Curiosity pulls people into a scam.
I’m a much smarter traveler than I was the first time we went to Europe. I pack better and travel lighter. I’ve learned to navigate the buses, metros, and subways with ease. I don’t get too upset when plans go awry because something is always going to go wrong and there’s nothing I can do about it. Most importantly, I’ve learned to ignore the beggars and identify most of the scammers.
You can probably tell I’m going to tell you a few stories about scammers. While they exist in every country (I’m talking about you, barista who overcharged us in Vietri sul Mare), we’ve always encountered more in Paris than anywhere else. Paris also has the biggest variety of tricks. And, let’s face it. We lived in Las Vegas. There are plenty of scammers there.
Except for the aforementioned barista who double-charged us for cappuccino after we’d drank them, the only other incident I saw was at the metro station in Milan. Tickets for one ride run about 1.80 €, so scammers will take advantage of long lines at the machines to try and sell tickets for 1.20 €, 1.00€, or less. Gullible tourists fall for these because they won’t have to stand in line and/or deal with the machines’ confusing language. Of course, the seller disappears quickly after selling the ticket, and when the buyer tries to use it, he/she finds that it is invalid.
But, back to Paris. When we were there in 2013, our guide through the Musee d’Orsay warned us about three scams, in particular. Mike and I were amazed that we saw a few of them going on in full sight and that people were still falling for them. While the charlatans didn’t approach us with these particular three scams, someone did try to get us on another one. Unluckily for him, we weren’t born yesterday.
When we were on that tour in 2013, the guide told us to beware of someone who approaches us with a gold ring. The scammer supposedly finds a gold ring on the ground, and he/she approaches someone and says, “I think you dropped this ring.” Of course, the victim did not drop the ring, but being generous, the scammer insists that the scam-ee take the ring and keep it. Of course, the scammer then tells the scam-ee that he/she should offer the scammer a reward of a few Euro since he/she so generous for giving the scam-ee a nice piece of “gold” jewelry.
We got off of the bus about 30 seconds after the guide told us about the scam, and the woman in the photo above told me she saw me drop the ring. When I aimed my camera at her, she gave me the “butt,” which I figured was the French version of the finger. Interestingly, this was the one scam we did not see on this trip.
The petition scammers appeal to your sense of humanity. They ask you to sign a petition to end drug or child or some other abuse, Once you sign, they demand a “donation” to help out. When you refuse, they either get nasty or chase you down the street a bit.
What amazed me most was that these people—and the next ones—were doing this in the open and in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
The Shell Game
Shell games have been around for thousands of years. There is evidence the Greeks and Romans played them, and the Brits played “Thimblerig” in the early 19th century. All of the games are the same. The trickster puts a ball under one of three containers in full view of all the players. He then shuffles the containers around and challenges the group to figure out where the ball is. Of course, very few legitimate players can pick the correct container, so the huckster usually wins.
How do some people win? Why do most people lose? How can *I* (you, not me) win? There are easy answers to all three questions.
Some people win because, quite frankly, they are shills. These guys work in groups—one controlling the game, one or two “playing” the game (and winning), and at least a few watching out for the cops. By showing that someone can win at the game, the conmen pull in other legitimate players who will, inevitably lose.
Most people lose because these guys (and gals) cheat like crazy. Mike and I watched two different shell games last week, each on a different side of the Eiffel Tower. Both men were offering to double a player’s 100€ investment if the player could correctly guess where the ball was.
The first guy had another guy working with him, from what I could tell. The guy controlling the ball and containers showed where he put the ball, shuffled them around in full view, and then asked for bettors. One guy would hand him 100€ and guess the correct container. What I think most people did not notice is that the controller always pointed the toes of his left foot toward the correct container when that guy was playing. As soon as legitimate player entered the game, the guy did not move his feet.
The second guy was even trickier. He showed where he hid the ball and shuffled the containers smoothly and quickly. At times he would lift one of the containers so players could see where the ball was or wasn’t. His accomplice picked the correct container, of course. A woman standing near us decided she could play and win, so she watched him and when he asked for bettors, she raised her hand. We had all seen the ball end up in the container on the left. While the woman turned her attention to her wallet, the guy quickly switched the middle and left containers. The woman chose the left container and lost her 100€.
“But,” you might exclaim, “that is not fair.” Nope, it isn’t, but the game is not legal anyway. The only way you are going to win at this game is not to play it. Period.
“Are you Americans?” the out-of-breath guy asked us. It was getting dark, and we were standing at a bus stop in front of the opera house in Paris when a guy appeared almost out of nowhere. I had not even seen him until he spoke.
“Yes,” we answered simultaneously.
“Thank God,” he said. “I’m Canadian from Montreal and live in Boston now. I work at Goldman Sachs there.” He looked at me more than Mike at that point. “My wife’s backpack was stolen while we were in Galleries Lafayette. We’ve already filed a police report.”
His “wife” was nowhere to be seen, but I listened as he continued. “We have no money. Our Airbnb is a 37€ taxi ride away.” I know I was frowning at this point. “Goldman Sachs here is closed already, so I can’t go to them. Can you give me the money to get back to our Airbnb on the other side of town?”
Alarm bells went off in my head, and at the same time, I saw Mike move towards his pocket. “NO!” I think I was a little too loud and emphatic. “I don’t have any cash on me,” Mike added that he didn’t have anything but a few coins. Until that point, the man looked relatively friendly. Either my answer or my attitude (or both) provoked him.
“You can’t take it with you, you know,” he spit at me.
I glared at him and gave him the stink eye. “I said I do not have any cash,” I repeated. He looked angry, but I turned my head and body away from him.
When I turned my head back toward him, he was gone. As unobtrusively as he had appeared, he disappeared.
The whole incident took at most two minutes, and I’m glad we had the wherewithal to think. After the dude left, we discussed a few warning signs: First, he did not have a Canadian accent. More importantly, he did not have a wife with him. In addition, a taxi from the opera area to the other side of town was going to cost way more than 37€. And, while Goldman Sachs was closed in Paris at 6:00 pm, it was most certainly open in Boston at 1:00 pm.
I have the feeling the guy followed us because, of all the people at the bus stop, he approached only us. I did not follow one of my cardinal rules for traveling that evening: I did not pay attention to who was around us as we walked. I think that because Mike was with me, I let my guard down a bit.
Lesson learned….and scammer foiled.