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Crime For Members

The 14 scams that tourists in Paris should look out for during the Olympics

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
The 14 scams that tourists in Paris should look out for during the Olympics
Parisians gather along the River Seine in 2020 (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)

While Paris is a generally safe city, pickpockets and scammers frequently target tourists. Here is how you can avoid losing a phone or wallet while visiting the city of light during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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When taking the Metro in Paris, you might notice the overhead voice reminding you to keep an eye out for "les pickpockets" who could be present on the train with you. This warning is unfortunately not in vain.

In 2019, Le Parisien reported that over 7,000 occurrences of theft in the city, with about two-thirds of them being non-violent petty theft, like pickpocketing. 

Local authorities are already warning that there will likely be an uptick in scams during the Olympic Games, so visitors should be extra cautious.

Metro stations are often a hot spot for petty theft, and some stations more impacted than others. Chatelet-Les Halles, Opera, La Defense, Stalingrad and Strasbourg-Saint Denis were the top five for reports of pickpockets. 

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Here are some of the most common ways thieves in Paris, who are often disguised as tourists, take your money, and tips on how you can avoid falling victim to one of them.

READ MORE: What to do if you're the victim of a crime in France

The 'ticket-seller'

A man was arrested in Paris after he was caught selling a single Metro ticket (price €1.90) to a couple of elderly American tourists for €150, telling them it was a 6-day 'super ticket'.

The Local was contacted by a reader recently who was approached by a person they thought was Paris Metro staff. The individual tried to help them purchase their tickets by using her own credit card. She then asked the family to pay her back the remainder in cash. In reality, she only purchased one day's worth of tickets instead of two, leaving the family without tickets on their second day. 

While these specific scams are unusual, you should be wary of anyone approaching to you offering to sell tickets or to use their own card to purchase them for you. If you're on public transport, tickets are sold via station machines or at the ticket window, any seller approaching you is not licensed. If you're travelling to Paris on the Eurostar, you can also buy Metro tickets on-board. 

Likewise, taxi drivers are not permitted to approach customers - if anyone approaches you and offers a taxi ride (especially at airports or stations) then that person is an unlicensed driver who is likely to rip you off. Only take licensed Paris taxis, or use ride-hailing apps like Uber or Heetch. 

READ ALSO What you need to know about taking a taxi in Paris

Similarly if you're near tourist hotspots like the Louvre and someone approaches offering 'bargain' tickets, this is likely a scam. All of Paris' major tourist attractions offer online pre-booking of tickets, which will enable you to ensure your ticket is genuine, and also skip the line.

The quick get-away

When taking the Metro, avoid standing or sitting directly next to the door if possible. If you do - keep your precious items zipped or hidden away.

It is common for people to have their phones or wallets stolen when close to the doors because would-be thieves can easily reach in from the platform, or take your item with them while exiting. Many people have found themselves in the unfortunate situation of simply holding their phone and checking some messages, only to be surprised by someone knocking it out of their hand and running off as the train pulls away.

The ‘butterfingers’

This trick often targets people in the fancier districts of Paris, and involves a passer-by spilling something on your clothes - often a hot drink. Whoops! Amidst profuse apologies, they’ll try to wipe off the stain – all the while using the shock to distract you from the fact that an accomplice is going through your pockets or running off with your suitcase.

The Navigone 

Many of the dirty tricks take place on the city's Metro network, where passengers or potential victims are crowded together.

If you see a fellow traveller drop their Navigo pass or even their wallet right in front of you, your first instinct might be to pick it up and return it. Pickpockets know that and they take advantage of people's good nature, deliberately dropping something while an accomplice waits to snatch valuables from your back pockets or bag when you bend over.

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The Google Translate question

Some scammers have recently begun approaching folks on the street, appearing to ask them a question using Google Translate's voice mode. Oftentimes, it is done by two people - one operating the phone and distracting the person, while the other tries to pick their pocket. 

The ‘back to back’

This technique is popular in Paris’ crowded cafés and bars. Quick-fingered thieves will choose to sit directly behind someone who has left their coat or jacket hanging over the back of their chair. Sometimes aided by an accomplice seated opposite them, they will proceed to go through the contents of your pockets, without ever turning around.

The key here is to keep your valuables on your person, where you can see them, at all times.

The cash machine hustle

Always be wary around cash machines, particularly in deserted areas or late at night. Hundreds of tourists have fallen victim to a scam carried out by groups (often children) who loiter close to cash machines (pretending not to know each other) and wait for unsuspecting victims to key in their PIN code. Once that's been done, one member of the group grabs the victim or distracts them while others make a withdrawal for the maximum amount, before making a swift getaway.

The distractions can involve children shoving pieces of paper in front of you to block your vision or someone spilling a drink over you.

This one's tricky because you may feel safe if there are several other people around - but that's no use if they're all in on the trick. Try to limit your cash withdrawals to well-populated areas at daytime, and if possible use a machine situated inside a bank.

The selfie trick

In Paris, you might often find your path blocked by a group of selfie-taking tourists. Usually it’s no more than a mild annoyance, but if you’re unlucky, they could be thieves, aiming to cause a bottleneck which allows an accomplice to go through pockets and bags without anyone noticing.

And if someone asks you to take their photo, make sure you don't focus so much on getting a good shot that you lose track of your own valuables - again, an accomplice may be standing nearby to snatch something out of your pocket.

The tailgater

When you pass through the barriers to get on the Metro, occasionally someone might slip in after you. But it's not always just a free ride on the Metro they're after - opportunist pickpockets will use the close proximity to grab any valuables that are in easy reach. The key is obviously to make sure that none of them are.

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The games trick

In particularly tourist-heavy areas of the city, you might stumble upon games like 'guess which cup the marble is under'. Sometimes these can be friendly, but they can also be a prime moment when tourists find themselves distracted and more likely to be pickpocketed. 

The escalator trick

Crowds on escalators and stairs - particularly to Paris' Metro stations - provide ample opportunity for thieves, as it's a confined space with everyone going in the same direction. A common trick is for someone near the front to drop something, usually just as they get off the escalator, causing confusion and holding everyone else up as they slowly retrieve the object. Meanwhile, an accomplice standing further back helps themselves to other people's valuables, which are now in easy reach.

The 'terrace table trick'

This trick targets people who have left their valuables on a table - especially mobile phones and tablets. A passer-by will approach and ask if you can direct them somewhere, placing a map on the table and covering up your phone. Or they could just shove any kind of paper in between you and the phone you have left on the table.

While you are trying to work what they are asking you, another hand is swiping your phone. This technique is also used when thieves see that you have paid your restaurant bill in cash and it's on the table in front of you. Generally, you will want to avoid leaving your phone on the table where it can be easily grabbed.

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The dawn raider

Some groups of thieves target the Paris Metro in the early hours of the morning. Their prey is not the unwitting tourist, but the sleepy commuter who is too exhausted to notice the nimble fingers finding their way into their pockets or bags or those who've been out drinking all night and are sleeping it off on the first Metro of the day.

The false thief

This is one to be particularly vigilant for. One member of the group will yell "Thief!" or loudly shout that their wallet's been stolen. Your instinctive reaction would probably be to pat down your pockets to check that you haven't also been robbed. You'll be relieved to discover everything's still in place - but probably not for long, as the real thief has just been alerted to the location of your valuables.

Another tactic of thieves is to loiter around signs warning of pickpockets, which are on display in many of Paris' public areas. Travellers passing these signs often have the same reaction of patting down pockets.

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Fight or even firecrackers

Efforts to distract potential victims are getting more elaborate and more scary. While groups of children have been known to have fake fights to cause a commotion and divert attention, one gang of thieves recently threw firecrackers onto a Metro train. It scared the life out of passengers, while thieves tried to take advantage of their shock.

So how to avoid these scams?

You'll have noticed that distraction is key to most of these tricks, as well as preying on people being good-natured enough to stop and speak to or help strangers. Keep valuables out of sight at all times -  preferably divided among a few inside pockets of jackets and bags. If someone stops to talk to you, particularly if they seem to be part of a group, don't feel bad about ignoring them and carrying on walking.

The groups are known to prey on tourists and, while you shouldn't spoil your time in Paris by steering clear of tourist hotspots, it might be a good idea to try to blend in with the locals a little bit (make sure you've looked up directions before you leave your hotel so you don't look lost, and avoid any clothing that seems to scream 'tourist'). And don't be afraid to say 'no' if someone asks if you speak English - this is often just a way of singling out gullible Anglo victims.

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Finally, remember that professional pickpockets will go out of their way not to look like criminals. In a 2016 theft crime ring that was busted by local authorities, children that participated stole from tourists at Disneyland and reportedly wore Disney merchandise including Mickey Mouse ears to blend in with tourists. Anyone - particularly anyone who finds a reason to get close to you - could be a thief.

Local authorities have also encouraged people to use a dedicated app, SignalConso, which would have an English-speaking version for foreign visitors, to denounce scams.

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Anonymous 2023/03/02 21:03
Super helpful!!

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