Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so it's no surprise that more tourists flock to the French capital than almost any other destination in the world.
Unfortunately, with more tourists, come more tourist traps – both legal and illegal. In particular, a whole industry has built up in Paris around tricking unwary travelers out of their money or possessions, leading to Paris being designated the 15th most dangerous city in Europe. These scams are very easy to get caught up in, and can leave a dent on an otherwise wonderful holiday.
As long as you know what to look out for, you should be fine. Some of the scams are harmless-looking, while others are outright theft. Just being on your guard, however, isn't enough. If you really want to be safe and secure, you need to know exactly which scams to look out for.
The Gold Ring
The gold ring scam is something of a Paris tradition at this point. If you haven’t heard of it, this is usually how it goes…
Someone will approach you as you’re walking around the city. They’ll show you a gold ring and ask whether you dropped it. Unless you have lost an identical ring within the past five minutes, you’ll probably say no, but the scammer will ask you to keep it anyway for good luck. How kind of them!
Don’t be fooled by the ostensible generosity of these strangers. If you accept, they’ll then ask you for money – far more than the ring is worth. The scam is surprisingly effective because of its psychological dimension - they prey on the guilt you feel at having accepted the ring, and they’re often quite successful at doing so – hence why it’s become an enduring, if unfortunate, tradition of Paris.
Petitioners asking for money
You may pass people on the street asking you to sign a petition for some cause or another, as well as to provide a donation. While some of these petitions may be legitimate, unfortunately many aren’t. The scam petitions will dress up the donation as a gift to charity, but they’ll just pocket the money for themselves.
How to avoid them? The simplest way is to just ignore all petitioners. But if you agree with their cause and genuinely would like to help, you should look for signs that they are legitimate, such as checking with them how the money gets distributed, asking if they have a website, and if you can donate on there instead. You may also wish to check beforehand whether the petitioner is asking for a donation at all. Legitimate petitions are far less likely to ask for your money, and will be content with just your signature.
But even if they initially tell you they don't want a donation, scam petitioners may ask you for money after you’ve signed anyway. If this happens, don’t feel bad about simply walking away.
It’s not only the locals you need to worry about. Be wary of tourists too – or at least, people posing as tourists.
In a place like Paris, it's hardly unusual for someone to ask someone else to take a photo of them. Whichever way round this happens, it can easily lead to theft.
If you would like someone to take a photo of you using your phone or camera, then do so at your own risk. Most people will be friendly and obliging and willing to take a good photo – particularly if they’re clearly a tourist themselves (you're best off asking someone who doesn't seem to speak French). But once you've trusted that person with your phone or camera, there's a chance they may just run off with it – in which case not getting a photo will be the least of your worries.
If people refuse to take a photo for you, don’t take it to heart. Chances are they’re also being cautious, because even people asking for someone to take a photo of them can be scammers.
This is most likely to be the case if the person asking you to take a photo is using a camera (as opposed to a phone). What happens is that once you’ve taken the photo, the scammer will have a look at it. Upon inspection, they’ll declare that the camera is broken – and that you must be the culprit. Surprise surprise, they’ll expect you to pay to cover the costs.
The best way to avoid this is simply not to accept to take a photo of someone if it’s with a camera. And when it comes to getting photos of yourself with the Eiffel Tower or the Palace of Versailles in the background, stick to selfies if you can.
The cone game
Perhaps the most famous of all Parisian scams, this little gambling game looks like a bit of fun at first glance. Usually someone will be manning a stall on the side of the street, where they’ll have three cones – or hats, or bowls – on display. Under one of these is a ball, which they'll reveal to you before you play the game. The aim of the game is to guess under which cone the ball is after the scammer has mixed the cones around. Of course, the game isn't free, and you'll be asked to bet money. If you guess wrong, you lose your cash. If you guess correctly, however, you'll win your money back plus a little more.
Sounds simple, right? And that’s why people fall for it. The scammer will use sleight of hand to remove the ball completely, meaning that whichever cone you pick, you’re guaranteed to lose. Worse still, the scammer will often have other scammers disguised as tourists playing the game before you – and inevitably winning, tricking you into believing it’s possible to win the cone game.
To date, it’s unlikely any tourist genuinely has, so unless you think you’re going to be the first, best just to stay away from this one.
If someone tries to give you a colourful bracelet, our advice is to refuse. This is similar to the gold ring scam in that they'll give you the bracelet for free, only to then demand money in return for it. However, it's often more difficult to simply give the bracelet back, as these scammers have a habit of tying it around your wrist – all while pretending to be giving you a free gift – only to turn around and ask for a fee far larger than the bracelet is worth. Some even do it under the pretence of simply wanting to shake your hand, so if anyone approaches you with their arm outstretched, it's okay to be a little suspicious.
This scam is particularly common around the Sacre Coeur, so while we definitely recommend visiting the gorgeous basilica, we recommend you stay on your guard. Fortunately, you can buy friendship bracelets at most souvenir shops around the city.
Pickpockets certainly aren’t unique to Paris, but there do seem to be more of them here than in many other cities.
This isn’t exactly a scam per se, but pickpockets are so common that it would be amiss not to mention this form of theft. They’re especially prevalent in the Paris metro, so be extra careful when brushing past people or going through the turnstiles. That said, pickpockets operate everywhere, and the best way to avoid getting your phone or wallet stolen is to keep them in zipped pockets and keep your rucksack on your front.
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