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 based on what has worked in the past, not what is particularly logical.
There are other variants: recently an 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 a non-natural 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 or even a raised eyebrow – counts as an interaction and means that the scam is ready to be played out.
By “ignore them”, we mean act as if the scammer were completely non-existent: they are invisible, and you can’t hear 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, and say the word “vigili” or “polizia“.
While acknowledging this annoyance exists, we don’t want you to be overly concerned about it – in general, apart from pickpockets, incidents of mugging and violent robbery against tourists are incredibly rare in Rome.