Travel Comment

Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Bob Pearce: Outwit the con artists

By Bob Pearce

Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to dodging those clever scams overseas.
Pickpocketers are savvy enough to distract with one hand while pilfering with the other. Photo / Thinkstock
Pickpocketers are savvy enough to distract with one hand while pilfering with the other. Photo / Thinkstock

For a while this spring it seemed that the streets of Paris were paved with gold. A stroll along The Left Bank of the river Seine saw three different strangers discovering glistening gold rings on the pavement.

"Yours, M'sieur?" Not likely. This is the entree to one of the most popular scams on the tourist trail. The follow-up varies but none of the consequences are pretty for the innocent traveller. It may be a straight-out pocket pick as your attention is distracted or there may be an attempt to earn money for this golden discovery.

Nobody's holiday should be compromised by a constant fear of being robbed or scammed. But a bit of forewarning does no harm.

Herewith a few pointers for a happy trip to any country.

Pickpockets are like conjurors. They rely on distraction. One of the classics is the bird strike. A couple of helpful passers-by will point out a white splodge on your coat and help you to remove it.

They have delivered the white substance with a water pistol and will lift your wallet as well as the stain given the chance.

There is no sexual discrimination in this light-fingered thievery. In southern Europe these days thousands of North African immigrants work hard to earn a living. But beware of female beggars in flowing robes. One in Marseille begs with one hand heavily bandaged to catch the eye while exploring her target with the other. A variation on this technique is the woman similarly dressed who thrusts her baby at the victim (usually male) while grabbing at his wallet.

Danger points are crowded doorways and automatic barriers at subway stations. When you're crushed into a small space it's hard to detect the foreign hand exploring your person. If discovered, the thief will toss down some monopoly money to distract you from the chase.

Handbags and carry bags are easy pickings for the grab-and-run thieves, often working in pairs and mounted on motor scooters. In Lima, Peru, tables outside cafes have chains attached where you can secure your bag while sipping a pisco sour.

Without being paranoid, it makes sense to take reasonable precautions. Not looking like a tourist is easier said than done, but counting your money in public is asking for trouble. Money belts are useful but better worn under clothing rather than outside. A pouch on a tough cord round your neck and under your shirt can be unobtrusive.

Street smarts are also good when it comes to the commercial rip-offs that are prevalent wherever you travel, with New Zealand no exception (any warning about watching your handbag could apply just as easily to supermarket shopping in Auckland). "Buyer beware" is a good watchphrase wherever you are.

Here are a few of the pitfalls.

Airlines in this part of the world have been forced to disclose the taxes that have to be added to their bargain fares, but this isn't a universal practice. We still have a few "plus GST" pricings, but in North America nothing seems to come without a local tax. That $10 breakfast quickly becomes $12. And it may be more than one tax, particularly on hotel bills. Sydney did it to pay for the Olympics even though the impost was on people in the city before or after the Games.

Awfully nice of the restaurant to provide you with a pre-prandial snack of olives and bread sticks. But beware, it may be added to the bill. The bottle of water you didn't order but drank anyway falls into the same category. Service charges will be added to the bill but expect sour faces if you don't leave a tip.

Great service, you may think, when the goods you bought were taken away to be wrapped. However, beware of another time-honoured scam. When you get home and unwrap the statue you bought in Cairo it may have developed a lean or lost an arm. A shirt that was just your size may have mysteriously shrunk or changed colour.

Knockoffs of famous brands are on sale everywhere these days and many tourists are happy to buy them at a fraction of the price of the real thing, aware that few people will spot the difference. But it will be scant consolation if you get violently mugged in London for the "gold" watch you're proudly wearing. How was the thief to know it was a fake?

Most of the best practice for travelling applies equally in Remuera or Rimini, but the remedies are easier when you're close to home. You will probably never experience a problem but forewarned is forearmed.

- NZ Herald

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