Whenever I go to Montmartre, I always keep my hands firmly in my pockets and out of sight.
Why? Because I know if I don’t, a tout will inevitably approach me and try to tie a piece of string around my fingers or wrist. It’s a common trick at Parisian landmarks, the Bracelet Scam.
You may know it as one of the top tourist scams in Paris, along with the Petition Scam and the Metro Robbing Scam. (If you don’t and are planning a trip to Paris, I suggest you read up on them here.)
But what about sneakier, unusual scams — the ones you don’t always see coming?
For those, I turned to Chris Gadenne: a former Paris police officer who now dedicates his free time to educating tourists on how to avoid scams and fraud.
First, a word on Chris: He may be THE nicest man in the Western Hemisphere.
I first met him when he was still a police officer, as he’s married to one of my good friends in Paris. What I didn’t realize until I sat down to interview him, was that he used to work in the movie industry.
“But then I left to join the police because I wanted to help people.”
(No lie, you guys. He puts Boy Scouts to shame.)
During his time as a police officer and detective, he encountered thousands of crime victims, and decided to find a way to educate tourists before they got scammed.
“A crime against tourists is even worse than against locals,” he said. “When a tourist is a victim, it’s exploiting their trust and niceness.”
So he combined his movie and police backgrounds to create Safety Scouts: a free series of short YouTube videos devoted to explaining specific tourist scams and how to avoid them. While it started with Paris, the series has expanded to include scams found all over the world.
The whole series is written, produced, and translated into different languages on a 100% volunteer basis. No ads, completely independent. Did I mention Chris does this all on his own time(!) for no profit(!), and simply because he wants to help people?! Somebody give that man a medal.
Education is prevention. Thanks to Chris, you can be prepared for your next trip to Paris, and avoid these unusual scams:
The Fake Bird Poop Scam
This actually happened a couple years ago to a friend of mine.
He had just arrived at a train station, and was standing on the platform gathering his belongings. Suddenly, SPLAT — he turned to find a bird had used his shoulder as a toilet.
As he struggled to wipe it all off, a friendly stranger came over: “Oh man, that sucks! Here, let me help you with that, do you need some napkins?”
However, once the mess was off his jacket, he turned around to find his luggage — including his laptop and passport — gone.
My friend then realized that the stain on his jacket wasn’t bird crap at all — it was human-made and thrown onto him as a distraction so Napkin Man’s accomplice could easily walk off with all his valuables.
If you find yourself suddenly stained and a stranger offers to help, refuse and walk away
Always carry your valuables in your inside pockets
Ensure your belongings are zipped up and carry them under your arm or in front of you
The Crazy Hugger Scam
Imagine this: you’re walking down the street, when a stranger suddenly gives you a big hug. Or starts dancing with you, or throws down karate moves. What the hell, right?
This is a scam that thieves use to disorient you — and at the same time, pick your pockets. “You’re focused on the weirdness,” Chris explains — and in that moment of confusion, you’ve just lost your wallet or phone.
He also calls this one the “Ronaldinho” scam, because the crazy distractions sometimes include showing off football moves.
If someone tries to enter your personal space, be very aware of your valuables
Don’t engage if you don’t feel comfortable
If you can’t leave, yell for help
The Dropped Coins or Wallet Scam
You’re out and about when a stranger drops some coins or a wallet in front of you. One of two things can happen:
1) As you stop to help pick up the money, you’re pickpocketed by the wallet dropper’s accomplice.
2) An accomplice picks up the wallet and tries to get you involved in returning or keeping it. The owner then returns and accuses you of stealing money, and forces you to ‘pay up’ instead.
Advice: If you see someone drop money, leave immediately
The Traveling Salesman Scam
A stranger stops to ask you for directions, then mentions that they are returning from a trade show and need to “get rid of merchandise”. They offer to sell you their wares for a fraction of the price — but instead it’s a fake, or it’s actually worthless and you’ve paid far more than its value.
Chris says that in the US this scam happens often with speakers; in Europe it can be suits, fake gold, fake leather jackets, or jewelry.
Advice: Never purchase unsolicited items; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is
The $1000 Bar Tab Scam
This scam is unfortunately common in China — the “teahouse scam” — but I didn’t realize it happened in Paris as well.
You’ll meet a friendly stranger who, after striking up a conversation, asks if you want to grab a drink. You, being polite and trusting, say sure!
Next thing you know, you get an exorbitant bill for just one drink — victims have reported bills costing 700 or even 1500 euros. If you say you don’t have the money, they’ll accompany to you an ATM, or sometimes “they’ll hold you and punch you in the stomach” if you refuse, says Chris.
If a stranger wants to have a drink, make sure YOU pick the place
Don’t be afraid of being rude: ask for the price before you order a drink
The Man on the Bike Scam
Embarrassingly, this one is a contribution from yours truly. Basically, in this scam you decide to take a bike taxi or tour and set on an agreed price.
But once you get to the end of your trip, the driver claims the price was actually per person, per hour. (And then you feel like such a sucker and realize later you should have pretended you didn’t have enough cash or any credit cards on you…)
Advice: Before getting into a non-metered form of transportation, get a written agreement on the total fare in advance
What should you do if you’re scammed in Paris?
First, if you think you’re in the middle of a scam or assault, say NO strongly and firmly — or even scream and yell. Sometimes this is enough to deter the criminal.
If you find yourself the victim, call the police by dialing 17 or 112 so they can try to arrest the perpetrator, and immediately cancel your credit cards.
If your purse or wallet was stolen, have a look in the garbage cans around the area. “Thieves usually throw them away once they’ve taken the money, to get rid of the evidence of their crime,” says Chris.
Finally, go to the nearest police station and fill out a report detailing what happened. It may be too late to retrieve your valuables, but they can still use the information to connect and track crime.
What scams have you encountered while traveling? Please share below to help educate the travel community — prevention is key!