Everyone looks forward to their first trip to Europe. Maybe you're visiting Spain, Italy, France or even all three. Your dream of European travel probably doesn't include getting pickpocketed, scammed or embarrassed. Unfortunately, the risk of getting into tourist scams is real so it's something you should at least be aware of before beginning your travels.
Scammers are always looking for new ways to make a buck from the unsuspecting tourist so that makes them innovative. It would be impossible to list every scam because as soon as this is posted they will be starting on a new one. Instead, here we look at the most common ones I have seen or experienced in my extensive travels in Europe.
1. The Free Gift Scam
Didn't your mother ever tell you that nothing in life is free? Well, she was right – especially when it comes to scammers in Europe. THE most common trick I have seen is the free gift ruse, it is one of the most seen tourist scams in Europe. While this can go a number of different ways, the premise is the same. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any overly friendly stranger trying to give you something. It's not free.
I know this may sound cynical because there are genuinely nice, friendly locals in Europe but this scam is much too common for you to be trusting.
I have seen the free gift scam the most with “friendship” bracelets. The person trying to put a friendship bracelet on you is not your friend. If you let them, they will very quickly put the bracelet on your wrist which you will not be able to remove. At this point, they will demand payment. Even if you wanted to take the bracelet off you can't. It's on tight.
If you refuse to pay the crazy price of sometimes €20 for an ugly piece of string, the “friend” will follow you and harass you until you do. It's also very likely that some friends of his will quickly arrive in an effort to intimidate you into paying. The same free gift scam is used with roses, sprigs of rosemary and basically any other cheap trinket you can think of.
How to avoid the free gift scam
Don't let anyone touch you and don't accept these gifts ever. It's that simple. Another thing your mother always told you: just say no! Be emphatic if you have to and walk away. The gifter will move on to another, easier target.
2. The Ticket Machine Helper Scam
You see these friendly helpers at ticket machines everywhere but especially at the train and metro. You will be trying to figure out which tickets to buy and they will offer their help. They'll tell you that this machine doesn't accept cash. They'll offer to put the tickets on their card if you give them the cash. They will quickly buy the tickets and you'll be on your way.
When you use your tickets, you'll find out that they are the wrong, cheaper tickets or just invalid. Trying to get your money back is futile. The scammer will be long gone.
It's also common for these ticket helpers to be working with a partner. While they are helping you, their partner is picking your pockets and relieving you of your phone or wallet.
In all my travels, this is the one scam that got me. I was buying a ticket for myself and three others at the Champs Elysees metro station in Paris. As I was trying to figure it out, a man with a name badge around his neck offered to help. I thought he was legit.
We were paying cash and preparing to put it in the machine and he stopped us and said that the machine didn't take cash. He offered to put the tickets on his card and we gave him the cash. He pressed some buttons, and we walked away thinking how helpful the guy was.
Only on our return home, when the tickets we thought were day passes didn't work, did we realize that in fact, he had bought us one-way child tickets. We were lucky we didn't get caught by any ticket inspectors. All I can say is that I learned my lesson.
How to avoid the ticket machine helper scam
Be hyper-aware when anyone is hovering around you offering their help. Refuse it and continue with your task. Muddle through the task yourself. Throughout Europe, most ticketing machines have the option for English so it may just take you a little while to sort out the right tickets and complete the purchase yourself. Never let anyone touch you as this is likely a pickpocket's distraction. Carry your money and valuables in concealed pockets or money belts.
3. The Hold My Baby Scam
I have seen this scam in Rome once. A friendly woman with a baby will start up a conversation. She'll shove her baby at you aggressively to hold. While you're holding the baby, an accomplice will pick your pockets.
There is also a variation on this with a fake baby. A woman will have what you think is a baby and basically launch it at you. Who isn't going to catch a thrown baby? Well, not you after reading this! The “baby” is a doll and by the time you figure this out, your pockets have been picked.
How to avoid the hold my baby scam
Simple. Don't catch or hold any stranger's babies
4. The “New” Taxi Fare Scam
Another common scam in Europe involves taxis. They will either have a broken meter or change the price when you're already at your destination. If you don't pay the new price, they will cause a scene or even threaten to call the police. Most people will just pay to avoid this unpleasantness.
How to avoid the “new” taxi fare scam
Always take a licensed taxi. In Rome, for example, licensed taxis have set fares to and from the airport. They should be posted right on the door. If you don't see that, but the taxi looks licensed, agree on a fare before getting in the cab. If this fare changes by the time you arrive, pay the agreed-upon fare and promptly leave.
5. The Overly Friendly Local
This scam is usually specifically targeted at solo male travellers. An overly friendly local, usually an attractive woman, will befriend you. She'll tell you that she knows a better place to go because it's cheaper, new, trendy, or anything else she thinks will get you to leave with her.
Once you arrive at the new destination and have ordered your drinks or food, you'll get a vastly inflated bill. And if you try to argue, some rough-looking bar staff will quickly appear while your new girlfriend makes her getaway. In some rare cases, you may even get robbed.
How to avoid the overly friendly local
It would be crazy not to talk to any locals when you're travelling in Europe. You could miss out on some great tips and information. Just don't go to a second, unknown location with a stranger, especially if you're alone.
While it may seem that everyone in Europe is out to get your money or valuables, I can assure you that's not the case. You just have to be careful and a little wary. Keep your wits about you in crowded areas and be on hyper-alert if anyone approaches you. When in doubt, think about those great lessons your mother taught you and just say no.