Watch out! Unusual tourist scams to avoid in Paris

Unusual tourist scams to avoid in Paris by Expat Edna

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.

Chris 001

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.”

Safety Scouts logo

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 videos are short and sweet — it took me under half an hour to watch every single episode (and I was surprised there were a few I didn’t know about!).

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.

For more on Safety Scouts, follow them on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

What scams have you encountered while traveling? Please share below to help educate the travel community — prevention is key!

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  1. Such a helpful post, thank you for sharing! I hadn’t heard specifically of the Traveling Salesman Scam, so I’m glad I know about that one now before heading back to Paris next year.


  2. There’s also the wedding ring scam! Someone will bend down in front of you and ‘pick up’ a wedding band then ask if it belongs to you. Once you take hold of it to take a look they’ll demand you pay for it and can get quite threatening, so be careful!

    • Yes! I believe Ann mentioned that in her post of the most popular tourist scams. It’s so awful the lengths they’ll go to to trick you!

  3. This is extremely helpful, and kudos to Chris for sharing his knowledge!! I do find it very sad though, that these scams are so common that tourists have to be on alert all the time in public spaces and not engage. I hope the police in these places are working on catching the criminals, because it seems a bit like ‘victim-blaming’ to put the onus on the unsuspecting tourists to not get pickpocketed…how about the piece of crap criminals stop stealing!! (I know, I know… one can only dream!)

    • Yep, but it’s a matter of too many criminals, not enough manpower. I don’t think it’s so much ‘victim-blaming’; whenever we hear that someone’s phone was stolen or purse snatched, most of the reactions aren’t, “Oh well you should have been more careful!” but rather puts blame on the thief. But until Paris becomes more like Japan or Singapore, it’s better to be educated, on guard, and safe.

  4. We were scammed picking up a taxi under the train station. A ‘guy’ was standing at the opening to the queue, making like he was helping us out, as there were no taxis (strangely) at the stand. He flagged one down for us and demanded a tip for helping us out. Wanted all our cash in fact. Ha. We noticed as we were getting in the car that the taxi entry was blocked off and taxis were forced to circle out away from the stand. Im sure all the peolple behind us in line saw what was happening. I hope.

  5. Not just in Paris. I got scammed by the last one in Seville by a tour guide recommended by Rick Steves. I was so surprised I just paid it, not knowing it was a common scam to agree on a price and then at the end say the price was per person.

  6. Great post Edna – I always see things after the fact but never before!
    Chris should write a travel book in regards to scams, they’re so common these days i imagine there’s a market for the safety conscious traveller! xo

  7. I’ve heard of that stain one before happening in South America. I feel like I’m so suspicious of everyone when I go travelling but I’d rather be that than taken advantage of.

  8. These are such great videos! I love Chris’ observation that scams on tourists exploits their trust. It makes me so sad to have to live in a mindset of distrust towards others and doubt that someone offering a napkin might not be a kind stranger – but unfortunately, that’s the reality we live in. This is such a cool way to spread the word and educate travelers – I will certainly pass this information along!

  9. Thank you for this information Edna. I was almost pickpocketed the other day by the petition scammers. I pushed them away and screamed stop. One of the boys got mad at me as if I was overreacting. You’re certainly right that taking advantage of people’s niceness and generosity is what makes scammers successful.

  10. Great post, it’s scary to know how many different things can happen to you while you’re on the road! I’ve always been very alert and have had no problems so far (touch wood) but I’m also very aware that I could fall for some of these if they happened.

  11. Edna, I’m glad that you’ve encountered scams too! As a seasoned traveler, I’m embarrassed to admit that it has happened to me, but it’s comforting to know that it can happen to the most savvy of us. Not that I’m happy that it happened to you, just comforted. As it was, my scam was very mild: I feel for the shoe-shine scam in Istanbul. I had just gotten there and was trying to find my hotel so had all my shit with me and definitely looked a sad, lost tourist. A shoe-shiner struck up a conversation and offered to shine my shoes, which he implied would be free. Of course the shoe-shine itself wasn’t free, just a component of it! I paid him and felt very foolish, but it was still only around $20 so not that bad. And my Doc Martins had never looked better!

  12. Great advice. But I’m not sure I could help myself and try and return a dropped wallet to someone in case it was really dropped by accident. I got my phone stolen in Italy by a pick pocket and remained paranoid about it for quite a while. A couple of days later I saw a local walking around with his bag undone and his wallet clearly showing. I made him do it up before I’d let him leave, warning him about pick pockets. Was that going to far? He must have thought I was nuts :-)

  13. Thank goodness I bump into your blog and read more before my trip. Wow anything can really happen and I have to remind myself to be more vigilant.

  14. Argh, I got hit with that taxi/bike scam in Cuba. Was completely irate, but at least it only cost us $4.


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