Rip-offs, Scams, & How to Foil Them

From dishonest taxi drivers to thieving restaurant waiters—you won't run into too many scams in Italy, but here are a few common rip-offs to watch out for

Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling
Travel Advisory! How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling by Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent (2003). The pedestrian scams on this page barely scratch the surface of the rip-offs you may encounter abroad. While, as I said, even these "common" ones are not terribly commonplace, if you want to find out about dozens of other cons—and read plenty of thrilling tales of thievery, pickpocketry, and rip-off artistry)—grab this book by two of the world's leading experts on the subject (this husband/wife team does 20/20 specials and the like on this stuff).

I actually find that there aren't that many Italians who will try to play you. Sure, you sometimes draw the dishonest cabbie who sets his flag for "out of town" rates, or a waiter who gives himself an extra tip by padding your bill.

But that can happen anywhere, and I don't find Italy any more crowded with con artists than the States. (Except in Genova. I've never been somewhere where more people try to rip me off so consistently.)

That said, no matter where they live, a con artist or petty thief does always look for an easy mark. You are a foreigner and a tourist, and in their eyes that paints you with a big bulls-eye: you don’t speak the local lingo, you're probably a bit lost, you may be jetlagged, you're so busy taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of a new and exciting destination so you're not paying as close attention as you otherwise might.

Most of all, you simply don't know how things work locally—that there's a little window on the taxi meter that should say "1" and not "2" when you're just getting a ride around downtown; or that a random extra charge for "bread and cover" on the bill is perfectly normal, acceptable, and legal.

The easiest catchall solution is, of course, to be as un-tourist-like as possible. Try to stay alert to your surroundings and don't give over all your attention to gawking. Try to blend in and not be the obvious, flashy American.

Make a point of studying the posted list of fares in the taxi and peer at the meter. Check over the restaurant bill carefully and politely question any suspicious items. Show them you are a sharp cookie, and the opportunistic thief won't bother trying to see if you crumble. He'll wait for easier prey.

Here are some of the most common swindles (though, of course, every con artist has his own tactics).

Note: this page doesn't address pickpockets (which isn't really a scam, just plain thievery), and hotel rip-offs are covered on a separate page.

Oh, waiter! There's a scam in my soup

The scam is: you didn't order the soup. Some shady waiters will pad bills with:

  • Unordered items—Easy to do when you can't read the language well so it's hard to tell what's what on the scribbled bill.
  • Fictional surcharges—Though, like I said, in Italy a cover charge is perfectly legal, albeit annoying (see below).
  • Doubled taxes—Let's see, that'd be 15% for the government, and 15% for the waiter's pocket.
  • Simple shortchanging—Scrutinize the bill carefully, but surreptitiously and politely—no need to offend the thousands of honest waiters by being obvious about your suspicions.
  • NOTE: Bread and cover is not a scam—The "pane e coperto" (or just "coperto") is an annoying fact of life in Italian restaurants. Everyone at the table gets charged a few Euro just for the privilege of sitting down. » more
  • NOTE: Servizio is not a scam—Many restaurants include a servizio (service charge) or 10–15%. This fact—and the amount—is usually printed somewhere on the menu (look for some fine print–style, italicized text near the bottom or on the back). You can also just ask: "É incluso il servizio" ("Is service included?"). If the answer is yes, that covers your tip—though it's customary to leave behind an extra Euro per person if service was extra-good. If the answer is no, tip 15% or so as you usually would. » more

Hey buddy, you got change for a 500,000?

The Euro has helped with this (so it's no longer really a concern in Italy), but Europe still harbors a few countries where they count pocket change in increments of a thousand. In these places especially, many unscrupulous types try to catch new arrivals by confusing them with all those zeros, giving change for 5,000 when you paid with a 50,000 bill.

They may even try this in a country like Italy that uses Euros because, until you get the hang of the currency, a 10 and a 100 might look pretty similar (in that neither looks instantly familiar), and unless you take a sec to see which one you're taking out of your wallet, a slick con artist might glibly insist you gave him one with fewer zeros on it (he'll even show you "your bill," which is, of course one he keeps in reserve for just such a slight-of-hand scam).

Until you get used to the money, examine each bill carefully before you hand it over, and make a show of doing so.

The walking, talking ATM and his light fingers

This is two scams rolled into one—or, technically, a scam wrapped in a pickpocketing. First, the scam: A stranger offer to help you change money. Alarm bells should go off immediately.

While in some countries, buying currency on the gray market like this can work in your favor (but you have to know what you're doing), those countries are no longer found anywhere in Europe—certainly not Italy. No dude on the street can give you a honest rate that's better than you'd get at a bank. Besides, this is one major way locals dispose of counterfeit bills. Just say no.

OK, say you skipped that last paragraph and fell for the scam anyway—we'll even give you a lame excuse for it: it's 3am, you just got off the train in a new town, you have nothing but some emergency greenbacks, everything is closed, the ATM in the station isn't working, and the only hotel in town demands cash up front (yes, this has happened to me—though to be fair, it was in Poland, not Italy, and thsi happened pretty soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so things weren't really running well yet there).

So you dabble with the dude and his gray market money. He is a warm and friendly guy, your money-changing savior, and after the deal is concluded, he goes all Mediterranean on you exclaiming, "You are my new American friend!" And wraps you in a big bear hug by way of goodbye. You stand there, bemused by his effusiveness, and he walks away with a wave and a smile.

Congratulations, he switched gears from con artist to pickpocket and just stole back the money he gave you, plus whatever else was in your wallet.

Only use official taxi cabs

Gypsy cabs or otherwise unofficial taxis are usually rip-offs, and always illegal. As in the U.S., most cities require that true cabbies get a license and their cab a "medallion" number and a meter to keep track of your fare.

Ones that don’t have a medallion are usually run by some branch of the local underworld, and they can also charge whatever they think you'll pay, since there's no meter.

If you need a taxi, never accept a ride from someone inside a train station or luggage claim area of an airport. Walk outside and directly to the official taxi rank.

In Italy, you don't really hail a taxi headed down the street they way you would at home. You can try, but it's really unusual and the driver is unlikely to stop. Instead, you either:

  • (A) Head for an official taxi station. These are located outside all major transport hubs (airports, train stations, bus terminals), major sights, and usually the central piazza and other major squares.
  • (B) Call ahead for a taxi. This is called "Radio Taxi" and you don't really need to know the local numbers (though I'll provide them in each major city section). Just have the restaurant, hotel, or wherever else you happen to be call it in for you. Keep in mind that the flag drops as soon as they set out—in other words, the meter starts running as soon as the cabbie gets the call and leaves to get you, so this costs a bit more than finding a cab on your own.

Watch that meter

Standard taxi fares and charges will be posted in any legitimate cab in Italy--in many places, in both Italian and English
Standard taxi fares and charges will be posted in any legitimate cab in Italy--in many places, in both Italian and English
Taxi drivers—even legal ones with meters—will sometimes try to get a fat, unintended tip out of you. If the meter is not on, insist that it be turned on. Make sure it corresponds to whatever per kilometer/per minute rates are posted (legitimate taxis always have the rates posted where passengers can see them).

The initial "flag-fall" charge plus a per-kilometer amount (or charge for time stuck in traffic) is standard across Italy. However, you're taking a long trip—say, to the airport—taxis will often all charge a flat fee, and this is legit.

Check your guidebook, ask at the tourist info office or your hotel desk, or go to their airport's own website to find out what this official airport rate is (for the major cities, I'll provide the going rate on each city's "Getting There: By Air" page).

The following small, extra charges (never more than $1 to $6) are usually legitimate:

  • Charge per bag in the trunk
  • Charge for travel on a Sunday or major national holiday
  • Surcharge for trips to/from the airport
  • Flat fee charge if you called ahead for the cab (the flag drops when they get the call, not when you get in the car)
  • Charge for trips after hours (usually roughly after 10am or midnight and before 5 or 7am).

If none of those conditions apply, don’t trust any "extra" fee the taxi driver tries to foist off on you.

Commissions and kickbacks

When your friendly escort on a guided bus tour recommends the “best shop” for buying local crafts or souvenirs, nine times out of ten she’s getting a healthy kickback from that store and the prices are heavily inflated.

(In defense of tour guides, this is one of the only methods for them to eke out a living, as they are notoriously underpaid—in part because companies unofficially expect them to take advantage of this option as an unlisted perk.)

Do your shopping on your own time, and get your recommendations from a guidebook or the hotel desk.

Legal thievery: The scams built in to every hotel bill

Since the nasty, money-grubbing tricks that hotels pull are (a) technically legal, therefore a bit outside this page's purview, and (b) annoy the heck out of me, they get their very own page here. Here's a hint: avoid the minibar, the phone, the laundry service, and the parking garage.

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