The scams & dangers of Paris and the ATM machine that ate my card

Paris, the romantic city, or so everybody says. Perhaps because it was the last stop on my European trip (my second solo trip abroad) that I was growing complacent and careless, or be it just luck, that I experienced most of the scams that I have since read about. Most happened in broad daylight near popular tourist attractions. I have learnt some valuable lessons and will be smarter in my future travels.

I had been slack about booking accommodation and unfortunately there were not many budget options left by the time I did. I'm not sure why I hadn't booked a hostel like the rest of my European trip, but I guess I wanted some privacy and comfort to end my grand tour. I chose a budget hotel within walking distance from Gare de Lyon, a major train station. After arriving on the train from Switzerland I changed to the subway to get to my destination. The subway in Paris left a lot to be desired, the smell inside the carriages, the stains on the seats, the dog excrements on the side of the underground tunnels leading from the stations made unforgettable first impression of the city.

The hotel was run by a Eastern European family who lived downstairs. Initially they gave me a dirty box of a room without a bathroom when I had booked an en-suite room. They pretended not to understand me when I complained but eventually gave me a new room when I persisted and was about to walk away.

Lesson learnt - Be organised with booking accommodation and read the reviews. Try and arrive at a new city during the day, and be insistent with what you've booked and be prepared to walk away  

"Card Retained. Thanks for your visit"

I was running low on cash and used an ATM near my hotel. I put my credit card in, punched in the PIN and the amount I wanted to withdraw, and then suddenly it ended the transaction and ate my card! The machine spat out a receipt stating "card retained" and thanked me for my visit, then went back to the welcome screen inviting one to put their card into the slot!

It was lucky that this ATM was attached to the post office that I was able to go in and talk to someone about what happened. I got out my little phrase book and asked the post office staff, "parlez-vous Anglaise?" (do you speak English?). She shrugged and indicated 'a little' with her hand. With the help of the phrase book, a bit of finger pointing, and some English words I was able to get my dilemma across. She then said to come back the next day with my passport to get my card. 

In the meantime I was still low on cash. I did have a spare card but wasn't sure whether I wanted to risk using it. Luckily I had enough Swiss Francs on me that I could exchange at a currency exchange booth for some Euros. 

The next morning I went back to the post office. Of course they were not the same staff and had no idea about my lost credit card. They asked me to return again in the afternoon - I was not sure what to expect when I went back but they did have my card for me. This staff member spoke a bit more English and apparently foreign cards being retained were fairly common occurrences!

Lesson learnt - Always use an ATM attached to a bank or post office and have an alternate source of cash, carrying a phrase book is helpful

The Scams

Sign the petition

I was walking up the steps towards Sacre Coeur when I saw a group of women with clipboards in their hands. One of them approached me and showed me a petition to help the blind and deaf and asked me to sign. She offered to hold onto my plastic water bottle for me. Initially seeing no harm in putting down my name and country, she then showed me a second page which asked for a donation. I said no and asked her for my water bottle back when she threw it hard onto the ground shattering it. Shrugging and pretending not to care about the obscenities that she was yelling at me, I kept my head up and walked away.

The friendship bracelet

As I was leaving Sacre Coeur, an African looking man walked towards me and said he wanted to show me something. He proceeded to grab my wrist and started tying a string bracelet around my wrist stating it's a friendship bracelet. When he finished he asked me for payment. I repeatedly said no and would not back down until he took it off. He eventually relented and took the bracelet off. As we were in a very public place I was more than willing to yell and draw attention to myself had he not relented.

The ring

I was walking on the riverside towards the Louvre, when a gypsy woman walking towards me bent down and picked up a ring from the ground. She offered it to me saying it looked expensive and that I should keep it. When I said no repeatedly she then asked me for money to buy Coca Cola. I refused, turned and walked away.

And then there were the souvenir sellers at tourist attractions, eg those selling mini Eiffel towers at 5 for 1 Euro. Whilst not a scam, they swarmed towards me when I took a second look and tried to follow me. It was rather uncomfortable and made me leave the attraction sooner than I had planned.

Lesson learnt - Walk with confidence and purpose as if you're a local. Know about the scams and walk away promptly. Even if you're trapped by a scammer, be firm, do not give him/her money and be prepared to yell or draw attention to yourself.

The Dangers

I didn't experience any pickpocketing but I have heard that it is rife. Often working in groups, one person will try and distract you while another tries to pick your pockets. 

This next incident was the scariest thing that I have experienced in my travels. I had gone up to the Eiffel Tower at dusk and waited until dark before coming down. Sunset was quite late being summer so by the time I caught the subway and walked towards the hotel it was close to midnight. I was walking on the main street but it was pretty quiet with all the shops and caf├ęs already shut. It was raining, I had my umbrella up. Two youths walked towards me on the sidewalk, but as they passed one reached under my umbrella and grabbed my face. I yelled out "hey" loudly and they laughed and continued to walk away. Feeling violated, I shuddered to think what else could have happened.

Lesson learnt - Be wary of your possessions at all times, especially when someone is trying to distract you. I use a Pacsafe bag that offers additional security such as a slash proof strap, slash proof mesh in the body of the bag and a hook that allows you to lock the zipper. Stick to well lit and populated areas. Pay attention to your surroundings and be prepared to yell and run.

These negative incidents could have overshadowed my trip, but I then I realised that they're all part of the quintessential Parisian experience. You haven't really travelled in Paris until you've experienced the scams! I was very lucky not to have lost anything, but rather have gained some valuable lessons. did see glimpses of the magical Paris that many rave about, and I hope to return one day to truly experience the delightful city.

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