We’d just finished a busy morning of touring Jackson Square and sampling pralines, and were on our way back to the Fairmont in New Orleans, when he stopped us.
He was handsome and dressed in a nice suit. Introducing himself as a “local artist,” he said, somewhat wistfully, that few tourists took the time to understand the “real” New Orleans. He autographed something that looked like a postcard and handed it to our two-year-old son in a stroller, who instinctively grabbed it.
“That’ll be five dollars,” he demanded.
And just that fast, I went from very comfortable in a friendly city to totally terrified. Why had I stopped? How could I get out of this?
Maybe something similar has happened to you.
People get taken at tourist traps all the time. Why should I be surprised when it happens to me? And why wasn’t I ready with a polite response? Why did I even continue the conversation or stop walking?
To tell you the truth, I felt it would be rude to ignore the well-dressed local — a common strategy among scam artists. And he had targeted me, knowing that I would want to avoid confrontation in front of my child.
His argument: He’d offered me “insider” information about the area — like a tour guide — and drew my son an original picture. He deserved to be compensated for it.
As he continued to get worked up and became more demanding, I tried very hard not to get upset and instead focused on the best way to escape. It was clear that his modus operandi was to find a vulnerable, socially conscious person to prey on and I was not going to be a victim.
Then I found my opening. The street-crossing light changed and a group of people were walking toward us. I grabbed the picture from my son’s hands and passed it to the man, then — by pushing through the group — I made it to the other side of the street before he realized what I’d done. Thankfully, he didn’t follow or grab at me and threaten me with a knife or gun. He just complained loudly to the group as though I were the scam artist instead of him.
Since then I have been leary of any overly friendly strangers — no matter how well-dressed — especially when I’m traveling alone with my kids. I hate how one experience has changed my outlook on touristy destinations.
Since then, I’ve learned more about common scams. First is the fake security or fake police officers. A few weeks ago we wrote about a family whose son was reportedly held up at gunpoint by men dressed as police officers in Cabo San Lucas. It was late at night and he was afraid to report the robbery because he believed he had been mugged by the police.
Another scam is distract and steal. While traveling in Rome and Paris we were warned about pickpocket teams that work together. One or more of their group will distract you or cause a commotion while another takes your things. The best thing to do is keep everything locked down tight.
There are a whole host of cab or taxi scams. My favorite? In New York, at Pennsylvania Station, do not follow the guy who will get you a cab for $5 flat rate, anywhere you want to go. He will take the five bucks and put you in the cab, but you will still have to pay the driver when you get to your destination.
And then there is the helpful stranger scam. Sometimes they will offer to take your pictures with your phone or camera. Other times they will offer to watch your bags or give you directions to some of the local hotspots. In the end they will ask for cash or possibly take off with your stuff.
Apparently there are so many variations of tourist scams that the Telegraph recently posted this story highlighting 40 more to avoid!
So, knowing this, should we always be on our guard? Will that close us off from some truly exceptional experiences? Is there a better way to avoid the panhandlers and scam artists that populate the busy cities and vacation hot spots we love?