Euros, but not the amount he had demanded. But it didn’t matter; he got what he wanted.
Later that night at dinner (we were on a group tour with Contiki), someone called out to the group, “did anyone get a friendship bracelet?” Half of the people on the 52-person tour raised their wrists, all with the bracelets still securely tied on their arms. This was our first lesson in never accepting anything “free” from anyone on holidays, as there’s almost always a hidden price.
This scam is also common in Paris, although we’ve never encountered it there ourselves….yet.
The Wedding Band (Paris, 2007)
On our first jaunt to Paris, my husband and I were innocently walking down the street when something hit my foot and clattered to the pavement. I looked down but didn’t see anything, so I ignored it and we continued to walk on. But a woman passing us, maybe in her 50s or early 60s, stopped us. At first she spoke to us in French, but we indicated that we spoke English.
“You dropped something,” she said, and bent down to pick up the item that had hit my foot. It was a man’s wedding band. “It’s not ours,” we told her and tried to walk away. But she told us we should have it. “It doesn’t belong to us,” we re-iterated. She said it was a symbol of good luck that we found this ring, and insisted that we take it.
After a bit of back and forth, we reluctantly took the ring, thinking that we would now have to find a police station or information office to reunite the ring with its rightful owner. It was more of a burden than a gift.
The woman started to walk away, as Mark and I stood there, dumbfounded and debating what to do with this ring. Suddenly, the woman stopped and turned back to us. Could we perhaps spare a few Euros, since she helped find this ring for us, this very expensive gold band? I looked her over; she was wearing nicer clothes than me. Surely she didn’t need a handout? Again we tried to make her take the ring instead, but she refused. So Mark gave her a Euro or two, although neither of us was quite sure what we were even giving her money for. She looked at the coins in her hand and snapped loudly, “that’s not enough for a sandwich!” So Mark gave her a few more Euros before she left in a huff.
We walked around for a while, then sat down in a park and studied the ring she had helped us “find.” Mark took the ring and started scratching it against the cement curb to see if it was real gold. “Stop!” I insisted. “Don’t damage it. What if it’s real?”
The ring was heavy, and had a small stamp on the inside, as jewellers make when an item is real gold. But now that we had time to actually inspect it, the colour seemed off.
Once we got back to our hotel, we did an Internet search. Not only did we fall for this scam, but we fell for one of the oldest scams in Paris! Someone will help you “find” a ring that they insist you dropped. Then, they ask for a small donation or “finders fee.” After all, they just did you a favour, even if the ring isn’t yours! Maybe you can sell the ring for a good price, or keep it as a souvenir. Either way, a few Euros out of your pocket is nothing compared to the value of this thick, gold wedding band, right?
So, the “thing” that I felt hit my foot, was the ring the woman threw at my feet for us to “find” as we walked past. The ring, which we think is actually made of brass, still sits in my jewelry box to this day as a lesson not to fall for this one again. I hope that woman enjoyed her scam sandwich. (Scamwich?)
Charity for the Deaf Mute (Paris, 2016)
Yeah….you’d think we’d learned our lesson in Paris ten years prior, right? Alas, sometimes scammers get you, and you even realize it’s a scam as you’re falling for it. This one still bothers me too, because I knew I was getting played even as it was happening.
Mark and I went to see the Basilica du Sacre-Coeur. There are several rows of stairs to climb to reach it. And all the way up, there are people, primarily women, walking around with clipboards. As we passed one younger lady, she tried to stop Mark, but he ignored her and kept walking.
I wasn’t as fast. She stepped in my path, silently holding up the clipboard. I shook my head and tried to walk around her. She blocked my path again, tapped my arm, and shoved the clipboard in front of me, waving a pen and pointing to her ear.
Something about her insistence got under my skin. I glanced at the sheets of paper on the clipboard. The document was poorly-photocopied, with an amateurish-looking logo regarding a charity supporting the deaf mute. She pushed the pen into my hand. At first, I just thought it was a petition of sorts. No harm ever came from signing a petition…right?
But even as I started filling it out, I knew this was shady. I could feel it in my gut.
In the space for your name, I chose to put a fake name. It also asked for your country of residence. I looked up to the row before mine, and saw that a woman from the US had filled it out before me, and had donated 10 Euros. Damn. It wasn’t a petition, it was a donation form. And a badly-made one at that. But now, filling out the sheet, I had to make a choice. Do I partially fill it out, and walk away before handing her any money? Or had I already come too far in this donation scam to stop now? If I walked away, she couldn’t very well yell at me; after all, she was supposed to be a deaf mute, right? Still, I felt like she had already trapped me in this web of deceit.
I stared at the blank space for the donation. I so badly wanted to write a big, fat 0. But if I wrote 0 and walked away now, I worried that she would still find a way to cause a scene, and all the people walking past us would think I’d stolen from her. I reluctantly pulled out 4 Euros and handed them to her. It made me feel dirty, and it ruined the visit to the basilica for me. I didn’t even bother to take additional photos because the moment had been tainted somehow by my own gullibility.
I’d only read later that this is also a long-running scam. It’s especially effective in places like churches, because you assume that your donation is going to a church-supported charity.
Many countries don’t actively do anything to prevent or prosecute beggars or scam artists, so you’re really on your own in most cases. So how can you prevent being taken advantage of while on vacation?
First, do some research on the country or region you’re travelling to. There are plenty of websites and online resources detailing local scams around the world. If you want to donate money to a local charity, do your research at home and donate online to those with a good reputation, not to random people on the street. To reduce the chance of pick-pockets or credit card scanners, use RFID-blocking wallets/purses and slash-proof cross-shoulder bags, especially in crowded areas. And trust your instincts – if a situation feels squicky or shady, walk away. Don’t feel bad about hurting someone’s feelings. You can still be polite and refuse to be the target of a scam at the same time.