Ah Paris. The wide, leafy boulevards. The street cafes illuminating the pavements late into the night. The couture (not really my thing, but I hear it’s très popular with some). The magic of that rose light, washing everything it falls upon with an ethereal glow. The Paris scams. That’s right, spend any time in the capital and sooner or later, you’re guaranteed to stumble across Paris street swindles, scams and cons. Paris has more than it’s fair share of scammers just waiting to part you from whatever they can. Here are a selection of top picks (if you’ll pardon the pun) from the wonderful world of Paris scams.
This is one of the more common Paris scams. Think of it as a team scam, or a game of scam tag. You’ll likely be on public transport, the metro, a bus or maybe even walking down a busy street, minding your own business. You’ll be body slammed from behind by scammer number one, who may or may not offer copious amounts of sham concern, perhaps even a faux apology.
We’re not talking about a gentle bump here. The contact with scammer number one will likely send you reeling. Whilst you’re losing your balance, scammer number two enters, deftly frisking your bag or pocket for a wallet or purse to relieve you of.
Paris Scams & a Hostage Situation
A extremely bold American friend with many years in Paris under her belt recounted one such occasion. Her friend’s purse had been stolen whilst they were boarding a bus. Pushed and harassed whilst getting on, she discovered, after the doors closed, that her purse had gone. My larger than life, not to be messed with, American friend held the entire bus hostage for fifteen minutes telling everyone that not only was the thief still on the bus, so was the purse and until it reappeared nobody was moving. She waved her phone around as she made a theatrical call to the gendarmerie, blocking the doors as she did so and hey presto! The missing purse was miraculously ‘found’ under a seat.
Beware Le Metro
This also happened to my mother on the Paris metro, she was lucky enough to be surrounded by three feral daughters at the time who were so menacing the scammers backed off and left the train when surrounded. It’s probably the most likely way you’ll be parted from your purse, camera, wallet or anything of value.
There are a number of variations on this theme, stopping to help someone who is holding a map, ostensibly lost, whilst their partner helps themselves to a quick run through your pockets. Something being dropped by the person in front, you move to thoughtfully retrieve it for them whilst at the same time being targeted. Fake commotions, fights, shouting, or anything else likely to distract you will also be used to ensure your attention is elsewhere, whilst you are pick pocketed.
Dealing with the Barger
If you don’t have the language skills or the gumption to hold a bus hostage, you still have options. Behind a senior citizen whilst shopping in Monoprix recently, I noticed that his wallet was on a chain attached to his belt when it came to pay the cashier. Kudos to that man who had obviously given the situation considerable thought. I stood in admiration as I watched him pay. He was using crutches but no one was getting anywhere near his wallet, no sir. Another strategy, often advised by the police, is to put a small bell on your purse (seek permission from your pet cat first) then you’ll hear any prying fingers on a rummaging mission.
“Do you speak English? You do? Great!” In that case, you’ll be approached by someone with a clipboard and pen asking you to sign a petition for some worthy cause. Why not? You think, it’ll take a couple of seconds. You sign the petition, giving yourself a warm glow in the process and then they’ll hit you up for a ‘donation’ omitting to mention that you’re really donating to their favourite charity, them. They’ll suggest some exorbitant sum and hassle you if you begin to walk away. This one is less less tricky if you don’t engage in the first place. A smile accompanied by “Non” or a simple “Désolé” will usually suffice.
The Sacre Coeur Steps
This one truly pains me because it relies on your compassion, your desire for harmony in the world. There are guys at the bottom of the Sacre Coeur steps, right next to the funicular as you walk along from Abbesses metro. They usually stand in threes or fours blocking your way. You’ll be met with smiles and bonhomie, then they’ll try to convince you that there is a charge to stand and take pictures (there isn’t). Or, if that fails, they’ll attempt to charge you to walk up the steps.
Don’t be fooled. You can walk up and down here all day, for free, if that’s you’re thing. The first time it happened to me was a mellow Sunday morning walk and it left me feeling irrationally peeved that they had even tried. It also gave me an opportunity to try out my new vocabulary of French expletives, swearing like a French navvy, only to be met with “Don’t worry be happy” in return. Easier said than done when you’ve got four guys menacing you to buy something you neither want or need.
Friendship – at a Price
The “There’s a toll on the steps” scam is relatively new. This area is well known for an entirely different scam, the friendship bracelet. This old favourite involves all of the initial hail fellow well met veneer of the previous one. They’ll try to establish a conversation with you, reaching out their hand, smiling “Hey, where are you from?” “Français?” Friendly fellows, you might think as you extend your arm out to shake the hand they’re still offering even though it’s obvious that something is off.
As soon as you reciprocate, they’ll shake your hand, grab your wrist and slap a friendship bracelet on you whilst continuing chatting as they tie it. Once it’s on they want to charge you for it. It’s not original but they’re relying on you being too embarrassed to say no, after all, they’ve been so friendly. If that fails, their entourage will crowd around until you submit. The lesson? Keep your hands in your pockets or better still keep walking.
The Wedding Ring Swindle
An oldie but goodie, the brass wedding ring has been going on for as long as I can remember, decades in fact. It never gets tired or goes out of fashion. The first time it happened to me, I was with my mother. We were walking arm in arm, along the Seine by Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris.
A young, fresh faced girl in her late teens bent down in front of us, retrieving a ‘gold’ ring. She held it aloft, wide eyed “Is this yours?” she asked
“No, not ours.” we replied, continuing our walk.
“Oh it’s gold. It’s probably worth something.” she added expectantly. We just smiled, because, well, let’s be honest, we’re probably a bit slow. “You have it.” she said, a wide, philanthrophic smile inching across her face as she offered it to us. “No you’re ok, you keep it love.” said mum.
“Ah but I can’t I am here on a student visa. I don’t have papers to sell it” sighed the girl, her frustration at our slowness palpable. “Maybe I could give it to you, you could sell it and give me something for finding it?”
As serendipity would have it 2 policeman walked past on the opposite pavement. “Oh, ok, you could give it to them then, maybe somebody reported it missing if it’s their wedding ring?” I responded meaning every single word. She gave me an incredulous look and shot off in the opposite direction of the gendarmerie.
“Poor lass. She didn’t look very well. I hope she’s ok” said mum as we continued walking.
If it Sounds too Good to be True….
This one relies on your greed and, obviously not being as slow on the uptake as we were. I like to think of it as a reversal of the Sacre Coeur steps where the scammer relies on your kind heartedness. This one relies on your lack of benevolence and an absence of altruism for the non existent schmuck whose wedding ring flew off in the middle of Paris and the person who found it.
There’s always a valid reason why they can’t keep the recently discovered treasure and every reason why you should, giving them something, but not nearly as much as it’s worth, for finding it. They are relying on you taking advantage of their position, they can’t have it but you can, for a fraction of the ‘real’ value which is, of course, approximately zero. Seriously, don’t be that daft, I’ve taught you better than that.
A final word. Scamming and swindling is different to begging. If I’ve learned anything living in Paris it’s that despite the facade of glamour, there is genuine poverty. You’ll only need to look around at the prolific street homelessness to see that.
Doubtless, organised begging by crime syndicates in the capital exists, trafficking children and adults as commodities. You’ll see them setting up for a day around the city. They sit on an empty suitcase with a paper cup in front of them, stationed outside boulangeries, metro stations or near cafes.
Most people who are begging don’t fall into this category, from the people approaching you in cafes, to those sitting on the street with a cardboard sign. They’re either genuinely homeless or on a low income, unable to make ends meet. It’s a personal choice whether you give or not.
Try to remember that they’re people, human beings just like you and me who have fallen on hard times. Even if you’re unable to give to everyone, treating them with dignity goes a long way. Unlike in the UK it really isn’t the Parisian way to ignore or be rude to people who are asking for money. A friendly ‘Bonjour’ is expected and if you can’t afford to give, they’ll be on their way.
It’s not all Dickensian Dystopia
Don’t let any of the Paris scams stop you from talking to the good folk of Paris (as most of them are exactly that). Talking to locals is part of the fun of travel. Just be mindful to conceal your valuables in more hard to reach places than a pocket and you’ll be fine.
In all the years that I’ve been coming to Paris I’ve met a number of scammers, albeit all unsuccessful. If you think of the Paris scam as sport (granted, that’s easier if you don’t actually get scammed) it doesn’t feel quite such a threat. Start to think of Paris as some Dickensian dystopia populated by a thousand Fagins and it will just mar your joy. Once you know the rules, you can stay in the game and play safely, enjoying your time in the capital.