I’m in south-eastern Sicily, heading back to my hotel after watching flamingos at a nature reserve, and as I’m driving along Contrada Vendicari, there’s a car parked by the roadside on the right with the boot open, the driver burrowing in the back.
It’s a narrow road so I pull left and just as I’m passing his vehicle there’s a thump on the side of my car. In the rear vision mirror I see the bloke hopping into his car and pulling out.
Seconds later he’s behind me gesturing me to pull over.
I drive on for another hundred metres to a driveway and he pulls in beside me. We’ve got a problem.
The driver points to his side mirror, hanging loose with just the wires still holding it to the car.
Along the side of my car, near the fuel cap, there’s a 50cm streak of black, sticky rubber which the helpful fellow is now rubbing with a cloth. It comes off easily, leaving nothing behind.
But there’s no damage to my vehicle. Not a scratch along the side, not a ding in my right-hand mirror, but his – he sighs, shrugs, pantomimes my car hitting his with a glancing blow and a bang.
It’s clear who’s at fault, isn’t it?
“Police,” he says. “Insurance”.
He’s calm and he looks like the sort of man you can do business with.
“How much?” I ask and straight off he tells me – 180 euros.
I look in my wallet. I’ve got 65. I hold it out to him, he looks disappointed, but he shrugs, takes it, gets into his car and drives off, with the dangling mirror swinging to and fro, and slowly the realisation dawns. I’ve been scammed.
None of what just went down adds up. The black sticky goo, the hanging mirror with not a scrape on my vehicle, the instant naming of a price, the ready acceptance of a far lesser sum.
My car never touched his. I should have got straight on my phone, called the cops, taken shots of the damage – but a foreign country, another language imperfectly spoken, a wronged fellow motorist keen to put a bad afternoon behind him – reason takes a holiday.
Scammers are back in action. They’re ingenious, they’re quick and as a tourist you’re vulnerable. You’re likely distracted and off your guard, you probably don’t speak enough of the language to argue, you don’t know how to contact the police – and that makes you a soft target.
The ring thing
This happened to me in a back street near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. As he was walking past, a fellow pedestrian picks up something from the pavement and asks “Did you drop this?”
It’s a heavy ring and even to my untutored eye it looks like brass. But if you look interested your eagle-eyed friend will tell you it’s gold and even show you a hallmark suggesting authenticity. If you fall for it and claim ownership, he’ll ask for a reward.
The scam relies on greed, and naivete. It might look like gold but it’s not, and worth a few bob at most.
The off-guard moment
You’re sitting at a café table, a local approaches and asks a question – it could be a light for his cigarette, or the way to the nearest metro station. You look up and answer, he thanks you and you watch as he wanders off.
Your phone, which was sitting on the table just a minute ago, has sprouted legs, or the bag that was looped over the back of your chair has just done a runner.
Anything that distracts you is a potential for profit for street magicians who want to make your wallet or your phone disappear, It could be a street entertainer. While you’re watching the performance, an accomplice is circling behind the crowd, checking back pockets.
The trusty stranger who only wants to help
“If you buy gems here, you can sell them back in your country for a huge price.”
This is a classic scam used on backpackers and it relies on the toxic trifecta of greed, trust and ignorance.
Those “diamonds” might turn out to be cubic zirconia, or even glass, that pretty “aquamarine” a far less valuable blue topaz – but you probably won’t know this until you try and sell your jewels to someone who knows what’s what.
Another variation on this scam, you’re befriended by a local guy who knows a lot about his city. You chat, sit down, he buys you coffee and after a while the talk turns to money. He’ll tell you he can get you a much better rate for your cash.
“Just give me your money and wait here. No no, you can’t come with me, the guy operates in secret and he doesn’t trust anyone he doesn’t know.” And that’s the last you’ll see of him.
Protecting your cards
The recent data breaches affecting Optus and Medicare have seen a data deluge of customer information fall into the hands of villains and that should be a wake-up call for travellers.
Debit cards are vulnerable. If you’re using a debit card or a travel money card, you can limit the damage should the card fall into the wrong hands by limiting the funds available on the card.
Rather than carrying a debit or travel money card with thousands of dollars of credit, store your funds in a secure account and top up the card with smaller amounts – but beware the top-up fees that come with some travel money cards.
If you need to tap in your PIN to authorise a transaction, cover the keypad with your hand while doing it.
Payments made using Apple Pay or Google Pay are more secure than using a physical card. Both require authentication via face ID or touch ID to make a payment. While a card number is linked to financial information that could be misused, payments made using a digital wallet use tokenisation which creates a unique code at the point of purchase, without divulging the purchaser’s primary account number. A stolen card can be used to pay for goods and services but a thief would have a hard time doing that with a stolen smartphone or a pay-enabled wearable device.