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Scams in London

You're not likely to come across many scams in London, and most of those that do exist are pretty obvious. Just remember the old adage: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is!

Street 'Designer Goods' Sellers & Mock Auctions

Occasionally, particularly around Oxford Street and Marble Arch, you will come across illegal street traders selling 'designer' clothes, watches and perfumes from a suitcase or temporary table. The prices, of course, will be amazingly cheap. But buyer beware: while the display items and 'tester' perfumes will be real enough, you can be sure that when you buy, the items you actually receive will be fake. And by the time you've opened the packaging and checked, your friendly street seller will have disappeared together with your money.

Be particularly aware of this with perfumes - at best the bottle will be full of coloured water, but fake perfumes commonly cause skin rashes, burns and even severe allergic reactions. Moreover a report by the the Anti-Counterfeiting Group may give you pause for thought: fake perfumes are commonly laced with urine, which acts as a substitute for the stabilizers present in genuine perfumes. Yuk!

Mock Auctions are a variation on the 'illegal street trader' theme. The UK's Trading Standards Office has cracked down heavily on these in recent years, but it's possible you may come across one. These illegal auctions are held in vacant retail units and customers are deceived into believing that a genuine auction is taking place. Accomplices in the crowd will appear to win 'designer' or high value items at ridiculously low prices, encouraging onlookers to join in to get a bargain. Of course, it's all a con: the '500 camera' that you paid just 80 for, will turn out to be worth 10 or less. And by then it's too late.

These mock auctions are worth a look for the entertainment value, but don't let yourself be tempted - you buy at your peril!


Hard Luck Stories

A polite, well dressed, person approaches you and wonders if you can help them - they have just arrived in the country and have been robbed of everything they have. The police are no help and they're desperate. Can you possibly 'lend' them enough money to buy a train ticket to their friend's house in ... (somewhere far away) or pay for a hotel for the night? Their story will sound very convincing, with lots of little details thrown in. And naturally they promise - no, they swear! - that they'll return the money to you just as soon as they get to their friend's house / get a money transfer sorted out. Often the person will turn out to be the same nationality as you, or be learning your language, or love the same music... (what a coincidence!), thus drawing you in.

Sadly, if you choose to help them, you are very unlikely indeed to ever see your money again. To my mind this is a particularly nasty scam as it feeds off people's kindness (as opposed to the illegal street traders who feed of people's greed), and those who do help are often the ones who can least afford it.

This happened to me years ago when I was a student. I was waiting at Victoria Coach Station when a young man started chatting to me and happened to mention that he was a really stuck as he'd just been robbed and had no way to get home. He had, he told me, just flown in from New York (cue details of glamorous trip to the US) and needed to get to his father's house in the north of England. With no money, and the police no help, what on earth could he do?

Cleverly he didn't directly ask me for the money, but of course I offered to lend him the money for his coach ticket. He gave me his address and elaborate promises to repay the money. Did I ever get my money back? No, of course not. And, needless to say, my letter to the address he gave me was returned 'address unknown'. What a very mean thing to do to a hard-up student.


The 'Shell Game' and the like

Betting money on a confidence trick such as the Shell Game, the Three Card Monte or similar is a very foolish thing to do. The operator and his accomplices in the crowd will make it look so easy, but the whole show is there just to scam you. There is absolutely no way you will ever win. You have been warned.


Credit Card Skimming

Many Londoners suspect that staff at certain Central London restaurants are involved in 'credit card skimming', meaning that your card details are electronically copied so that a clone card can be produced. In order to do this, your card has to be swiped through a special electronic device, so it's best not to let your card out of your sight. In some restaurants this means that you will need to take your card to the cash register, rather than simply handing your card to your server. Fortunately more and more restaurants now have mobile wireless terminals which are brought to your table. But it still pays to keep a good eye on your card during payment (make sure it is only swiped once).


Used London Travel Cards

Don't hand over your used (but still valid) day travel cards to the touts who hang around some London stations in the evenings. Giving them your card is actually illegal (they are 'non-transferable'), and the touts re-sell them on the black market. Buying a travel card from these dubious characters is also illegal, and the card is anyway unlikely to work.