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Bound for Europe? Don’t let a crook ruin your adventure by running off with your cash.
As travel restrictions ease, people should “remain vigilant while abroad,” a State Department official tells AARP.
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While tourist scams can occur in any country, here are some of the techniques commonly employed by con artists in Europe to get their hands on your valuables, according to travel experts, diplomats and law enforcement.
1. The spill that’s not accidental. Pigeon poop — real or fake — or ketchup, ice cream, coffee or something else is spilled on you. Or thrown at you. “Someone will approach you and offer to help clean you up. Another person then picks your pocket while you are distracted,” the State Department warns.
2. The panhandler’s plastic cup. Some beggars place a clear plastic cup in the path of pedestrians hoping they inadvertently kick over the cup and send coins skittering. The goal: a guilt-tripped donation. “Assume beggars are pickpockets,” European travel expert and TV host Rick Steves has advised.
3. The fake “gold” ring. A bad actor bends down to pick up a ring, insists it’s yours and lifts your wallet as you inspect it. Or the person demands a finder’s fee for returning the brass trinket.
4. The spiked drink. More and more complaints have arisen from tourist spots across Poland: Victims have been lured into establishments with the promise of discounts or other enticements and exploited financially while under the influence of intoxicants, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a partnership between the State Department and the private-sector security community. Inflated credit card charges may be difficult to challenge because bars and clubs can show evidence of victims’ consent. The crime happens in many countries and the venue could be, for example, a tea house or restaurant.
"Don’t keep anything more in your wallet than you are willing to lose: one credit or debit card, one piece of identification and no more than 40 or 50 euros, or just under $50 and $60."
5. The designer watch. Or jacket. Or purse. A well-dressed man in Italy asks for directions, claims to work for a luxury-goods brand and shows you product samples in his car, a warning from the website hotels.com says. As a gift, he hands you a watch, jacket or bag, then pretends he’s almost out of gas and asks for money — more than the knockoff is worth.
6. The “friendship” bracelet. Bad actors tie string around a tourist’s wrist or finger and braid it into a bracelet, then demand money and threaten the tourist if turned down.
7. The fake police officer. In city centers and resorts in Spain, some thieves pose as police, approach tourists and ask to see their wallets for identification purposes, the British government warns. If this happens to you, establish that the officers are genuine and if necessary, show some other form of ID. Genuine police officers don’t ask to see wallets or purses.
8. The phony petition. In tourist enclaves in Paris, young boys and girls, some pretending that they cannot hear or speak, approach with a petition and ask for your signature — and money, French police officials warn. The youths may seem to be acting on behalf of associations and foundations but are not. “Their only aim is to get money from you, which will never be transferred to these organizations but instead used to fund illegal organizations and underground networks,” the officials say.
9. The crush-and-grab on the subway. Several people swarm you as they try to get on or off a train car and, as they push you, pick your pockets. Another tactic is grabbing the purse of a passenger sitting by the door and hopping off as the doors are closing. Find a seat away from the doors and minimize access to your pockets and purse.
10. The highway pirates. These thieves wave your vehicle over for assistance with a flat tire or mechanical trouble, but as you help, an accomplice makes off with all the possessions in your unlocked vehicle.
Also, in many parts of Spain, rental cars carry a large sticker on the back of the vehicle, and there have been numerous reports of thieves breaking into rentals and taking all the valuables while they were parked at a scenic overlook or other tourist spot, the Overseas Security Advisory Council says.
These aren't small-time crooks
It’s important to understand that the crooks who prey on tourists may be part of major crime rings. Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement, holds periodic conferences on international pickpocketing gangs and after one in 2019 said that although pickpocketing still is sometimes considered petty crime, “highly professional groups” often are to blame and they can reap millions from the illegal activity.
Ringleaders bankroll luxury lifestyles for themselves, but many pickpockets, among them children, are “exploited foot soldiers” and may be the victims of human trafficking, Europol said.
The State Department underscores the scourge by saying in a 2021 report that "forced child begging” remains a problem in parts of the world.
Before you travel
Here are three things to do before you travel:
- Alert your credit card company to set up fraud protections, such as limits on charges to your account from the same location on the same day.
- Review the State Department’s country information at travel.state.gov/destination.
- Enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for the latest safety information about your destination.
And while traveling:
- Avoid using handbags, fanny packs and outside pockets that are easy targets for thieves, the State Department says in "A Safe Trip Abroad". One of safest places for valuables is in a pouch or money belt worn under your clothing.
- Be extra careful at places tourists frequent. Thieves prowl in and near museums, monuments, restaurants and hotels, at beaches, train stations and airports, and on subways and trains. Some target vehicles with nonlocal license plates. Pickpocketing is a threat “in major urban centers and highways across Spain,” the U.S. Embassy in Madrid says.
- Avoid placing passports, cash, cellphones and other valuables in the outer pockets of backpacks or purses or on tables in public places. Do not leave bags unattended or bags slung over the back of chairs, on hotel or store counters, on top of your suitcase or travel bag or out of your physical control.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.