It’s one of the most common topics among travellers on the road: crime against tourists. For us this has been amplified in the three months after being robbed in Buenos Aires, as our answer to the question “have you had any problems in South America?” inevitably leads to an exchange of tales about scams and mishaps.
It would be stating the obvious to point out why tourists are such an easy target. Stereotypically naïve, often carrying valuables and usually unfamiliar with our surroundings, we are the leanest and meatiest prey for the vultures that lurk in travelling hotspots.
And in these hostel lounge conversations, I have heard some pretty extreme (and I am sure in some cases fancifully exaggerated) examples of the cruel lengths that the perpetrators will stretch to in order to relieve tourists of their possessions.
As promised in my original article about the incident that befell us in Argentina, I have collated some of the most eyebrow-raising of these tourist scam stories we have heard on the road. Be warned: there’s some pretty unpleasant stuff in here.
The tea shop scam, Beijing
I will begin with a scam that I was very nearly ensnared by myself a couple of years ago when on a work visit to Beijing, China. It was actually my third trip to the city, and by then I knew my way around quite well. To this day, no city I have visited feels safer to walk around – violent crime is very low. But as I was to discover, organised scams are a prevalent issue.
After a morning exploring the Forbidden City I emerged from its north exit by Jingshan Park, sweltering in the May heat and lost in a busy crowd, my guard well and truly down. As I studied my map, a youngish guy – early twenties – approached me, pointed out that I looked lost and asked if I needed any help. As so many people in Beijing had been helpful and forthcoming during my stay, I suspected nothing.
I told him I was trying to figure out the best way to get to Olympic Park, and he duly obliged by pointing out where the closest station was, a couple of blocks away. “I can show you if you like,” he said. I had no objections and we got chatting as we walked. He told me that he was studying English in the city, and that it helped him to practice with a native speaker. His English was very, very good.
With the conversation flowing, as we neared the station he suggested we stop for some traditional Chinese tea at a good place he knew. Why not? I even offered to foot the bill as thanks for his help. But just then, I realised that I had meant to stop by Jingshan Park first for the views over the city. “Sorry,” I explained to him, “I need to go back to the park first.” He replied that it was ok – he knew another place in the park.
We both paid the miniscule entry fee, and as I went to ascend the hill, he ushered me instead towards a small café over in one corner. There was nothing remotely suspicious or creepy about the place – we were in a major public park, guarded by police, and we had both paid to enter.
A couple of people were sitting outside the café, but he suggested we should go inside as he knew the staff well. Sure enough, he went over and chatted with the woman at the counter, and she brought a menu over to us. This was when my suspicion was first aroused, as there were no prices on the menu, and in hindsight I realised that the tables outside had completely different menus.
Nevertheless, I thought nothing of it – after all, how much could a bit of tea cost? Further into the conversation though, my suspicions grew. He asked about the nature of my visit to Beijing, clearly assuming I was purely a tourist. When I told him I had been working at a major conference co-organised with the Chinese government, an unmistakeable look of fear passed over his face.
Something was not right. I decided to get out of there. “Can I get the bill please? I want to get to Olympic Park by 2pm,” I said. He called to the woman and she brought over a calculator to show me how much it was. My jaw dropped.
The amount was equivalent to over £100. For two cups of tea and a couple of biscuits. After a few stupefied, speechless seconds, I began to argue.
“That’s ridiculous!” I stammered. The guy told me that tea was expensive there because it’s a government park. I pondered on that for a moment and decided it was nonsense. “I don’t even have that much on me,” I said. He spoke to the woman again and then told me it would be ok to pay a bit less, but still an extortionate amount. Realising I’d been had, I fished a note out of my pocket (worth less than a tenner), threw it at them and walked out. They didn’t attempt to stop me.
Leaving the park in a fluster, I called Mathias, a videographer I had been working with who lived in the city, and told him what had happened. “Man, I should have told you about that!” he said. “How much did they get from you?” When I told him not much, he filled me in on how lucky I had been – a friend of his had been taken for a couple of thousand US dollars by the same scam.
It turned out that my saving grace was taking that detour back to the park. Had I gone to the place he was leading me to near the station, it’s likely I wouldn’t have been able to escape so easily. After the teas, a couple of bulky men would have appeared and barred my exit until I paid. This is what happened to Mathias’ friend, and countless other hapless tourists. It’s a massive mafia-organised scam that operates in cities across China.
Just eight months later I returned to China on another work trip. With a couple of hours spare one evening, and my hotel not too far from Jingshan Park, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go back for a look. Inside the park I walked straight over to the corner where the café had been. The building was still there, but it was now a public toilet. Bizarre.
The gold ring scam, Paris
This is a scam famously operated in the French capital. In the classic version, the target is usually a woman; as you pass by, the scammer will drop a shiny ring near you discreetly, pick it up, then approach and ask if it’s your ring. When you say it’s not, they will offer to sell it to you. The ring is purported to be gold, but it’s really just cheap metal. If you’re susceptible enough to fall for this – which plenty of people apparently are – you might end up paying tens of euros for a piece of junk.
That’s the classic; but there is another, more elaborate, and much more costly version, at least according to an Australian woman we met in Paraguay who told us how her friend fell victim to it.
The set-up began in much the same way. The young woman was walking near the Eiffel Tower when she was approached by another woman holding out a gold ring. “You dropped your ring,” she said. “It’s not mine,” replied the young woman. But the ring-pusher was so insistent she had seen her drop it, that after a few minutes of awkward exchanges she decided to just take the ring.
A couple of hundred metres down the road, the young woman encountered a hysterical scene, where a sobbing woman was being consoled by a policeman. “Somebody stole my ring!” sobbed the woman. “THAT’S her!”
The policeman, wholly uniformed and brandishing credentials, demanded to search the startled young woman. Before that could happen, she produced the ring and tried to explain how she had just acquired it. But the tentacles of the scam were tightening.
The fake policeman proceeded to stage an arrest of the young woman, hissing aggressively that she would face jail. As she pleaded her innocence, he said that she could instead pay a large on-the-spot fine. Distressed and desperate to escape the situation, she obliged with the payment and made away quickly.
Disgusting, right? Absolutely, but you ain’t heard nothing yet…
The drugged cookie, Delhi
Nobody encounters more travellers’ tales than the staff of hostels who meet people from all over the world every day. The manager of our Buenos Aires hostel shared with us some of the stories he had heard over the years. This one was particularly alarming.
A travel blogger had been passing through India when his friends noticed that he hadn’t posted for a week. This was conspicuous, as he was a prolific writer who usually published a new article every two or three days.
Their concerns heightened as more days of silence passed, and attempts to contact him failed. Finally, after a couple of weeks, an article popped up explaining what had happened, and it was not pretty.
After a morning walking around Delhi, he took a break in a busy city square and sat down for a swig of water. A man came and sat next to him, and held out an open packet of cookies. “Want a cookie?” he said. The traveller didn’t, and politely declined.
The man took the cookie at the top of the packet and ate it himself. He didn’t move away. A couple of minutes later he offered the packet to the traveller again. “Like a cookie?” He didn’t, and declined again, but with growing discomfort as he was aware that it can cause offence in India to refuse when offered food.
Again the man ate the cookie at the top of the packet, and the cycle repeated. After two or three more cookie offers, eventually the traveller gave in, hoping that if he accepted a cookie the man would go away. He took one and nibbled away at it. Then everything went blank.
Three days later the man was found miles away on a street in a Delhi suburb, barely alive, completely naked, and all his belongings gone. There were no signs of any physical assault, but he took many days to recover in hospital before he could even identify himself.
The man with the cookie had performed a practiced-and-perfected sleight of hand, each time taking a clean cookie for himself, and slyly switching in the drugged cookie as soon as the traveller caved in to the offer.
The traveller was back up and running remarkably quickly with his journey and his blog, but carrying mental scars that will last a lifetime.
The border bag snatch, Iguassu Falls
This story is more opportunist theft than organised scam, but with the same end result.
Iguassu Falls is one of the premier tourist attractions in South America, with a huge volume of people passing through every day. This also makes it an attraction for thieves, and indeed before our visit we heard from some travellers how a man had slipped into their hostel dorm at night and taken their phones.
The waterfalls straddle the border of Argentina and Brazil, and can be seen from either side. Like many, we opted to do both.
The border crossing, however, was a frustrating hassle – easily the worst we experienced in South America. Buses go across on the hour but do not wait at the border stations, so you take two minutes to get your passport stamped and then have to wait for the next one.
The danger for tourists is it’s not clear at all that the buses don’t wait. Everywhere else on our travels, when we ventured across a border on a bus, we got back onto the same one.
When we arrived at the Argentina customs office on the Iguassu border, we were going to leave our big rucksacks on the bus while we got our stamps. At the last moment we decided to take everything off with us – perhaps only because it was so soon after our Buenos Aires robbery, and we were being extra cautious. As we later heard, it’s a good job we did.
A couple of days later in Paraguay, we heard about a couple who had left their bags on the bus at the border while getting their passport stamps. When they emerged from the station, the bus was nowhere to be seen.
The couple frantically ordered a taxi to follow the bus, and made it to the terminal pretty quickly. But it was too late – the bags were gone.
Bags are frequently left on these border buses by tourists, and so thieves are ready and waiting to pounce. The moment that bus pulled away from the couple, the snatchers moved in, and no doubt there were some disappointed spying eyes when we picked up our rucksacks that day.
The powdered milk scam, Siem Reap
In Christchurch, New Zealand, we had a few beers in our hostel and got chatting with some girls who had been travelling through south-east Asia. We told them of our plans to do the same route in early 2018. “Look out for the kids asking you to buy them powdered milk in Cambodia,” one of them warned. “You’ll want to help out of pity, but don’t do it.”
This is how it goes. On the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, a young child with an undernourished baby will approach and ask if you can buy them some powdered milk to feed it. They will take you to a shop where you can buy the formula, for perhaps 20 US dollars. The child leaves with the baby and milk, and you leave thinking you’ve done a good deed. But all is not as it seems.
After you’ve gone, the child will bring the formula back to the shop, and the proceeds are split (it should actually be much cheaper). And sadly, this isn’t just a shifty entrepreneurial arrangement between the child and the shop. It’s organised on a much bigger scale by a local mafia, and has awful consequences for the children caught up in it.
The babies are likely maltreated to make sure they look desperate and inspire sympathy to ensure the scam works. The children are kept on the streets day and night working on the scam instead of going to school. The more that tourists oblige and buy the powdered milk, the more demand there will be for the scheme to be kept running, babies to be abused and children to be kept on the streets.
If you want to help children in Cambodia, your money would be much more wisely spent donating to one of the charities that work there.
The dirty bucket drop, Cusco
This is another story from the collection we were told by the hostel manager in Buenos Aires. This incident took place in Peru and was as unpleasant as they come.
Our unfortunate protagonist this time is a young man in Cusco, who – like most travellers in the city – had come to see Machu Picchu. At the end of his visit, he was walking from the central district towards the bus station for his overnight departure. As such, he was carrying all his belongings: his large rucksack, and smaller day bag containing his valuables.
En route to the station he was struck suddenly by a torrent of shit from above. Literally. Somebody had emptied a bucket of human excrement onto him from a second-floor window.
Dumbstruck, he took a few seconds to figure out what had happened, looked about, tried to shake some of the substance and peeled his top layers off. He took his bags off too, as they were covered.
Some people around the street came over to offer help, and he was in no position to refuse. Unfortunately, their kindness and disbelief at the incident was completely feigned. They had been waiting for somebody to walk into the trap, and rather than help, they simply further distracted him while others made off with his bags.
Within a matter of seconds, the young man was standing alone in the street, his bags gone, all his ID and money in them, and covered in shit. It’s hard to imagine a lower ebb in life.
The baby drop, Venice
While most tourist scams utilise distraction, some of the rarer and crueller tricks aim to exploit human instincts of compassion. Of all the scams I have described here, this one would probably be the hardest to avoid if you were unlucky enough to come across it.
The setting is Venice, Italy. It is simple, sinister and ruthless. You will be walking along when a few yards away, a woman drops a baby on the floor and screams.
What would anybody do in this situation? Drop everything you have and rush over to help. But when you do, somebody is waiting in the shadows to grab your bags and slip off with them.
Most of the time, the baby in this scam is a fake doll. But according to the aforementioned Australian woman we met in Paraguay, extreme mobsters in Italy are now running it with real babies in order to increase the likelihood of it working. And rather than being dropped by a woman, the baby will be thrown near you, so you instinctively drop everything to pick it up.
If it’s true, this is perhaps the crudest example I’ve heard of the sickening measures taken to distract tourists, and how little human life can be valued by organised criminals.
But stories like these are among the most extreme, and you would have to be desperately unlucky to run into them. It’s the most callous of crimes that carry farthest by word of mouth; the vast majority of tourist scams, while still appalling, do not inflict physical harm on anyone. All we can do as potential targets is to read up, follow advice, stay calm and have our wits about us. Don’t let it stop your travels or hinder you from enjoying them. I certainly haven’t.