On our recent European tour of 9 countries, we’ve come across many scams and heard about many more. Here are some of the most common scams and tricks to we’ve had to watch out for while traveling across Europe with kids.
We’ve organized them into 2 categories:
Scams that are hard to avoid, and Scams you’ll likely naturally avoid with common sense.
SCAMS HARD TO AVOID:
FAKE TAXIS & MORE
We’ve personally fallen victim to numerous taxi scams around the world.
Once we got into a taxi in North Vietnam outside of the Vietnam War Museum in Hanoi. The man was very nice, ushered us in, and we were driven back to your hotel. The meter ran rampant! What should have cost $10 was approaching $250! About 2 minutes into the ride, we realized the meter was doctored but felt it best to stay quiet till the hotel. He stopped a few hundred yards from the hotel on a public street demanding money. Not so nice anymore, yelling at us. He wouldn’t take us to the hotel fully, and I threw $10 at him and we bolted.
This is common across the world. Cars with fake taxi signs are everywhere. In most European countries, permitted taxis are in lines. Anyone soliciting you to their taxi at major attractions outside of a queue is suspect. The best thing to do is find a legitimate taxi line or use Uber.
Paying with Cash
Once we gave a large bill, the driver took it to make change, and handed it back because the bill was too small. Immediately after taking it to his side of the car, he switched it with a smaller note, hoping since it wasn’t our well-known currency we’d be confused and give him more. Not much we can do other than argue. This also happened to us in a gas station in deep Mexico. Robbery. If you pay with cash, it’s not a bad idea to use your phone to film handing the money to the driver each time. You can delete the videos later, but doesn’t take much extra work. This maneuver can also be done with counterfeit money. See below for more.
Paying with Credit Card
Once in New York City, right next to Central Park, a ran payment via the credit card processor in the back. It went through, and as we stepped out, the driver said it didn’t go through. He’d obviously set it up to transact again for a double charge. Much to the chagrin of my family, I argued and stayed in the cab while calling my credit card company to confirm the transaction for 15-20 minutes. I got confirmation, told him, and he didn’t even need to hear them say it. He knew it went through, and didn’t want to waste any more time.
Getting Change – You pay with real money, they do a quick switcharoo, and hand back a counterfeit bill saying it’s not real, then you have to pay them again. You basically lose twice in an instant. This can happen anywhere that you need bigger bills broken. Taxis, restaurants, coffee shops, markets, etc… Keep an eye on what to look for if the country you visit is known for counterfeit. See ATMs for another counterfeit scam.
Breaking Big Bills – There’s a well-known scam where you’ll be at an ATM, and a local at the ATM next to you will offer to break big bills for you. He just got it out of the machine as well (so he says), but he gives you either counterfeit or expired bills. Break big bills at established businesses. Don’t spend money at markets or on the street till you have small bills.
Exchange Fees – So, regardless of where you pull money out, you’ll get hit with exchange rate fees. BUT, if you plan ahead, you can have these refunded. If you start a brokerage account with Charles Schwab and fund your checking account, you’ll get checks and a debit card. When using the debit card in Europe, all ATM exchange fees will be refunded automatically. THAT BEING SAID, there’s a trick the banks use to squeeze money out of you. If they ask if you’d like the exchange rate fee to be paid in USD vs the local currency, they tack on a big fee that won’t be refunded. Always pay fees via the local currency, regardless of whether you have Charles Schwab.
Skimmers – There are devices built to fit perfectly over the CC input section on ATMS and Credit Card processors. These devices skim your credit card information. We always yank a little bit at the plastic around the input to make sure it’s legit. On a side note, skimmers are even used walking around (mobile skimmers.) One way to combat this is with RFID blocking sleeves over your cards or a blocking wallet. We went the cheap way, and we’ve literally laminated small sheets of tinfoil and cut them to credit card size. I have one on both sides of my cards and even a larger one around my passports. Doesn’t hurt and takes up virtually no extra room.
Sticky Traps – We’ve never personally encountered this, but there are reports of thieves using a tape device around the input of the card and/or output for cash. It holds them in, and you can’t get it out. You figure it’s broken and walk away. They pull the device off and get your money and your card. Yank at anything that protrudes even slightly.
Helpful People – If a local is helping you, they’re likely watching for your pin number and will relieve you of your debit card at some point. This should fall in the common sense category below, but we’re talking about the various forms of theft next. Just don’t let anyone help you at an ATM unless you’re in the bank and they clearly work there. Even then, I’d be wary.
Improper Change – This happened to me a few weeks ago. I was in rush, paid for some street food, and ran off to catch a train. Upon settling in on the train, I checked my change, and I was shorted about 10 Euro. Not cool, my fault!
Table Grab – You sit down at an outside cafe table looking over the menu, and set your phone or wallet down. A moped with 2 people on it zip by and grab it. You’re screwed. There are different variations of the table grab, and it doesn’t have to be outside. A friendly local walks up to chat you up and share his city. He puts his newspaper down on the side of your table. After a minute or 2, he walks away with whatever he put the paper over and you’ve paid. Another time you put your bag by your feet, and the patrons at the table behind you pay their bill and leave with it. Good chance they never even ordered anything. Keep your valuables on you! And if you have a bag, put the straps around the chair or your leg. Make it harder for them to steal your stuff.
PICKPOCKETS – In Venice, a friend and I got on a crowded boat taxi and within the first 30 seconds, I felt someone reaching into my back pocket (I never keep anything in my back pocket.) I turned around to see 2 little girls: one with her hand my jeans, and the other with their entire arm my Katie’s backpack. Immediately upon realizing, their father jumped onboard and grabbed them forcefully by their arms, and dragged them off the boat yelling in Italian. Seconds later, the boat shoved off. It all happened so quickly. If they had our stuff, we would be oblivious. We watched them walk about laughing. So, clearly, this was a team job and a very successful one at that. Even when caught red-handed, they got away without any issue. Now when traveling, I always keep my wallet/phone in a front pocket, and when in big cities and touristy areas, I have a strap on it. Also, when using a backpack, all valuables are deep in the bag.
There are many other tactics to take your attention away from your wallet. If you look lost, they might come to help you. If they look lost, they might ask you. If at a market eating street food, they might come and help clean off some mustard. They might casually ask you what time it is and zip off with your phone. The latter is rare, in that you’ll likely never know it happened. A lot of these pickpockets work in teams. So as one distracts, the other lifts and is on their way. Smart, in that if you notice while talking to the person, they can’t be a suspect because they don’t physically have your wallet/phone. Be cautious of anyone needing or wanting help.
TIPS: I rarely go anywhere touristy without wearing pants or shorts with zippers on the pockets. That’s just one more deterrent. I also keep my valuables in one of those hidden hanging pockets that is attached to my belt and lives within my pants. My phone case has a long cord attached to it, so when walking through crowds with my map app out, it’s not being taken away.
Also, if you know where you’re going, move from A to B. This is kind of a stupid tip since, as a tourist, we’re looking all around, smiling and in awe. We’re obviously tourists. Just be aware of your surroundings. That being said, the next one requires your attention.
TAKING A WRONG STEP
You’re walking along looking at the magnificent Cathedral and you’ve just kicked over a plastic cup filled with coins. The beggar or accordion playing little poy runs to pick up his tips. Most of the coins aren’t even real, but you feel compelled to contribute for your misstep. But in reality, that see-through cup was placed in front of your foot with his foot.
Another very popular one are the art sellers with prints on the ground in very busy foot traffic. It’s almost impossible to see them, and next thing you know you’ve stepped on their fake art! They demand you pay for it. Another one is someone bumping into you, and the glass bottle of “booze” falls out of their hand and breaks. They’re a local and you feel very off guard, so when they demand you pay for a new premium bottle of liquor, you pay and want out of the situation. All of these situations are manufactured to make you feel bad and pay. You should refuse and walk away. If they get aggressive and won’t leave you alone, tell them you’ll pay them in front of a police officer. They won’t last long.
FRONT ROW SEATING
If you go to a touristy show, you may be offered front-row seats, which is great! No cost! They then bring you champagne, and at that moment, you feel like a rockstar having just walked in front of everyone else. That bottle will likely cost you more than your firstborn. Or sometimes they’ll tack on a front-row fee at the end. This also goes for restaurants. Know that if you sit outside at some places (or sit at all) you’ll be charged more.
Always ask for a menu in the local language. If they give you a menu in English, keep it if you can, but take the local one. In touristy spots, some English menus may have much higher prices (though we’ve not seen it ourselves so far). If you never get one in Engish, use your phone and do some translating.
Again, make see if there’s an additional charge for the great seating you’re getting. Also, always ask about the price of things. House wine can cost 5 times what it ought to if you don’t ask first. Keep an eye on menu prices and always ask if it’s not on the menu. Also, check the bill for gratuity. A lot of times they’ll add it and hope you don’t see it. Finally, when giving them the bill with cash, refrain from saying Thank you until you’ve got change. Otherwise, they’ll assume it’s all tip. TIP: Tip well. Europe doesn’t have the same standards of tipping as the US, but that doesn’t mean they get paid all that much better.
We’re guilty of doing this over and over. We go to a restaurant with the best location, the best view, and lots of people in it. Those lots of people consist of 100% tourists and are paying a premium for that spot. The food is mediocre, the service terrible, and they don’t care because they’ll always be full of one-time visitors. Top it off with a bill-inflated 10X. Stick to the more local neighborhoods and ask locals about their favorites. We’ve gone to some beyond-incredible spots that no one knows about (and won’t) that are off the radar and gems.
Always ask the price before ordering anything. If you can’t understand, they almost always have a calculator that they can show you the price on. Then beware of upcharges. You order a beautiful brotwurst for $10, then they ask you if you want mustard or ketchup, and you may get charged an additional 30-40%.
SCAMS EASILY AVOIDED WITH COMMON SENSE:
A common scam across Europe is done by deaf/mute survey givers asking for you to fill a few questions out for their charity. They’ve got your attention and sympathy, then they ask you for a donation. They’re not deaf or mute and are taking your money home with them.
Just don’t. Anyone giving you anything for free is going to ask for money. This could be a rose, cool light-up balloons, toys that shoot up in the sky that your kids MUST have. Do your best to not take anything ever handed to you, unless you’re ok paying a premium for it.
I’m not sure how people let this happen, but someone comes over and starts putting a free bracelet on your wrist as a token of friendship. The thing is knotted to the point that Houdini couldn’t get it off with a jackhammer. then they hassle you for money saying it’s for their child. The day I let a complete stranger grab my wrist out of the blue will never come.
Similar to the free things trick, here someone finds a gold ring in front of you, picks it up, and puts it in your hand. “You must have dropped this!” The greedy say yes, and the honest say no, but either way, they ask for money. The fake gold ring is in your hand and they don’t want it back.
This one is another hastle for being a good Samaritan. A shoe shiner is walking by with his shoe shine box on wheels behind him. His brush is sitting precariously on top and falls off. You see it, and return it to him. Now he has your attention and will somehow reverse-guilt you into a shine and more money for his poor family. Just assume anything that you find or is given to you for free is a trick.
WEALTHY NEEDS GAS/DIRECTIONS
A well-dressed person comes up asking for directions or asking a big favor since they’ve run out of gas and forgot their wallet. You tend to believe them because they’re dressed well and even have a really nice car. This is when they either try to trade you designer goods in their trunk for the gas money or they promise to send it back to your address later. Sometimes they even use the gold ring trick. It’s all the same. You’ll never see that money again and your Gucci bag is more Goofy than Italian.
In flea markets, on the street, and even in stores, you never know what you’re getting. Unless you don’t care about the quality or legitimacy of brands, don’t bother and/or don’t pay full price!
In front of popular tourist attractions, it’s common to find scammers selling tickets/admission at a discount. They may say they bought some for friends, and they couldn’t make it. Or something has come up, and they can’t use them. This goes for trains, buses, hop-on hop-off tours, and pretty much anything tourists might want to do. Most often, the tickets are expired, and sometimes they’re fake. There’s no good reason to buy a ticket from a random on the street. Buy your tickets and admissions via brick and mortar official locations.
On this same note, there’s no reason to do business transactions on the street with randoms, unless you’re at a market. Anyone offering to help with currency exchange on the street should not be trusted.
FRIENDLY PEOPLE (Bar, restaurant, money)
If a friendly local is eager to help and becoming friends, take it with a grain of salt. We’ve heard stories of people being taken on a wild-goose chase when having a local help them find their way or to get something they need. You may end up buying them coffee, lunch, and hit up for money without getting what you want. Some stories have a nice person willing to help bring you into a bar while they get a business card to share. Next thing you know, you’ve got food ordered for you and a tab. Finally, we’ve also heard flirtatious locals will sometimes pick up on you, and basically do everything they can to take what you’ve got in the name of love.
A very popular street game across the globe, if you see someone with a towel and 3 cups with a ball, the game is rigged. They work in groups, where a few players are in on it, and they make it seem like you can make big money gambling. You may even win a game at first, but you won’t win in the end.
Popular in cities like Amsterdam, we’ve heard that people selling drugs on the street will give you bunk or dangerous alternatives to the real thing. Just don’t.
AMSTERDAM POLICE SHAKEDOWN
Another scam we’ve heard about is when a tourist talks to someone about buying drugs, whether they buy or not, then a pretend undercover policeman shakes them down and steals their wallet.
TOURS VS FREE TOURS
Not really a scam, but it’s good to know that there are a lot of free tours available in popular cities. These tours operate on tips. So, you can meet up at the appointed spot, and if the tour is good, give what you can. Some tours are very expensive offering the same thing.
As with anything, always ask how much something costs before you partake. These modes of transport can be very costly if you don’t reach an agreement on price ahead of time. Also, keep in mind with street vendors, many countries and cities will allow for a haggle.
COFFEE BAR vs TABLES
If you stop for a quick espresso at a coffee bar, there’s a good chance the price will be higher at a table vs standing at the bar. Not that big of a deal, but if you’re on a budget and looking for a quick pick-me-up, do it like the locals.
Most scams are looking for tourists because you’re out of your element. Scammers prey on you wanting to diffuse an uncomfortable situation as soon as possible. Know that if you make noise and are determined to not be taken, you’ll win in the end. Walking away and ignoring is usually the best plan. If something does happen, know that violence could easily get you arrested over the local scammer. If you have something stolen, it’s very hard to prove it and get your valuables back with the police.
This massive list was compiled from many personal and 3rd party stories over many years and in many countries. Don’t let this deter you from experiencing Europe and traveling! If you read this through, you’ll be ready for anything. You’re more likely to not experience any of these than get taken.