France – Favorite Pickpocket Scams

BY Beth Williams

France is known for romance, decadent wines, crusty baguettes and cheeses aged to perfection. France is also famous for its pocket thieves and swindlers. Petty crime, bag snatching and pickpocketing present a common annoyance for travelers throughout the country, but mainly in larger cities such as Paris, Marseilles, Nice and Strasbourg. Key targets for lone and gangs of thieves include public transportation, hotel lobbies, tourist attractions and sites, restaurants and cafes, and beaches to name a few.

Child Pickpockets in France – A Surprising Problem

One thing that anyone traveling to any of the major cities of France should be aware of – as well as any major European city for that matter, is – child or teenage pickpockets.  Reports of them are more and more common and numerous reports come out of France.  The problem appears to be increasing because of the way European laws treat children and teenagers when they are arrested – very little happens to them.  Because of this, more and more adult thieves educate young children and teenagers to commit these crimes.

Famous Scams in France

The following scams have placed Paris, in particular, as one of the most famous cities for pickpockets. Any of the following situations can occur in any French city, while walking on the street, in a museum or cathedral, on a metro train or even in your hotel lobby. Many of these scams originated in France and are now used by petty thieves worldwide.

Eiffel Tower Pickpockets

Pickpockets have known for years that the Eiffel Tower was a great place to target innocent tourists who visit the iconic location.  These thieves have caused so much of a problem pickpocketing tourists at this location that the security staff walked off the job in protest of lack of security for the tourists.  Watch the below video as a reminder that when visiting the Eiffel Tower, you need to make sure your valuables are locked down during your entire visit, from the check-in lines at the bottom, in the elevators, the stairwells, as well as the Eiffel Tower’s observations decks – some of the most vulnerable places where the pickpockets have targeted tourists.

The Ring Scam:

Someone stops you and hands you a golden ring and asks if it is yours. You answer no, but the person insists that you keep it.  You take the ring and then the person asks if you could give them  20 or 30 Euros. You give them the money, because heck, you just got a gold ring for free!

Scam:  Although the inside of the ring says that it’s real gold, the ring is made of brass or other cheap material and is worth nothing.

Solution: If someone approaches you asking if you dropped something, one of two things will happen, 1) they will steal from you or 2) they will swindle money from you. If the item is not yours, simply say no and walk away.  Another way to avoid the “ring scam” or whenever someone approaches you and asks a possible “set up” question or you are approached by someone carrying around little signs which say “Do you speak English?” (and it’s usually the Roma, or Gypsy women, aka Gens de Voyage in French)  – just say “Non.”  These people just want your money or are very possibly pickpockets.  If they are a beggar, they can get quite aggressive if you look like you’re even thinking of considering it. Here is a video of this ring scam shot in Paris as two unsuspecting tourists are targeted.

The String Theorist Scam – also known as the Friendship Bracelet Scam

You are walking along when a couple of people walk up to you – they can be men, women, or teens.  As they engage you in conversation, they want to show you a magic trick where they tie a string around one or two of your fingers.  You like the trick and walk on your way after being charmed by the “locals.”

Scam:  The trick may have been fun to watch, but while you were distracted by the charming “magic trick,” one of the accomplices helped themselves to your pockets’ contents or your wallet in your purse.

Solution: Just like what was spoke about in prior pickpocket articles on this website, if someone approaches you – be alert and aware – It could be a set up. do not let anyone get behind you or next to your purse when you get engaged in a conversation with someone who initiates a conversation “out of the blue” or because a certain event happens. Here is actual video of the friendship bracelet scam as it unfolds on an unsuspecting tourist.  While this video was shot in Rome, it is carried out the same way around the world.

The Bracelet Scam:

Someone shows you a beautiful bracelet and offers to sell it to you for a great price of 5 Euros. They even let you try it on. You decide that it does not suit you and hand the bracelet back. The seller then says that he cannot take the bracelet and that you must pay for it because you are wearing it.

Scam: A sales person places their goods on you before you are able to say no and then demands quick payment. Whether you wanted to buy the item or not was never the issue for the salesperson.

Solution: Do not try something on, especially from a street vendor, unless you are prepared to pay for it. If you find yourself in this situation, quickly remove the bracelet and quickly walk away.

“The Lost Soul Scam”:

A small group of people walk up to you and say they are lost and need help with directions.  Of course, you want to help because it has happened to you.  One of the lost soul’s opens a large map and has you help them find their way back to the hotel they are staying in.

Scam:  Of course you want to help – it’s the polite thing to do.  As the group surrounds you and the map, one of the thieves removes your wallet or money from your purse.

Solution:  Just as before, the act was started by someone starting a conversation with you.  An obvious red flag.  Watch your pockets and purse.

“Do you speak English?” Scam:

Someone will approach you asking if you speak English and give you a card that tells a sad story and in the end ask for cash.

Scam: The people operating this scam are not the needy, rather an organized gang and they can be quite persistent.

Solution: If a firm “No” does not work, try to make a scene because the beggars do not want to make a commotion and bring attention to them.

Good Rate for your Money Scam:

Someone on the street offers to exchange your currency for a seemingly good rate, not the same rate offered at those tourist exchange bureaus. They even guarantee that they have the best rate on the street and to not trust the other swindlers offering similar deals.

Scam: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Because foreign currencies can be confusing to travelers, money changers on the street can easily take advantage of unsuspecting “customers”. Further, the exchange rate may be worse than what you could get at a bank or official currency exchange bureau, or even worse, you might be slipped counterfeit currency.

Solution: “Better Safe than Sorry”. Because ATMs offer the daily exact exchange rates, these are your best bet, or research competing banks and currency exchange bureaus to find the best rate.

“Distraction Phone Theft Scam”:

Someone will approach you asking if you asking for directions, may even show a map, which will be used to cover your cell phone.

Scam: The thieves who commit this scam try to use a sympathy question to get you to talk to them, then they use the map or paper they are holding to cover your phone so they can steal it without your knowledge.

Solution: If anyone approaches you – keep the thought in the back of your mind “is this a set up?”  Keep your valuables close, and anytime someone gets close to you, put your hand out to keep them away from your and your valuables.  Any legitimate person does not have to get super close to you.  Watch the below video to see how this scam is committed in a Paris park.

ATM Machine Scams

Most ATM machines in France are safe and often provide a better rate of exchange than exchange bureaus, plus they are easier to access than using traveler’s checks. Because ATMs are any easy way for account holders to access money at all times of day, they also present a great opportunity for thieves to make a few or thousand extra bucks. Below are the most common scams reported:

  • Another customer, a.k.a thief, stands too close to you in line while entering your PIN number. Once the PIN number is known, the thief swipes your card.
  • On a weekend evening you get some cash for a night out, but the ATM machine eats your card. The bank at this time is closed, so you have to wait until Monday to try to get your card back. On Monday, the bank reports that they do not have your card and after checking your online statement, you see that someone already withdrew thousands of dollars. A criminal gang has modified the machine using a device that memorizes the PIN number and prevents the card from being ejected. The gang can then download the stored PIN numbers and retrieve cash from the account.

Solution: Try to use ATMs during banking business hours. Examine ATM machines for unusual add-on devices – especially at the card slot. Carry a 24-hour, emergency number for the card account so you can close or put a block on the account immediately. Always cover the keypad when typing in your PIN number in case a camera device is installed to record these entries.

  • You are withdrawing money from an ATM in a bank lobby. A person walks into the lobby and from the door asks for directions. You try to explain that you do not speak French and the person walks closer speaking this time in English. You explain further that you are not from Paris and while you are looking away from the ATM, the crook grabs your cash when it comes out and runs.

10 Basic Tips to Protect Your Belongings from Pickpockets in France

Although millions of people have fallen victim to petty theft, it is most certainly not a reason to avoid the treasures of France. There are simple things you can do to avoid being a target. Travel companies have even created specialized products to help you keep your belongings safe while viewing the wonders of the world; take advantage of these tools.

  1. Research ahead of time to determine areas with high pick pocketing activity. Either avoid these areas, or be vigilant when traveling through.
  2. Va-t-en! – ”Get Lost!” Learn a few French phrases to make the locals happy and catch the pickpockets off guard.
  3. Appear confident, even if you are nervous, or lost.
  4. Try to avoid talking to strangers. If unavoidable, stay alert while speaking with them.
  5. Use ATMs located in bank lobbies during bank opening hours. Block the keypad when entering your PIN.
  6. During the day, walk on the sunny side of the street. Most pick pockets lurk in the shade.
  7. Be suspicious of strangers who try to position themselves close to you.
  8. Be on high alert in areas that are crowded and create the opportunity for people to easily bump into one another: buses, metros, markets, etc.
  9. If possible, travel in groups – safety in numbers.
  10. Try to dress like the locals, no shorts, flip flops, baseball caps, etc.
  11. When traveling on a train, attempt to find a seat. If a seat is not available, try not to stand by the doors.
  12. Do not pull out cash in public to avoid drawing attention to you. Keep your money spread out in multiple pockets.
  13. Leave large amounts of cash in the hotel safe.
  14. Do not examine your map while in a crowded area. Try to study your map before leaving the hotel or while sitting at a restaurant.
  15. If you carry a backpack or purse in a crowded place, wear the backpack on the front, or your purse across your body.
  16. When speaking English, speak quietly, so you do not alert pickpockets that you are a tourist.
  17. Never leave your purse hanging on the back of a chair.
  18. If you suspect that you are being followed, do something unpredictable and go into a store. This will catch the pick pocket off guard.
  19. Friendly female travelers who smile at men may be perceived as flirting. Be conscious of the type of attention you may attract from others.
  20. Last, prepare for the worst and gather pertinent information such as: credit card phone numbers, make two photocopies of your passport, make additional copies of tickets and hotel reservation information.

Products to Keep Your Belongings Safe from Pickpockets

Travel companies have developed products that provide an additional level of security for valuables, thus giving travelers peace of mind. Such products include special slash-proof backpacks with locks, a portable travel safe, plus travel wallets, waterproof pouches, and wrist, arm or leg wallets.

When flying, keep your luggage safe from prying fingers with a TSA (Transport Security Administration) approved padlock. The PacSafe ProSafe 750 TSA Key Card Lock is TSA approved and you don’t need to fuss with combinations or keys, rather a credit card-sized card opens this lock. If it is necessary to inspect your luggage outside of your presence, TSA agents have special tools to open these special locks without destroying them or your luggage.

Newly issued-US passport cards and many credit cards contain a radio frequency identification chip (RFID) that can be read by anyone with a RFID scanner, sometimes from as far as 10 feet away. Keep your identity safe with the RFID Blocking Wallet which contains by a thin layer of metal fiber mesh to block penetrating radio waves.