It was a crisp, clear winter’s morning in Rome. The sun was glinting off the marble statues on the Bridge of Angels, a light breeze was rustling through the trees bordering the Tiber River and my husband and I were stuck holding the hand of a frustrated scammer demanding petrol money.
At first he had seemed friendly enough. A small, well-dressed elderly man behind the wheel of a small blue hatchback. He stopped us as we were about to cross the street and said his name was Mario.
Leaning out of his car window, he caught us off guard as we were stumbling about starry-eyed in a particularly lovely part of town.
Acting slightly frazzled and speaking a mile a minute, he said he had travelled from Milan to Rome for a conference and he was lost. A bit of small talk later and he was chatting to us like we were old friends: “You are from New Zealand?! My wife is from New Zealand! I love Wellington. Go to Milan’s New Zealand consulate and ask for Helen! She will look after you. We will be good friends.”
Our new buddy ‘Mario’ said he was a fashion designer for Giorgio Armani, he even had a clear-file ready to show us his designs, mostly cut-outs from old magazines.
Since we were from his “favourite country in the whole wide world”, he wanted us to have a few of his latest Armani samples - a cheap looking plastic handbag and an imitation polar-fleece jacket.
He then reached out of the car window and grabbed my husband’s hand for an uncomfortably long time. He wouldn’t let go as he explained he needed help, his car was nearly out of gas (he pointed at the petrol gauge) and his petrol card was broken (he showed us the card with a corner cut off it). He gripped tight and implored us to help him as he had ‘honoured’ us with his free gifts.
We refused, insisting we had no cash on us. Though this was the truth, Mario, of course wasn’t happy as he had wasted at least 15 minutes on us.
He finally grabbed back his Armani and drove off in his little blue car, no doubt to find another tourist to try his scam on.
Every major city has its own scammers, though a quick chat with other tourists and a search through online travel forums indicates Rome is particularly notorious.
As one of the most gorgeous places in the world, Rome understandably draws throngs of tourists year-round. As jet-lagged travellers gawp in awe at St Peter’s Basilica, as they wander lost around the bustling and slightly run-down Termini station, as the beauty of the Colosseum causes them to momentarily forget about their handbags, the scammers and pick-pockets go to work.
In Piazza del Popolo, a sprawling urban square home to a towering and ancient Egyptian obelisk, an overweight, Bangladeshi man chased us down.
The winter sun was heating up the square and I had made the mistake of stopping to take my coat off, right in the man’s crosshairs.
He was selling flowers in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria but he said he felt compelled to give me a few roses as a gift. I was apparently so beautiful that it would be good luck for him to give me a flower.
He refused to take it back when I said I had no money for him.
“This is gift, you are beautiful honeymooners, good luck for Santa Maria, lovely flowers, a kiss for Santa Maria.”
Not only was he supposedly impressed by my looks, but of course Bangladesh and New Zealand shared a love for cricket and he wanted to pay his respects to our Black Caps.
So after a few attempts to return the flowers, we walked off with them. A few steps later he was running after us, beside himself with anger, demanding ‘a donation’ in return for his generous gift of flowers.
Hell hath no fury like a scammer scorned and on realising he was not going to get any cash, he ripped the flowers from my hand and muttered a few curse words under his breath.
And so on it went.
Scammers at the Trevi Fountain demanded that we hand them our camera so they could take a photo of us. Scammers at the Spanish Steps asked us for directions though we were lost and they seemed to be locals. Scammers near the Colosseum begged us to let them help us navigate our maps.
During a six day break in Rome, watching the different groups at work became a bit of a game. They were as numerous as the tour groups at the Roman forum and though they didn’t affect our enjoyment of the captivating city, their sheer numbers indicated that unfortunately, fleecing vulnerable tourists is a lucrative market.
A few regular scams to watch out for:
- At the main train stations, you may be offered help with the ticket machines or your luggage. Refuse it unless you are prepared to tip.
- Don’t take anything from any street vendor as a ‘gift’. Undoubtedly you will be persuaded to pay for it. Some can be very insistent.
- Be sure to agree on a taxi fare before getting in and check the price of any item on a restaurant menu that a waiter recommends.
- Outside popular buildings or churches, you may be asked to sign a petition and donate towards a vague cause. Keep on walking.