In the past two days I have watched two crimes happen to my friends, one was only attempted and the other was sadly successful. Even though I've posted general tips for travelers, I thought perhaps I should post ways to avoid specific crimes.
Crime Number One: Ring Trickers
This is more common and successful than you think. Generally, a Romani woman (for simplicity's sake I'm going to use the term 'gypsy' henceforth) stands in a tourist place waiting for ladies to pass by. When they do, she drops a ring and then "finds it" for you. After that, several things can happen. Often, she will simply rob you while you look at. Other times, she will offer it to you as a gift and then try to charge you for it.
Best avoidance technique: This one's hard, because you'll be caught off-guard. I have a very nice diamond ring, and the first time I saw this I asked myself "was I wearing that ring today?". Ignoring simply won't happen; it's too unnatural. Most likely she will be quick enough to at least show you the ring. My best avoidance maneuver has been to knock the ring out of her hands and run.
Crime Number Two: Petition Wavers
This one gets really annoying. In the span of five minutes I've been approached three or more times on several occasions. Essentially, younger gypsy girls approach you with a petition to sign. You can tell them apart because rather than ask for a moment of your time, they simply stick the clipboard under your face and wave the pen close to your eyes. Two known consequences of this crime are either (a) they manage to pickpocket you while you're trying to see what you're signing, and (b) you unknowingly sign it and it turns out to be a contract stating you'll pay them $___.
Best avoidance technique: It's been fairly easy to simply run away from these girls, but on a few occasions they've followed me and gotten forceful. In that case, my best technique has been grabbing the pen out of her hand and throwing it behind me (the most successful escape was when I did that while simultaneously knocking her clipboard to the ground).
Crime Number Three: Cash-Machine Creepers
Yesterday's failed crime was at an ATM. My friend and I were headed to a cafe to study for exams, and she needed to take out some money before going. I saw two suspicious-looking gypsy kids approaching from behind, and even though we were bigger than them, aware of what they were doing, and in the midst of cancelling the transaction for protection, they still attempted this. Essentially, these kids wait until you've punched in your pin, and then use all force possible to take your money as it comes out. Yesterday they tried hitting my friend in the face with a newspaper, and we were fortunate that was all the force they tried. I've heard horror stories of much, much worse.
Best avoidance technique: Even though we would have won a fist-fight, I can honestly say that even I couldn't simply hit a child. That's why most of these kids succeed. Try your best just to avoid the situation all together: don't take out cash alone, be attentive to them if they look like they're going to approach, and hit cancel immediately if they do come up to you. If the worst happens, your best measure here is to yell for help and hang on to your cash for dear life. We yelled for help yesterday and a lovely older gentleman pushed the kids off of us.
Crime Number Four: Bracelet Makers
Another surprisingly successful scam. I've found that these men are often not Romanis, but of French-African descent. They usually work in groups and are centered around areas from where tourists take pictures. They find any sort of way to reach your hand (asking you to point to something, asking you to see your hand, simply grabbing it... if you're caught off-guard nearly anything will work) and in less than a few seconds, they've made a string bracelet around your wrist. Then they tell you that you've purchased it and owe them $___.
Best avoidance technique: Saying no doesn't work. Walking away doesn't work. These men are persistent and often violent. If you see men holding string coming towards you, run away. If, however, he manages to catch you in his trap, get angry and scream at him. Rip off the bracelet, cause a scene; show him that you, too, are violent, and that you have the law (and all surrounding citizens) on your side. It seems like it will just escalate the situation, but these guys get enough people out of fear and persistence that they're not going to deal with a crazy person. It worked for me in Paris.
Crime Number Five: Map Questers
Having spent a lot of my life being a tourist, this crime enrages me. I have legitimately been lost and needed help before, and so I always help people when they ask for it. In this trick, someone approaches you and asks for directions. Sometimes, it's not a trick. Sometimes, they steal from you and run while you're left standing and pointing out the corner they need to turn at.
Best avoidance technique: Seriously, as a plea on behalf of people like me who tour a lot and are bad with maps, answer people on the street who need help. That being said, never ever ever help someone without first taking a strong hold of your bag. It takes a bit of training, but this should become your second-nature.
Crime Number Six: Table Approaches
Today's successful crime really blew me away. I was eating lunch with a group of five other girls, all of whom you would call world travelers and big-city girls (Melbourne, Cologne, San Fransisco, New York, Toronto and Ottawa). And yet, even though we knew what was happening, our reaction time was too slow and one of my friends lost her iPhone to two gypsy girls. I still cannot believe it. These people come up to you while you're eating and distract you in some way. They work in teams and use a paper or something to block your view of whatever they're taking. Today, we launched towards the purses and kept them safe, without realizing the iPhone was on the table under their blank blue pages.
Best avoidance technique: Besides being generally aware of where your stuff is, the best maneuver here is to rip the papers out of their hands and yell. The owner of the restaurant will come and will probably help you if they managed to get anything, and by grabbing the papers you'll throw them off-guard as well.
Crime Number Seven: Item Borrowers?
Do you have a cigarette? Lighter? Tissue? Euro? I've heard them all.
Best avoidance technique: Say no. Don't be polite, don't be kind and don't ever open your bag. Hold tight to your position and get loud if you need to.
I know some of these seem mean or over-dramatic, but it's often what it takes. You'd be surprised how persistent and even violent some of these criminals can be. It's hard, but don't forget that they are committing a crime. Not to mention that -- assuming you're in my financial position of school debts -- they likely have more money than you do! Don't let pity get in the way of keeping yourself safe. Life can be tough for these kids, but life's not easy for anyone and it's not impolite to keep your own stuff safe from crime.