Europe is safe when it comes to violent crime. But it's a surprisingly creative place when it comes to travel scams. Pickpockets and con artists target Americans — not because these crooks are mean, but because they're smart.
Americans are known as the ones with all the good stuff in their bags and wallets. Even those who pay attention to my advice about money belts can get burned. Recently I met an American woman whose purse was stolen, and in her purse was her money belt. (My advice: Wear your money belt tucked in under your clothes.)
Here's a rundown of popular scams, old and new, in the hopes you'll avoid them in your travels:
Clever scammers are taking advantage of our addiction to technology. Europeans love their mobile phones, but watch out if the cashier at the souvenir shop is busy talking on her phone while ringing up your purchase. Unscrupulous clerks have used phone cameras to take pictures of customers' credit-card numbers. My advice: It pays to pay with cash. Withdraw money from ATMs and pay for nearly all of your purchases with local currency.
Maintain personal space
Many of the most successful scams require a naive and trusting tourist. Here's an example: As you're strolling down an alley in Rome, a local taps your shoulder and points to what appears to be bird droppings on your jacket. While the friendly local helps you wipe it off, his partner swipes your backpack. The lesson: Be wary of any unusually close contact or a commotion in crowded public (especially touristy) places. If you're alert and savvy, you can avoid most problems.
Watch out for "instant friends." Here's a scenario: A well-spoken, well-dressed gentleman approaches you in Munich. He explains that he's a leather-jacket salesman, and he needs directions to drive to a nearby landmark. He chats you up ("Oh, really? My wife is from Omaha!") and gives you the feeling that you're now friends. When finished, he reaches in his car and pulls out a "designer leather jacket" which he gives to you as a gift for your helpfulness. Oh, and by the way, his credit card isn't working, and could you please give him some cash to buy gas? He takes off with the cash, and you later realize that you've paid way too much for your new vinyl jacket.
Don't buy anything literally off the street. Here's a scam: An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground in front of you and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person examines the ring more closely, then shows you a mark "proving" that it's pure gold. He offers to sell it to you for a good price — far more than he paid for it before dropping it on the sidewalk.
Avoid getting roped into unsolicited gifts and guilt trips. A street vendor approaches you in Paris and asks if you'll help him with a "demonstration." He proceeds to make a friendship bracelet right on your arm. When finished, he asks you to pay a premium for the bracelet he created just for you. And, since you can't easily take it off on the spot, you feel obliged to pay up.
Be aware, but have fun
If you didn't break it, don't fix it. Here's an example: Everyone is taking pictures of Buckingham Palace, and someone comes up with a camera and asks that you take his picture. But the camera doesn't seem to work. When you hand it back, the "tourist" fumbles and drops it on the ground, where it breaks into pieces. He will either ask you to pay for repairs or lift your wallet while you are bending over to pick up the broken object. If you sniff a whiff of a scam, just walk away.
There are scads of scams, but it's important to keep in mind that relatively few Europeans are con artists, and Europe is not a risky place to visit. Probably the worst scam that happened to me was getting ripped off by an exchange bureau, and it was my own fault for not reading their fine print.
Be aware of the pitfalls of traveling, but relax and have fun. Limit your vulnerability rather than your travels. Leave precious valuables at home and wear your money belt on the road. Most people in every country are on your side.
And if you do happen to get scammed, as even the brightest and most cautious traveler can, know that you'll survive it. It may not help at the time, but try to remember that your loss will make for a good story when you get home.
(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)
© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.