Unfortunately scams and cons do exist in Europe, and more often than not, they are setup to target tourists. There are many travellers and backpackers who fall victim to the clever con men and scammers that run these gigs.
Obviously the best defense is knowledge of the travel scams and how they work. There are numerous variations of similar scams – so knowing some of them and using a bit of common sense will help you avoid becoming a victim. Let’s take a look at a few common travel scams in Europe and see how they operate, and how to avoid falling prey and losing those valuable backpacking Euros.
A group of youths encourage you to join their ‘authentic’ European street football game. Looks like loads of fun, right?
What can happen is that during the ‘game’ your items can be robbed, pockets picked or just mugged in general as you get knocked over from a ‘tackle’.
This one is relatively easy to avoid, just don’t play contact sports with people you just met on the street!
This scam is ancient, and I see it all around Europe, especially in busy tourist areas. It’s basically one dodgy guy running his own tiny casino on a piece of cardboard. He has three boxes (normally matchboxes) and a small circular ball, as well as multiple accomplices who stand around and pretend to be legitimate players of the game.
He then proceeds to flip the boxes around, constantly changing in which box the ball is under. He (or she, let’s not be sexist!) makes it relatively obvious under which box the ball is truly under.
Then comes the hook, you’ve seen which box the ball is in, right? Well the guy next to you apparently has too, he hands over 50€ and says, ‘The ball is under THAT box!’ – AND HE’S POINTED TO THE WRONG BOX! Outrageous! I mean it would have been so EASY to pick the right box.
The point here is that this guy is WORKING WITH the man who is running the whole scam, and they are trying to lure people into playing.
This is where I start to see real victims getting excited, ‘how could that silly man not realize where the ball really was?’ they are thinking, ‘I’m about to make some easy money on this ridiculous European street gambling!’
When you decide to play the game however, things change drastically. You pick what you believe to be the right box, yet when it is revealed, it’s the wrong box.
Let me fill you in here: IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU PICK THE ‘RIGHT’ BOX – IT WILL ALWAYS BE THE WRONG BOX. They will use sleight of hand to move the ball if you do happen to pick the correct box with the ball. No matter what you do, the ball will never be there.
He then plucks the 20, 50 or 100 Euro note from your fingers and continues to play the ‘legitimate’ game with his other ‘customers’ (accomplices).
They are also very good at disbursing into a crowd if a policeman comes, and will normally have someone looking out for that exact thing. If someone starts taking pictures, they will also disappear immediately into the crowds – all moving in opposite directions.
Watching it in action can be quite fun though, to see how the scam works and pick out who is working with the main guy. My girlfriend and I managed to get a picture of one of these scams in action on a recent trip to Barcelona (down Las Ramblas of course, where else?).
You hop into a taxi, arrive at your destination and then pay the driver. You hop out to get your bags from the boot and shut the door behind.
Uh oh, the taxi is now driving off with all of your stuff!
I’ve never had this happen to me, but I’ve read and heard about it. It’s easily avoidable by either having your bag in the back seat with you, or leaving the door open whilst you grab your bags from the boot.
Another common thing to look out for is the note switch scam, where they will take your 20€ or 50€ note and then quickly replace it with a smaller denomination, claiming that this is what you originally gave them. They can be very convincing, so to avoid this simply state out loud what you are giving them as you hand it over, or use the exact money (or close to it) to make the payment.
Taxis are notorious for short changing and overcharging and the like in Europe, but they’re not all bad, so don’t give every single driver the shifty eyes as soon as you get into the cab.
I heard about this one from one of my mother’s friends who loves visiting Italy. A well dressed business man will approach you, possibly asking you for directions to a close landmark. He will claim to be a leather jacket salesman or have something to do with the leather industry.
He will be likeable, find things in common with you and just generally try to bond with you until you’re ‘friends’. Then he will go to his car nearby, and pull out a snazzy new leather jacket, which he is going to give to you for free for your wonderful help!
Oh, but he just needs some money for car fuel, as his credit card stopped working, can you help him out (I mean he DID just give you an extremely expensive brand new leather jacket, right?).
Once he chuffs off in his car, you’re left holding a leather jacket that is, well, not leather at all and essentially worthless. Scammed!
I always seem to see this one in Paris, especially around the Montmartre area (specifically, walking up to the Sacre Coeur). There is also normally a group of them ‘working’ at the same time. They will approach people coming to and fro from popular tourist destinations, grab their hand, and then start weaving on a friendship bracelet. You’re often so surprised; they’re halfway through making the bracelet before you figure out what is going on.
I use the word scam a little loosely here I guess, I mean you do get a cool friendship bracelet out of the whole affair, so what are you complaining about? Oh they wanted 20 Euros for it? That’s a bit outrageous!
The best way to avoid this one is to simply not get your wrist surrounded by a friendship bracelet in the first place (achieved by shoving hands in pockets as you walk past, and smile and shake your head at them if they try to engage you).
A group of gypsy children will surround you, big doe-like eyes looking on imploringly, as they clutch a sorry tale on a piece of cardboard. As they’re mobbing you like this (and you’re presumably reading what’s on the cardboard), they are also picking your pockets (sometimes stealthily, sometimes not – but it doesn’t matter, because who’s going to kick a kid over?).
To avoid this one, keep a firm grip on your belongings and simply keep walking with confidence and a firm ‘No thanks’ or ‘Go away’ – don’t pay them any attention.
I’ve heard quite a few stories on the backpacker’s grapevine about tourists getting scammed by the local ladies; it seems to happen predominantly in Eastern Europe in countries like Poland, Hungary etc. It’s a pretty common scam though really and it happens a lot around Asia as well.
It basically goes that a single male traveler (or even with his friends) may approach or be invited to approach a group of attractive local women. These women will seem very interested in him, and be flirty and show all indications that she or they are interested in spending more time with this interesting tourist.
She will then take him to a local bar or club, where he may proceed to buy drinks and continue chatting with his new girl. What eventuates is that the man will get a massive bill for drinks AND a bill for ‘spending time with the girl’ from the club owner and his ruffians.
If you don’t pay up then the indication is given that you will be roughed up, or arrested or any other way that they think they can intimidate you.
A good way to avoid this is to, like anything, use some common sense. Try to be guided by your brain rather then what’s in your pants – if you are talking to a local girl (who approached YOU flirtatiously), and she suggests a club or a bar to go to, offer to take her to one of your own choosing instead.
The real problem with scams (apart from the fact that people lose their hard earned money) is that it can stop people having genuine interactions with locals – as they view everything as a possible scam or an attempt to rip them off. So this one small minority group of scammers may have you becoming wary of everyone as you meet as you travel – which you shouldn’t be because there are way more friendly locals then there are scammers.
You just need to try and develop that gut instinct and use some common sense – no-one likes being ripped off, but if it does happen to you, don’t let it ruin your trip. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s likely you didn’t lose enough for it to be a real problem (if you’re using that common sense we talked about, that is).
If you’ve been the victim of, have heard of or have experienced any scams in Europe that are completely different to the ones listed here, then it would be awesome if you could please leave a comment with your experience and what the scam was.