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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The American tourist con

To continue my series on “smooth criminals”, here is a strange bit of information that was passed on to me a couple years ago.

It is particularly illuminating to find out that both undercover cops and con artists pose as American tourists in favorite pickpocketing spots. Since most of the local thieves are recidivists, it’s easy to predict where and when they will rob. Their marks are almost always the same – white, middle aged, with the appearance of being either Nordic or Anglo-Saxon. I’ve seen Italians and Poles get robbed, but by and large, the most coveted tourists are Americans, English, and Scandinavians. They have more Euros and the latest 5 megapixel cameras.

The American tourist stereotype is obese, unwieldy, middle-aged, and camera-toting. Many tourists fit into that category, not just Americans, so to narrow it even more, we would have to expand this to tourists that wear sneakers, XXXL size t shirts, usually with some kind logo, baggy cargo shorts, sometimes a baseball cap or visor.

But one sure sign of an American is the inverted daypack.

After visiting forums and reading guidebooks, they are well aware of pickpockets in Barcelona, so they wear their daypacks flipped to the front. This preventative method is utterly useless and only alerts the criminal to the presence of a rich American tourist who probably has all kinds of valuables in that little daypack. They shadow their mark, and as soon as they get that first opportunity (and there always is one) they will sneak up and slip their snaky fingers around that bag next to them on a bench, or hanging off their chair in a café.

A hint: if you don’t want to get robbed, and just want to enjoy the city, you don’t need to march around with safari survival gear and an inverted backpack. Just go with your normal outfit and walk casually. Would you walk around your hometown dressed to the hilt like that? The fact is, dressed like that, your chances of getting robbed in the US are probably even higher than they are here.

So here’s where the American tourist con comes in. It works from both sides. We have the undercover cops who dress as American tourists in order to entrap would-be thieves. They usually wear starchy white polos and shorts, fanny packs, baseball hats, and white sneakers. I haven’t actually seen a take down as a result of one of these sting operations, but I’ve seen true crime shows on TV with undercover reporters dressed as fake Americans in La Catedral, a favorite spot for pickpockets. One British girl told me she had personally seen the fake American tourist cops on Princesa street (a central street in Barcelona, frequented by thieves).

Recently, the three shell con artists have been notching up their activities on the Ramblas, and some have been using the fake American con to their advantage.

The three shell game is really easy to figure out. I’ve seen it in San Francisco, and it’s the same here. They are usually eastern European (Rumanian, I think), the same as in the US.

They set up the game on a cardboard box. It consists of a small foam ball and three cups. They show you the ball and cup it, then shuffle the cups around and have you guess which one it’s under after saying a weird amalgam of languages that goes something like:

“Ein zwei drei … veeez ball?”

The thing is you can never win because no matter how well you track the ball, they are quick enough to swipe their finger underneath the cup as they are lifting it to make it appear as if the ball was never there. It’s easily one of the oldest cons in the book – but who always falls for it? Tourists.

Anyone with a modicum of critical capacity could figure this out. So they have a newer technique, which is gathering fake spectators around them to bolster confidence. The fake spectators are all in on the cut. They bet on the ball, win some lose some, the others cheer them on, and give the game a simulacrum of honesty.

The funny thing is the way they dress. You guessed it. Like the American tourist. Baseball hat, sneakers, lumpy outfits. It’s definitely part of the con. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes.


Thing is, this is a stereotype, much like the stereotyped American accent (you know, like we have a potato shoved in our mouths). These are taken from old movies, like with Bogart, for example, where the sound dynamic wasn’t as good as in today’s recordings, and it made everybody sound like Donald Duck. Back then, even macho Iberico movie stars sounded like Pal Joey. But people remember old Hollywood the best, and the archetype has stuck in our collective consciousness.

The typical big hair, white tennis shoe and Hawaiian shirt thing is also a throw back. No normal person wears that kind of shit. The tourist “look” has evolved slightly, but so has the rest of the world. Things work on a global scale now, and for the most part Eurostyle has gone the way of the east German Trabant. Instead of crotch-numbingly tight it’s the yo style. Everyday I see kids speaking Spanish or Danish or whatever looking like they just got finished bombing Jones street in SF, or ripping up the Embarcadero. Maybe it’s MTV or the internet. It’s speculative - but a definite, irrevocable trend.

Lots of people look like Americans now, or at least they want to (but would never admit to it). Does that mean Americans don’t stand out anymore? No, they still do stand out, especially in front of the Hard Rock Café, but for the most part unless they open their mouths or wear their friggin backpacks reversed, no one would ever guess they were gringos. That is, until the Biometric passports start in October. (But there is an easy way to circumvent mini Bin Ladens from using scanners to find out if you’re an infidel. I’ll get to that later in Guirilandia survival techiniques…)


here’s an interesting article on how to win the three shell con