Saturday, October 8, 2011

Golden Rings and Other Scams

Joe and I pride ourselves on not falling for scams when abroad. But it’s one thing to read about what to avoid in guidebooks and on blogs, and yet another to experience it first-hand. The other day we were walking along the river, admiring the sweep of the Seine and the beauty of the tropical greenery of the Musée Branly. Out-of-the-blue, a clean-cut young man swooped down in front of us and then popped back up with a shiny gold ring in his hand. “C’est a vous Madame/Monsieur?” he asked. I firmly replied, “non,” it was not ours and without even looking at him, we purposefully walked on. He’d tried his ruse just as we’d read to expect. Had we been unaware and hesitated for even a moment about the 10-cent brass ring he presented, he would have told us that the ring he’d found on the path was not his, and that he couldn’t possibly keep it for himself. When we finally relented and took the ring, he would have told us that he’d just lost his job/was having trouble feeding his new baby/had sick parents who were in trouble – just fill in the blank – in the hope that we’d pass along a few euros. The next day I was running on the opposite bank of the Seine and just as I passed by, a ruddy-faced, babushka-wearing peasant woman tried the same scam on a Scandinavian-accented English-speaking couple pushing a stroller. I would have intervened, but they appeared not to be falling for the golden ring trick either.

And then there are the teenaged Romanian gypsy “deaf-mute” girls scurrying around the Champ de Mars and near La Place de la Concorde looking for victims. I recently walked behind a bevy of them, dressed as typical teens but with cardboard clipboards and pens in hand, as they chatted effusively and made their way under La Tour Eiffel. At the wave of some invisible hand, they scattered. Approaching unsuspecting tourists, they shook their heads, repeatedly passing their fingers in front of their mouths and ears, indicating that they could neither hear nor speak. It appeared to me that their communication faculties were in perfect order as I’d followed them across the Pont d’Iéna to their champs of battle. They each carry a petition asking anyone who takes the time to read it to sign in support of help for their deaf/mute lot. And once you stop, take pity and add your signature to their appeal (which actually cites the names of legitimate charity groups), they grab your sleeve and pester you until you relent, giving them their “minimum 5 euro donation.” Periodically, the three-soldier, machine gun wielding French army teams in burgundy berets that patrol the major Parisian sights appear from around a corner and the teens instantly fold their clipboards and scatter like mice. What amazes me is that people actually fall for this stunt and give these girls money. Doesn’t the fact that their clipboards are ragged pieces of cardboard tip them off?

Not quite to the same degree, but cons nevertheless, are the waiters who attempt to get you to add tips on top of tips. By law, all eating establishment bills include a service charge for les serveurs so it is not necessary to leave anything in addition. If you pay with cash, it’s customary to leave any loose coins you may have received as change, but I have yet to see a French person who pays with a credit card, in cafes and fine restaurants alike, leave an additional tip in cash. French restaurant credit card slips don’t include a space for a tip so it’s not even possible to add one on your own. We did, however, have a waiter on the touristy Place du Tertre on Montmartre, try to give himself an extra tip. Our bill for dinner was something like 79 euros and Joe handed over his Amex to pay. The waiter came over with his handy-dandy, hand-held credit card machine and asked, “quatre-vingts cinq (85), OK?” “Non,” Joe replied nicely, and pointed to the 79 figure on the bill. No harm, no foul. Joe signed, the waiter smiled and we were on our way. We’ve also had one waiter and one waitress tell us that service was included on our bill but not the tip. I’m just happy we understand what that actually means: the tip is included but not an extra tip. Leaving some loose change here and there is hardly a problem, but a year’s worth of double-tipping would do some real damage to our budget.

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