La bella Italia, a vacationer’s paradise…well, most of the time. Italy is breathtakingly beautiful in so many ways. It is also alluring in its charm, nightlife, exquisite food and effervescent population. It should not surprise anyone to come across such a numerous amount of visitors.
What does surprise me is how a country that makes most of its income from foreign tourists, allows so many of its businesses to continue to scam the very people who enable them to eat.
Scams are everywhere, in every country and no one doubts that. Taxis, landlords, street vendors and car salesmen are infamous world-wide. Most of us know to watch out for Gypsies, homeless and drunks. The few places one usually feels safe, however, is when one goes out to eat, get a coffee, rent a hotel room, rent a car or even buy a dress. We never feel as if we must question whether or not we will get scammed, simply because these kinds of scams seem to be exclusive to Italy and especially Rome; herein lies the great dilemma with Italy, for you will get scammed indiscriminately.
(Please read the comments for any new scams in Rome.)
Don’t cry about it…change it!
Why is it so very prevalent in Italian cities but not so in other major European or American cities? Why do Italians get so offended when this topic is brought up instead of working toward putting an end to this practice? Why is it that laws, which would prevent scams, have not been put into place? This is not the time to get defensive because you are reading something negative about Italy. Italians should get angry at the scammers who are deliberately dragging their country down. It is time to DO SOMETHING!
I suppose what makes it so annoying is due to the fact that we never expect to get scammed at an upscale restaurant, hotel, chic dress-shop nor charming café. We do expect it from a taxi driver but not from a private car service. We expect it from people who appear hungry or desperate but not from the elegant restaurant in Rome’s most prime locations.
I had a friend who worked at one of the most upscale-looking restaurants directly on Piazza Navona. Her training as a waiter included a lesson in scamming tourists. The items on the menu were affordable but did not include any beverages. The beverage menu was never given and refused when requested. Beverages were priced outrageously high. There were also some menus hidden with higher prices on the daily specials in order to back up the higher bill in case anyone complained. I fell for this same scam while in Torino, where I paid more for an orange juice and coffee than for my entire meal.
Fresh from the freezer…
There is a less serious scam, or at least I consider it a scam, although it is completely legal. The scam involves cheating you out of the beautiful experience that you should be having. We usually categorize restaurants based on their appearance. If it has cloth napkins and elegant uniformed waiters, then it must be an upscale restaurant, right? Wrong! The restaurants lining many of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome and other large cities in Italy, tend to serve frozen TV dinners. Look for the asterisk next to the items on the menu. It is required by law to be placed somewhere on the menu in order to indicate frozen food. Although it may sometimes appear in tiny print at the bottom or on the back of the menu, sometimes it is not included at all. Check Tripadvisor for reviews before entering any restaurant in Rome.
If you choose a restaurant on Piazza Navona, you will be happy to know that you will find the same dishes they serve you, in the frozen food section at the local supermarket. I made this mistake twice on my first trip to Rome. I ordered pasta al salmone each time at two different restaurants and got the same TV dinner. I actually thought that they shared the same kitchen since they were next to each other. It was not until I moved to Rome, that I was informed about the scam. Both restaurants had the appearance of an upscale restaurant and the prices to match. If you want to eat on a beautiful piazza and not get scammed, go to McDonald’s and get a bottle of water so you avoid the GMOs. Sip it as you drink in the beautiful surroundings, then find a tiny hidden street and eat at the first restaurant nestled there. Otherwise, look for Michelin or Slow Food recommendation stickers on the front entrance. Read Mangiare Bene, for a detailed guide at choosing a top restaurant in Italy.
I first came to Rome when I was on tour with Hair-the musical. The entire cast, musicians and crew decided to eat at a restaurant near our hotel, which was in the middle of nowhere in Rome. Instead of being forever grateful due to the enormous amount of business that a group of forty hungry people had brought this anonymous restaurant, they greedily added one euro for every item on the bill. When I brought up the discrepancy, the waiter replied, “Oh yes, please excuse me”, pulling out his pen, as he changed the amounts of every item on the menu instead of the check.
Whenever I tell this story, Italians tell me that I should have called the police. I know my rights now, but no one knows their rights when they are vacationing in a foreign country. Especially when you have been scammed continuously. If you feel you are being scammed at a restaurant, do not hesitate to call the police or Carabinieri by dialing either 112 or 113. If the receipt you were given does not state that it is a ‘ricevuta fiscale’, then you can get them into lots of trouble for tax evasion by calling the Guardia di Finanza. The exact words ‘ricevuta fiscale’ and a serial number should be stamped on the receipt that you are given.
€900 for pasta?!!!
Recently, a story made the papers around the globe. A Japanese couple ate at a very chic five-star restaurant, which is frequented by Italian celebrities and politicians. The bill totaled around €700-€900. The amount varies with each retelling of the story. They calmly paid the bill, left and went directly to the police. According to the police reports, the bill should have totaled no more than €200. The restaurant has been closed down since, setting a precedent. This is the minimum that should happen and is a definite step in the right direction. The mayor of Rome at the time then offered the Japanese couple an all-expense-paid vacation in Rome, to which they replied, “No thanks!”
Many restaurants will give you an amount to pay without an itemized receipt. Bars will charge tourists more even for a cup of coffee. Supermarkets will continually cheat you out of mere pennies without excusing themselves and still charge you for the bag, but will break a bill if you are otherwise short a cent or two.
L’iene to the rescue!
Shops will raise prices before the government-regulated sale season, only to have the subsequent sale price equal the original price. Tourists and Italians alike fall victim to this each time.
Several news programs such as ‘Striscia la Notizia’ and ‘L’Iene’ are constantly on the lookout to stop scams from happening. In fact, many Italians fall victim to medical, legal and property scams. Of course, every country has those as well. Italy particularly falls victim to psychics and magicians who promise to ward off evil. I just find that a bit funny and yes, these shows uncover those scammers as well, sending them off to prison.
“What are you in for?”
“I shot the mob boss. You?”
“Magic…so you best stay away or I’ll put the evil eye on you!”
At the Café…
Whenever I am overcharged for a coffee, I say, “Ma che? E’ salito il prezzo? Ieri era di meno.” (What? Did the price go up? It was less yesterday.)
“Oh are you a regular customer?”, they always ask.
“Certo!” (Of course!) Needless to say, the price drops about ten cents.
Coperto? Tip? Bread Charge? What?
When I go to a restaurant, I always add up all the items using the menu. Remember, the ‘coperto’ has been illegal in Rome for several years. The bread charge is usually included in the ‘coperto’ charge. If you do not want bread, tell them and the bread charge and/or coperto should not appear on your bill. If it is, and you prefer not to bother arguing over the €1.50-€2.00, just consider it as the gratuity and leave nothing further. This is usually my practice as waiters get decent salaries and do not depend on tips. One usually rounds up to the nearest Euro or two. If they illegally included the coperto in order to get an extra buck, I refrain from rounding up whatsoever. Keep in mind that the waiter does not take home the tip. The restaurant usually keeps it as well.
The Mafia Influence…
The question still remains: Why does it happen in such unexpected locations?
After living here for about five years, I have noticed a few traits that I call ‘Mafia Traits’. Oh how Italians hate when I mention this. In Italy, a favor is something you are expected to pay back. Lying is no big deal, just go to confession…eventually. Get as much as you can get whenever you can and pocket it quick. The Italian government blatantly practice these principles. Italians pay very high taxes and only have socialized medicine to show for it, while other European countries pay the same or sometimes less taxes, yet enjoy many more services from their government. State buildings look as if they have been bombed. There are about 574,215 chauffeured-government vehicles in Italy. The entire United States boasts a mere 73,000. (2007 study done by Associazione Contribuenti Italiani)
Scammers ruin Italy’s reputation!
So what does this all mean? It only means that the mafia negatively influenced the Italian culture, and since Italians are used to getting scammed, they do it too; but it does not mean that every one you meet will live by this creed. For every scammer, there are numerous honest citizens. Most Italians work hard, pay their taxes and are good honest people. They live for their family and work to live. I know many wonderful Italians who own businesses and never scam anyone. This is especially true outside of Rome and beyond the tourism industry. Unfortunately, a few are ruining it for the rest.
In my opinion, Italy – like any other country – is not perfect, nor are its people, but the positives far outnumber the negatives and if laws are put in place that protect the tourism industry, Italy will flourish.
Italy may be the land of your dreams, but in order to enjoy this marvelous place, you must keep your eyes wide open.
The following are typical scams and how to avoid them:
- Vatican Tour Scams: You will be approached by dozens of tour guides lining every inch near the Vatican. Many in the prime locations are hired by mob families. They will promise you that you will see the Vatican Gardens, the Raffaelo Rooms and even have tea with the Pope. They will tell you the lines are 2 hours long even when no line exists. If you want a good tour, search Tripadvisor and book the best one you find from a reputable company online. Make sure you get one with a Native-English speaker. Most tour guide licenses are controlled by the mafia so most tour guides are Italians speaking deplorable English. My friend has a reputable tour agency called When in Rome Tours. There are many others as well. Do your research and find your best fit. Watch this National Geographic Video on the Vatican Tour Scam for more details.
- Gladiator Photo-Op: You have finally made your way to the Coliseum and notice that you are suddenly surrounded by Gladiators. They offer to take your picture using your own camera or phone, after which they tell you that you owe them €20 each! If you must take a photo with a Gladiator, then ask for the price before hand and negotiate to no more than €1 each. I took plenty of photos with Gladiators when I was here on vacation and usually got away with paying them €1 total. Watch this National Geographic Video on the Gladiator Scam for more details..
- Taxis: Get the white one with the official seal. They have a set price for airports. Make sure the rate is set to ‘1’ inside of the GRA in Rome. The ‘2’ rate is higher and applies to outside the GRA. A taxi should switch to ‘1’, the lower rate, upon passing the GRA into Rome. Taxis never do, so make sure you remind your driver.
- Horse-drawn carriages: This is one of the biggest rip-offs in Rome. Get a fixed price BEFORE you get on. It is common for them to charge you hundreds of Euro for a short ride. I would actually avoid this like the plague. It is almost a scam guarantee, not to mention the cruelty to animals.
- Men, beware of other men offering you free pass to ‘Club 84′ or anything similar. They then convince you to buy girls drinks, which total in the thousands.
- Ladies,beware the professional pick up guy. This Italian predator will certainly be lurking around the Fountain of Trevi, Campo dei Fiori or the Spanish Steps. Just know that he frequents this area every night just to see how many foreign girls he can take to bed with him. There are several of these guys and they compete with each other to see who beds more girls. If you want to find an Italian lover, go to an aperitivo or club where the selection is better at least.
- Gypsies: if they surround you, you must react: hit, scream, act crazy, push, kick and do whatever you physically can to get them away, even if they are children. Unfortunately, they will have no qualms about digging in your pockets unless you get physical. A new scam is that they throw a baby in the air and take your wallet when you reach to catch it. The baby is usually just a doll, but one never knows. One scam that they have tried on me is to pretend that they have just found a gold ring or valuable jewelry. They bend down and pick it up, right in front of you. Then they look at you and ask you if you had dropped it. I have never stuck around long enough to see how it plays out and neither should you.
- Buses & Trams: Women, if you are on a crowded bus and you feel someone is too close, especially if his groin is leaning on you, then do not hesitate to push him away. He is getting excited and you must get him away, so push him off, yell at him and do what you can. They usually get embarrassed easily, if you call them out about their disgusting behavior.
- Renting a car: People have had charges appear a month after having returned the vehicle in perfect order. Make sure you use a credit card or method of payment that will protect you and avoid this from happening. Take photos of the car when you pick it up. Any dents and even minor scratches can be added to your bill if you cannot prove they had already been there.
- Random spill or vomit: Some people spill things on you or tell you someone has vomited on you. When you attempt to wipe it off , they swipe your wallet. A new method is that a respectable-looking old Italian man will help you clean it off while his partner lifts your wallet or backpack.
- Pickpockets are experts. You will not feel them, even if you are aware of one behind you. Separate your money, cards and documents so that if they get to one, they will not get all.
- Counterfeit searches: Police do not conduct personal searches for counterfeit money. Tourists are sometimes stopped by false police officers. If an officer stops you in order to search you, tell him he may do so at the station (questura), where at least you will be certain he is real.
- Avoiding Break-ins: If you rent a car, never leave all of your belongings or valuables in it. Criminals recognize rental cars by their license plates.
There is so much to see, smell, taste, feel and love. Knowing what to expect and how to avoid the negatives will only enhance your visit and make you come back again and again. Now all you have to do is throw that coin in the fountain to make sure it happens!
Learn how to choose an amazing restaurant each and every time: Mangiare Bene: How to Pick a Top Restaurant in Italy
See why the eternal city is magical: The Eternal Night
Italians to the rescue!: When Glenys Got Sick on the Roman Metro
Do not leave Rome without tasting the best of the BEST: Rome’s Best Ice-Cream, Pizza and Coffee