The bracelet scam is found all over Europe and is particularly common in Rome. It’s a peculiar but annoying racket that combines some friendly chat, a cheap African bracelet, and a guilt trip into paying money for it.
How the scam is carried out
It usually begins with a friendly “Hey, where are you from?”, “Nice shoes”, “You have a good smile”, etc. Once the ‘mark’ has responded, the scammer then has a set-piece statement with which to respond: usually about the country you’re from. “America, land of the free”, “England? Rodney you plonker,” “Vive la France!” etc.
At this point a cheap bracelet is put on your wrist without your permission. If you try to give it back, the scammer usually says “no money, it’s a gift”, then tells you a sob-story (often involving a pregnant girlfriend), then asks for a “tip”. Refusal leads to persistence and following you around.
These techniques here seem odd, but this is a scam that has evolved over years based on what has worked in the past, not on what is particularly logical.
There are other variants: recently my African-American friend was greeted in Via dei Fori Imperiali with “hey my n*gga”, which certainly got his attention – and then a bracelet was thrown at him, which he instinctively caught. He tried to give it back but as he did so, ended up being handed two more bracelets, all of which he eventually threw down in the street while the guy chased after him before giving up to pick up the bracelets.
How to avoid the scam
This scam works by preying on the natural human instinct not to be impolite: not to brush off a friendly greeting, not to drop an unwanted gift on the ground.
So to counter the scam’s strange psychology, we therefore need to act in an unnatural way.
There is a simple technique which almost always works, and is used consistently by locals in Rome:
Totally ignore the scammer.
This sounds simple, but it’s harder to do than it sounds.
We often hear tourists say “I ignored him but he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer”.
Well, saying “no” is not ignoring them. By “ignore” we mean totally blank them.
Act as if they literally don’t exist.
Any acknowledgement of their existence whatsoever – irritated reaction to the initial part of the scam, eye contact, a smile, scowl or even a raised eyebrow – counts as an interaction and means that the scam is ready to be pursued.
By “ignore them”, we mean act as if the scammer were completely invisible: you can’t hear or see them no matter what they say.
If the bracelet gets put on your wrist before you realize what’s happening, you should drop or push it to the ground before they can tie it on.
We acknowledge that this sounds inhuman, but we consider that it is actually a kindness: by doing this you indicate to the scammer that you are not worth their time and they can move on to harass someone else. This technique also works on selfie-stick vendors, umbrella merchants, etc.
A warning: while they’re mostly harmless, lately we recently have heard reports of scammers becoming more aggressive and intimidating when asking for money. If you are unfortunate enough for this to happen, make sure you walk firmly (but not in a way that shows you’re intimidated) to a place where there are other people around, preferably anyone in a uniform, shout “aiuto” (AI-yoo-toh – “help”) and a word for the police: “vigili“, “carabinieri“, or “polizia“. If you are having serious issues, head for a crowded area while making as much noise or fuss as you can, and try to find a cop or call for assistance.
While they may be physically threatening or aggressive, they generally are not muggers and counterintuitively they need to avoid violence at all costs: most of the people performing this scam are illegal immigrants, and getting into trouble with the police will likely get them jailed or deported.
Think about it from their point of view: they’re looking for a sucker, not a fight. If they threaten violence to someone it’s because they sense that being intimidating will result in money for them, which is all they care about. They also know that someone who totally blanks them isn’t going to play the game and they will intuitively know they’re wasting their time. Whereas they know that someone who acknowledges their existence in any way at all (including saying “no”) proves that they have that person’s attention and they can progress the scam.
While acknowledging this annoyance exists, we don’t want you to be overly concerned about it – in general, apart from pickpockets there is very little crime directed against tourists in Rome, incidents of mugging and violent robbery against tourists are almost unheard-of. Relax with your wits about you!