Five Top Tips for Avoiding Travel Scams in Europe

I’ll never forget the first time I realized sweet looking people may not be so sweet when I was travelling through Europe.

I was in a crowded store in Barcelona and my handbag was hanging loose as I used both hands to look through a rack of clothes. I’d seen the little old lady nearby and we’d smiled at each other. The sun was shining outside and all seemed right with the world.

Thinking I was in the way when she tried to move past me, I helpfully reached around to move my bag. And found her hand in it.

That’s when I realized that she hadn’t been brushing past at all. Instead she’d been unzipping my bag and if I hadn’t reached back at that exact moment she would have been on her way with my purse. The purse she had in the hand at the end of the wrist that I now had a firm grip on.

We looked at each other, shocked. Each one clearly waiting for the other to make the first move. When I think back on that day I wish I’d been braver and shouted to staff to let them know what was going on and to call the police. But I hesitated, worried that if I yelled she could become violent, and so when she dropped my purse I let her hand go and she backed away and quickly walked out of the store.

Over the years I’ve been lucky and have never had to call my travel insurance with tales of woe about tourist scams in Europe or anywhere else on my travels. (Excuse me while I go and touch some wood).

But having heard lots of stories from unlucky people over the years, when the folks at Southern Cross Travel Insurance asked if I’d be interested in sharing some of the safe travels tips I’ve picked up over the years, I jumped at the chance to share some of my favourites.

Avoid travel scams in Europe by always knowing where your bag is, image Porapak Apichodilok

So if you’re doing the smart thing and reading about tourist safety and tips to avoiding travel scams in Europe before you hop on that plane, here are some popular scams to look out for…

Don’t stop for these strangers

Talking to new people is one of the great joys of travel, so I hate the idea of telling people they shouldn’t stop for strangers at all, but unfortunately there are a lot of scams in Europe that prey on our trusting natures.

The good thing is that once you’re aware of some of the more common scams you can put your ‘You’re Not Fooling Me Buddy’ face on and briskly keep on walking.

Common scams include:

Did you lose this ring?

An oh so helpful stranger finds a ring on the ground and asks if it’s yours. When you say it’s not they notice a mark on the ring that says it’s pure gold and try to sell it to you. Or perhaps they say they can’t keep it for some strange religious reason and that you may as well have it instead, and as soon as you accept they start following you, asking for some money.

Sometimes the scam is as simple as that, other times they’re distracting you while their pickpocket accomplice is stealing your wallet.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you said ‘oh, thank goodness you found it, I’ve been looking for that!’ and took it before walking away, but a better idea is to simply say no and walk on by.

Did you drop your wallet?

You didn’t, but the moment you reach to check you still have yours, you’ve let the pickpockets know exactly where your wallet is.

The Ball and Cup Game

On that same trip to Barcelona many years ago, I remember stopping to watch the classic game where you bet which one of three cups has a ball or a pea in it after they’ve been quickly moved around.

I naively thought it was a game of skill and concentration and even though I wasn’t betting I wanted to prove to myself I could get it right. Which I did every time.

It seemed ridiculously easy, but of course at the time I didn’t realise that the people playing were part of the gang and were there to make it look that way. If I’d put my own money down I would have seen their sleight of hand skills pretty quickly.

Even if you just stand around watching this one, you’re leaving yourself open to pickpockets in the crowd. If you must watch, hold on to your valuables tight, however you’re better off just walking on by.

Baby Throwers

In this scam someone trips and their ‘baby’ flies out of their arms towards you. Your natural instinct is to catch the baby, and by the time you realise it’s a doll the pickpockets have done their work.

Letting a potential baby fall to the ground is not the right way to go here. Who knows if the person is horrible enough to use a real child in their nasty scams. Instead do all you can to keep your distance from beggars with children and don’t keep valuables in easy to reach places just in case they do manage to get close enough to you.

Avoid Maps

Both using them yourself, and anyone carrying one.

Nothing screams tourist like someone carrying around a map, and there’s no need to carry them at all in this day and age when they’re already in our phones.

Reduce the risk of travel scams by not looking like a tourist with a map, image Porapak Apichodilok

If you don’t have data roaming you can save offline maps in Google Maps by simply tapping the Download button underneath the map of the city or town you’ve searched for, or you can get an offline maps app like Maps Me. 

As for people carrying maps, as soon as someone starts to tell me about how they were having a lovely lunch and then some well-dressed tourists came over and asked for directions I know exactly what’s coming next.

Mobile phones, wallets and cameras go missing quickly when one of the confused ‘tourists’ puts a large map over the table, hiding what their accomplices are doing under the map.

If you see map-wielding tourists coming your way, hold onto your valuables tight and tell them you’re just visiting too and can’t help.

Don’t use your device next to an open train door

This is a relatively new one to me and yet it’s so obvious that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it before.

When I was catching a train in Spain recently a friend warned me not to use my iPhone, tablet, or even be looking at my camera if I was sitting anywhere near the doors of the train while the doors were open.

He’d discovered the hard way that some thieves wait until the train is ready to depart then snatch your device out of your hand and jump onto the platform as the door closes behind them.

The shocked victim is then left watching them on the other side of the glass as the train pulls away.

When my friend went to the police station to explain what happened, they’d barely started the story when the police finished it for them. They’d heard it that many times before.

So, sit away from the doors if you can and keep those devices tucked away until the doors have safely closed and you’re on your way.

Avoid Helping Hands

Oh no! A pigeon has pooped on you, or you’ve had tomato sauce squirted on your jacket.

If this happens your first reaction should be to put your hands on your valuables, say you’re fine thanks, and walk as quickly as you can away from the person who is trying to help clean you up.

Another popular scam in Europe, this one lets thieves empty your pockets while they’re distracting and touching you as they supposedly help to clean you up. Get out of there and clean your shirt with no one around.

Other helpful people you want to avoid include the person who says they want to show you how to use their local ATMs when they really want to watch you put in your pin number.

Sometimes even people who look like the police can be part of scams in Europe.

If police in uniform tell you they need to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or drug money, don’t hand over your wallet. That’s when the fake police steal your money as they’re checking it.

Instead ask them to take you to the police station so that you can be searched there. That will quickly separate the fake cops from the real ones.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Money

Large bills are lovely things to have in theory, but tricksters and scamsters are so good at taking them off you that it’s better to break them into smaller notes as soon as you can.

Whenever you’re handing over a large bill to someone say out loud how much it is and make sure you both see it. Some taxi drivers and waiters will fumble with your note and pretend to drop it, only to pick up a smaller one and say that you gave them less money.

Woman sitting on bar stool with handbag lying on the floor. image Daria Shevtsova

Another taxi scam involves the driver insisting on payment up front, then suddenly not being able to complete the journey for some strange reason and giving you back a counterfeit bill.

Don’t let your credit or debit card be taken out of your sight. If they can’t bring the card machine to your table, follow the person as they’re processing it.

And if someone is taking a long time to count out your change don’t just grab it and rush off. That’s another old scam that relies on our trusting natures. Wait patiently, and it may even be worth counting your change back in front of them.

It may be boring but it will also help if you get to know the local currency, so you’ll be less of a pushover when someone tries to give you the wrong change.

Remember, most people are good

After sharing all of these bad things that people may try to do to you, I could understand if you were a little bit concerned before your travels.

Which is why I want to stress that in all my years of travelling in Europe I’ve managed to avoid falling victim to any of these nasty types (pauses to touch wood again). And being aware of these travel scams in Europe will help you to avoid them too.

If you’ve experienced any that I’ve missed please do share them in the comments below so we can let more people know about them. And before travelling, don’t forget to check out the advice for the country you’re going to.

The Australian government’s Smartraveller website has a section dedicated to different travel scams and you don’t have to be an Aussie to use it. Anyone can check it out.

Remember, most people that you’ll meet on your travels are good. Some are even going to be amazing. So don’t be scared to meet new people.

Listen to your instincts and enjoy your adventures.

This post has been brought to you by Southern Cross Travel Insurance

You should always consider the Product Disclosure Statement and Policy Wording and your personal circumstances before making any decision about whether to acquire a travel insurance product. Adventures All Around does not and cannot provide any advice, opinion or recommendation about any insurance.

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About the Author

As a journalist who loves to travel and is fond of a chat I'm oh so happy when I'm sharing travel tales and tips. When I'm not travelling or writing about it I can be found out and about with friends, curled up at home with a good book or watching an addictive tv show promising I'll stop after one more episode. Amanda on Google +

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