Europe is chock-full of bucket list destinations that attract crowds year-round, from cheery Christmas markets to sunny beaches packed with visitors in summer. And with crowds come the inevitable and creative travel scams that con artists expertly execute on unsuspecting tourists.
Whenever you travel, you risk falling victim to travel scams. While such scams can affect anyone, knowing what to look for might help you avoid getting ripped off. You’re more susceptible to trickery in unfamiliar settings, after all, and scams usually have been perfected over years of trial and error.
The Most Bizarre Europe Travel Scams
Gelato in hand, you’re strolling down a street in Italy when suddenly, a woman starts loudly arguing with a street vendor. A crowd gathers as he accuses her of shoplifting. To prove her innocence, she starts to strip: Once she’s down to her underwear, the vendor apologizes, the woman leaves, and the onlookers disappear—but so have their wallets, thanks to a team of pickpockets who were working the show.
This is just one of the bizarrely inventive ways that European scam artists operate. The good news is that if you’re wise to their tricks, you can just marvel at their ingenuity. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businessmen, generally with something official-looking in their hand. Lately many are posing as tourists with fanny packs, cameras, and even guidebooks.
No matter which country you’re in, assume beggars are pickpockets and any scuffle is simply a distraction by a team of thieves. If you stop for any commotion or show, put your hands in your pockets before someone else does (or, even better, wear a money belt).
Set-up scams are time-tested and popular. On the busy streets of Barcelona, Berlin, and Florence, you’ll find the shell game: Players pay to guess which of the moving shells hides the ball. It looks easy, but the winners are all ringers, and you can be sure that you’ll lose if you play.
The most rampant scams are more subtle, such as being overcharged by a taxi driver. Some cabbies will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one, then tell you that you didn’t pay enough. Others will select the pricier “night and weekend” rate on their meter, even on weekdays. To decrease your odds of getting ripped off, call for a taxi from a hotel or restaurant, or use your phone to order a rideshare instead. If you do hail a cab, choose one with a prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Either way, insist on using the meter, agree on a price up front, or know the going rate. If, for whatever reason, I’m charged a ridiculous price for a ride, I put a reasonable sum on the seat and say goodbye.
Whenever cash is involved, it pays to be alert. If someone offers to help you use a cash machine, politely refuse (the person wants your PIN code). If a cash machine eats your ATM card, check for a thin plastic insert with a little flap hanging out—crooks use tweezers to extract your card. Cashiers, and even bank tellers, thrive on the “slow count,” dealing out change with odd pauses in hopes that rushed tourists will gather up the money early and say “grazie.” Also, be careful when paying with large bills in restaurants and stores, and always inspect your change—in Italy, the now-worthless 500-lira coin looks like a two-euro coin.
Some thieves hang out at train-ticket machines, eager to assist you in buying tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. And skip the helping hand from official-looking railroad attendants at the Rome train station. They’ll lead you to your seat, then demand a “tip.”
In Spain, women offer you sprigs of rosemary (as if in friendship) and then grab your hand, read your fortune, and demand payment. Don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a sprig, and say firmly but politely, “No, gracias.”
Just because someone looks official doesn’t mean they are. In Italy, “Tourist Police” may stop you on the street, flash bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave.
Never open your door to “hotel inspectors.” One waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you’re distracted, the first thief slips in and snags valuables off your dresser.
In Vienna, official-looking women decked out in long velvet capes roam famous sights, claiming to work for the opera house and offering to sell you tickets. The tickets are fakes, and the only seats you’ll be buying are the ones on the bus back to your hotel.
Common Travel Scams in Europe by Country
And there are still more travel scams to know about if you’re visiting Europe. Here are eight of the most common travel scams, organized by country where you’re more likely to encounter them. Study up so you don’t fall victim to “highway pirates” or bogus police officers on your next trip.
Italy, Puncturing Tires: Beware of “highway pirates” in Italy who will puncture your tires in a parking lot and follow you until you’re forced to stop. They will then pretend to help you while robbing you at the same time. If you do get a flat tire, be cautious about who offers to help you—especially around Naples—and never leave your valuables and luggage in your car.
France, False Petitions: Be wary of children who pretend to be disabled and claim to represent an accredited charity. They will ask for your signature—and then your money. Ignore them and report the scam to police. Organized scammers like this receive a 1 million euro fine in France.
Spain, Fake Entry Fees: Scam artists are posing with fake IDs at the Spanish border and asking for an “entry fee” into Gibraltar. There is no entry fee to pass through, so ignore anyone asking for money and keep your valuables out of sight.
Czech Republic, Impersonated Police Officers: In this grand scam, a group of “police offers” will appear and accuse you of committing a crime. They will ask to see your wallet and passport, which is against the law, so you should refuse and ask to be taken to the nearest police station instead. This will most likely make them go away. Be sure to report them to the local authorities after.
Hungary, Counterfeit Money: Taxi drivers and dingy currency exchange booths commonly pass on counterfeit bills to unsuspecting tourists. Make sure to exchange your money only at a bank or in the airport, and double check that the bills you receive are the correct currency.
Netherlands, Distraction Scams: Pay particular attention to this at restaurants in Central Amsterdam. Someone might come into the restaurant and either pretend to look for a friend or cause another distraction. Instead he or she will steal your bag right in front of you. Make sure you keep your possessions in your line of sight, and don’t leave bags or coats hanging on the back of your chair.
Croatia, Extortionate Bills: Some Croatian bars and restaurants—especially gentleman’s clubs—will add an unexplained surcharge to your bill, expecting you not to have enough cash. If you are short on funds, they’ll take you to an ATM and demand that you take out more money. It’s best to research restaurants, clubs, and bars before going, and ask your hotel (rather than taxi drivers, who may be in on the scam) for recommendations.
Poland, Phony Taxis: At airports and major tourist attractions in Poland, many unregulated drivers will pick up unsuspecting tourists and claim their meter is broken. Avoid this overcharge by only using official taxis; check for the name and number of the company on the car. Another way to check their legitimacy is by looking for a rate card.
We don’t mean to paint Europe as a dangerous place. In fact, it’s safer than America. Muggings in Europe are uncommon. Thieves want to separate you from your money painlessly. Europe travel scams are easy to avoid if you recognize them. But remember: Even the most vigilant traveler can get conned. If this happens, don’t let it ruin your trip. With the right attitude and lighter bags, you can still have a wonderful time.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It’s been updated to reflect the most current information. Rick Steves, Ashley Rossi, and Ed Perkins contributed to this story.
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