It had been a while since I had been to Paris, so when Loz and his friend Dan’s photo-workshop was announced to take place in the city of love, I foraged the vast plains of the Internet to find advice and inspiration as in what to do and see.
It didn’t take long for me to get slightly irritated. Every single Paris post I read had a reference to scams in it. At one point I was convinced that there are as many posts about the scams of Paris than there are posts about the sights of Paris. Probably not a good sign. I can’t deny it put a bit of a damper on my anticipation. Who is looking forward to going to a beautiful city only to have to constantly be aware of scam artists?
But that’s not how the story went when we finally got there. I mean, I was constantly aware. I was as much looking at the sights as I was scanning my surroundings. Which is something I do anyway on our trips, but usually in vain. Not so in Paris!
I saw quite a few scams happening right in front of my eyes, and I found it extremely interesting. Not because I enjoy watching people getting scammed (none of the ‘victims’ ended up giving the scammers any money, I’d like to point out), but because for the first time, I could get a first-hand impression on how these scams are pulled off. I could watch the scammers waiting, targeting, setting up, hitting.
None of these scams would have made you lose a lot of money. The damage is a different one: being scammed makes you feel really bad, to a point that it significantly overshadows your trip. It changes your perception of the destination and of the people there. Don’t let it.
Seriously, all you can ever do is read up on the scams and then go about the best you can. You might think you wouldn’t fall for these stupid tricks, anyway, or you just wouldn’t give the scammers any money, but don’t be so sure. Scammers are not sleazy, dodgy people. The ability of the scammer to make a genuine and trust-worthy impression on you is probably his or her most important capability when pulling of a scam. That’s why even experienced travellers are not immune.
Here are four of Paris’ common scams, executed picture-perfectly right in front of my nose. One of them I already fell for somewhere else, and another one would have gotten me had I not read about it. Do you think you’d be safe?
Common Paris Scams
1. The friendship bracelets of Sacre Coeur
Sacre Coeur is a beautiful basilica on the top of Montmartre. On the stairs leading up the hill, many vendors try their luck and offer cold bottled water, or all kinds of souvenirs, laid out on blankets that can be lifted up and put away in a few seconds when security approaches.
And then there are these other guys. They are all smiley and seem really nice. They walk towards you, stretching out their hand, almost like they are about to congratulate you on something. It is a bit confusing, but okay, if it makes them happy, why not shake their hand? It’s not like you can’t walk away after that, right?
Wrong. Because they very quickly tie a few strings around your finger once they’ve got hold of your hand, and start braiding a little friend-ship bracelet, chatting away, and hinting at a compensation for their efforts.
It would have worked with me, because I would have shaken one of the guy’s hands, just to be friendly, and then I would have given him a Euro or something because it’s easier than picking a fight. But damn right I would have had trouble deciding whom I’d like to kick harder: the scammer or myself.
Tip: Put your hands in your pocket when these guys approach you.
#3. The golden ring along the banks of the river Seine
I was walking along the Seine, on my way to the Petit Palais to see an exhibition. In front of me were three people, one woman and two guys, engaged in a conversation, wandering along. They looked totally casual and harmless, but every now and again, one of them would separate from the others, checking the ground, bend down and eventually go back to his/her friends.
That reminded me of the ring scam, and indeed, it didn’t take long until an elderly couple examining a map were approached. I just saw them shaking their heads when the woman showed them something (for it was her who had approached them) and so she went away again.
But this is how it goes. You walk along, minding your own business, when someone near you suddenly bends down to pick something up. Then they come over and say something like: “I just found this golden ring – did you lose it by any chance?”. Chances are you say no. They will then tell you that the ring looks genuine and give you a reason why they cannot keep it, but they offer it to you. Once you have agreed to take it, they ask for a little compensation. The ring is of course worth nothing.
Wouldn’t have happened to me because I’d take an expensive looking ring to the police. Also, I don’t like gold – it does nada for my complexion, you know? No, but seriously, jewellery, and especially rings, can have such a sentimental value for someone. I’d keep a 20 Euro note I had found, but never a ring like that.
Tip: It’s sufficient to just firmly say “No!”, but if you can pull it of, you can of course also act very pleasantly surprised: “Oh my gosh, thank you so much! That’s my grandmother’s wedding band she gave to me just before she passed away; I would have been so sad to lose it! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” – and walk away with it.
3. The cup and ball scam at the Champs-de-Mars park behind the Eiffel Tower
Well, I’m sure you know this one, but it obviously works, because they are still doing it! There’s a guy with a little table, on it are three upside down cups, and a ball. He puts the ball under one of the cups and then moves them around quickly. When he stops you have to guess under which cup the ball is.
Of course there is money involved. You can bet on finding the ball, and if you’re right, you’ll get double your money back.
This scam works because au contraire to what you see, the cup-and-ball guy is not by himself. The people gathering around him watching the spectacle are partly made up by his accomplices. One of them will pretend to try to play the game. You just stand there because it’s fun to watch. But then this stupid guy loses his money because he never gets it right, although it is completely obvious to you where the freaking ball is.
Reassured that this is a piece of cake, you step forward to win some money, only to suddenly have the cup-and-ball guy move the cups in a speed that is impossible to keep up with. And now you have lost your money, too.
I would not fall for this one, because I have seen it a million times. However, this was the first time I concentrated on the crowd around this guy, wondering which of these people were in on the scam and which weren’t.
Ten minutes later, I saw the whole group behind a bush, planning their next show, I guess. Maybe six people, quite mixed. Impossible to tell apart from regular spectators, especially if you haven’t watched any “Sherlock Holmes” yet.
Tip: Just don’t get tricked into playing, but also bear in mind that watching the cup-and-ball game might in addition serve as a distraction while you’re being pick-pocketed.
4. The activists at the Tuileries Garden
Ah, yes, that one happened to me in Brussels. I saw a group of women walking around with clip boards, trying to get a petition signed. I totally dig petitions, and it was something about education for young girls in who-knows-where, so yeah, I signed it. But that wasn’t it. The woman who had approached me went on to say that now I had to donate, and an amount of 20 Euros would probably be good.
This is the moment when every one reading this thinks “Just walk away”, but I didn’t. I was taken by surprise by this follow-up donation demand, and then I felt like a hypocrite for willingly signing something but not going through with the ‘good deed’ as soon as money was involved. So, I gave her money (at least not 20 Euros), because I felt so uncomfortable about the whole situation and just wanted to get away.
In Paris, I saw one of these girls wandering around the octagonal pool at the Tuileries garden. If looks (mine) could kill (her)! Alas, they don’t, and she actually came over, but moved away when I started shouting: “Non! Non Non!” at her.
Tip: Shout “Non! Non! Non!” really angrily. Shooting looks that kill are ineffective.
So these were four of the scams in Paris. If you google this topic, you will find that I have not even covered the tip of the iceberg. Do yourself a favour and read up on scams before you travel to Paris, or, as a matter, anywhere else (wikivoyage’s Stay Safe section is always a good start!). While researching, be prepared that some people will paint a very dark picture of the destination, because they let a scam poison their whole holiday.
It is very hard not to get emotional when you get scammed, but I’ll say it again: don’t let it get to you. It’s not your fault. It happens to everyone. It does not mean that the destination where it happens is bad; it does not mean the people who live at the destination where it happened are bad. It does not mean that you’re an idiot. It just means you have met someone who has gone down an incredibly low road in order to get a few bucks.
You know, I liked that week-end in Paris. I didn’t feel threatened, I didn’t feel hassled, I didn’t feel that vendors approached me aggressively, or anything. Everyone was actually pretty decent. There was security/police at every major sight, too. And I enjoyed my little scam-study. Paris is fabulous for that!
So the next time you go to Paris, you could add a bit of scammer-observing on your list of things to do. And maybe you’ll find what I found after a while: scammers are just people. They do not have the power to ruin your holiday, so never let them.
Further Reading for Visiting Paris
We’ve written a fair amount about Paris to help you plan your trip beyond avoiding the common scams! Here are some posts and other resources you might find useful:
- Our guide to the Best Photography Locations in Paris
- A Paris Photo Essay, to inspire your visit
- A full review of the Paris Pass, to help you save money on your visit, as well as a review of the Paris Museum Pass
- A guide to the best afternoon tea in Paris
- A guide to choosing the best Seine Boat River tour
- And finally, if you need a guidebook, we highly recommend the Rick Steves Paris guide!
Thanks for reading and safe travels!