A couple of years ago, my handbag was stolen at an autoroute rest stop in the Ardèche. It happened in an instant: I got up from the table to fetch a napkin, a woman tapped my friend on the shoulder, distracted her with a few scattered dollar bills—poof!—the bag was gone. I lost my passport, cell phone, camera, the keys to the rental car. My pride. The things were quickly replaced. But it took a while for my confidence to return.
Ever since that incident, I’ve been curious about travel scams. Recently, I spoke to Christophe Gadenne (pictured above), a former Paris policeman and the founder of Safety Scouts, a free web series of short videos aimed at preventing tourist crime and fraud. “Working at a precinct in Paris, I met so many victims,” he said. “I wanted to do something to help them.” He began producing short videos, each one focusing on a specific crime, as a way to educate travelers. “Most tourist scams are surprisingly simple and relatively easy to avoid,” he says. “The best way to detect and avoid them is to be informed about them before someone tries one on you.” Today, he reveals the top five tourist scams in Paris and how to avoid them.
1) Petition pickpocket
Two strangers approach, thrust a clipboard in your face, and ask you to sign a petition. After you sign, they ask for money—or you discover that they have picked your pocket using the clipboard as a distraction. “It’s the most common scam—and the easiest to avoid,” says Gadenne. “You just need to spot the clipboard.” This scam also happens at ATMs and outdoor cafés. “Before using the ATM, make sure no one is loitering. If someone approaches, immediately cancel your transaction, wait for your card, and leave,” says Gadenne. If you’re at a sidewalk café, they will use the clipboard to distract you while stealing your phone or bag underneath. Bottom line: Avoid all clipboards.
2) Three card Monty gambling
A group gathers in a public spot to gamble. They make the game look easy—but it’s stacked so that you’ll never win. “Don’t stop and watch!” says Gadenne. “They cheat and will take your money. Even if you don’t play, they’ll pickpocket you.” This scam is common at the Pont des Arts, Montmartre, and Pigalle. Bottom line: If you see a gambling game, keep walking.
3) Train robbery
You’re on the métro on the RER. The train stops at the station, and someone grabs your phone or bag, leaping off just as the doors start to close. “They’ll even hit you or spray you with pepper spray if necessary,” says Gadenne. RER B—the line that services Charles de Gaulle airport—is a prime target. “It’s common to attack tourists on their way into Paris—or on their way out. And then you can’t leave the country because you’ve lost your passport,” he says. “Do not sit next to the door. Do not have a bag that’s easy to grab.” Stashing your phone in a deep front pocket is safer than in a bag or backpack. “Men have an advantage because of their pockets,” says Gadenne. “Women are often targeted because handbags are easy to snatch.” Bottom line: Be especially careful when the train stops. When entering a station, put your phone away.
4) Gold ring
A stranger pretends to find a dropped gold ring and insists on giving it to you. They then ask for money, or put it in your bag and steal your wallet. The dropped item can also be a wallet or fake wad of cash. Bottom line: “If someone wants to give you something they’ve found on the ground, avoid it,” says Gadenne.
5) “Friendship” bracelet
A stranger approaches you and puts a bracelet around your wrist saying it’s for friendship or luck. They then demand money—and use the bracelet to detain you by force, like a handcuff. “The price depends on what you look like,” says Gadenne. “They target small and nice people.” Race also plays a factor—Asian tourists are often asked for larger sums. “This is one of the most physical and violent tourist scams,” he says. It occurs often at Montmartre and the Champs Elysées. Bottom line: Don’t stop. Don’t offer your wrist to anyone. If they do catch you, scream, yell, and draw attention to yourself. “Sometimes it’s better to yell and be ridiculous,” says Gadenne. “A crazy yell could save your life.”