24 Most Common Tourist Scams in Italy
Rome, Florence, Venice, Sorrento, Positano, Taormina, Naples, Milan, Turin, Palermo, Bologna, Genoa, Verona, Pisa, Catania, Syracuse, Cagliari, Perugia, Padua, Siena, Leece, Bari
Home to the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites globally, delicious cuisine, trendy fashion and jaw dropping coasts, lakes and mountains, Italy remains one of my favourite places in the world.
Sadly, it is also home to a sizeable number of well-trained and cold hearted scammers ready to part you from your money. Check out these 23 scams below to protect yourself in Italy.
A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES
1. Fashion Guru asking for Petrol Money
This has happened countless of times, where a well-dressed man who speaks English will approach you in his car. It could be for any reason, such as asking for directions or a random comment.
He will also ask where you are from and surprise, he has a friend/relative/family member there as well! This is a standard tactic to build a connection and gain trust.
Next, he let you in on his big secret – he is a manager at Giorgio Armani/Versace/Calvin Klein or what have you. He shows you some of the latest designs of the season, and proceeds to hand you a coat or even a bag as a gift for telling him the directions.
However, he claims that his car is running out of petrol and ask you for some money, which could be €50 to €200. This sounds like such an easy scam to spot but yet many victims fall for this time and again.
2. Gypsy Groups
Not exactly a tourist activity per se, but these gypsy groups tend to hang out around popular tourist spots. They beg, they distract and then they steal, so do be wary of them. They used to be a common sight around the Colosseum in Rome, though that has improved with the clamping down by the authorities.
Also, they tend to be women or kids as tourists are likelier to let their guard down when facing them. There’s more to it than meets the eyes though, as they do have adult/male accomplices lurking ahead.
Another very effective trick which they use is the baby toss. As the name suggests, a doll resembling a baby, wrapped up in a blanket is thrown at the victim. While the victim panics and catches the “baby”, the gypsy and her accomplices grab/pickpocket the victim’s valuables.
3. Rome Gladiators
Note: latest update as of November 2015 is that these charlatans have been outlawed. These are simply people dressed in gladiator costumes found at the Colosseum. Do not take photos of them, as you will be hounded for tips.
Taking photos with them is fine, if you are willing to pay 10 euros for it.
4. The String/Bracelet Scam
This is not as common as in France, but still found in quite a number of tourist areas in Italy such as the Spanish Steps at Rome.
What they do (normally Africans) is they will ask if you want a “friendship bracelet” or “friendship ring”. If you say yes, they will tie it so tight around your wrist or finger that makes it impossible to remove. They will then demand money from you. The more ruthless ones will gather some of his accomplices, bring you to the nearest ATM and threaten you to withdraw everything inside.
Another variation is that these scammers will first engage you in a conversation. They might then ask if you want to see a magic trick and before you know it, they would have skilfully tied a band around your wrist or fingers.
They will justify it by saying it is from the church, a gift, or a local Paris souvenir and then demand €20. Refuse to pay and you find them sticking to you like cockroaches and bugging you every second. Some of them will even try to intimidate you. Most tourist just suck it up and pay to get rid of them.
More creative scammers will approach couples and offer the woman for free. Should the woman accept, another will pop out to offer the man. Since it is assumed to be free, the man tends to accept. But once you do, good luck as they will begin hounding you for payment.
The most ruthless ones will tie the friendship band and while distracting you, an accomplice will appear from the shadows to pickpocket your stuff.
This is so common and yet many still fall for the scam. What to do when they approach is to say no and keep walking away. Do NOT stop as a moment of hesitation is all they need to tie the string on your hand. However, be careful of walking yourself into a corner. If you are alert and have spotted them from a distance. Keep your hands well hidden in your jacket or somewhere.
What I did was that I shouted no and some vulgarities when I was approached. This gave me a real kick haha but on hindsight is a very stupid thing to do. There is no need to offend them as they would surely have more accomplices in the area and it is not possible to outfight a bunch of them.
I have also observed that they tend to target females travelling alone so please be extra careful if you are.
There are too many variations to list here. However, the modus operandi is always the same – work in pairs, one distracts, one snatches and when the deed is done blend back into the crowd. Here are some common scenarios to watch out for:
a) Pickpocketing on trains/buses. The standard tactic is for someone to suddenly stop in front in front of you and his accomplice will swoop in from the back. Common areas of striking are for instance, bus lines 12/13 to Piazza Michelangelo and 7 to Fiesole.
b) Gypsies doing unusual things, such as breastfeeding a baby in an exposed way to catch your attention.
c) Tourist locations/busy streets. Stranger approaches to ask for help with a survey or it could be something as simple as a street game/exhibit. The Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence is a well known spot for pickpockets.
d) Gypsy pizza. Gypsy girls present a pizza box (or can be anything really) under your nose, thus blocking your vision below and their accomplices will swoop in for your wallet.
e) Spill/puke: liquid is spilled on you, and someone offers to help you clean up even if you reject. Your belongings are then easily swiped as you will be caught off guard. Recent reports are that a harmless looking old man will usually offer to help.
6. Fake Luxury Products
Well, this definitely isn’t something unique to Italy, but what is unique is that if you are caught with this, you can be charged with a €10,000 fine! Good news is that these fake products are easily spottable.
7. Rose Scam
This same scam is common in France, where ladies with their husbands/boyfriends are usually targeted. What happens is that the scammer will give you compliments on your looks and pass you a rose.
Should you take it, he will hound the husband/boyfriend for money. It works as only a small amount of money is asked for and the husband/boyfriend is made to look like a jerk if he forces the lady to pass the rose back.
8. Gold Ring Scam
Again, a scam that is common in France. Click here to check it out.
9. Unofficial Tour Guides
These unofficial tour guides are pretty common around tourist spots with long queues such as the Vatican. They approach you, asks if you speak English and offer a tour that is about to start and which can help you avoid the queue.
As common sense dictates, ask how much it would cost upfront before engaging them. However, it is best to avoid engaging them as they might sing a different tune (i.e. ask for more money) at the end of the guide. They might even have more sinister plots brewing after the tour to scam you of your money.
10. Pigeon Scam
This is a common scam across Italy especially in large spaces such as squares. A random stranger grabs your hand, places some grain or corn in it and then whistles.
The pigeons fly over magically and the stranger will offer to take a picture for you which of course, will cost money.
1. Bag Helpers
Never let anyone help you with your bag. It could be a friendly stranger who snitches your wallet from your bag. It could be an “official” looking employee who shows you to your seat, stows your seat and then demand a tip of €5. It might even be someone who runs off with your bag once he gets hold of it. Don’t do it.
2. Illegal Taxis
These are cabs operating without license and are usually rip offs. Only take the risk if you are desperate and you know how much a certain distance or journey cost. Even then, the driver can simply stop and leave you stranded on a highway and demand extra compensation.
An important tip for travellers to Italy, to get a cab, you don’t hail them from the streets. Instead, you get one at an official taxi station or you call to make a booking. Do note however, that the meter starts running once the booking is confirmed.
3. Overcharging Taxis
Many of these can be found in Rome and Naples, though do be careful in other Italian cities as well.
Always ensure that the meter is on, again, unless you know how much a certain distance or journey should cost. At the start of a trip, also check the meter to gauge if it is running according to the KM/minute rates posted in the cab. Travelling to the airport is an exception however as a flat rate is charged.
Do not be surprised however, should you face certain charges, such as extra charges for bags in the trunk, travelling on weekends/public holidays and travelling late at night. Some useful information:
- Zone 1: historic centre; Zone 2: outside Rome’s beltway
- Starting fare: €2.80 (7am-10pm weekdays); €4.00 (weekends, holidays); €5.80 (10pm-7am)
- Surcharge from Termini: €2.00
- Bag in trunk: €1.00
- >5 passengers: €1.00
As can be seen above, make sure that the meter is tuned in to the right zone and right starting fare! If they don’t, get out or take down their details (can be found on the inside rear door).
Make sure you have small charge as well, as the driver can simply insists that he does not have small notes/coins and pocket your change as a result.
Finally, if you travel alone, only deposit your bag when the driver is out of the cab. You could feign or request for his assistance, else you run the risk of him driving off with your belongings.
4. Overcharging Water Buses/Vaporetti
Happens in Venice, where take the water bus is a must do experience for any tourists. Always check the latest prices on the web before buying as you could get scammed by corrupt sellers charging you extra.
5. Fake Car Crash
This is a scam that that has been reported in Sicily, Naples and in the Tuscany region where drivers of old vehicles bang into/pretend to bang into your vehicle and then claim damages.
6. Ticket Helper
At popular train stations such as the Termini station, there are these unauthorized “ticket helpers” roaming about to help tourists who are seen to be unsure with how to buy tickets. They do help you and will ask for a tip.
However, the nastier ones will simply grab your change or even get their accomplice to pickpocket you or snatch your luggage in the process.
7. Horse Drawn Carriages
Nothing shouts SCAM more than this. Be prepared for a €100 bill should you wish take this mode of transport.
8. Car Rental
Not a problem unique to Italy, where shops charge you for “damage” to the car. To protect yourself, always take photos of the car and check for dents or scratches.
1. ATM Skimmers
Happens in other places in Europe as well, such as in France. Skimmers are little devices attached to the card slot of ATM machines. They can be really difficult to spot and so, the best advice would be use ATMs beside/near the bank and also to use them during bank opening hours.
2. Count Your Change
Typical scam around the world, simply count your change, or make sure that your change is in Euros not Lira, the old Italian currency that was in use till 2001/2.
For instance, the Lira 500 looks awfully like the €2 coin. For big ticket items, always ensure you get receipts as proof in case anything goes awry. The law requires stores have to issue receipts so do not worry about requesting for one.
Finally, be wary of those who drop your change. They might just switch a big note into a hidden small note.
3. The Guardia di Finanza (Tax Police)
Their job is to ensure that shops in Italy give out receipts which serve as a record for tax collection. How they go about checking is to ask you, the customer to produce a receipt when you exit from a restaurant or any shop.
The problem is that these police may sometimes be in plainclothes and not uniform. If you are unsure when someone in plainclothes approaches you for this purpose, you have two options. Ask for their police badge or call the police hotline 113 to check/ask for a uniformed officer.
4. Restaurant Charges
Always ask for a menu and check the prices. You do not want to pay €30-50 for simple pasta or pizza dishes.
Also, always check your bill, though be aware that pane e coperto (bread and cover) is not a scam. Servizio (service charge) is perfectly legit as well. However, look out for extra surcharges, unordered items and any shortchanging.
There have also been reports (compiled by Codacons, the Italian consumer watchdog association), where different prices were charged to locals and tourists. The only way to avoid this is to search for reviews of restaurants you plan to go.
Something of note, is that ordering fish, which sells by grams is particularly risky. Be careful of restaurants around the San Marco area in Venice as they have been to known to charge hundreds of euros for simple lobster/fish dishes.
5. Naples’ phone scam
Generously contributed by a reader in the comments section below, Heather shares that you will be approached with an offer to buy a brand new phone at a low price. This is reportedly common in Naples, where should you agree to the offer, the seller and/or his accomplice will distract you and swap the phone/box the phone is in with another worthless one.
6. Club 84/Sleaze
Run for your life if you hear someone offer you a free ticket to Club 84, else be prepared to foot a €1,000 bill for drinks. This goes for other sleazy clubs as well.
Another way they approach is to first ask you for directions and as a conservation is struck, drinks are suggested.
D. GETTING HELP
1. Emergency numbers
Source credit (picture of police)
Emergency number in Europe: 112
Fire engine: 115