Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Friday, March 09, 2012

Pickpockets and Other Tourist Scams

When I was a young girl, learning to use my grandmother's wringer washer, she told me a horror story about a girl who got her hair caught in the wringer, and it "pulled all her hair out of her head, all the way from the roots!"  It scared the snot out of me, and I never did laundry again without tying up my hair.

I'm sure that it never happened.. or maybe it did.. but it was her way of teaching me .. grabbing my attention. I never in my entire 60 years have met a person who got their hair caught in a washing machine wringer. But I've always remembered the lesson.

So here is a lesson for you along the same lines as the one my grandmother taught me. It is here to get your attention and to teach you. Hopefully, you will "tie your hair up" and never have to experience any of the bad luck I'm about to report.

Although we rarely hear of crime on the Camino Santiago, it does occur. Generally it is petty theft or pickpocketing. Often it occurs because the victim is totally unaware or distracted. Sometimes it happens because the victim is simply Stooooooopid!

Often it happens in and around places where tourists gather, such as airports, bus and train stations, museums, and other tourist destinations. There is a lot of crime going on around large tourist attractions such as the Louvre. Rome is another hotbed of petty crime and many  of these stories have come from Paris and Italy, not Spain.

The Civil Guard is very good to protect pilgrims on the Camino and there are high prices for robbing or hurting them, so those cases are rare. But they do happen to distracted people who make silly mistakes.

So here are a few stories to keep your Spidey-Sense keen.
Pay attention, Peregrinos, and you'll be fine!

Thieves have had centuries to perfect their techniques. They are simple and they work. Here are a few.

The Sandwich" has many faces. Basically, you're walking along, and the person in front of  you suddenly stops. This might be on a sidewalk, on an escalator, or stairs, or in a bus. It's usually best accomplished in a crowd. You bump into the person in front of you, and the guy directly behind you is stealing your goods.  Here is an illustration:

In Naples one year, I saw a woman walking along the street in front of me with her backpack on. In about 30 seconds, before any of us had time to react, a man who had apparently been watching her and saw her put her passport and cash into the pocket of her backpack walked up behind her, slashed open the pocket with a razor, grabbed her cash and passport, and ran. She didn't even know it had happened until we all yelled. He was not caught.

Another technique is "The Drop."  Some pickpockets play on compassion in their distractions. They "accidentally" drop change or shopping bags on the ground so that someone will stop to help them. While the mark is kneeling on the ground with the first pickpocket, another member of the team steals his or her wallet. At the beach, one member of the team may pretend to be in trouble in the water. When the mark runs in to help out, another member of the team walks off with whatever the mark has left on the beach.

Sometimes, pickpockets don't want to distract you from your money; they want to bring your attention to it. For example, one member of a pickpocket team might yell out "Somebody just stole my wallet!" in a crowded subway station. Most people's automatic reaction is to make sure they still have their own wallet and valuables, so they'll pat whatever pocket it's in. This makes the pickpockets' job a lot easier -- it shows them exactly where to look. 

It's difficult to spot every pickpocket, no matter how careful you are, because pickpockets generally camouflage themselves. Many dress like wealthy businessmen and women. Some even mimic tourists, their prime targets; others carry babies, who they use to hide what their hands are doing.

Which brings me to the BABY tactic.  A woman will suddenly come up to you and THRUST a baby into your arms. Distracted, you grab the child and while your hands are busy holding the baby, she is busy picking your pockets.  My advice is to back up and let the kid hit the ground!

Be aware while boarding trains and buses. Hold your valuables in front of you, tightly. Do not put anything of value behind you or in pockets. Above is a photo of pickpockets working a bus line in Istanbul.

Children are often taught the skill.  In fact, 95% of the pickpockets in Spain are children as those under 14 can not be prosecuted.

 Are the people above just numb?

Many of the thieves in Spain are Gypsies. They live in horrid conditions. I highly recommend this BBC show on Gypsy Child Thieves in Spain, Italy, and other European destinations It is shocking, but worth watching. There are 4 or 5 parts.  Gypsy Child Thieves

Often, you will see a shy child, woman or man sitting on the street begging silently. Sometimes their head is bowed to the ground. This is a scam. While you are digging for cash to give her, her friend is watching to see where you keep the money. You have just become a target.

Another scam in Italy and Portugal is an old woman who will thrust a photo or sign under your chin. Again, while you're trying to get the danged thing down from beneath your throat, she or an accomplist will be frisking you.

Once, while riding a sardine-packed bus in Rome, a man suddenly began making gagging noises as though he was going to vomit.  Then he did! He puked about a gallon of water right in the middle of the crowded bus. Of course, everyone jumped back and packed in tight, screaming. The bus stopped, the doors opened, and a few people jumped off. In about 15 seconds, there were several shouts of "I've been robbed!" or "My purse or wallet is gone!"  That diversion gave the thieves what they were looking for... time to steal and run. So if something like this happens, pay attention!

Another time at a Portuguese street fair, Joe and I were walking together like the two men above. I suddenly noticed a strange hand out of the corner of my eye gently moving into Joe's side pocket of his cargo pants. Since we were a couple then and I was HOLDING Joe's hand, I knew the hand wasn't his so I instantly reached down and SMACKED that hand away. When I turned around, it was a couple of young men who laughed and said, "What?"  I yelled for the police and they ran. But they were very bold and if I had not been aware of that hand, Joe could have lost the day's cash.

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER put your cash and passport in your backpack. You must wear a money belt in Europe. Take out the day's cash in the morning before you leave your hotel. Put it in a small wallet or pocket where you can easily access it. Do not flash cash around and NEVER EVER get into your money belt in public. Be smart and you'll be fine.

The first time I visited Portugal, I paid the taxi driver 20 Euros to take me to my hostal. Upon arrival, I commented to the desk-clerk about the high price. She quickly informed me the price should have been TWO Euros, not 20!!  So, before you travel, ask around about what you might be expected to pay for your trip from airport to hotel. Agree to the price up front, before you enter the cab and before your luggage is loaded.  A little knowledge goes a long way.
There are hard-times all over the world right now, so people are doing petty crime that may not normally happen. Rick Steves states:

Tourists are targeted by scam and rip-off artists everywhere in Europe. If you know the games (spilling the mustard, bus 64 in Rome, and so on), you're less likely to be a victim.
By sharing the latest scams (and learning from each others' mistakes) we'll all travel more safely. 

For the sake of being aware, here are a few more of the most current Tourist Scams reported  on Rick Steves' website. 
Train Station Scam - Be WARY of nicely dressed people wanting to "help" you.
I took my family, five of us, on a European vacation a few years and we got scammed at a Paris train station. We traveled from London to Paris via the Chunnel and when we arrived my wife went to a wall which had listings of ways to get here and there. We were going to a hotel and wanted to use the subway and while she was looking at the info a nicely dressed man, coat and tie, approached and asked if he could help. She told him where we were going and he told her that he could save us money by purchasing the amount of tickets we needed using a card he had. He asked how many days , [INVALID]ed his card and and gave us the round trip tickets for three days and we paid him something like $175 US. We thanked him and left. The next day we were all going to go sightseeing and when we got to the subway and tried to enter were told the passes didn't work and, in fact, they were only one way tickets. I went back to the train station to find the guy and saw at least twenty guys doing the same scam to others. I literally spent four hours with no rest telling travelers who were just about to get fleeced about the scam and they were mostly thankful, but the gypsies were not happy. They threatened me from all sides but I had no time to talk to them as I was busting their scam. It was fun, actually. The police came by once and asked me if I thought that the guy that ripped me off would return and I said it didn't matter as I felt I was getting my money back by helping fellow travelers. One remarked that we have thieves in the US and I said yes but it wasn't so rampant and the police don't just ignore the problem. They left, wishing me good luck. As far as I'm concerned everybody from the police down to the ticket takers at the subway stations are in on the scam as the problem is monumental. After four hours of constant effort I had lunch and decided to join my family. While leaving I saw the fellow who scammed us preparing to put his card in a machine to "save" a lady tourist and I got my revenge, but that's a story for another day. Be careful over there. There's so much to see and it's sad that this crap is allowed to continue, I had visited Paris several times prior to that visit but have no desire to return ever again.
Brooksville, Fl  USA   09/05/2011

This scam is really popular in Paris, near the Louvre, but is taking off in other areas.

If someone approaches you and asks you to sign their petition, just wave them off with a firm and LOUD "NO!" and keep walking. Do not worry about being rude... This next incident was unusual, in my opinion, but worth being aware of if you have plans to stop in Paris on your way to Bayonne.

Sacre Coeur Paris Petition Scam
Been to Paris many times and have never encountered what happened this week. At the Sacre Coeur broad daylight 3.30pm came up the main front steps to be met by many of the bracelet/ring guys- a sharp no and they leave you alone. Enjoyed food etc at the top of sacre coeur and decided to go down the other side only to be surrounded by about ten Roma gypsy teenagers with their petitions, again a sharp no and I thought I would be on my way. Two of the girls grabbed me and twisted my arms behind my back trying to get me to let go of my small travel pocket bag and managed to go through my coat pockets and steal my iPhone. They also attacked my twelve year old daughter who after I was attacked I had to pick her up of the floor- all very scary. These girls are animals. They are willing not only to pick pocket but to attack you. I am glad that myself and my daughter walked away with a stolen phone and bruises- it could have been a lot worse. French police were very good and very understanding but told me this happens all the time. If you see these girls with their petitions walk/run in the opposite direction.
USA   02/18/2012

The next two people should not be surprised that they were robbed, in my opinion. You absolutely should NEVER put down a purse, bag, suitcase, or backpack holding valuable items. Thieves are watching you, Mr. Tourist, and just waiting for you to make a stupid mistake like these two did...

Handbag stolen at Galeries Lafayette, Paris
I was shopping at Galeries Lafayette in Paris today, where I got my handbag stolen (wallet, passport etc.)I was trying on shoes in -1 floor, where I set my bag down next to me (it was in the way). 5 seconds later when I was about to pick it up again, it was already gone.
Unbelievable...I didn't ever think a fancy department store was a place to worry about getting my purse stolen but apparently it happens ALL THE TIME. It is exactly the same sentiment I have and the fact that shoppers let their guard down, which makes Lafayette a great place for thieves. Don't EVER let your bag go and keep your guard up at places that you would otherwise feel relaxed.
J Dubbs
Paris, France   01/27/2012

...I was in Santa Maria de Vittorio today in Roma to see Bernini sculpture... I was reading about it on my Kindle Fire.... then I set my bag down,,and walked away about 20 feet, I put .50 Euro and turned on light and took 5-6 photos.... when I came back to seat.... my Kindle Fire was gone !! I had noticed some seedy character in the church but I was so close to the bag, I though it was OK.... those few minutes I took my eye off it,,, guy grabbed the Kindle. I do know better but was a bit jet lagged... Be careful,, they're waiting and will take advantage in a church !
S. Trato
St. Thomas, VI  USA   01/24/2012

The following scam was very familiar to me, as I got hit with it about 40 years ago when I lived in St. Croix. In my case, a man and two women stopped by the hotel reception desk where I was working. The man said he worked with my husband. He knew my husband's name. He knew we were moving. He said he had offered to let my husband use his truck and was coming to help him on Saturday. He was very well dressed and very sweet. They left. About an hour later, he showed up again and was distressed. He had left his wallet at home, and they were short grocery cash. Would I loan him $50? He would pay my husband tomorrow at work. ($50 40 years ago was a LOT of money!)  I loaned him the money, then the minute he left, I began feeling stupid. I called my husband at work. He'd never heard of the guy. Oh boy, did I catch it when I got home!  I still have no  idea how this guy got all the personal information he knew about us.

Champs Elysees Money Scam
I was walking on the Champs Elysees near the Arc du Triomphe when I was approached by a Chinese couple who appeared to be quite distressed. The man asked if I was American, did I speak English? I said yes, I did. The man proceeded to tell me that his wife had spotted a Louis Vuitton handbag at a shop across the boulevard, but the store would not take his money because they were Chinese. His wife was heartbroken, he was desperate. Would I please go in and buy the handbag for his wife? He had Euros and promised immediate reimbursement. This was a scam that I'd not heard of but caught onto right away. I was pretty obvious that he wanted me to buy a very expensive bag with my good money and rip me off by "paying me back" with bogus Euros. Needless to say, I said "No" and walked away. When I looked back they had targeted another American. Remember: if the story sounds wrong, looks wrong, and feels wrong it is wrong.
Port Townsend, WA  USA   01/06/2012


Here's another example of a desperate thief:

Desperate "Canadian Jewish banker" around the Nord, Paris
It was 7pm, I had just gotten off the Eurostar from London at Nord in Paris and was approached by a guy who claimed to a Jewish Canadian banker who was visiting Paris with his girlfriend and three children. Here's the rundown of his brilliant sob story: - His gf messed up the credit card pincode 3 times and now their card was locked and they did not have enough cash for a hotel that night. - His friend has wired money but Credit Union and the Canadian Embassy is closed for the evening. - A small hotel down the street has agreed to let them stay for 65euro for the night and could I please help him with anything? - He offered his watch and a copy of his passport and swore on the Torah and his child that he would pay me back. - But later when I asked for his passport he claimed it was with his gf who was looking after the children in a cafe, and that she would freak out if he took me there as "she was on her period" and was very upset. (!) - He found out I lived in Tokyo and said he used to live there once, in Ginza (the ritziest place in Tokyo) but anyone can remember a few place names to rattle off in these situations. I could tell that his story was full of holes but he kept begging me with his eyes full of tears and I think I was overwhelmed by his display of emotions. I was tired and had just woken up in the Eurostar, and I thought "What if he WAS telling the truth?" - I argued with him about the passport situation, that I needed some sort of legal ID, but he cut me off and begged me with such pitiful force that somebody should have given him an Oscar on the spot. - But I could see his face was twitching as he spoke, ANYBODY could have seen that the guy was conning me, and I could have just walked away but by then I felt I was trapped and had to help him out someway. 

Here's a tip to remember: IT'S NOT YOUR PROBLEM!! You are NOT the right person to help this person. 

- So I asked for his contact details, where he lived and worked in Toronto, e-mail address, and he gave them to me - all of them bull (if I had a smartphone with internet connection I could have checked them out on the spot!) - In the end, stupidly, I took some money out of the ATM and he gave me a long hug before I managed to pull him off me. - I asked for the watch and he almost reluctantly gave it to me - as I suspected, it's a cheap fake with "Chalisson" on the face. Googling it only brings up replica sites and I've tossed it into the bin. This happened in the last few hours of my 12 day stay in Europe (just arrived home today), I think I had let me guard down and it's put a damper on my memories. I've been thinking about the experience and can just say it was an expensive lesson but will be one I will remember always. If the guy needed money, he could have told me the truth and I still may have given him some. All that is left now is karma. Hopefully somebody who reads this will be able to prevent it from happening to them.
Tokyo, Japan   12/06/2011

Rosemary sprigs in Spain
This one usually happens around the Cathedrals in the larger Spanish cities. I saw it many times in Sevilla. Gypsy ladies will hand you a Rosemary sprig. If you TOUCH it, you must pay them...and then they will grab your hand and want to tell your fortune. While you wrestle your arm back, their other hand is picking your pockets.  My advice... avoid ladies bearing Rosemary sprigs! Walk a wide berth.

Please be careful when using the ATM, especially in busy cities. You must stay absolutely alert. Cover your hands while putting in your pin number. Hold your hand close to the machine, ready to receive your cash and your card. Thieves have the keypad memorized and know what numbers you are punching in. If they get your card, they have your pin, so be aware.  If you are traveling with a friend, stand back to back, with them facing the rear. If you are alone, keep your goods in front of you and refuse to speak to anyone until your transaction is complete and your cash and card are tightly in your hand. Don't help anyone. Let a local help them.

ATM scam in Paris
While at an ATM in Paris, the guy at the neighboring ATM asks you a question, saying he doesn't understand what his screen is telling him. Meanwhile he or his friend is taking the currency your ATM is dispensing. Moral: use only "single" ATMs, in an uncrowded area, and pay strict attention.
Denver, Colora  USA   01/05/2012

half-off at the Travel exchange
Came across this one in Amsterdam/Schipol and to my horror (almost) again at London/Heathrow. It works like this - you want to exchange $$ for local currency. The TravelEx employee dutifully counts your money out - all the while engaging you in conversation and asking questions which means you're paying attention to them NOT their hands. When you check your money it appears to be all correct BUT upon closer inspection one of the high value notes will have been replaced by a 'half note' at the end you've been counting....the open end of the envelope. I caught this (the second time) by holding the base of the envelope tightly and waggling it upside down for a couple of seconds. Sure enough the 100-pound note top half fell out. I tried to get the TRavelex supervisor to accept a complaint, but all they did was treat it as an honest mistake' ("we get SO much money through her sir, mistakes often happen") and replace the half note with a whole one. I'd say from the shifty/guilty look on the tellers' face he was more embarrassed at being caught than he was worried about legal or job repercussions. He only has to pull off two of those scams an hour and he pockets the (unused, whole) bill on his next bathroom break. I've shared this tale of woe with others who've had similar experiences with 'half currency' in high denomination notes at European money exchange booths. Traveler beware!
Tony Cox
Dublin, oh  USA   09/21/2011

Old Lady Pickpocket - This one DID happen in Spain!
My husband and I were strolling down Las Ramblas in Barcelona when a little old gypsy lady popped in front of us and shoved a sign about " being hungry" under my husband's chin. He was wearing a money belt (of course!), but had on a jacket with a front chest pocket that looked like a wallet was inside. It was actually a coupon book and the pocket was closed with velcro. As the old woman was holding the sign with one hand, she was trying to open the pocket with the other. My husband heard the velcro and felt the hand and immediately shoved her arm. Right away he told me what happened and I started pointing and shouting "Thief! Voleur!" (we were in Spain, but I couldn't think of the Spanish word, so I just used French - ha). She starts in about how 'he hurt her arm' and I just kept yelling and pointing. (before you think how mean I am, I'm no spring chicken myself, being now 64) At that point she gave me the dirtiest look I've ever received - and proceeded to try and get away from us. We continued to follow her across Las Ramblas (don't ask me why - I don't know what we'd have done if her family had been around the corner), but finally stopped following when she darted down an alley. If she had been a man, my husband probably would have slugged him, but the culprits seem to know that most people are not going to hit an old "defenseless" woman.

And something else to keep in mind - yes, it's annoying to be accosted and perhaps conned out of a few euros, but it could be worse. How about getting mugged in a U.S. city or shot and killed by someone with a gun?! At least these scammers don't use physical violence or parade around with lethal weapons. Think about that before freaking out about the stuff that goes on in Europe!
San Antonio, TX  USA   08/31/2011

Madrid - This was at Madrid subway ticket counter.(Remember, I  mentioned this one?)
Some young men/kids one about 20 and the other about 15 years old. One drops a fist full of worthless pennies or change right at my feet. Oddly, this guy get on all fours trying to frantically gather his last pennies in the whole wide world and then moves closer to me and lefts my feet up (in an innocent kind of way) he's got me by the bottom of my pants leg, I get this strange feeling that makes me want to put my knee in to his ribs, so I bend over -bend my knees a little (so he does not pick me up and slam my butt to the ground) and tell him to let go, as I back up to gain the angle and upper hand, I bump in to some on at my rear.. ok they take off. few minutes later I realize my wallet is missing. they got one dollar and the credit card company would not let them charge anything.. still a pain. 

That night, we go out to dinner= walk in to a restaurant, and the kind gentleman takes my mother in laws coat to hang it in a safe place, (earlier I saw her put $20 dollars in a safe inner pocket.) When the coat comes back the money is gone.
(Note: Don't leave cash in coat pockets, silly!)
Houston, Tx  USA   05/10/2011

 Throwing dirt on the back of your shirt in Seville
When we were in Spain two years ago, hubby and I were walking in Seville; I was in front of him. All of the sudden, he felt something on his back, I looked and his shirt had big brown spots on it. A man came to us, made some motion looking up, as if to say, birds did it. Offered to help, noting a bathroom in a nearby restaurant. We went, hubby went in bathroom with man, another man was there and when they were trying to get the stuff off, one tried to pick his pocket. Thank goodness, the wallet fell on the floor, and when hubby retrieved it, both men left in a hurry...we are seasoned travelers and really got sucked rule...never be separated and NEVER accept help from a harm done and we learned a big lesson.
woodland hills, Ca.  USA   05/03/2011

Madrid: Scam and Barcelona: Scam
 Going to the Madrid train station to get to Barcelona. Walking into the station, my wife is 10-15 feet ahead of me and a guy walking past me says I have something on my backpack. I don't let him near me but I look at my bag and see all this white cream. Thought it was bird poop for a second but then this guy magically had a load of napkins on him and was trying to help. Then another guy came up with napkins and I called out to my wife. Fortunately, she was loud and got them to go away but it haunts me because I totally let go of my luggage to deal with my bag. I grew up in San Francisco - I'm wary of bums and lowlifes. I also walk with a big chip on my shoulder and am unfriendly to most strangers. This just really caught me off guard.
Loved Spain otherwise and had a great time!
Los Angeles, CA  USA   02/17/2011

Passport Thieves in Spain.  It is HIGHLY unlikely you will ever be asked to see your passport on the street, while in Spain. If that does happen, DO NOT HAND IT OVER. REFUSE and yell for the police!

This warning came from the State Department's website. "There have been reports of thieves posing as plainclothes police officers, beckoning to pedestrians from cars and sometimes confronting them on the street asking for documents, or to inspect their cash for counterfeit bills, which they ultimately confiscate as "evidence."
Washington, DC  USA   12/20/2010

Fresh off a pick pocketing incident in Barcelona (Remember the Petition Scam?)
I am actually in Barcelona currently, just having arrived yesterday. My parents had warned me about pickpockets here from their trip last year, when their friend was pick-pocketed. The funny and sad story they told me was that the thief actually handed back the wallet to the startled friend sans cash and ran away, since the police had apparently seen him in the act.
So before my trip, being intrigued I read up quite a bit on the scams used these days. That did get me a bit more paranoid than usual. I scolded myself for reading too many of these articles. I am an experienced traveler and I had to remind myself to to trust humankind and my instincts and experience. When discussing the same topic, some Spanish colleagues (not from Barcelona) also assured me that Barcelona is very safe. Just in case, before going out today I took some precautions by splitting up my money and keeping the essential cards and passport inside hidden pockets. It helps that it is cold and I had to wear a jacket with secure pockets inside.So while I survived intact today, unfortunately I could not prevent the theft of a money purse from a young tourist girl in front of me in line for tickets at the Sagrada Familia. 

The scam involved two boys and a girl asking for a petition to be signed to help Dumb and Deaf children. They approached the young woman in front of me and very passionately started asking her to sign the petition. As she did it, I spotted the two boy's eyes roving and observing the young woman's bag. They were standing very close to her and one was even stroking her shoulder and telling her how nice she was.They then starting asking her for a money donation. Surprisingly, she pulled out her wallet from her zippered purse on her side, with the boys eagerly helping her look for coins. I quickly stepped in at that point to prevent the inevitable from occurring and told her to keep the wallet away. She looked confused and I tried telling her that it was likely a scam. Unfortunately the young lady did not understand English and ignored me and continued picking through her wallet. At that point I was pushed back and obstructed by the third accomplice - the young girl with the same clipboard insisting on having me signing the petition as well. I raised my voice and backed away. From the corner of my eye I spotted one of the boys hiding the wallet under his clipboard. I have no idea how they managed to extract it from the young woman with so much ease. I reached out and grabbed one of wrists of the boy and with my other hand struggled to get past the girl with the clip board to get to the wallet. The boy deftly passed the purse on to the other boy. As I tred to get to the second boy who now held the prize, the first one managed to wriggle away from my grip. Unfortunately all three managed to get past the several tourists who just stood around dumbly staring at the spectacle. All three ran off so fast that there was no hope for me to compete - I'm not exactly a spritely young kid anymore even if I imagine myself to be one ;-). Once the tourist young woman realized what was happening, she did make a futile attempt to chase them, but they were long gone. 

Unfortunately I could not talk to the tourist girl. I did spot her after, walking away crying after she had apparently tried to report the incident to the cop standing right at the corner. I wish I would've had a chance to talk to her and to express my regret for not doing better to prevent this theft It crazy to think about this now, but the whole thing actually lasted just a few seconds, but perhaps if I had held the boy's wrist tighter, or good involved sooner...
In any case it is my hope that posting this story here will be my redemption. Hopefully this story will help someone else from falling for the same scam. 

I have one more day to go in Barcelona. Let's see what tomorrow brings...
Montreal, Quebec  Canada   11/20/2010

Photo by Kaeru

Pay particular attention when riding a crowded bus or train.
It is prime picking for pickpockets!

I once watched a sweet old woman deftly slip her fingers into a woman's purse, while exchanging small-talk with the woman! I warned her, to the thief's dismay. Victim was very surprised!   These pickpockets often board with a coat or sweater over one arm to hide their hands. They also often look like your grandma or grandpa!

These are some VERY good tips from a fellow traveler:

First of all, not traveling because of a fear of pickpockets and scams is foolish. It's more so about being smart. Keep an eye on who is around you, in front of you, etc., especially in very touristy areas.

Rome/Paris experiences:
1) Men, wear pants with tight pockets (if it's impossible for me to get my own wallet out without leaning forward, it will be nearly impossible to get pick pocketed). If you're wearing slacks, keep your effects on a money belt, under them. 

2) NEVER sit on the metro or in public with your iPhone or iPod out, playing music or whatever. People will scope you out, distract you, and steal it. Keep the device out of sight. 

3) NEVER put valuables in a backpack on your back and then stand in a crowded piazza or metro and wonder why you're missing things later. That's just dumb. 

4) NEVER stop for anyone in the street, even if they speak English. Just pretend you have no idea what they're saying and walk on, hands on your pockets or on your bag. If you're pestered, just say "NO!" loudly and firmly and continue walking. Never stop. 

5) NEVER let anyone help you with anything, luggage or whatever. If they don't steal it they well might hold it ransom for some quick cash. 

6) When you go through the ticket validator machines for the subway, make sure nobody tries to follow you through and skip the fare. They will often shove into you and try to steal something. When on a crowded subway train keep your back to a door or a wall, avoid standing in the middle. If you have to stand in any crowd, be vigilant. 

I have personally encountered the signature/petition scam several times, just walk on and say "NO!" firmly. 
Boston, MA  USA   11/17/2011

Saying "NO!" firmly is something you may want to practice before leaving home. I once had to say it 5 times, and finally SHOUT it at a gypsy woman in Rome who was begging. They use "the voice" in a sing-song almost hypnotic manner, and many people succumb. Don't.  Practice saying "NO!"

Things to watch for if you're visiting Rome
I'm living in Rome for the year. It's been an absolutely wonderful experience so far and nothing bad has happened to me, but here are the scams I've noticed at work: 

1) First rule of thumb: almost anyone who talks to you is trying to scam you. Don't respond. If they ask you if you speak English, ignore them. If you want to go that extra mile to shut them up, I've found "No, Finlandese!" works well as a response. No one speaks Finnish... 

2) Around heavy tourist areas, (especially Trevi Fountain) expect someone to try giving the girl in your party a flower. After you refuse, they'll persist and say, "you take, it's for you, for good luck." Say "NO" firmly until they leave. Don't touch the flower.

3) Be especially wary of the younger (aged 20s and 30s) men with dogs. These guys have struck me as a little more unbalanced than the rest of the beggars and scammers. I had one follow me into a grocery store and continually talk to my back, even though I'd never even done so much as make eye contact with the guy. I wasn't listening to his pleas for most of the time, but after a while of my ignoring him, he had the audacity to yell at me in Italian, "what, you don't even respond to me?" Then he shouted "maleducato!" over and over again, which means "you are rude." So, DO ignore their existence, but I wouldn't respond aggressively or indignantly.

4) If someone asks you for help and they don't obviously appear to be an American or European tourist who actually needs it, ignore them. They're trying to scam you, and what could you as a tourist possibly do to help a local, anyway? Be especially on the lookout to be harassed if you're speaking English in your party, if you're handling a map, or if you're entering/exiting a place that implies you're spending money (stores, museums, restaurants, banks etc.)

5) Obviously, you shouldn't buy anything from a street vendor (the ones at the legitimate street markets are fine... I'm talking about the ones scattered throughout the city, and that line all the bridges). They scam, and they only sell garbage, anyway. Plus, there are so many fantastic stores in Rome. I haven't found them to be very pushy, though. They're just mostly chatting with each other or on cell phones, but if you look at their merchandise for more than a split second, they'll probably be on you. Really, you don't need to look though - it's garbage.

6) As others have said, avoid those trying to get you to sign a petition (one very shady-looking young man near the Vatican was asked me to sign to "stop drugs".) I have a feeling if I'd responded he would have asked for money so he could BUY drugs.

7) Verify the bill and count your change at restaurants. The theft (or careless inexactness, if you prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt) will often be small and subtle, but it's there. My last two times at restaurants (one of which was at a very nice place where my party got into a long and fun conversation in Italian with one of the waiters) the bill was too high. These problems were fixed without incident when it was pointed out. My experience was that with a large party, they got the number of bottles of water and wine for the table wrong.

8) Don't let crippled gypsies tug at your heartstrings (I know that sounds heartless). Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing who's actually disabled, and many of them aren't. There's one older woman who is regularly outside of Santa Maria's in Trastevere who walks funny, covers her face and stares at the ground while pointing her cup at you. Several hours after seeing her do her schtick, I saw her (quite vigorously and physically ably) shouting down another beggar at the other end of the block (a guy who just sits on the ground with a cup... blocking traffic) who was encroaching on her territory. Quite the different language from the "please" and "god bless you, beautiful" I heard her using in front of the church.

9) People will try to "help" you at a train station (any train station, not just Termini) if you look hesitant about anything for even a second. They're not trying to help. They're trying to scam you. Ignore, or say "no" very forcefully.

10) There's really nothing remarkably different here from the States - different scams, but same rules apply. Having a stoic look on your face solves 90% of the problems. Don't stop or even slow down if they're talking to you, avoid eye contact, and say "NO" very firmly if they really aren't leaving you alone. You can always yell "vai via" or "polizia!" if things are really out of hand, but that is very very unlikely to happen. I've actually found these beggars' begging skills really amateur compared to what I'm used to in Los Angeles and New York... the good ones there have some real manipulative skills I haven't seen here. Colin
Rome, Italy, NY  USA   10/15/2011

So here we are. Let's sum this up.

Make it hard to get to your valuables. Do not carry your wallet in your back pocket. Front pockets are safer. The best option is a MONEY BELT under your clothes. Fanny packs are extremely vulnerable, especially when the pouch is on your back rather than your front. Backpacks and purses are also attractive to pickpockets.

Carry a photocopy of your passport in your pocket, and keep the real one in your money belt. Never give it up except to your hotel desk clerk (It is common for them to hold them overnight).

Carry an easily accessible "dummy" wallet in your pocket or purse so pickpockets never seek out your real wallet.

Keep a list of credit card numbers and phone numbers in a safe place. This makes it a lot easier to straighten everything out if somebody does steal from you.

If you're traveling with a friend, consider spread out your money, credit cards and identification between you.

Never take out your money belt in public. Only do this in your hotel room.

Never leave valuables in your hotel.

When you take a bath or shower, carry your money belt into the bathroom with you. I always carry a large zip-lock back and I actually take my money belt into the shower with me.

Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem.

Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.

This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

So now.. go watch the video. Then, if you're still not convinced, spend some time perusing Rick Steves' Tourist Scam page (link below).
tourist scam

I hope this information hasn't frightened you away from traveling. It's really just a matter of being informed and staying alert. Once you have learned how to protect yourself, I hope you will put away your anxiety and have a safe and Buen Camino!

Kind Regards,

See my website at 
for more information about
Guided Walks on the Pilgrimage Trails of Europe
Walking the Camino Santiago

1 comment:

  1. Goodness... you are not the average blogger. Very nice. btw, I couldn't tell where the video you direct to is on this page.


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