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Tourist Scams Overseas

22 Oct
Tourist Scams Overseas

Gold Rings And Mustard Packs--Don't Let This Happen To You

A colleague in Panama wrote to a bunch of friends last week alerting us to a scam currently being run in Panama City by a group of Colombians. A Colombian woman called her sister’s apartment and asked to speak with the “child” of the house. The maid put my colleague’s niece on the phone. The woman on the other end told the girl some elaborate story, saying that she was friends with the child’s mother and that the mother and father were in trouble. They needed money right away. The story, whatever it was, was plausible enough to convince the child and, in turn, the maid, to run around the apartment and put everything they could find of value into bags. Then the little girl took the sacks out to the woman who was waiting in front of the apartment building.

The Colombian con woman got away with jewelry, iPods, iPads, watches, and anything else the little girl could fit in the bags. Fortunately, the TVs were too big.

Apparently, this is an old scam that was popular in Colombia and that has been imported to Panama. My colleague is asking friends in Colombia about current scams in that country so we can be prepared if they, too, are transferred here. The Panama police think the scammers are getting phone numbers and addresses from restaurants that deliver food as, apparently, many restaurant delivery drivers in Panama City are Colombian.

Most people won’t ever encounter a live, in-person scam like this one. What you could run across while traveling are scams targeting tourists. Two classics in this regard are the ring scam and the mustard scam.

Beware Of The Ring Scam

The ring scam is common in Paris in summer, especially along the Seine. It’s run by gypsies. One of them will bend over and pretend to pick up a ring off the ground, just in front of you, while you (the tourist) are paused looking at a map or a street sign or whatever. The scammer will show you the ring and ask if you dropped it.

When we were in Paris this past August, we had three different gypsies try this on us in a single afternoon as we walked along the river from the Tuileries to the Eiffel Tower. In one case, I saw a guy who looked like a gypsy walking my way. I stopped to wait for Jackson. I paused as he passed, and he bent over just in front of me then came up with a gold ring in his palm. I watched the whole thing play out and knew what he was doing the whole time, but it was still hard to discern that he had the ring hidden in his hand as he bent over to “pick it up.”

I’ve never gotten past them asking if the ring is mine. I walk away. However, others have relayed to me how the scam plays out. It goes something like this after you tell the gypsy (can be a man or a woman) that the ring isn’t yours…

“Oh, this isn’t yours,” your new friend will say. “Someone must have dropped it.” Then he’ll look up and down the street as if in search of the owner.

“It looks like it’s gold,” the guy will continue. “It must be worth a lot. We could sell the ring and split the proceeds. What do you think it might be worth? I know a shop where we could sell it, but I have an appointment right now. How about I sell you my half of the ring for, say, €50 and you keep whatever you get for it?”

A lot of people must fall for this, as gypsies have been acting out this scam for the decades that I’ve been traveling to Paris at least and probably since long before that.

The Mustard Scam

The other time-tested classic is the mustard scam. This was first brought to my attention by a colleague who spent a lot of time in Quito, where it’s common, but it happens many places.

It starts with player A passing you on the street from behind and squirting a packet of mustard (I guess it could work with ketchup or mayonnaise as well) on your clothes. Then player B comes up and says something along the lines of “Oh, my, you have something on your jacket.” He or she then proceeds to offer to help clean you off. As player B is helping you, player A returns and picks your pocket or takes your bags. By the time you realize something is missing, player A is long gone and player B is simply an innocent witness to the theft.

Watch Out: Classic E-mail Scams

E-mail scams are also popular. You’ve probably seen two big ones yourself. The first involves someone, usually in Africa, writing to say he needs help getting tens of millions out of his corrupt country before the government steals it (or some variation on that story). The second is an e-mail from someone in your e-mail contact list who writes to say he is overseas and has been robbed. All credit cards, cash, and passports are gone. The embassy isn’t being helpful, and the hotel won’t let your friend leave until he’s paid his bill.

The first e-mail scam may have run its course, as I haven’t seen it in a while, but it will be back after a resting period. With that one, the sender typically says he needs to check the wire routing with your bank and develop a level of comfort with you so he can trust you enough to send you the millions at stake for safe-keeping. Send a test wire of US$1,000 (or some similar amount small enough to seem like nothing in relation to the millions you’ll be getting in return), he’ll suggest.

Someone who worked for us forwarded one of these e-mails to me asking if I’d send the test wire amount as he didn’t have enough in his bank account. That was more than a dozen years ago, which tells you how long this one has been going.

The “hotel won’t let us check out” e-mail has been around for years, too. I first received one of these e-mails in 2009 from a random person who had my e-mail address. It was a reader whose address book had been hacked. It’s some effort for the scammer to hack into someone’s e-mail account, but it makes the scam more realistic if the e-mail is apparently coming from someone you know. The end game with this one is to get you to Western Union money to someone in the city who has offered to help your friend out by accepting the funds on your friend’s behalf. Your friend has lost all his ID, remember, so he can’t claim any transferred funds himself.

I’m sure there are dozens of other popular scams, including variations on these. If you know one, send along the details. I’ll compile them for another day.

Lief Simon