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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.