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The most common scams by thieves to avoid whilst driving in France

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The most common scams by thieves to avoid whilst driving in France
A French motorway. Photo: Maelick/Flickr
13:27 CEST+02:00
UPDATED: Driving in France is for the most part a trouble free and even enjoyable experience, but foreign motorists should be aware of a few scams by thieves looking to take advantage of the fact you are in a new country.

Tens of thousands of foreign holidaymakers travel on France's roads each summer and the vast majority enjoy a smooth trip.

For the most part the roads are safe, apart from the odd speeding driver, but there are a few dangers motorists need to be aware of. This list of commonly reported scams shows just how quickly thieves in France can separate you from your belongings.

Paul Watters from UK motorists' organization AA told The Local that anyone driving outside their home country should be particularly cautious. "Don't let it spoil your holiday, but take basic precautions," he said. "Thieves take advantage of the fact that you are relaxed on holiday and might easily be distracted."

Here are some of the most common tricks, currently in use or having been reported in the past, that motorists should be aware of while driving on French roads. 

Side view mirror scam

Photo: Lynn Friedman/Flickr

The newest trick out there targeting motorists has proven to be quite effective. The gist of it is that the scammer convinces a driver, often targeting the elderly, that they’ve damaged a side view mirror of the scammer’s car. The scammer then persuades the driver to pay damages right there on the spot instead of going through an insurance company.
To convince the victim, often these scammers will ask what their insurance company is and then pretend to have the same one. 
They’ll call up an “insurance agent” that’s actually an accomplice who tells the victim that if they insist on going through insurance claims, they’ll have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. 
They’ll instruct the driver to pay up front instead, promising they’ll soon be reimbursed. The scammer will then accompany the driver to a cash machine to collect their spoils. 
Four members of a criminal gang were arrested for this fraudulent behaviour in April and July of 2016 in Angers, western France, reported Ouest France newspaper. Prosecutors said they were able to swindle at least €90,000 in total, picking up between €100 and €3,000 from each successful scam. 
Cops turned robbers

France's military police issued warnings last summer after a particularly determined organized crime gang disguised themselves as police to rob motorists. Usually at night, the gang targeted foreigners who are less aware of how French police work. They had a flashing blue light, maybe a red police armband, and official-looking clothing to look convincing, and signalled for vehicles to pull onto the hard shoulder before carrying out searches of the vehicle, bags and passengers under a pretext of looking for drugs or fake ID papers.

Of course, what they were really looking for was anything of value, which they would pocket during the 'search', banking on the fact that drivers would be too startled to notice what was going on.

“Sometimes it can take less than a minute and often they purposefully rob mobile phones and the keys of the car, so the victims cannot raise the alarm,” Alain Archaimbault, captain of the Gendarmerie told France Info radio.

To avoid falling victim to a scam, read up about your rights before driving in France; both the AA and UK Foreign Office have detailed information about local laws. Be aware that police would rarely carry out operations in plain clothes or unmarked police cars, and would never ask to search through bags under the pretext of looking for drugs. A real search would not take place by the side of a motorway for safety reasons, and real police will be happy for you to check their ID.

The faux breakdown

Always be wary of someone trying to flag you down for any reason, even if it seems that they need your help. Watters from the AA explains: "The British nature is generally to be helpful to people flagging them down," - and thieves know this. When you get out of the car to help them, an accomplice will slip into your own car, grabbing whatever they can."

To avoid falling victim to this sort of trick, if you do get out of your car to look at something, make sure you have locked it and have your keys with you - and don't get into the habit of leaving valuables lying around in plain sight in your car. "Not everyone is a prospective thief, but you should take basic precautions all the time," says Watters.

The below video from the UK Foreign Office shows real CCTV footage of this scam in action, proving how quickly it can be done.

The "lost" wallet

Yet another ploy that preys on kind souls. Scammers will flag down drivers, pretending their car has broken down, similar to the above situation. But instead sneakily stealing valuables right from your car, these scammers will ask for money to fix their vehicles. They'll play on sympathies by lamenting a stolen or lost wallet or a damaged bank card, and they'll often be accompanied by women and children.

Police say to keep in mind that most people whose cars have actually broken down will more likely ask for a ride to a petrol station instead of asking for money.

The virtual vehicle

If you're in France long-term, you may well be thinking of investing in a new car. Because cars are one of the biggest purchases made, they are a favourite with scammers - and you should be extra vigilant in a country where you aren't totally familiar with how things are usually done.

Scammers may advertise cars for sale, but once you show an interest in buying it, they'll request a transfer via Western Union or a similar service before they are able to send you the car. Be warned that in these cases it's very rare that the car ever turns up, or that it even existed in the first place. Try to buy through a trusted car dealer, but if must use a classified website, make sure to meet the seller in person and get all the relevant information before you even think about transferring the funds.

NEW: Crash and rob

The Local reported in July how a gang of masked men in a car were purposefully crashing into drivers on and around the A9 motorway in the south of France near the city of Nimes.

It turns out the men targeted their victims on their potential loot, so perhaps try to avoid displaying any expensive items like I-pads.

However if you are a victim there's almost certainly little you can do, so the safest thing to do would be to hand over what they demand and then call the police.

French police hunt 'highway pirates' who targeted motorists in south


The sleeping driver

Many people think their belongings are safe as long as they are in the car with them, but thieves can be more audacious than you'd suspect. Drivers of lorries, caravans, mobile homes and other vehicles have reported being robbed while sleeping in their vehicle, according to the UK's Foreign Office.

Victims have claimed gas was pumped into their vehicle to send the occupants to sleep.

As well as perhaps installing a security alarm, be wary about parking in unsupervised camping grounds, car parks or motorway rest areas, and try to find a well-lit, well-populated area when you park.

The car park distraction

Tourists in particular should be vigilant when loading or unloading a car, for example in a hotel car park. Watch out for anyone who tries to distract you while you're unpacking things from the boot; thieves may be disguised as parking wardens or hotel staff, but while they are speaking to you - probably in rapid French to add to your confusion - an accomplice may be grabbing whatever suitcase and other belongings are in the boot or on the ground next to the car. Just make sure you keep your eyes on your belongings at all times.

Flat tyres

French police recently issued a warning about this particular scam, which is apparently becoming increasingly popular in France. "Thieves target the vehicles of elderly or vulnerable people, slash their tyres and await their return" a police source told BFM TV.

The fraudsters are then on hand to act as ‘good Samaritans’ and offer to help them fix the problem. Police have reported that they then find a pretext to take the elderly person to a cash machine, to pay for a missing piece of equipment, or compensate them for their good deed, and then make a swift getaway along with cash, a wallet, or even the card, having memorized the PIN code. They may also have helped themselves to any bags or valuables left within easy reach inside the car.

Watters said that petrol stations were a common location for this crime, and added that there had even been reports of tyres being slashed while cars were waiting in a traffic jam. Remember you can always turn down help from strangers if you are at all suspicious, and contact your emergency breakdown service instead.

Car crime hotspots

Watters told us that although much car crime is opportunistic and could happen anywhere, tourists and expats should be particularly vigilant when driving through areas noted for this kind of tricks. The motorway leading from France to Spain, the French-Belgian border and the Cote d'Azur are hotspots for the kinds of tricks listed above.

Finally, remember that the above list is not exhaustive. Watters told us that although these tricks are commonly used in France and other countries, "thieves can be quite clever so they might always be thinking up something new". Be wary of anything out of the ordinary, try to avoid leaving valuables in the car, and if you have to get out even for a short period of time, lock the car and keep hold of your keys.

An original version of this article was published on March 9, 2016. 

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