Despite being an experienced traveler, I still got ripped off in Italy

I’m in southeastern Sicily, on my way back to my hotel after seeing flamingos in a nature reserve, and as I drive past Contrada Vendicari, there’s a car parked along the road on the right with the trunk open, the driver digging in the back.

It’s a narrow road so I turn left and just as I pass his vehicle I hear a thump on the side of my car. In the rearview mirror I see the guy jump in his car and drive off.

A moment later he stands behind me and gestures for me to stop.

I drive another hundred yards to a driveway and he pulls up next to me. We have a problem.

The driver points to his wing mirror, which hangs loose with only the wires still holding it to the car.

Along the side of my car, near the fuel filler cap, is a two-foot strip of black, sticky rubber that the helpful chap is now rubbing over with a rag. It comes off easily and leaves nothing behind.

But there is no damage to my vehicle. Not a scrape down the side, not a dent in my right mirror, but his — he sighs, shrugs, imagining my car hitting his with a fleeting thud and a bang.

It’s obvious who’s to blame, isn’t it?

“Police,” he says. “Insurance”.

He’s calm and he looks like the kind of guy you can do business with.

“How much?” I ask and immediately he tells me – 180 euros.

I look in my wallet. I have 65. I hold it out to him, he looks disappointed, but he shrugs, grabs it, gets in his car and drives off, swinging the dangling mirror, and realization slowly sinks in. I’ve been scammed.

Nothing about what just happened makes sense. The black sticky goo, the scratch-free hanging mirror on my vehicle, the immediate mention of a price, the willing acceptance of a much lower amount.

My car never touched his. I should have picked up my phone right away, called the police, taken pictures of the damage – but a foreign country, another language not spoken perfectly, an unjust fellow motorist eager to put a bad afternoon behind them – reason takes vacation .

Scammers are back in action. They are resourceful, they are fast and as a tourist you are vulnerable. You’re probably distracted and off guard, you probably don’t speak enough of the language to argue, you don’t know how to contact the police – and that makes you a soft target.

The ring thing

This happened to me in a side street near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. As he walked by, a fellow pedestrian picks something up off the sidewalk and asks, “Did you drop this?”

It is a heavy ring and even to my inexperienced eye it looks like brass. But if you seem interested, your eagle-eyed friend will tell you it’s gold and even show you a hallmark that suggests authenticity. If you fall for it and claim ownership, he’ll ask for a reward.

The scam is based on greed and naivety. It may look like gold, but it’s not, and worth a few bobs at most.

The unguarded moment

You’re sitting at a cafe table, a local comes up to you and asks a question – it could be a lighter for his cigarette, or the way to the nearest subway station. You look up and reply, he thanks you and you watch him wander off.

Your phone, which was on the table just a minute ago, has flared legs, or the bag that was tied over the back of your chair has just done a runner.

All that distracts you is a profit potential for street magicians who want to make your wallet or your phone disappear. It could be a street performer. As you watch the performance, a henchman circles behind the crowd checking back pockets.

The loyal stranger who only wants to help

“If you buy gems here, you can sell them back to your country for a huge price.”

This is a classic scam used by backpackers and relies on the toxic trifecta of greed, trust and ignorance.

Those “diamonds” may turn out to be cubic zirconia, or even glass, that lovely “aquamarine” a much less valuable blue topaz – but you probably won’t know that until you try to sell your jewels to someone who knows what’s what.

Another variant of this scam, you are friends with a local guy who knows a lot about his town. You chat, sit down, he buys you coffee and after a while the conversation turns to money. He will tell you that he can give you a much better rate for your money.

“Just give me your money and wait here. No no, you can’t come with me, the man operates in secrecy and he doesn’t trust anyone he doesn’t know.” And that’s the last you’ll see of him.

Protect your cards

The recent data breaches at Optus and Medicare have sent a deluge of customer information into the hands of rogues, and that should be a wake-up call for travelers.

Debit cards are vulnerable. If you use a debit or travel money card, you can limit the damage if the card falls into the wrong hands by limiting the amount of money available on the card.

Instead of carrying a debit or travel money card with thousands of dollars in credit, store your money in a secure account and top up the card with smaller amounts — but beware of the top-up fees associated with some travel money cards.

If you need to enter your PIN to authorize a transaction, cover the keypad with your hand while doing so.

Payments with Apple Pay or Google Pay are more secure than with a physical card. Both require face ID or touch ID authentication to make a payment. While a card number is tied to financial information that can be misused, digital wallet payments use tokenization that creates a unique code at the point of purchase, without revealing the buyer’s primary account number. A stolen card can be used to pay for goods and services, but a thief would have a hard time doing so with a stolen smartphone or portable device with payment capability.

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