How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off in Italy
Interestingly enough, many Italians do not perceive that taking advantage of someone a bit is inherently a bad thing. In fact, culturally, if you pull a fast one on someone, you are just being clever. I am not talking about a major heist at the Banco di Roma or snatching someone’s purse but a little bit of rounding up the tab or a taxi driver not taking the shortest route something that many Italians would not be ashamed to admit. This is not to say that Italians are thieves but rather, a part of the culture. To make a comparison, many Italians think that Americans often hide behind a puritanical façade while for us, we believe that some things are just better left private. In any event, here are a few popular scams that travelers to Italy should be aware of.
The first thing that comes to my mind are the “tassisti abusive.” These are the guys who approach you at the airport asking if you need a taxi. Unexpected travelers who in fact, intend to take a taxi easily fall into this trap. Phony taxi drivers are easy to spot out as legit cabs say, “taxi” on them. The main problem, besides the fact that they are unlicensed, don’t have insurance and hence, you have little recourse if you get in a wreck of have other issues. In addition, they are seldom less expensive than legit taxis, oftentimes their cars are falling apart. More often than not, they will also scam you. For example, they may quote you 100 Dollars and then at the end of the trip ask for 100 Euros. Or, they might just quote you 50 Euros and then ask for more upon arrival, and threatening to call the police.
Even regular taxis can be problematic. Taxis are now closely regulated since in past years overcharging tourists was the norm and not the exception. Nowadays, taxis have fixed rates to and from the airport and therefore, tourists do not need to be cautious of getting ripped off immediately upon arrival (tip: there are many car services with private drivers that charge about the same as a taxi). However, if you take a taxi within the city from point A to B, there is a good chance that your taxi driver will not voluntarily find the fastest route. You might not necessarily drive many miles out of your way but even a few blocks can add a couple of bucks to your bill. My advice is sit back and enjoy the scenery because unless you are familiar with the city, you will probably be completely oblivious to what is occurring.
The second thing that next comes to mind is rip off prices and surcharges at cafés and restaurants. Always make sure that you know up front what you will be paying. If you are not given a menu with a pricelist, that is a telltale sign that something is not right. Generally speaking, if you sit down, expect to pay double or trip (or more in touristy places like Piazza Navona or Piazza San Marco) than you would standing up. While that cappuccino may cost you $15, at least, and contrary to the US, nobody will rush you away from your table. What is important is that you are aware of up front. In the event that you do feel that you do feel that you have been ripped off, even the suggestion that you will call the Carabinieri (call 112 from your Italian cell phone) or, even more effective, the Guardia di Finanza (dial 117) – the Italian version of the IRS but with a gun – will very much get their attention.
“Will You Buy Me a Drink?”
Another costly scam is falling for the, “meet beautiful women in my nightclub” pitch. While this happens is many cities and towns in Italy, the most notorious place is the famed Via Veneto in Rome. Typically, men in suits solicit passerbyers and tell them that there are beautiful Italian women just dying to meet them. As soon as you walk in, indeed, women will gravitate toward you and ask for you to buy them a drink. Don’t do it. That drink can end up costing you hundreds of dollars. These establishments often get away with this because the clients are too embarrassed to say anything to anyone, especially the authorities as there is a little bit of a fuzzy line here if you know what I mean.
Cute Little Kids
Who isn’t a sucker for cute little kids? They are hard to resist but, if you do happen to get accosted by a flock of kids, my advice is to shoo them away and at the same time, keep your hand on your valuables. Gypsy kids are known for approaching tourists and while one distracts the unsuspecting tourist, the others extract wallets and cell phones with their nimble little fingers. I have seen this happen probably a dozen times. Obviously, nobody wants to be harsh toward a group of 6 year olds but if you don’t want to be left without a dime in your pocket, a stern “via!” (“away”) will convey the point.
Speaking of Gypsies my best advice is just to stay away from the all together, you and old. Usually, the woman and children are in the streets either begging or involved in petty theft while the men are breaking into villas and stealing jewelry so you probably wont see too many men around. Even more than the piazzas, the most risky place to be to be pick pocketed is on the bus, particularly those leading to tourist areas. Italian buses are often crowded and there will be a lot of innocent bumping around to begin with so detecting a pick pocketer is no easy task. At the very least, put your wallet in your front pocket and do not have the kind of purse that does not close securely.
These scams can and do occur but you certainly shouldn’t allow yourself to ruin your trip because you are fixating on them. Many big cities target tourists. On Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, wannabe actors dressed up as superheroes sometimes threaten you if you don’t tip them if you take their photograph. Petty thieves always seek the path of least resistance. If you do not have a fat wallet bulging in your back pocket or a half open Louis Vuitton purse with iPhones and other valuables half sticking out, chances are, a thief will move on from you and find someone who will.
Sebastian Harrison was born in Rome and has spent the majority of his life between Italy and Los Angeles. He is an experienced travel writer and the founder of Cellular Abroad, Inc.