17/10/2012 15:58 | By Poorna Bell, senior editor, MSN Travel

Most notorious travel scams revealed

MSN Travel interviews Scam City's Conor Woodman, whose new show reveals the craftiest scams - from pickpockets to 'professional heartbreakers'.

Pickpocket in Rio (© National Geographic Channel)

Your programme covers scam hotspots such as Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Prague. Was any particular one worse than the other?
No city stuck out as being worse. What became clear is that there is a cultural dimension to scamming. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are taxi drivers taking people round the houses in any city. But it interesting that somewhere like Barcelona is where petty thievery is so common; it’s the pickpocket capital of the world. In Barcelona, if you get caught with less than 400 euros you get a fine, not a custodial sentence. In Romania, if they’d been caught, it’d be three years in prison.

So you actually went pickpocketing with these people?
I infiltrated a gang of pickpockets – I met them and won them over and they invited me to join the gang and go pickpocketing with them. I was just blown away at the skill at being able to unzip someone’s handbag while they were walking up the stairs. You look at them and the tricks they pull and think, wow, they could’ve done something great with that -  they could’ve been magicians with such skills, but then they made bad decisions.


Conor Woodman (© National Geographic Channel)

Conor Woodman

Which places had less thieving?
In Marrakesh there was a lot less thieving but then there were a lot more confidence scams, which were totally different because people had to get you to hand over your money willingly. It was all about creating an illusion. In Marrakesh you go to shop, and one thing you might want to buy is an old rug. The older the rug, the more expensive it is.

This one group had taken over some of the rooms where they sell carpets downstairs, and would buy new rugs and were taking them onto roof and taking bleaching agents to them ‘adding’ 20 years. You’d come along, the salesman would give you a big smile and you’d be none the wiser.

How do you protect yourself from getting scammed?
It’s really simple. When people go on holiday they leave their common sense at home. They tell themselves not to worry about anything, which is silly because worrying about things is something we do every day. I see people on holiday not applying common sense – I just think you’re asking for trouble. Just be vigilant. Prepare yourself.

Have you ever been scammed?
Yes – let’s just say the jewellery scam is still alive and well in Bangkok. I arrived at Wat Pho, the famous temple, and met this friendly chap who said it was closed because the monks are praying. He very helpfully suggested another temple down the road and said, "Oh, it’s the same". I thought ok, and jumped in a taxi.

We got to the temple and met this trustworthy-looking character. He said you should buy some jewellery while you’re here, and get your tuk-tuk driver to take you. We got taken to three gem stores and it was only when I got back I read about it in the guidebook. The gem store guys gave a cut to the tuk tuk driver, the ‘friendly’ man at the second temple and the other man at Wat Pho. I thought: "Oh well, there you go, I should’ve known better and should’ve done my research."

Buenos Aires - meeting counterfeit money criminals (© National Geographic Channel)

Conor in Buenos Aires meeting counterfeiters

Scariest moment while filming?
In Prague – I deliberately got into a clip bar situation, which happens to hundreds of unsuspecting guys who go into a bar and end up being charged 500 dollars for two beers. When the guy decided it was time to get rid of me, he started roughing me up and it was terrifying.

The hairiest encounter, however, was in Buenos Aires. Counterfeit money is the biggest scam – it’s endemic there - and that has a political dimension because a lot of big-time criminals have got involved. I wanted to chat to the gangs, and eventually two local journos helped me out – it was all cloak and dagger. 

We turned up at an estate and I was led into a room, when suddenly I heard four big deadbolts locking behind me. Inside the inside room, there were three men wearing fright night masks, all armed, off their heads on cocaine. They were really agitated and waving guns around, and had a massive bag of counterfeit money. It was awful. For me, it got a little bit too heavy and I thought, I don't want to be in this room at all. But at that point, you can’t say, "I’ve changed my mind". I had to go through with it.

Any advice?
In Barcelona, I went undercover with an Ecuadorean transsexual who operated as a prostitute and stole from her clients. So beware of that situation!

But seriously, pickpocketing is rife in the day on underground trains, and at night, at built-up tourist areas such as the Ramblas. Listen to your gut. The times you have to be on your guard are times you instinctively feel more protective. Don’t put your valuables in your outside pocket or have a bag slung over your shoulder. They will get into it, even if it’s zipped up. They also time it so well - they’ll wait until you’re going up a flight of stairs. The natural bump of walking up the stairs gives them that leeway of movement they need.

Does it happen often?
It happens amazingly often. When I befriended the gang in Barcelona, they said: “What do you want to see?” I said, "the rules are, you do what you do, but I just want to see how it happens." They pickpocketed five people in 10 minutes - I was out of breath chasing them. They just crash through the metro – I couldn’t believe it – they are so brazen.

What of the Romeo scam?
They are called pappagallos – parrots – because they spout the same old lines and they operate around the Trevi fountain in Rome, using the beauty of the place and the atmosphere to seduce women. They take up different spots, and brazenly chat them up. They have a scoring system, so if they get lucky they get a point and the next morning they meet up and add up all the points. It’s a bit tacky and sleazy, and my advice is: to be forewarned is to be forearmed. There are a lot of scams in different cities. If you get prepared for them, you’ll be less likely to fall for it. 

Watch Scam City on the National Geographic Channel on Wednesdays at 8pm.

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