Scams so basic I fell for them all
SCAMMERS are ubiquitous when you're travelling. Whether you're in Bali, Brussels or Barcelona, savvy thieves can smell a gullible tourist's hideous all-occasion tennis shoes from a mile away.
With our ugly money belts and padlocked backpacks, we think ourselves pretty clever at dodging the best of them.
At least, I sure did. After six months unscathed in Asia, I smugly figured the rest of the world would be a breeze. Just keep an eye on your stuff, right?
Ha! Here are some truly ingenious scams I've fallen for in North Africa and Western Europe over the past few months.
FAUX-SAMARITANS OF MOROCCO
Nothing screams "tourist" like consulting your map with a confused expression.
Morocco's congested souks were designed for first-timers to get lost in; the tiny stone alleys alone make Google Maps totally redundant.
Moroccans are famed for their hospitality, so when a local stranger offered to help Lost Little Me in Fez one afternoon, I thought nothing of it.
The man said there was a dead-end ahead, and asked where I was going. I gave him the name of the main road adjacent to my guesthouse.
"Oh - we're going that way! We'll help you, brother!"
We? Suddenly, there were three of them. But as Fez's old town is a hellish maze, I followed them gratefully.
After just a five-minute walk, we were back on the familiar main road.
"Now you tip!"
"Huh?" Weren't they already going this way? "I don't have any change."
"Don't care. We gave you a service. Now you pay us!" All the friendliness from five minutes ago was gone, and I was outnumbered.
We ended up in a shouting match on the street, with me saying they should have mentioned money upfront.
I managed to get small change at a nearby market stall, and gave the men - who were now blocking the exit - a ten-dirham coin ($AU1.50).
"No! This is money for small boy! Give us your notes!"
I shoved them aside and walked away.
THE MONEY EXCHANGE SWITCHEROO
Getting ripped off at exchange booths is as old as time.
Maybe the teller will subtly flick a few notes under the table while counting them out for you, or charge you a hefty "service fee".
Another common scam is to deliberately count the notes out so slowly that you'll exasperatedly take their word for it, snatch up your short-changed total mid-count and leave.
On my last morning in Morocco, before my flight to Lisbon, I was treated to a truly ingenious scam while exchanging my leftover dirhams to euros - the most common currency imported into Morocco.
The man at the counter apologetically told me he only had two-euro coins. No worries! He counted them all out in front of me and - sure enough - there were 20 coins (40 euros) on the table.
What I failed to realise until much later was how strikingly similar the five-dirham Moroccan and two-euro coins are. They're the same size and colour. The only difference is the latter has quadruple the worth.
Yep, you guessed it. In my rush, I counted the coins without inspecting them closely, and didn't realise that most were actually useless Moroccan dirhams. As the dirham is a closed currency, it's nearly impossible to exchange overseas. Genius!
This scam is common in big European cities. A group of small kids will surround you joyfully - they might be playing tag or kicking a ball around.
While distracted, you don't realise they're swiftly digging into your pockets for wallets, smartphones, loose cash and whatever else they can get their little hands on.
I almost became a victim in tourist-saturated Venice. Three kids ran around me, chasing each other and using me to hide from one another. "How cute!" I thought.
Suddenly I felt my wallet being yanked through my side pocket. I jumped three feet into the air and swatted them away.
Fortunately, they didn't take anything. I was wearing Prince-tight pants at the time - hell, I couldn't even reach into my own pockets without assistance from a hydraulic rescue tool. Remember this memo, vulnerable travellers: crimes against fashion pay off.
'YOU SPILT MY DRUGS'
I was staying at a hostel in a relatively sketchy neighbourhood just outside of central Amsterdam. One morning, I was walking down the street and a man on a bicycle bumped into me.
"Sorry!" I said automatically, with a quick glance.
He stopped riding his bike. "Hey!"
I turned to face him, confused. "Sorry?" I said again, this time looking straight at him.
I then continued walking, and to my surprise he started following me.
"You stop when I talk to you," he shouted. When I stopped again - still totally confused - he suddenly revealed a small vial he was carrying, with white powder spilt over his hand.
"Look what you did," he said. "Pay me 20 euros." He wasn't yelling now, but his tone was menacing.
I started protesting, and he cut me off with a warning: "You don't want to make me angry."
At that I just walked away, and - when he began following me on his bike - broke into a run without looking back.
This should be a no-brainer, but travellers are constantly getting done over when attempting to buy drugs in foreign countries.
At worst you can be jailed, but it's more likely you'll just lose out on your cash.
A common scam in Spain and Portugal is for a man to come up and offer "hash" or "coca".
Even after you decline, an accomplice will approach pretending to be a police officer. He'll accuse you of purchasing illicit substances and demand you turn out your pockets. Then he'll snatch your wallet and run.
FAKE TOUR GUIDES IN ROME
I visited The Vatican on World Tourism Day, a day on which numerous major attractions offer free entry.
The city-state was even more flooded with eager tourists than usual - and, of course, scammers.
Every few stops, a new stranger would stop me and exclaim: "I'm not trying to sell you anything! I just have some free advice!" Ah, these good people selflessly doing the Pope's work.
Their "free advice" entailed identical spiels: It's World Tourism Day, so you'll be waiting at least three hours to get inside but if you pay me a special discounted price of 25 euros, I can get you straight to the front of the line and give you a guided tour!
"Come and see the line with me for yourself," they all said confidently.
I initially considered coughing up the cash; I'd heard the line for the Vatican was insane on a normal day, let alone an annual day devoted to tourism.
I decided to check out the queue for myself first, figuring I could always go back if it was too long.
Wise move! As it turned out, the free entry factor meant there was actually no line to get in. Zilch. If anything, it was probably the single fastest day of the year for one to get into the Vatican.
Ever-sceptical Gavin: 1. Scammers: 0.
Follow Gavin on Twitter at @GavinDFernando.
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