Travel scams: Sometimes you can't avoid them
I was in Paris last April walking down one of the grand boulevards when a woman walking towards me suddenly bent down and picked up something.
She approached me, extremely excited. "Look!" she said in accented English and opened her palm. In it was a broad gold wedding ring. "I found this ring. It's gold!"
She insisted I hold it. I gave it back and moved on.
She followed me. "But maybe you would like this ring?"
I walked faster.
Later the same day, in another part of town, a different woman walking towards me found another gold ring. What a coincidence! It was less of a coincidence the third time it happened.
I'd been targeted in a scam and it was getting very boring.
This particular scam plays on greed. The finder of the ring, always a fairly poor-looking woman, tries to flog you the "gold" ring for a few euros (or more, depending on what kind of sucker you look like), feigning ignorance at what the real price of gold might be. If you're greedy, mean and stupid you're happy to relieve the woman of the ring, thinking you might recoup a hefty profit.
I admit I had no idea it was a scam the first time I ran into it. My thought was, "How lovely for you" when the excited woman showed me her find. Her eagerness to share her fortune was the only thing that tipped me to the scam.
This reminds me of a time, many years ago, when I was standing in a train on the Paris Metro and a group of gypsy children surrounded me. The other passengers all gestured to me to hold tightly to my bag.
Some things don't change. Recently, when I was travelling on the same Metro system, our carriage was full of a few high-spirited local teenagers. When we pulled into a station, the kids got off, and one of the girls looked back and tossed a wallet into the carriage just before the doors shut. She had relieved an elderly American of his cash, but kindly returned his wallet and cards.
There's an intriguing series on Nat Geo People called Scam City. In it, journalist Conor Woodman exposes himself to scams in various cities such as Buenos Aires and Rome and then tracks down the thieves and scammers, befriending them and enlisting them in the investigation of how these scams operate, identifying the shady figures behind some of the big cons such as counterfeiting.
It's sometimes hair-raising stuff as he makes himself a target of pickpockets and "Black Widows" (prostitutes who fleece unsuspecting tourists of all their valuables by dropping drugs that paralyse into their drinks.) One of my favourite episodes, in Rio, involves a prostitute who tries to chat him up during Carnival. He calls her bluff, telling her he knows she's about to spike his drink. Happily, she confesses everything, including the fact that the tranquilliser she was intending to use on him is called Goodnight Cinderella.
"You wake up in two days with nothing," she says with a big grin. "Even your virginity will be gone."
I suppose most of us have run into scams when we travel, and hopefully are wise enough not to fall for them. But some can't be so readily avoided. Two women friends were visiting Istanbul and took a taxi. When they handed over a 50-lira note for a 10-lira fare the driver insisted they had only given him five lira and showed them the supposed note. While they argued, the driver drove on to an unfamiliar place and dumped them.
I think that scam is common to many cities. (Woodman exposed a taxi driver doing the same thing in Rio.) Women travellers are particularly vulnerable in situations like this. Pickpockets claim that women are the easiest to relieve of their wallets, as they're distracted shopping and often walk around with their handbags open.
It's impossible not to look like a visitor in some places and, quite frankly, when I'm new to a country, my cash could easily be swapped for counterfeit (one of the most popular scams) without me having any idea.
But if you fall for the ring switch and are happy to con a poor person out of the gold ring she has just found, then you deserve everything you get.
Have you encountered a scam while travelling? Share your stories below.