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Scammers in the city

Oh they were bold alright. Very bold. Had I not witness it myself, I would have a harder time believing it.

Paris, for many, is an idyllic and nostalgic city. And romantic. And classic. And [fill in appropriate adjectives as you wish]. On a recent drizzly afternoon, Frédéric and I were out on a walking tour of Île de la Cité after which I decided we should extend our time out with a stroll towards the general direction of Place de la concorde. Despite the weather, he humoured me and went along my whimsical request.

From Pont Neuf, we took a scenic walk via Jardin de Tuileries and had just detoured onto Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor when we saw an old gypsy woman trying to persuade a couple that they have dropped a massive gold ring. As if watching an episode of a telenovela, we sat down at a bench nearby and I whispered to F that the couple had just been had when they accepted the ring. He was confused.

The Gold Ring Trick

“How? The old woman gave them back something they lost.”
“Oh no, it’s a scam. She’s going to ask them for money.”
“But they’re walking away in different directions.”
“Ah look, the old lady has just turned back. Shhhh, let’s see what happen next.”

The couple was somewhat confused with the gypsy re-approaching them and had decided to give the ring back to her. But oh she insisted. “This, you dropped it. But I give back something valuable. I’m hungry, can you give me some money to buy food please.” And so forth. The couple was too nice I guess. They looked at each other and were unsure how to react. To leave? To give her money? What? So we shouted over “it’s a scam – just walk away” and after a brief hesitation, they did.

My, the gypsy was pissed off. She yelled a bunch of, errr, curses/profanities (I wasn’t sure since it was not in a language I speak, but from the tone, this would be my deduction) at us and clearly not happy to have lost her chance at a near success. The couple, overhearing this, hurried away even quicker. If her eyes had superpower, we would have turned to stone right there and then. Amazingly, as she walked away, she started scanning the crowd again for potential victims!

I guess you could say I was primed then for scam-spotting and not a minute later, a young woman was seen bending down and up again, and spoke to the couple right beside. Aha, so she has also found a precious ring to “return” to people who have been so careless as to drop it! This couple was not buying it. She tried that again with a different couple. And another. It was like she didn’t even care the previous couples were observing her repeating her little act as she moved along the length of the bridge. I thought to myself “she needs more training and be more discreet.”

Tag-Teaming is not Unusual

With her disappearing to the other side of the bridge, as if it’s a tag team exercise, a man now showed up from that end and put on the same moves, progressively moving towards our side. This chancer even try to pull a quick one on us, even though we saw him coming and not that mention we’ve just been sitting there all along. Drat though, my play-pretend to be tourist and taking photograph of Grand Palais while covertly trying to photograph the scammer in action didn’t quite work. Instead I got a shot of his face but not together with his ring-bearing palm to proof the scam in entirety. (After thinking through though, for a number of reasons, I decided not to put his picture on the blog.)

All in all, 3 scam artists prowling for victims within a short few minutes on the same bridge. This kind of trick is giving Paris a very bad name. I couldn’t help and wonder too, who falls for this kind of scheme? Afterall, the “gold” ring used is so chunky and garish that I find it incredulous any random person would buy something like this in the first place (at least no one I know would), so how can anyone be confused enough to ponder “did I drop this?”. No. Just no. Walk away.

Other Common Scams

F was often surprised each time I pointed out little scams in the city to him. Apart from this ring hullabaloo (and typical pickpocketing incidents), other common tricks include: (1) signing petition and thus you’re obliged to give some money to support the cause you’ve just pledged to, and while you’re distracted you may also find yourself divested of your valuables shortly after that, (2) can-I-borrow-a-finger/wrist and thus commence a fast work in fashioning a string bracelet which is then secured to you, which you find yourself owing a payment to now for the “purchase”, (3) shuffle the cup/marker-dish thingy and guess which has the right cup with hidden token or marker-dish with special marking – essentially gambling on the street, this is, and (4) buying high-end designer goods on someone’s behalf who would pay you in cash – counterfeits alert! – because of purchasing limit or some other sob stories.

These are, of course, nothing new. Visitors have been warned time and again in guide books and travel forums to watch out for these trickeries. In recent times though, what’s more disturbing is the accompanying aggression that comes with the scam. Guides often advise “a firm no and walk away while keeping a close eye on your personal belongings” but this doesn’t leave you going away feeling unsettled.

The annoyed old woman above, for example. Her cursing at us jarred me a little. Other times, I’ve had had underage girls asking me to sign petition who tried to hold on to my arm while I shrugged them away. I’ve met menacing-looking guys offering string bracelet who yelled after me as I dodged the “human barricade” which they’ve formed to block the way up the hill of Montmartre. I have seen group pickpocket operation that happened within a blink of an eye in a busy métro, where a group of youth argued and pushed each other when suddenly a wallet dropped to the ground and someone stepped over to cover it – as soon as the métro came to a stop, everyone left and the wallet has disappeared too (I didn’t manage to figure out who the poor victim was).

ATM Ambushes and Ticket-Machine Scams

Not so surprisingly, these incidents happened at places/transport lines where tourist density is high. I have not been caught out yet (touch wood) in terms of items of values but I’ve been pretty vigilant about keeping my belongings as safely as possible.

In recent times, however, perhaps because the old scams are too well-known to work, and perhaps the recession is driving people to a new low, there have been reports of ambushes at ATM machines (sudden swarming by people after keying in withdrawal amount and the next you know, money is gone and so is everyone else), so I guess extra care wouldn’t go amiss here. There is also a scam involving purchasing tickets at self-service machines in metro/RER stations, where a “helpful” bystander ended up selling tickets to you in cash (which are no good for your purposes or invalid/used ones), or while retrieving your tickets for you, you may find it short of the useable tickets you’ve paid for.

This last scam horrifies me. I have offered to help foreigners (senior citizens at that too!) obtain their tickets at ticket machine before. I even went out of my way to take them to the station (as I couldn’t find a tabac nearby where they could also get a carnet) and show them how to use the machine etc. One thing, I did not handle any of the monetary transaction on their behalf (the ticket machine does have instruction in English!) although I did retrieve the tickets to give to them. After that, I took them to a bus stop nearby and explain which bus to take to where they wanted to go as well. But the point is, I wanted to help them and I wanted them to enjoy the city. I certainly don’t want to be thought of as a potential scammer as this tactic becomes more widespread!

I hate to go all stereotypic but now that I reflect back, I’ve been – subconsciously – avoiding people whom I profile as probable scammers based on how they comport themselves, how they look to a certain extent, and what they have as “accessories”. However, the faces of scam-artists are not always what it seems. I think it’s very sad that we have to be suspicious and prejudiced against people we don’t know (or even some people we know!), and knowing that this could also be true the other way round, of how others may view me.

This brought back a rather upsetting memory from summer last year, when I was travelling and about to leave a city in a neighbouring country. As I have bought a daily public transport pass, I thought it would be useful for arriving traveller at the bus station to have the ticket for the remainder of the day. When I tried to offer it to someone (I wasn’t trying to sell it!), my gesture was not only strongly rejected but the person even resorted to lying about not understanding what I said. I left, bringing the ticket home with me, but couldn’t help feeling hurt at being treated as a liar.

How did we get this messed up and distrustful? Am I just too naïve for wanting/wishing all these deceptions to go away?

Category: Musing, Paris

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2 scribbles & notes

  1. Suneil says:

    Intriguing! and courageous of you to confront the scammer like you mentioned. Have you reported your experiences to some sort of tourist guide group or such in the area? They may have better luck warning people compared to the local law enforcement.
    Unfortunately, in my home country, this is ever prevalent that no one is likely to trust a random stranger asking for anything. At one point scammers used to be sterotyped as being badly dressed, so they adapted and /well-dressed/ scammers are now the new norm ;)
    It’d be nice if everyone got along and there were no such con-artists, but that’s unfortunately probably a long way away in every society.

    • Lil says:

      for my effort that time, depending on whether you believe in curse or clumsiness, i went home with skinned knee as i slipped and fell just as we left the bridge ;)

      many of these scams are well documented, and i don’t think many people fall for them (but one never knows), hence why an added level of aggression nowadays? i don’t know…

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