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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Scams of Paris

If you have ever visited Paris and been to the Louvre, Pont Alexandre III, or Jardin des Tuileries, there is a good chance that someone has attempted to scam you. You may or may not of known it. Some of these are very clever, some of these are stupid, but all of them can be entertaining from time to time. Here are the most common ones that I know of:

1. The Ring Trick

This is the one that I see the most and probably spend the most time discussing with my groups on tour. What happens is a Romani (Gypsy) will walk past and suddenly stoop down to the ground, pretending to drop a ring on the ground. Somehow, they will articulate that they found the ring on the ground, and then ask if the person next to them dropped it. The people will say no and walk on. Then, the ring bearer will return, saying that it doesn't fit their finger, and as they cannot wear it, try and give it to the victim. They also might point out that it is real gold (which is not even close to true). A lot of times, the people don't know what to say and so they just take it. The Gypsy will then shake the person's hand (though I have seen them kiss people too) and then walk away. The people will stand dumbfounded, or keep walking. Meanwhile, the Romani will walk four or five steps away, turn around, and then come back and ask their victims for money for food. They usually show this by putting their hands to their mouths in the motion of shoving food into them. Sometimes people will give them money, sometimes the people will realize it is a scam and give the money back.

If this happens to you at some point, just keep walking. If you want to go through the experience just for the fun of it, then I guess that could be fun, too. This scam can be found in the Champ de Mars, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre, and on a handful of bridges in the city such as the Pont Alexandre III, Pont Neuf, and a few others as well.

2. Deaf/Mute

Occasionally, one might find some people with sheets, usually near Pont Neuf, asking for people to sign something for the deaf and the mute. And when I say ask, I mean point at their sheet with their pen. Some people sign it, and then they will make some gesture to give them money. Do not bother with these guys, as I've seen them talk to each other, which pretty much ruins their credibility as mute people begging for money.

3. Bracelets

In front of the Louvre, and especially at the bottom of the steps of Sacré Coeur, you will probably find some West African guys who will ask you to stop and ask you to put out your finger. Unless you want to pay for a bracelet, don't do it. What they will do, if you so happen to extend your finger in their presence, is throw a loop around your finger, and start tying the bracelet together. If you try to move your finger out of it, it tightens up like a Chinese finger trap, leaving you trapped until they are finished. They might even tell you that it is made from rare African thread, even though it comes from a shop just down the street from Sacré Coeur. Furthermore, if it was so rare and expensive, you wouldn't find pieces of it strewn all over the ground where they work.

Once finished, they'll come up with some ridiculous price for the bracelet, and you'll either pay what they tell you, or try and talk it down to something reasonable. I have a little more respect for these guys as the bracelets actually look pretty cool, and you might get away with paying five euros or less for it, which if you wanted a bracelet, is actually a pretty good deal.

4. Sign For Peace in Africa

This scam is by far the most successful of any of the scams in the city of Paris. These guys are also West African in origin, and hang out near one of the back entrances to the Louvre. They are usually only there in the morning, but honestly, with as much money as they probably make, they really don't have to work more than a couple of hours a day.

What these guys will do, when they see someone pass, they might come up and say "Ah good morning big family! Welcome to Paris! Sign for peace in Africa!" The location in Africa tends to change based on which country is in the news at the moment. The first year and a half I was here, they usually said sign for peace in Darfur, but as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has been getting a lot of press around the world for his total disregard for democracy, Zimbabwe has been name-dropped frequently in recent months.

These guys will then throw a pen and paper in front of the victim, who will then start to sign. The scammer will probably grab the person's arm, shake their hand, even hug them to show their gratitude for the money they are about to give them. Then, the victim will be asked for donations for food, water, political assistance, or whatever causes a person to give their money over to Africa. The scammers also mention that the average donation is about 20 euros. Amazingly, people give over 20 euros all of the time. I've seen people give 50 euros without even flinching.

I made a rough estimate that if every few people happen to give five euros to the cause, then in a morning's work, these guys should easily make 100 euros a morning, if not more. If that is the case, and these work maybe 6 days a week (though I see the same ones daily), that would allow them to make close to 32,000 euros a year, untaxed. 36,000 is considered an excellent salary in France, and that includes the high taxes. These guys are doing well.

So why don't the police stop this? They do try from time to time. Let's say the police start to walk by- all these guys have to do is to close their binders and walk away. If the cops do not see them soliciting people, they will leave them alone, even though they know what the scammers are doing. Security at the Louvre is maybe worse, as I see them come and high five or handshake these guys when they happen to pass by. They might tell them to cross the street and stand in front of the Pont des Arts, but they are always pretty nice about it.

5. Do You Speak English?

This one is also very common and is probably the most widespread around Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre. Scores of Gypsy girls will come by, one at a time, and ask you if you speak English. If you actually say yes, they will show you a piece of paper that usually says something like this:

Ladies and Gentlemen: I am an immigrant from Bosnia, my father has cancer, is on life support and has one arm/leg/lung. My mother is dead, my sister is blind, and we live on the streets. Please give me some money.

I have to say I somewhat doubt that everyone of these girls has a dead mother and father with cancer. Everyone of these girls has a sheet of paper that says the exact same thing; they seem to be working with a template. If you want to give them money, go for it, but don't feel obliged to do it as someone else will probably do it.

These are just the most common that I have seen here. If you can think of any other scams in Paris, let me know.

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  1. We just spent 4 days in Paris (July 2010), and saw all of these scams except #4 (and maybe that was just due to managing to avoid eye contact with them!).

    It would be fun to learn enough real sign language to ask these "deaf mutes" why they need money and see their reaction.

    We also saw ordinary beggars, and more industrious guys selling bottles of water to thirsty tourists (which I'm assuming wasn't a scam - always check the seal when buying water on the street).

  2. The guys selling water are occasionally selling water that has been rebottled- I've seen them filling up bottles in the fountains along the roads from time to time. If you want to get water from them that you know has not been refilled, just ask for a bottle that is still in the package. But, yeah, be careful with that one!

    The beggars are all over, and for the most part they are in fine shape. There were these places way back in time called the "Cours des Miracles", where most of the Roma population lived. During the day, they would be stricken with every malady known to man, but at night, when they returned to their courtyard where they lived, suddenly their wounds would heal, their illnesses would clear up, and they would party the night away.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. Hi, I have seen almost all of the scams mentioned in 4 days. The first time we saw the mute tactic we gave money: Dum dum dum. When I found out I scrued them 2 times by telling a victim they are being scammed.

    The strange thing is that you can find out about it only if you know to look for it. It would be great if it was mentioned in tourist locations.

  4. Hi there,

    Those scams are busy this time of year! Don't worry if you gave them a little money, now you can spread the word!

    The mute one is really picking up lately, I feel that only in the last year has it been widespread, and this year I feel like I see it more than any of the others.

    They really should mention it at some of the bigger sites, but for some reason they don't. I'm not sure why. Maybe they feel that if they put up the signs, that the scammers will just go elsewhere and do the same thing. Who knows.

    Thanks for reading and good luck out there!


  5. I'm in Paris right now, and those deaf mute scammers are absolutely EVERYWHERE. The Louvre, the Eiffel, Sacre Cour, the Galleries Lafayette area. Just this afternoon, a man threatened to call the police on them, and they promptly skedaddled.

    I haven't come across #4 yet. #5 I haven't come across this trip, but I have in my previous ones. I think all the #5 scammers are now the deaf-mute scammers.

  6. Hi dontaskmetosmile,

    I agree, #5 has really almost disappeared, while on the contrary there has been a huge rise in deaf mute scammers in Paris. Perhaps because it is less work and looks slightly more believable? I have to say I see a lot more people paying attention to the "deaf mutes" than the "do you speak English?" received in the last few years. Maybe another reason is that as the guidebooks don't say much about the deaf mute scam. Either way, way to be vigilant and not cave in!

    Thanks for writing!


  7. Those deaf/mute guys are really freaking pushy! One of them literally thrust her clipboard into my face and walked with me a number of steps waving her pen. I finally got her to go away by elbowing the clipboard away and saying "Scusi" (Excuse me in Italian.) My mom and I thought that they were specifically going for the English speakers, but they're so ubiquitous that I have no idea if it's true. The water guys are everywhere too, but since they are in fact selling water, and it is for a really good price it doesn't bug me as much.

    I haven't seen the ring trick, and I can't imagine anyone who would fall for it. But I would love to see one of the bracelet guys! I really want a Parisian souvenir and I think that sort of thing would be cool to take home. Even if it is a total tchotchki, it sounds fun.

    1. No, it's not fun. Sometimes they will ask for more money in a more threatening way after they have put that stupid thing on you. I heard that they also work in groups and they won't let you go if you don't pay a huge price.

  8. Hello Rivka,

    Yeah they definitely are pushy. In a way it works just because people want them to go away and will sign what is thrown in front of them. On the other hand, it might be their downfall as they are becoming increasingly aggressive and greedy. Check back in a year to see how that scam is doing.

    The water guys aren't really a scam, but they occasionally refill their water bottles and sell them again. If you want to get cheap bottled water, just go to the grocery stores, take a bottle out of the 6 packs and take it to the register. They usually cost 20-30 cents.

    You'd be surprised how many people fall for the ring trick. A lot of times, the victims realize by the end of the trick that they are being scammed. I think that's why the deaf mute guys seem to be the big scam now: it's quick and gives people little time to think about what they are doing.

    The bracelet guys can be somewhat aggressive too, but these guys do make a pretty cool bracelet at least. A couple of months ago, I was finishing a tour by Sacré-Coeur, and one of those guys came up to my group. I told him that we weren't tourists, and he went away. Another guy came back and asked "So where are you from?". I told him in French that I'm the U.S. but have been living here for a few years, to which he replied "Do you like it here?". I told him I do, and he said "that's cool. Ok, have a nice day!" In terms of tourist scams, the latter one isn't so bad.

    Thanks for writing!


  9. The other big give-away with the 'deaf' scammers is that page header for the French Deaf & Mute Society sheet they ask you to sign is in English!

    I did experience #5 a few days ago outside Gare du Nord. Her daughter was supposedly dying of cancer, but when I said I had no cash, she asked for a cigarette instead!

  10. I just returned from Paris yesterday after spending six days there on my honeymoon. On the morning that my wife and I arrived, it was too early to check into the hotel. Since the hotel was near the Eiffel Tower, we decided to walk over and go to the top. While waiting in line, my wife asked me to go and see how long of a wait it was until we got to the front. That is when the "deaf mute" flagged me down with her clipboard. I was still pretty tired from my flight and before I knew it, I had the clipboard in my hand, and was signing it. I had just arrived in Paris and only had some small change in my pocket so I gave what I had (maybe 50 Eurocents). She gave me this pathetic look to convey that my donation was too small. She then turned over her clipboard and pointed to the word "minima", (which I guess means minimum in French) and held up her hand and all five fingers!She was demanding five Euros from me! I tried to tell her both verbally and by showing her my empty hands that I had nothing left. She kept waving her hand at me showing the five sign. Finally she gave up and walked away without showing any sign of thanks or gratefulness. I felt insulted that I gave all I had and it wasn't good enough, especially since I'm the one who worked for that money and it was just handed to her. Since it was a long line, I started to watch around me and suddenly there were at least half a dozen "deaf mutes" seeking donations from tourists. The next day at the Louvre I noticed three or four. Then at the Pompadu Museum, there were several. I never met a "deaf mute" in my entire life and I guess that's because they are all living in Paris, thriving off the hard earned money of tourists, who have nothing but good intentions when they open up their wallets (or empty their pockets). The thing that really gets me is that when the tourist who gave money finds out that they've been scammed, they maybe won't be as likely to donate when a worthy charity asks for a donation.

  11. It's funny, but at first glance a lot of people don't think much about the fact that these scams (deaf mute/peace in Africa, etc, do you speak English, etc.) are actually written in English! It should be a give away but the scammers act very quickly, leaving one little time to reflect on some of the anomalies in the situation.

    The fact that one of those scammers wrote "minima" on her sheet is pretty bizarre, as "minimum" is the same in French and English. Quite a few of the deaf mute scammers don't actually speak French, which might explain why that happened. Unfortunately, after this scam, a lot of people don't have much sympathy for the Romas, even though only a few of them are actually scamming people. It is unfortunate because it gives proof that there are still people in France that are treated as second class citizens, and their ethnic background will go against them in terms of trying to do something more respectable.

    Thank you both for writing!


  12. Hi John-Paul

    I have a whole new one for you!

    In the Saint-Lazare/Opera area, a guy stops me and says he need diapers for his baby (Pampers pour mon bébé). I give him a couple of coins from my 'beggars and buskers' pocket, but he insists that I actually go with him to buy some diapers.

    It could be he was for real and I'll burn in hell for walking away, but he had all the hallmarks of a scammer - overly friendly followed by overly pushy, obviously practiced speil, and (with apologies for racial profiling) Romany appearance.

    I'd say the gist of the scam is that by asking for diapers, he gets sympathy and also appears honest because he's not asking for money. But by somehow making sure he gets the receipt, he can later return them for the cash. I don't know what a pack of Pampers costs in Paris but I'm guessing he'd make 20 Euro or so if all goes well.

  13. Hi there,

    I have to say, I haven't heard of that one, but that does sound like a scam! I remember a client telling me of a similar scam in Vietnam, though the product I think was some food item. I have to say he picked a good area too since there is a lot of tourist traffic, and people are in that area mainly for shopping (they have money on them). That guy might do well for a while. That is, until everyone else starts trying to do that one too.

    Don't feel too bad if that was really someone that needed money for diapers. Chances are it was a scam, and if it wasn't, I guarantee he found someone else to buy them.

    Thanks for sharing that and thanks for reading!


  14. The deaf/mute girls managed to steal my mobile phone yesterday outside the Pompidou Centre. Very cleverly done - three of them surrounded my girlfriend and I, one put her clipboard over my bag, pretending to get me to read the sheet, but she slipped her hand into my bag and got my phone before I realised.
    They are definitely not deaf or mute as I saw these girls talking to each other as they walked away.
    Very very annoying (especially as I had my phone stolen in Thailand last month!)

  15. I'm currently living in Paris and the deaf/mute girls are as pesky as rats. I like to go and sit outside places like the notre dame to people watch but on a good day I can get harassed by up to 5 of the girls in an hours sitting. I have no patience for them and often swear loudly at them and they often swear back when they know they are getting no money from me.

  16. Thanks to everyone and to John-Paul for sharing this. My last trip to Paris was over 9 years ago and I was strictly warned about being approached by Gypsies; and there were many of them as I recall. I don't remember a whole lot, but I do recollect seeing tourists being approached and harassed by beggars and Gypsies. I guess I was fortunate. I was only asked if I had spare change on occasion, nothing more. Well, I will be in Paris next week and will definitely watch for these scammers; it's easy to be overwhelmed and vulnerable when you're suddenly caught off guard. Hopefully the cooler temperatures will keep some of them off the streets.

  17. I recently came back from Paris.. I spend 2 days at the start of my trip and 1 day at the end (as it was the only way for me to get back to Britain)...

    The deaf/mute clipboard girls are everywhere. I was asked about 6/7 times in the space of 10 minutes near the metro on the last day (november 7th '11. They just don't understand the word NO until you full on just ignore them. They make so many mistakes it just proves how dumb they are. I pointed these mistakes out to 1 of them.. I said 1. Charities don't have a minimum donation limit of £10. 2. If you really worked for a charity you would have a ID badge with this. They said that they had left it at home... although.. coincidentally... all of them had. I ended up having a 3 hour wait for my train and just watched these scum go up to older people and try to scam them. So whenever I saw them I made a point of walking upto their conversation and mentioning it was a scam and not for charity at all. People seemed to appriciate it.

  18. I was recently in Paris just for the day. I fell for the Deaf/Mute scam after arriving at the Gare du Nord rail station. After I had signed the paper she wrote that the minimum donation was 50 euros. She then started to speak and said that she would change my notes to something smaller but she put all of the money in her pocket. We had a very loud discussion then, and I demanded that she give it back. I managed to get most of the money back, but I found the whole experience very upsetting, and a bit frightening. Later in the day I was also approached twice with the Gold ring scam (by this time I was feeling pretty cynical and just walked away). Having not had much experience travelling in foreign countries I wasn't even aware that these kind of things happened. It really has made me think twice about returning to Paris, which is a shame. I aggree that it would be good if the dangers were more clearly communicated to visitors. Thank-you for mentioning it here.

  19. ONE that has to mentioned: the clipboard in a restaurant scam. Often gypsies will approach people sitting in restaurants who have iPhone or wallets out on the table. They will thrust the clipboard in your face to try and get you to sign for whatever cause, and when they remove the clipboard they will take your phone with it. Also be careful about how blatantly abrasive you are to their faces though - I helped two Austrian tourists escape the ring scam only to have the scammer follow me around cursing and trying to intimidate me. Have your wits about you!

  20. In Paris now and lots of the "clipboards" as we call them. They just go around asking if people speak English which I thought was a dead give away. In line for the Eiffel tower and I said "non" which made the folk in front laugh either due to my attrotious accent or that I'd been chatting away in English!
    Sadly my husband is spending our holiday worrying about scams, pickpockets and muggers which isn't much fun. I can barely pull out a map/guide book without him getting twitchy.