There are few countries in the world that have the same pull for tourists as Italy. There is history here, with ancient Rome being home to one of the world’s first civilisations. Food and wine enthusiasts delight in the country where top-quality ingredients and wine originate. If you are a fashionista, Milan, the world’s fashion capital, is probably your paradise. The list of reasons people flock here every year just seems to add up, too: the boutiques of Milan, high quality of football on show, and exquisite Italian automobiles.
Like anywhere that attracts a lot of tourists, there are also scammers in Italy their best to separate you from your money, your possessions, and potentially anything you are carrying. If you want your Italian adventure to be memorable for all the right reasons, read on to make sure you can identify, and prevent, the scams that target tourists in Italy.
1. Street/public transport pickpockets
Italy is not alone in having an issue with pickpockets who will gladly relieve an individual of their possessions for material gain. Tourists out of their comfort zones naturally make for more attractive targets; not to mention, they are more likely to be carrying a significant amount of money. It should go without saying — carry as few valuables with you as possible when out sight-seeing. When you are not using it, keep your mobile phone in a pocket that can’t be picked without you noticing. Don’t keep anything valuable in your back pocket, either. Also, wear any bags across your body, so they can’t be picked off your shoulder. Plenty of cities have pickpocketing hot spots, and it’s common sense to avoid these, but in general, just be careful wherever you are.
2. Rome: Gladiator photo scam
This scam is one that is — almost entirely — limited to trips to Rome, but be on the lookout for it anywhere, anyway. Men dressed as gladiators have, for some years, hung out on the streets of the Italian capital offering a photo opportunity to tourists. For a small fee of around €6, you can have your photo taken with a quite convincing-looking centurion. Why not?
Well, a few reasons: firstly, many of these centurions are friendly and accommodating up until the time comes for money to change hands, at which point they may ask for several times what they initially claimed. Secondly, a good number of men dressed as gladiators have been known to get aggressive with customers (especially female ones). That’s why, Rome’s authorities made the practice of gladiator photo ops illegal in 2015. These men are breaking the law. It’s a red flag, walk away.
3. Fake luxury products
So you’re in Italy, the home of fashion, and of course you’re going to want to bring home something extra special to impress friends. If you find a bargain, then go ahead and indulge. However, make sure you’re buying the real thing — Italian authorities could fine you thousands of dollars if you were caught with a counterfeit knock-off. Don’t buy bags on the beach, don’t buy them from a street vendor, and don’t buy them from anyone who walks up to you offering them. That must-have Louis Vuitton waits for customers to come to it; it will not walk up to you!
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4. The rose scam
Compared to some of the others, this is a fairly minor scam, but still one you ought to look out for. It involves a scammer walking up to a female member of a couple and handing them a red rose while complimenting them on their looks. If the target accepts the rose, the scammer will then ask the target’s partner to pay for the flower. Social compliance makes the partner pay up, for fear of looking bad — and it’s usually not that much money — but this can be an intimidating, and unpleasant experience nonetheless.
5. Gold ring scam
In this hustle, the scammer will (unseen to you) drop a ring on the ground, then pick it up and retrieve it while in your visual. They will point out its hallmark, indicating that it is highly valuable, and offer it to you. They will usually offer some reason they themselves cannot keep it, and their “generosity” catches a lot of people off guard. The problem is, it’s not real gold. It’s worthless brass, and if you take it, they will then ask if you have any money to give them for a sandwich or a coffee. Because they’ve been kind to you, they want you to be kind to them — but they have dozens of these rings and pull this trick repeatedly. Just say “it’s not mine”, and keep walking.
6. The pigeon scam
This scam takes place in major towns and city squares, and despite the name, you can rest assured that the pigeons are blameless victims in the whole charade. In its simplest form, someone stops you and places some bird seed in your hand, and then whistles. As though by magic, a pigeon flies over and starts to eat from your hand. The scammer then offers to take a photograph for you, using your phone. With that done, they will ask for payment and if you refuse, they will keep your phone — pigeon photo and all — as ransom.
7. Overcharging taxis
This scam is not unique to Rome, or Italy, and is one you might experience in a number of cities the world over. When taking a taxi anywhere in Rome as a tourist, make sure you check that the prices for journeys are displayed prominently in the cab, and that the meter is switched on and visible from the start. Rogue taxi drivers have been known to prey on tourists’ unfamiliarity with a city in order to charge them more than is appropriate for a journey. To avoid this happening to you, those few brief checks before getting in a taxi will ensure your driver is above board — this will discourage any driver who is even thinking of scamming you.
8. Bag helper scam
Simple but effective: someone offers to help you with your bags, and then scams you. You could be anywhere: on a train, for example, they offer to help you as far as your seat, then stow the bag, and then they ask for money. That’s if you get as far as your seat; sometimes they’ll just run off with your bag, or other times (if they know you’ve put your wallet in there), they’ll just take the valuables out and run. Find a luggage trolley, and take your luggage yourself, or at the very least, ask an official member of station staff to help you. Decline any offers — even if they are genuine — as you can’t be too careful.
9. Ticket helper scam
Playing on the language barrier, this scam involves offering to help a tourist navigate the automatic ticket machines in Italian train stations, buying your ticket for you by following the instructions and then asking you for a tip, although some scammers will just pocket your change and then disappear. Under no circumstances should you let someone else operate these machines for you; they’re usually fairly self-explanatory and often the machine will have an English language function anyway. If you’re unsure, buy your tickets at the desk.
10. Unofficial tour guide
For “unofficial”, read “fake”. This type of scam is most common around popular tourist destinations such as the Vatican, the Colosseum and Milan’s La Scala, and involves someone asking you if you speak English, then informing you that they are giving a tour, starting shortly, and taking a fee from you. From here, it can go either of two ways. One, which is more likely if you are the only one on the “tour”, is that they will ask you for more money halfway around. The other, generally more common one is that the tour is just not very good: short on facts, low on charisma, and there’s a reason it’s unofficial. There will be plenty of official tours available, or you can just explore by yourself.
Now you know...
Those, then, are just some of the ways you might get scammed if you are holidaying in Italy. Few of them are restricted solely to Italy, there will be scammers wherever you go in the world. Just remember to be on the lookout, and to travel smartly, and you need never get in any trouble, but as a bottom line, follow the rules above and you’ll be fine. Never hand any money over for a transaction you haven’t initiated, and never accept anything proffered to you on the street, and you’ll avoid great difficulty.
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