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Travel Safety in Italy: Tourist Scams to Watch For




Tourists, people who are inherently less familiar with their surroundings and local customs, can make very easy targets for enterprising thieves. Italy doesn’t seem to have as many famous tourist scams as other countries, but there are certainly a few to be aware of.

Here are some details about the most common tourist scams in Italy, including some photos for reference when that’s helpful. Let me know if you’ve ever experienced one of these – or if you’ve experienced or seen one that I don’t have on my list.

The “Lira” Scam

creative commons photos by Nicholas Frisardi

creative commons photos by Nicholas Frisardi (euro & lira)

Italy has been using the Euro since 2001, but you may still encounter this one. The old 500-lira coin looks an awful lot like the new 2-euro coin to the untrained eye, and that 500-lira coin is completely worthless now. When you’re counting change you get from a vendor, take a close look at any 2-euro coins to make sure they say “EURO” right on them.

Tax Police

Receipt in Italy || creative commons photo by Randy OHC

Receipt in Italy || creative commons photo by Randy OHC

There is an actual law that every vendor must give a receipt for every sale, and there are actual tax police (Guardia di Finanza) who can stop you on the street to ask if you’ve got a receipt for the thing they just watched you buy. The scam here is that there are now tax police impersonators, and if you can’t produce a receipt they want you to pay your fine directly to them. Always get a receipt (ask for it if it’s not offered), and if you run into a potentially shady-looking tax officer, ask to see a badge.

Knock-Off Designer Brand Vendors

Bag seller in Rome || creative commons photo by gardnergp

Bag seller in Rome || creative commons photo by gardnergp

There are lots of people selling designer knock-offs in Italian cities, with the goods often displayed on sheets or cardboard tables designed for quick getaways. While you may be perfectly happy buying a knock-off for a bargain, it’s actually illegal in Italy – not only to sell fakes, but to buy them – and you as the buyer could be fined up to €10,000.

The Bracelet Guys

Bracelet seller in Milan || creative commons photo by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (modified by me)

Bracelet seller in Milan || creative commons photo by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (modified by me)

These guys tend to hang out around major attractions, holding a fistful of bracelets made with what looks like braided embroidery floss. If you get too close, they’ll try to tie one of the bracelets right on your wrist before you know what’s happening – and then they’ll demand money for it. They may start by asking nicely, but if you try to walk away with their bracelet on your wrist without paying for it they can get mean quickly.

The “Gold Ring” Scam

Gold ring scam in action || creative commons photo by JJ Walsh

Gold ring scam in action || creative commons photo by JJ Walsh

Someone will walk up to you holding a plain gold ring, saying she found it behind you as you walked away, and ask if it’s yours. You’ll say no, because of course it isn’t. She’ll walk away, and then come back a second later saying you should just take it anyway. If you acquiesce, then she’ll start asking for money for it. Like the bracelet guys, it may start out with a polite request, but it can get nasty.

“Gypsy” Beggars

Beggar in Rome || creative commons photo by Alex Pearson

Beggar in Rome || creative commons photo by Alex Pearson

There was a time when this was more prevalent in Italy. Although it’s less common now, you may still see it (or variations of it). Groups of “gypsy” beggars – usually a woman holding a baby surrounded by a gaggle of children – come up to you asking for money, and you can’t possibly keep track of the whereabouts of every tiny hand. Other versions of this one include the woman foisting the “baby” into your arms while the kids blatantly rob you (you later find out the “baby” is a doll); or children pushing a pizza box or newspaper toward you, thereby blocking your view of your own pockets.

Taxi Scams

Taxi in Naples || creative commons photo by Raffaele Esposito

Taxi in Naples || creative commons photo by Raffaele Esposito

Most taxi drivers in Italy are upstanding citizens, but there’s always someone willing to give his entire industry a bad name. When you’re taking taxis in Italy, always be sure the meter works before you get in the cab (if the driver claims it’s not working, get a different cab), and never take unmarked taxis – they’re illegal, and don’t adhere to any rules. Also, it’s a good idea to know the fixed rates on trips to/from airports.


6 responses to “Travel Safety in Italy: Tourist Scams to Watch For”

  1. Jim Eyres says:

    All true. We have had more than one of these things happen. My wife and I act as a team. If one is stopped for anything unusual, the other is to step away a few feet, with back to a wall if possible, and start taking photos of the incident. It has broken up at least one approach. Also, I am amused at the motto on the shirt of the bracelet seller in the photo above: Io non voglio il faccia translates as I don’t like your face.

    • Jessica says:

      Ha! I hadn’t even thought about the bracelet guy’s shirt. 🙂 And yes, it’s always helpful to have a lookout as a travel partner!

  2. bonnie melielo says:

    You left out the gypsies that have targeted the train and metro stations. Occasionally dressed “traditionally” in long skirts (typically Metro) but more often in regular, modern clothes. They will try to “help” you purchase your ticket at the machines then request money for the “service” or simply grab your change and run off with it. They may work in pairs with one being a pickpocket or even taking off with your luggage if possible. Fairly easy to spot as the women wear a cross shoulder little purse but no luggage. They are getting much more aggressive these days. A simple “vai via” no longer sends them on their way. Urgh!!!

    • Jessica says:

      Oooh, that’s a good one. Although the time I had it happen to me (YEARS ago) it was a man, just someone who sort of looked like a bum, not a gypsy. I’ll have to update the post! Thank you!

  3. stephen says:

    honest question, if one of these people start getting to pushy or if one of these kids actually comes up to try to do this, would it be alright to hit them? whats Italys laws regarding defending yourself?

    • Jessica says:

      Hmm… I don’t know what the laws are, Stephen, but I’ve never seen one of these scams get out of hand. Sometimes you have to say no repeatedly, but the last thing most of these scam artists want to do is cause a scene that would attract any law enforcement. If you’re firm in saying no, and you walk away, it’s really unlikely they’re going to be pushy. They’re just going to try to find another potential victim.

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