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10 Top Tourist Scams to Watch Out for in Europe

From pigeon poop to spiked drinks, criminals creatively steal from travelers

spinner image tourists in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
Eva-Katalin / Getty Images

There’s so much for travelers to love about Europe, but it’s important to be aware of these common tourist scams before you go. And keep in mind some overarching advice from former State Department official Chris Tuttle, who says that the best way to stay safe “is by employing the same commonsense tools and instincts one uses here in the United States. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” 

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​Here are 10 top scams that travelers may encounter overseas: 

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 

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.​​

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3. ATM scams

Advice from the U.S. Embassy in France applies everywhere: Travelers should use a well-lit machine — during business hours — at a reputable bank. Do not use an ATM with signs of tampering. Do not speak to others during your transaction. Put your hand over the PIN pad while entering the number. And if your card is not returned, immediately alert bank employees.

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​​4. The spiked drink

Complaints have arisen across Poland: Tourists 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; the venue could even be, for example, a tea house or restaurant.​​​​

5. The designer watch, 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 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.​​

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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, 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 affiliated with legitimate associations 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 close. So 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 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 parked at scenic overlooks and other tourist spots and stealing valuables, the Overseas Security Advisory Council says.​

These aren't small-time crooks​

Criminals preying on tourists may be part of major crime rings. Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement, has said that although pickpocketing still is sometimes considered petty crime, “highly professional groups” often are to blame and can reap millions from the illegal activity.​

Ringleaders bankroll luxury lifestyles for themselves, but many pickpockets, some children, are “exploited foot soldiers.” ​​​​

Before you travel

  • Alert your credit card company to set up fraud protections, such as a daily limit on charges to your account from the same location on the same day.​
  • Review the State Department’s country information at​
  • Enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for the latest safety information about your destination.​
  • Keep the phone number and address of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate handy, “so you have it in case you need help,” says Tuttle, now with the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations. Here’s a general number for State’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services: 202-501-4444. 

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 tourist hot spots. 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 has warned.​​
  • 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. ​​Keep only what you absolutely need in your wallet.​​ ​
VIDEO: 3 Scams to Avoid When Booking Travel

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