Getting ripped off during your vacation in Madrid can seriously ruin your mood and overall impression of the Spanish city. More often than not, these scams occur due to unfamiliarity with the local culture, so doing some research prior to your arrival can make a huge difference.

    A general rule to live by is to always be aware of your belongings, especially in crowded areas and public transport. However, con artists have countless ways to make a quick buck from unsuspecting tourists, so check out our guide of the most common scams in Madrid and how to avoid them.


    Lucky rosemary

    The lucky rosemary scam is commonly executed by elderly gypsy ladies in Madrid’s touristy neighbourhoods. Basically, these women hands you a rosemary twig and, given the chance, starts telling your fortune. You’ll then be asked to pay them for their ‘services’, typically between €5 and €20. Refusing this often results in them making a huge scene until you’re pressured to give in to their demands.

    How to avoid:
    Resist when things are handed to you and immediately walk away from them.


    Fake police

    Pickpockets claiming to be undercover policemen can be hard to spot, as they often produce realistic badges before asking for your wallet and documentation. This clever trick often happens late in the evening, when most tourists are already inebriated. These scammers approach you to check your wallet for counterfeit money. They will actually steal a few euros before handing it back.

    How to avoid:
    Stay calm when being approached by fake policemen. As they often travel in pairs, confronting them can result in a physical altercation. Simply ask to see their badge again and demand that the wallet inspection take place at the nearest police station.


    Taxi scam

    Taxi scams are prevalent not just in Madrid, but all over the world. For the most part, Spain’s taxis are licenced with clearly visible meters at the front. There are drivers who ask for a fixed (and usually inflated) fare by telling you their meter is broken. Some may just take a longer route to your destination to hike up the total fare.

    How to avoid:
    Check that the meter is switched on before entering the taxi. If the driver claims that it’s not working, decline politely and find another taxi. You can call your hotel to get an estimated cost of the trip to avoid getting overcharged.

    photo by Dcarolina.2000 (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified


    Menus without prices

    All restaurants in Madrid are required by law to display prices on their menus. Unfortunately, some resort to conning unsuspecting tourists by convincing them to order ‘daily specials’, which are often written on chalkboards or English-translated menus which don’t have prices listed on them. When the bill arrives, you may find that the dish is much pricier than expected.

    How to avoid:
    If a waiter recommends the daily special, always ask for the price before making your decision. A good alternative is to ask for both Spanish and English menus to check for price discrepancies between the 2 versions.


    The pea and cup game

    Also called the ‘shell game’ or ‘thimblerig’, this scam involves a person with 3 identical cups and a pea, asking you to bet on which cup covers the pea. The scammer usually builds your confidence by letting you win for the first few rounds before using tricks to change the pea’s location. Once you’re engrossed in the game, someone in the group will sneakily take off with your wallet.

    How to avoid:
    Don’t bother playing because you will lose, no matter what. Avoid large groups of people who are watching this game, as they’re often accomplices of the scammer.

    photo by Holger.Ellgaard (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified


    Fake restaurant vouchers

    While sightseeing in Madrid, you may come across strangers handing out discount vouchers that are too good to pass. When you decide to dine at the restaurant and hand them the voucher when the bill arrives, the staff will tell you that it has expired or that it doesn’t apply to your order. As a result, you have to pay the full amount, which is often much higher than it would be in most restaurants.

    How to avoid:
    Quickly walk away or decline when things are handed to you. If the restaurant piques your interest, check the voucher’s validity with the staff before ordering anything.


    Pickpockets on the metro

    As if travelling on a crowded metro isn’t uncomfortable enough, you may also fall victim to pickpockets. They tend to ride metros that travel to and from the airport and around touristy areas in the city centre (red, green, and yellow lines), especially during peak hours. It’s often difficult to take care of your belongings while you’re crammed against commuters.

    How to avoid:
    If possible, keep your pockets empty and make sure your bag stays close to your chest throughout your commute. If you’re not travelling with a bag, always keep a hand on your pocket to avoid getting pickpocketed.


    Bogus petitions

    Con artists masquerading as charity workers typically congregate in Retiro Park, Plaza Mayor, and The Royal Palace of Madrid. They usually approach unsuspecting tourists to sign a petition for a bogus cause, sometimes even asking for a small donation. While you’re distracted by their explanation, an accomplice swiftly searches your pocket or bag and takes off with your belongings.

    How to avoid:
    If a stranger approaches you for donations, avoid eye contact and just walk past them.


    Football scam

    Another popular pickpocketing approach, this scam involves a group of people playing a seemingly harmless game of football. They pick their target by kicking the ball in your direction and inviting you to play with them. Don’t be fooled by this seemingly friendly gesture as it’s often a cover for the players to get a feel of your pockets for valuables.

    How to avoid:
    Make sure your pockets are empty before engaging in any contact game. The safest bet is to only play with people you’re acquainted with.


    The Good Samaritan

    The Good Samaritan scam takes on many forms, usually pickpockets chasing after you to return something you’ve dropped. The item can be either jewellery or a banknote to pique your interest. While you’re busy telling the person that it doesn’t belong to you, an accomplice gets the chance to pick your pocket. Another scenario that usually happens at the Madrid Royal Palace is a friendly stranger offering to help take your photo. Once you’re standing far enough away and posing for the photo, he or she will run off with your camera.

    How to avoid:
    If you turn around and find a stranger with a wad of cash or some jewellery that’s not yours, walk away as fast as possible. Never trust your camera or smartphone with a stranger, no matter how badly you want a good picture of yourself.

    Penny Wong | Compulsive Traveller

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