10 scams in Rome and how to avoid them

written by Jennifer Chandler June 25, 2018
Backpackers walk through Rome in Italy

I love Rome. I could walk the streets every day for the next 20 years and still find new hidden grottos, fountains, chapels. Every gelataria I go to is my new favourite.

But Italy’s capital, like pretty much every major city in the world, has a strong side hustle when it comes to tourists. Some of the scammers are after easy money from people they think are easy targets, while others are genuinely struggling and are just trying to feed their families.

While it’s nothing to be worried about, it is something to be aware of while you’re exploring. Here are some of the most common scams going on in Rome.

The Colosseum in Rome

Photo by Cliff Bielawski

1. The glamorous man

You’ve got to hand it to Rome: nowhere else in the world are the scammers so well dressed. This scam involves a glamorous man (or woman) who pulls up next to you in his car. He’s lost, he’s late and he desperately needs directions. It’s amazing that he asks you for directions to probably the one place you know in the city. He’s so grateful that he offers you a designer coat – he works for Versace or Gucci, don’t you know?! All he needs now is just a bit of cash to fill up on petrol. He’s being driving around and he’s almost run out. He seems so nice, he’s given you a free coat AND he works for Gucci, so of course, you fork out a few euro.

There are other variations of this where the glamorous scammer is on foot and offers you a heavily discounted designer jacket in thanks for your directions.

What to do: Sorry to burst your bubble but he’s not handing you a real designer jacket and you won’t really be getting a bargain. If an impossibly well-dressed local is asking for directions, best to just shrug your shoulders and walk away.


2. Bus 64

Forget about Oliver Twist and Fagan, real pickpockets are impossible to spot. They generally look like nice, ordinary Romans going about their nice, ordinary Roman lives. Bus 64 is a prime pickpocket route. It goes to many of the city’s most visited sites and is often full of distracted tourists.

What to do: You don’t need to avoid the bus, you just need to be aware of what’s going on around you. The only ‘tell’ the pickpockets may have is a jacket draped over their arm to disguise their wandering hands. Keep your valuables zipped up and where you can see them.

The Pantheon, Rome

Photo by Cliff Bielawski

3. Romeo rats

This one is for the ladies. There’s a certain group of Roman men nicknamed pappagallo which means ‘parrot’. That’s because they can be found most days in the same tourist spots feeding the same lines to ladies who look like they’re by themselves or in pairs. They start simply by asking the time and then ask you a few casual questions to establish whether you’re Italian, living in Rome or just passing through. These guys are incredibly disarming. They are smooth as gelato alla crema and before you know it you’ve agreed to meet up with them for dinner. You may have a fabulous time with your pappagallo; they are outrageous flirts and will make you feel like the only woman in the world. The reality is you will never ever hear from them again and they’ll be back at the same tourist spot the next day looking for a new love to woo to bed.

What to do: Give them the time, but don’t give them the time. Wink.


Piazza di Santa Maria in Rome

Photo by Cliff Bielawski

4. Roses, bracelets and beautiful things

This one is common throughout Europe and has plenty of variations. Basically, someone, often a kid, will hand a woman rose and then turn to the man she’s with and ask for money. The man then looks bad if he refuses to pay and it’s almost impossible for the woman to hand the rose back. The reason it works so well is that the kids usually only ask for a small amount of money. The guy thinks it’s not worth the fight so they pay up.

Another version involves friendship bracelets or rings. These are offered to the woman for free and tied on her wrist in a way that’s impossible to get off. While that’s happening someone comes up and ties one on to the guy, presumably for ‘free’. He doesn’t argue. Once it’s on, the new ‘friend’ asks the guy for money for the second one.

What to do: Don’t accept things from strangers. It will never be for free.


5. No menus in the house

Diners at an outdoor restaurant in Rome

Photo by Cliff Bielawski

When you’ve been walking around all day, all you want is a big fat bowl of pasta and a carafe of the house wine. When you finally find a restaurant, choose a spot and sit down, you might be surprised to hear they’ve run out of menus. That’s ok, you know a few Italian words, so you order something simple. The rub comes when you pay the bill and find it is about twice what you expected. You can’t argue, because you ordered it. So you have to cough up.

What to do: If there are no menus in the house ask to see the prices (posso vedere i prezzi), or get up and find another restaurant. Also, just as a side note, if you see a little asterix next to a menu item it may indicate that it’s a frozen packaged meal. Have a look for fine print at the back of the menu.


6. Check your coins

It’s been a while since the Lira was out and the Euro was in, but that hasn’t stopped some vendors doing a little switcheroo. The 500 lira coin is remarkably similar to the 2 euro coin.

What to do: Always count your change to make sure you haven’t been short or wrong-changed.

7. Fake police

In Rome, shops are meant to hand out receipts as a record of tax collection. There are actual real police to check this, but unfortunately, they’re often plain clothed and some scammers take advantage of this. When you leave a shop they’ll ask to see your receipt. They’ll then tell you there’s a problem with it and give you an on the spot fine.

What to do: Don’t get worried if someone in plainclothes approaches you. Just ask for their badge or identification. You can tell them you want to call the police hotline to verify their identity (call 113 or 112). Finally, if they insist, say that you’ll only pay it at a police station.

Travellers drinking in Rome

Photo by Cliff Bielawski

There are some other scams that are worth a special mention:

8. The stranger who offers you free tickets to a club – where you’ll be charged €1,000 for your drinks

9. Illegal taxis who charge for ‘extras’. Make sure you get a cab from an official stand; don’t hail one on the street.

10. The stranger who shoves grain in your hand, whistles and calls the pigeons onto you. They take a photo and then ask for money. Just walk away.

With the good (and there is so so so much good), comes a certain amount of dodgy, but don’t let that put you off. Rome is an incredible city with many amazing things to see.

Explore the city (and avoid the scams) on a small group adventure in Italy now!

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