Buonosera, my dears! There are dozens upon dozens of scams out there in the wild blue yonder, but these are the most common ones that I’ve encountered in Italy, in escalating order of aggression.
- Of course they’re real
This applies to anyone selling bags/sunglasses/designer perfume. I didn’t think I needed to include this one (because duh) but then I heard a story from a Kiwi about a friend of hers who payed €10 a bottle for “Chanel No. 5” and I thought I might as well throw it in. These guys are pretty chill and they’ll very rarely chase you down. They prefer to let you come to them, unless you’re cops. Then they run. Ever notice how all of their products are attached to cardboard folders or laid out on bags and blankets? Yeah, that’s so they can scoop everything up and run like hell when the cops show up because it’s illegal to sell those fakes. A whole line of them ran past me today in front of Il Duomo. While we’re on the subject, don’t waste your money on the prints of paintings that they sell. Every city has legitimate artists with quality work (especially Florence) and they deserve your patronage. Do take your time with these as well; I’ve seen scams where the “artist” swears the piece is a hand-painted original, only to come across the exact same paintings in a different piazza. A good clue is if the artist has an easel and a paint set, and he’s actually painting new pieces. Watch for a while and see if everything matches up.
- The Ciaobella (AKA the Walkers)
These are the men and women carrying jewelry, small statues, and roses. They’re more engaging than their bag and perfume cousins, and typically very friendly. Hence the name “Ciaobella,” because if you’re a girl this will be the first thing out of their mouths. Usually a polite “No grazie” is all it takes to send them away, but sometimes you do have to say it twice.
- Speak English?
Every city of significant size has a homeless population, some of whom spend the day begging. Florence is no exception, and over the course of a month I’ve noticed that most of them have their specific territories, including in the normal sections of the city. There’s a whole different group that works the tourist areas. They’re typically female and fit the racist idea of a “gypsy,” but whether they’re actually Romani, I have no idea. They dress like a bad stereotype: white skirts, long braids, colorful scarves around their hair. They haunt the main piazzas with plastic cups and pictures of their children, and they’re a bit more pushy. If any of them come up to you and ask if you speak English, the answer is no. And don’t respond in French, Italian, or German either; I met one of these women in Germany, and I made the mistake of saying that I did speak English. She handed me a card with her sob story in all four languages. Just babble something unintelligible and run.
- The Great Train Robbery
Oh, you thought public transportation was safe? Nope. This one isn’t as common, but it’s there, especially on the regional trains, which they can basically ride all day long with a validated ticket. Some beg in the traditional sense, but most prefer to set pieces of paper in the empty seats explaining that they have six kids at home who are starving because they were laid off/their house caught fire/there was a stampede of crazed raccoons that devoured their crops. They’ll leave them there for about twenty minutes, then come back and collect them. All you have to do is ignore them and they will usually let it go, but one or two persistent women have shaken a handful of coins at me as encouragement. Don’t throw the slips of paper away, because they will get pissed off and go over you to dig them out of the trash.
- It’s a present
Like the “Ciaobella,” this applies to the people selling jewelry, statues, and roses. If you say no, these people will actually hand you their product and say, “It’s a gift.” I’m dead serious, they will tell you that it’s a gift because it’s their birthday, or because you’re beautiful (that’s my favorite), and if you make the mistake of saying thank you and walking away they’ll follow you and say, “Oh, but my friend, today is my birthday and I am very hungry.” Boom. The rose guys in Rome are particularly aggressive with this one: they’ll follow you and demand €5 for the rose they just told you was a gift. The best advice I have is to flat out refuse to take anything they have. Don’t play around, don’t act coy. I don’t care if you are Giselle Bundchen or Dita Von Teese; that shit will never ever be a gift.
- The Ticketmaster
Oddly enough, this is the one that I find the most annoying. In almost every Italian train station you’ll find Fast Ticket machines, which are completely automated. They have several language settings, including English, but there are “gypsies” (once again, not sure if they’re actually Romani) who will plant themselves at the machines and try to either guide you through the process or flat out do it for you, and then expect payment for their services. I’ve also seen it done at tram and metro stations, and customers will stand in line for other machines rather than walk up and deal with the women. Be aware of the scam, but don’t be afraid of it. They’re not supposed to be there, and if you want to use the machine you have every right to do so without their interference. Be firm, even if they try to push the buttons. If you waver and let them do it for you, they will expect payment and will hound you until you give them coins.
- Lay it on me
This one is similar to “It’s a present” but at a whole new level. This particular scam was played on me in Milan. A gentleman in the piazza near the cathedral asked where I was from (as a general note, if you get this question, either ignore it or answer it and KEEP WALKING), and offered me a bracelet from Senegal. I said no and tried to leave, and he actually laid the bracelet on my arm. When I stopped and tried to give it back to him, he took it out of my hand and tied it around my wrist before I could stop him. I gave him a few coins from my pocket (though he tried to ask for €10, yeah, not frickin’ likely) and walked away, only to be stopped by another Senegalais man. He tried the exact same trick, down to the letter, and I had to stick my fingers between the bracelet and my skin and force it off my hand. If anyone tries this with you, either be ready to wrestle it off your wrist or just let it fall. If they get mad, too damn bad.
Obviously, this list is nowhere near comprehensive. Scams vary between countries and even cities, but these are the ones that I’ve witnessed across Italy. I had to learn a hard lesson when I came out here: if I was too shy, I was going to get scammed. Unfortunately a couple of these got me, but I can guarantee that it won’t happen again. The best tip is to use a firm but polite “no,” and don’t be afraid to escalate. In the horse world we say that you ask, then you tell, then you demand. The same principle works here.
Know of a few nasty ones that didn’t make the list? Let me know in the comments!