Solo travel: street scams to watch out for

Aimee Spicer / 09 September 2016

Fake policemen, scurrilous shoeshine men and the infamous ‘baby toss’. Saga reveals the world’s most common tourist scams and how you can avoid them…



On holiday, it’s all too easy to get lulled into a carefree, insouciant holiday mode. There you are, breezily ambling down some foreign thoroughfare, snapping and smiling away at local street-merchants, mentally composing a note to relocate here someday. 

Then, splat. A large splodge of bird fecal matter hits your jacket.

It’s no problem, because out of nowhere pops a do-gooding local who starts sponging away the mess with a cloth.

While you’re chatting away to this benevolent being, you fail to notice his friends rummaging through your pockets and bag.

Although being a victim of such a scam is relatively rare on holidays, exercising some vigilance and street-wise scepticism goes a long way.

Although many travellers are fully aware of the perils of pickpockets, scamsters are a wily breed, developing ever-more ingenious methods of stealing your valuables. Heard of the baby toss, anyone?

With just over a fifth (21.5%) of British travellers admitting to having fallen victim to a tourist scam, here’s some common con-tricks to be aware of, from the glaringly obvious dropped wallet trick to the imposter policemen’s sophisticated stagecraft…   

The friendship bracelet

Where: Paris (especially Montmartre), Rome, Barcelona

What happens: You’re approached by somebody in a plaza offering a ‘friendship’ bracelet. Within seconds, your new pal is weaving this bracelet around your wrist, asking you for money.

While you’re distracted by the rudeness of this so-called ‘friend’, his accomplices are clearing your pockets/bags of valuables.

Avoid by: Giving the cold shoulder to anybody who offers you something for free.

The fake policeman

Where: Mexico, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Czech Republic, Bolivia

What happens: A stranger engages you in conversation. Mid-chat, a costumed policeman approaches you both, warning about counterfeit money that has been circulating in the area and they need to check your wallet.

Your new friend obliges, getting his money back. Persuaded by this gesture, you do the same. However, the ‘policeman’ runs off with your wallet, along with the trickster you’ve just been talking to.

Avoid by: Pretending you have no cash on you should you be accosted by any phony policemen. Contact the real police should you have any doubts.

The tossed baby

Where: Rome, Ecuador

What happens: A woman walks towards you, throwing her baby at you as she passes. You leap up and catch the swaddled infant in your arms.

While you cradle the tot, seriously concerned about the poor little mite’s welfare after its aerobatic fling, its ‘mother’ and her accomplices are rifling through your pockets and bag.

By the time they’ve left, you realise the blanketed bundle isn’t a baby at all, but a very convincing doll.

Avoid by: Being vigilant in busy streets/markets

ATM scams

Where: South Africa, Mexico

What happens: There are a number of cash-machine cons, such as the smart, immaculately-mannered English-speaking local explaining how to use the cash machine (while secretly clocking your pin number).

Another trick is a thief tampering with the ATM before you arrive, so your card becomes jammed.

When you report that your card has been swallowed, the thief takes your card, emptying your bank account in the process.

Avoid by: Not using ATMs at night or in secluded places. Try frequenting ATMs/banks policed by a security guard. If anybody offers their help with your transaction, decline their proposition.

The magic trick

Where: London (particularly Westminster Bridge), Paris, Barcelona

What happens: On the side of a street, a group has gathered to watch a man performing a magic trick which involves hiding a ball underneath one of three cups.

However, the crowd doesn’t just consist of tourists – the performer’s fellow-hustlers are there too, ready to pickpocket you when you’re distracted by the ‘magician’s’ sleight-of-hand.

Avoid by: Not wandering over to watch the magic trick when you pass it. Unless it’s David Copperfield/Dynamo, of course.

The fortune-telling fraud

Where: Madrid, India, Thailand

What happens: A frail old woman (or an Indian Yogi) offers you a sprig of rosemary or tells you how wise you look. Within seconds, he/she is holding your palm and reading your fortune.

As they finish their brief soothsaying session, they demand payment. When you refuse, they’ll start loudly cursing you and your family.

Avoid by: Walking swiftly away when any rosemary-brandishing old women approach you.  

The stain swindle

Where: India, South America, Barcelona  

What happens: When you’re not looking, a scam artist sprays your clothing with a strange liquid.  Suddenly, a stranger appears offering to towel you down, claiming a pigeon has defecated on you.

While you’re distracted by the good samaritan dabbing your jacket with a cloth, somebody steals your valuables. Other variations include mustard/condiments and spit.

Avoid by: Refusing the local’s offer to wipe you down. 

The flirtatious female!

Where: Greece, Turkey, Krakow

What happens: A woman approaches a single male traveller and starts flirting. She then asks if he’d accompany her to a local bar or nightclub.

The nightspot seems a tad seedy but that doesn’t matter because he’s entranced by her come-hither stare.

When she asks for a drink, he gets his credit card out. Then the bill arrives and the woman disappears…

Avoid by: Being suspicious of anybody who is overtly flirtatious.

The shoe shiner scam

Where: Istanbul, India, Rio De Janeiro

What happens: A shoeshine worker drops his brush. You pick it up. Overcome with gratitude, he frantically shakes your hand, offering to clean your shoes for free. While doing this, he starts talking about his sickly child in hospital. After he finishes polishing, he asks if you’d donate some money to support his family. More tourists are hoodwinked by this than you think.  

Avoid by: Not picking up the brush.

The Petition deceit

Where: Paris, Barcelona

What happens: You’re sitting on a sunny Parisian terrace when a gaggle of innocent-looking children, some feigning to be deaf, approach you with a pen and ask you to sign a charity petition.

While you’re reading the petition, their hands are rummaging through your belongings. See also: a similar trick whereby kids shove a postcard and pen in your face, asking your help in writing it.

Avoid by: Shooing away any young scamps who ask you to sign a petition.

The camera crook

Where: Europe

What happens: You’re snapping photos of your partner with your camera or smartphone when you’re approached by an amiable-looking local who asks if you want a photo taken.

Seconds afterwards, you’re standing mouth agape as he sprints off with your camera.

Avoid by: Investing in a selfie-stick 

The dropped wallet

Where: Ukraine, Italy

What happens: You stumble across an empty wallet on the ground. Upon seeing it, your instinct tells you to check your own wallet, by patting the pocket where it’s held or taking it from your bag.

Unbeknownst to you, pickpockets have been spying your actions and will know exactly which pockets to target later on.  

Avoid by: Resisting the urge to take out your wallet.

The passport pilferer

Where: Worldwide

What happens: You’re checking into a hotel, casually leaving your passport on the desk while signing forms and handing over credit card for payment. While you’re engrossed in tedious hotel paperwork, somebody swipes your passport. 

With more than 21,000 British passports being stolen or last year, the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) has recently launched a social media campaign (#PassportAware) to remind travellers to safeguard their documents while abroad.

Avoid by: Being conscious of your surroundings. Also, make two photocopies of your passport, or store an electronic copy, before you travel.   

Related: Solo travel: how to deal with street harassment abroad.

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