[Updated: March 25, 2017. Originally Posted: November 2011.]
Europe is normally safe and there isn’t a ton of violent crime. We would argue that large European cities are much safer than most large American cities. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people that want to separate you from your money. This guide will explain how to avoid scams in Europe and the most common traps tourists fall victim to so you won’t do the same.
Pickpockets and Theft In Europe
Europe is known for its pickpockets so you should be careful. That’s because travelers tend to carry around a lot of expensive (and easy to steal) electronics, so you’re a prime target. It is easy to get your money/camera/passport/iPod stolen in an instant, so you need to be vigilant.
Here are some tips on how to avoid becoming another pickpocketing victim:
- Beware Of Crowds: Busy streets, crowded subway cars, buses, trains, and places with a lot of tourists attract thieves. That person brushing up against you might be trying to sneak his hand into your bag. Know where your valuables are at all times and don’t let your guard down.
- Watch Your Bag/Purse: Always look after your stuff. Setting your bag or purse on the ground while you eat is an invitation for a thief to steal it. If you’re going to set it down, put your leg through the straps so you’ll feel if someone is trying to take it. Ladies (and European men), make sure your purse has a zipper. Multiple zippers are even better.
- Extra Safety: While uncommon, some thieves will use a knife to cut your bag open so you really have to be alert. Some bag manufacturers make bags with steel cables woven into the material. This helps prevent someone from cutting into your bag.
- Lock Your Zippers: You can get little luggage locks for your bag’s zippers. You can also use twist-ties. Thieves want easy targets so even a twist-tie is enough to make them move on to an easier target.
- Beware of Distractions: Most pickpockets work in teams. One person distracts you with a map or something similar, and the other person swipes your stuff. Groups of little kids are also used as distractions.
- Keep Your Wallet Safe: Keeping your wallet in your back pocket is a pickpocket’s dream, so keep it in your front pocket. I also suggest wrapping a rubber band around your wallet because it makes it much harder to slip out of your pocket without being noticed.
- Money Belt: Honestly, I hate money belts. They are annoying and uncomfortable. I wore mine for about 5 minutes before taking it off. But, many people swear by them. Wear one if it makes you feel safe.
- Fake Wallet: Some people have mentioned about keeping a fake wallet full on expired credit cards/old Blockbuster cards and maybe a few euros. This way a pickpocket will hopefully steal this unimportant wallet. It might also come in handy if you ever get mugged.
- Don’t Show Your Wealth: Don’t wear expensive jewelry and don’t show off your fancy camera/smartphone when you’re not using it.
- Secure Your Bag To Something: The “snatch-and-run” is a very popular, especially on trains and buses. I like to use a retractable cable lock to attach my bag to the seat or luggage rack on the train or to my bedpost in the hostel. This will be enough of a deterrent to stop someone from running by and grabbing your bag.
- Lock Up Your Stuff: Lock up your valuables in the hostel. Pretty simple.
Read More: [Tips For Avoiding Pickpockets in Europe]
ATM/Credit Card/Debit Card Fraud In Europe
High-tech theft is on the rise in Europe and it is really hard to do much about it.
- Credit/Debit Card Skimming: It is EXTREMELY easy to “clone” a credit card and this crime is the largest source of bank fraud today. All the thief needs to do is swipe your card through a tiny machine that records all the info from your card’s magnetic strip. The devices are cheap and easy to buy online. Most often this crime is committed by waiters and shopkeepers. Sometimes they’ll make charges right away but they’ll often wait months before they make a charge.
- Always use your credit card (or cash) when making purchases at a place of business. It is much easier to contest fraudulent charges with a credit card. It can be a huge nightmare if your debit card gets cloned because it takes much longer to get your money back — and you’ll have no way of withdrawing cash from ATMs since your debit card will have been canceled.
- I have had my card cloned three or four times. They didn’t make any purchases until about 2-5 months after my trip. I just randomly had a charge in Spain for $1,800 and one in Australia. My credit card company declined it before it went through.
- Stolen Cards: Report your stolen cards ASAP.
- Using Credit Cards in Payphones: Never use your credit card in a payphone. You’ll get charged a ton. This isn’t illegal, but it is still a scam. I know someone who paid well over $100 for a 2-minute call.
- ATM Machines: ATMs are the best way to get cash but they can also be another way to get scammed. Thieves have all sorts to ways to rip you off.
- Hide Your PIN: Make sure no one is looking over your shoulder. Some thieves have been known to rig up a small camera pointed to the number pad — so always use your other hand to cover up the number.
- Tape In The Card Slot: A common scam is to put transparent tape in the card slot so your card gets stuck after it is inserted. Once you leave someone comes by with tweezers and gets your card.
- Report “Eaten” Cards: Sometimes cards just get eaten but some are victims of fraud. If the bank is open go ask but cancel the card if you can’t get it back.
- ATM W/Skimming Device: This is pretty rare but some thieves outfit ATMs with a cloning device (like mentioned above) and steal hundreds of credit numbers. This is a pretty advanced technique and it can be difficult to detect. If the ATM looks a little funny I suggest finding another one.
Taxis Scams in Europe
The dreaded taxi. It feels like even the honest ones are trying to rip you off. Unfortunately, there are plenty drivers who set out to scam unsuspecting tourists — especially in Eastern Europe. You want to really be aware of common scams when taking taxis.
- Uses A Reputable Company: Call ahead and make an appointment for a taxi. If you find on on the street there is a good chance they’ll be a bit sketchy.
- Use Taxi Stands: These are places where real taxis pick up people but don’t assume they’ll all be honest.
- Go By The Meter: Many drivers will claim the meter is “broken” or they won’t turn it on. They’re always going to rip you off in these cases. Insist that they turn it on. Leave if they don’t.
- Ask Tourist Office/Hostel About Price: An unbiased third party should be able to give you a pretty close guess to how much you should be paying for your ride. Ask the cab driver for this estimated cost and compare the two.
- Get Price Upfront: On non-metered taxis, triple check the price before getting into the car. Always negotiate with predetermined prices. It is also helpful to research what the fair price is before you arrive in the city.
- Bags In The Backseat: Don’t chance getting your bags being taken “hostage” in the trunk.
- Carry Small Bills: Some drivers might claim to not have small change so you get back less money than you should.
- Make Your Money Clear: Hand your money to the driver slowly, bill by bill. Then make sure you get all your change back. Double check.
- Never Take Recommendations: Do NOT let seemingly helpful taxi drivers lure you to an establishment they recommend – they may receive a commission for bringing victims to the club/restaurant.
- Use A Taxi App or Uber: A lot of taxis now have their own apps as a way to compete with Uber. The payments are done through the app so you don’t have to worry about getting ripped off. Or, you can use Uber if available.
Pretty Girls/Strip Clubs Scams
Think you’re Ricco Suave? Think again.
Pretty Girls Scam
A super common scam involves a pretty girl (or two) and alcohol. They’ll randomly flirt with you and will eventually ask you to go to a bar/club/restaurant that they know. At the bar they’ll ask that you buy them a drink. What you don’t know is that the girls and the bar are scamming you. Each drink cost $500+ (they don’t tell you this) and at the end of the night, you’re stuck with a $1000+ bill.
Magically the girls are nowhere to be found, but they’re replaced by a few scary dudes who want your their money. They’ll happily escort you to the nearest ATM while you withdraw your cash. This scam is very widespread in Eastern Europe, but it happens everywhere. Many times the police won’t do anything about it, so you’re out of luck.
So if you want to buy a girl a drink I suggest asking the price upfront and then paying as you go. This way you won’t have a surprise bill at the end of the night. If they refuse to let you pay you should just leave the bar ASAP.
I also suggest carrying only enough for a few drinks when you go out at night. Leave the cards at home so if you find yourself in this situation you won’t have any money to give them.
I advise against going to strip clubs because tourists are scammed there all the time. Much like the scam above, you’ll be charged exorbitant amounts for drinks/talking to the hostess/whatever else you do at a strip club.
I have a friend who went to a strip club in Paris and they quoted him one price and then they charged him something different. They held him at knife point until he forked over the dough (about $700). This happens multiple times a day and the police aren’t too concerned.
- Menus Change: Some scummy restaurants will have two menus — one with normal prices and then another higher price. They’ll show you the normal price when you order and then they’ll give you a large bill. When you protest they’ll show you the menu with the high prices.
- Menu Without Prices: I wouldn’t eat at a restaurant that doesn’t advertise their prices. You’re just asking to get ripped off if you do.
- Fake Undercover Police: A common scam involves “undercover” police wanting to check your money because the think you have some counterfeit bills. They’ll inspect your money and trade it out for small bills without you noticing. They’ll often flash a badge to make it all look official. Plainclothes officers don’t deal with tourists so ask them to bring a police car before you’ll give them any access to your cash.
- Street Money Changers: Never change money in the street. It is usually illegal and you’re going to get ripped off. If you need to change money, go to an official change office.
- Short Change: Shop keepers, taxi drivers, and just about anyone else will probably try to short change you at least once during your trip. It is the worst in countries that don’t use the euro because the money is so foreign to tourists. Make sure you count all your money carefully before leaving the register.
Internet Cafe & Hostel Computer Scams In Europe
It is hard to go a long period of time without using a computer these days. While traveling many people use computers to book future travel plans, check email, and update facebook. Unfortunately, the computers in internet cafes and hostels can be full of really nasty software designed to steal your passport/credit card numbers and other information. I would assume that every computer you use is going to be infected in some shape or form.
- Key Loggers: Many computers have “key loggers” installed. These programs record everything you type. So they can easily get into your email/facebook/IM service. They also record credit card numbers and other personal information.
- Viruses: Many computers are infected with viruses and the virus can do all kinds of harmful things.
- Much More: There is too much to list when it comes to computer scams.
Computer Safety Tips
These days most people use their phone or laptop/tablet so many of these computer safety tips are a bit outdated… but this information is still good to know.
- Security Smarts: As mentioned before, assume every public computer has some kind of monitoring software. Don’t forget simple stuff like not allowing the browser to “save” your password and signing out when you are finished.
- Gmail: Use Gmail for your email because all the information is encrypted.
- WiFi Can Dangerous: Using a wifi connection is never completely safe so you might not want do any banking over wifi.
- Don’t Use Internet Explorer: IE is very easily infected with viruses. Make sure you use the browser on the USB drive.
- Pick Tough Passwords: This is web security 101, but make sure your passwords are complex. It isn’t a bad idea to change your passwords often.
- Note – Many European countries don’t use English keyboards so typing can be a little difficult.
Mugging In Europe
Violent crime in Europe is generally very minimal, but there are some cases of muggings. Don’t make yourself an easy target and you shouldn’t have any problems.
- Don’t wear flashy jewelry.
- Stash the expensive electronics.
- Stick to busy, well-lit streets at night.
- Be aware when withdrawing money from an ATM.
- Walk with confidence. Muggers want to attack the weak.
Just like at home, don’t accept drinks from random people and don’t leave your drink alone.
Other Tourist Scams
Friendship Bracelets: People will come up to you and tie a piece of string around your wrist and then demand payment for it. This is also used as a distraction for pickpockets.
Helpful Locals at Train Stations: Most people are helpful, but some take advantage of you. I’ve heard of locals helping tourists buy train tickets but instead they buy child tickets and pocket the rest of the money. Be very careful of who you trust.
Got Any Good Scam Stories? Post Them In the Comments Box.
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Thanks For Reading! — James