Walking along the Seine last weekend I was approached multiple times — in just a few minutes — with the same attempted scam.
A guy walks up, ‘notices’ a ring on the ground. Calls for your attention. If you let it play out, he asks you if it’s yours. When you say no he plays up how great it is, how it’s his lucky day, but that he’s in need of cash quickly and can’t get to a jeweler. He’ll grudgingly sell this very expensive piece to you for just 50 euros. Of course it’s worth almost nothing. But people are greedy and get taken. The scam must work, since scammers are out around Paris doing this all day, every day.
The first two who tried it on me weren’t very good. The best would come up from behind and grab your attention, it’s possible that you dropped it then. These were approaching me from in front, the rings were in front of me, it’s not even plausible they ‘thought’ the ring might have been mine. One I even saw placing the ring on the ground in the first place.
But if you haven’t had this scam pulled on you in awhile, it’s possible to be thrown off guard. But having heard of it, it won’t trick you when it happens to you.
That’s the Paris ring scam but there are many more. I’ve been fortunate that last month in Malaysia was the first time anyone tried to pick my pocket. And it was in a temple, no less! I’ve gone pretty well unaccosted even along Las Ramblas in Barcelona. But I try to keep aware, and I’ve heard stories of so many scams that I at least hope they’ll resonate and be conjured when they’re tried on me.
Another famous one is the Chinese tea ceremony, this one is common in Shanghai and in Beijing. A young girl, or occasionally young guy, will approach you and try to connect. Perhaps you’ve come out of a store, they’ll mention they had just been inside. They notice you’re American and they’ve been studying English. They’d love to practice English with you! And in exchange they’d love to show you around the city.
Maybe you’re on guard a bit, especially if you go into some shops together, you think they might be trying to get you to buy things (they get a commission). But they’ll spend time building trust, and when you’re enjoying your time together they’ll suggest a tea ceremony. It’s usually short, just a few minutes, but enjoyable enough. The scam is you’ll be presented with a bill for hundreds of dollars.
If you’ve found yourself in this position — it’s easy to want to be friendly with locals, I tend not to be trusting of people but also realize that if I never engage people along my travels I’ll lose out on many experiences so I can imagine forcing myself to fall for something like this — then the correct approach is to throw down an appropriate amount of money and leave.
Your companion will feign ignorance and shock at the price. You might ask for the police, although depending on where you are the police could well be in on the scam (although they may just suggest settling for a smaller amount rather than trying to enforce the price).
I suppose paying by credit card is another option, even sign it ‘under duress’ but that may not be necessary considering how frequently this scam is run, how much-discussed it is online, you may win a dispute of the charges when you return home. In many ways I like this approach even better because the most important thing when in the midst of a scam is not to get hurt, not to be too confrontational, to end it and move on.
But avoiding scams in the first place is all about being aware and not being overly trusting. When you’re seated in a restaurant by a window, when a guy taps on the glass to get your attention and motions at his wrist as though to ask you the time, he might not actually need you to tell him the time. Just shrug, and be aware of everything going on around you, because he might just be trying to distract you while his partner is inside the restaurant taking your bags.
The one scam I always have a hard time avoiding is ‘this attraction is closed, but we can show you another one’ that’s so common in Thailand. Someone dressed in a uniform says you can’t visit the temple or site you’ve come to see, it’s closed ‘for a special religious holiday and only open to Thais today’ or ‘because of the Prince’s birthday’. Of course, he can help. He can direct you to another similar site that’s open, and his friend in a tuk tuk will take you there — cheap. Usually they’re just trying to get you into the tuk tuk so you can be taken to expensive gem shops in hopes of commission.
These touts are an annoyance, one of the reasons I sometimes like tour guides in new cities where I’m truly unfamiliar isn’t just for the efficiency of getting around but in some ways you’re hiring your own tout to keep away the rest of the touts, it can just lead to less stress and greater enjoyment.
My own rough advice, though I hardly consider myself an expert in the area but rather just someone who does this a lot.
- Don’t carry all your important papers with you. If you must carry your passport, consider carrying just a color photocopy (and always keep a copy ‘in the cloud’ such as by emailing it to yourself at a gmail account). If you must carry your real passport, leave a color copy behind.
- Split up your money. Don’t carry it all with you. Don’t carry all of your credit cards with you. And the money you’re carrying, keep it in different places. Some of it may be in a wallet, other money in a pocket, so if it’s taken it’s not all taken. And so that you can claim to have less with you than you have, scammers might settle for what they can get from you quickly.
- If I’m in a dangerous place I want to be there with a local that I trust. I also do have hiding places for money, a belt where a disguised interior can hold cash. But mostly it’s just about being alert, not going places especially alone and at night that your mother would warn against, and not attracting too much attention to yourself.
Now let’s be careful out there!