Favorite Paris Scams

March 10, 2009By Paris UpdateTales of la Ville

Favorite Paris Scams

paris scams
To hear the fraudsters tell it, the streets of Paris really are paved with gold.

One of the great things about living in a city is being able to watch charlatans at work. I grew up in a town with a population of about 7,000 where everyone more or less knew everyone else. You don’t see too many confidence games in a small close-knit community, because of course bilking someone out of their cash in the street depends heavily on being a total stranger when you meet and never seeing the person again. Perhaps that’s why I get such a kick out of observing the various types of fraudsters, grifters, tricksters and hucksters who ply their trade in Paris.

This week I saw, within two minutes of each other and on the same boulevard, not one but two young women separately doing the “gold ring” gambit. In case you don’t know this one, it can be summed up as follows:

“Oh my goodness gracious! I just found this gaudily expensive-looking ring on the sidewalk right next to you! It weighs almost nothing, but it’s stamped ‘18K,’ so it’s obviously solid gold! No doubt you’d be glad to give me 20 euros for it! Make it 50!”

It was interesting to watch them pick a mark and “happen” to cross his or her path and suddenly lean over to the ring on the sidewalk. One of them got some money out of it, too, after which she strode briskly away down a side street.

Two days later there was a young guy going around my building knocking on all the doors and offering free copies of Le Monde, France’s biggest daily newspaper. A day old. Hmmm. Why would a huge paper like Le Monde be doing a door-to-door giveaway of old news? Somehow I suspect he was scouting potential burglary targets, but I doubt that he found any here because we have way too many busybody neighbors who watch everything that goes on.

Anyway, all of this started me thinking about the myriad, highly diverting kinds of chicanery I’ve seen over the years in Paris. This turned out to be such a rich topic that I have broken it down into categories.

Shamming for sympathy, including:
The supposedly blind guy at Madeleine (this was in the Eighties) with a white cane and dark glasses that weren’t dark enough to prevent you from noticing up close that he was always looking around and focusing on different sights. His perpetual grin didn’t help either.

The desperately sad-looking woman panhandling in the Sèvres-Babylone Métro station who remained seven months pregnant, and near tears, from mid-1995 well into 1998.

The old woman who used to beg in front of Ralph Lauren on Rue Royale every day, bent over double and shaking with palsy except on the two or three occasions when I saw her arrive for “work,” walking upright and not shaking at all.

Heartfelt hogwash, featuring:
The young woman who used to stop people in the street explaining that she was a nurse from Rennes who came to Paris for the day, got her bag stolen and now needed money for train fare home – a plausible story convincingly delivered, except that she told it to me on three or four different occasions over a five-year period.

The Senegalese guy in a wealthy, upscale neighborhood (not mine) who bent my ear for a good 10 minutes about how he needed me to “lend” him 300 francs (about $50) to pay for his airfare to move back to Dakar. I was going to get my money back. Oh yes. He went on and on about how he had an apartment in Paris, which I could visit any time I wanted, equipped with a big TV and a state-of-the-art stereo, etc., etc., all of which was supposed to convince me that he was solvent and therefore certain to repay me. But all of which only made me wonder: if he was moving out of the country, why didn’t he sell his TV and stereo and so forth to drum up the 300 francs? And how was he going to pay me back once he was in Senegal?

I actually kind of liked the guy because he had such a winning line of delivery, even though it was patent horseshit, so I offered him 50 francs, and, get this, he suddenly got hostile and huffy, refused to take the money (more than I have ever offered any beggar in my life) and ended the conversation by yelling at me, “You don’t understand.”

Door-to-door malarkey mongers
Here’s a fun fact: in the more than 25 years I have lived in Paris, quite a few people have knocked on my door claiming that I was obligated to comply with their wishes, which usually meant giving them money for one thing or another, and so far not a single one of them has been telling the truth. None. Zero. Liars all.

My favorites include:
The haughtily aggressive bill collector who insisted that I had to pay the previous tenant’s outstanding insurance premium.

The “municipal inspector” (with no uniform or ID) who came by right after my wife Nancy and I moved into our first place and insisted on coming inside to check the papers for our renters’ insurance. I was so naive at the time that I actually let him in and showed him our policy while he gawped around the apartment and realized that it was essentially a single room with nothing in it worth giving away, let alone stealing.

And the impressively glib young man wearing a science-fiction yellow jumpsuit and goggles and carrying a complex-looking “gas sensor” (I now think it was a Geiger counter) who tried really hard to convince us that we were legally obliged to pay him 200 francs (about $35) to use his super-high-tech gizmo to verify that our gas stove wasn’t leaking. We decided to live dangerously.

Inexplicable absurdities
Just before Christmas one year, I was shopping by myself at the big Galeries Lafayette department store on Boulevard Haussmann. As I was making my way through the crowd in the watch department, someone tapped me very firmly and rapidly several times on the shoulder from behind. I turned around and saw a skinny, well-dressed guy with glasses just completing the action of bending over a display case and assuming a glaringly affected look of poring over the watches as though making a carefully considered choice. He was even rubbing his chin.

I have no idea what that was about. A distraction as a setup for a pickpocket? One of those asinine “hidden camera” TV shows?

Lastly, I once went to a big music hall to see a blues concert for which I had an extra ticket. Outside a bunch of young guys – kids really, around 12 or 13 years old – were scalping tickets, so I asked one if he would buy my spare for its face value. I stressed that I wasn’t looking to make any profit – I just didn’t want to get stuck with the expense. And here’s the interesting part: he was standing all by himself when I approached him, but as soon as I started talking about selling a ticket I found myself literally surrounded in literally three seconds by a good dozen pre-teen scalpers, who apparently came running in response to some subtle signal, all screaming at me, You must be crazy (most of them were tapping their temples to emphasize their meaning) to think that he would buy your ticket when any imbecile can see that he’s selling, not buying.

I never could figure that one out either. Why didn’t he just say no? What threat did I pose to warrant such a reaction? Did they think I was a cop? With my accent? Hey – maybe they thought I was trying to pull some kind of scam…

David Jaggard

© 2009 Paris Update

Reader Reaction

Click here to respond to this article (your response may be published on this page and is subject to editing).


What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.