The Chase - charcoal
The conman – one step ahead of the law

You’d think a village in Somerset would be the last place Italian con men would operate in – but the other day Harry Mottram almost fell for a scam that is more common to the streets of Rome than Cross near Axbridge.

I was crossing the road to the New Inn at Cross to deliver magazines when a white sporty looking new car pulled up. Inside were two prosperous looking well fed Italian men (they introduced themselves as Italians). They asked for directions to Gatwick saying they were lost – I showed them the route on their map and in thanks they immediately handed me what appeared to be a Rolex watch. They insisted I have it as a thank you – but I tried to hand it back. They then thrust a second watch into my hands saying it was for my wife. Again I tried to give the watch back – and then they said as they had given me a watch could I lend them cash for petrol as their card wouldn’t work at a cash machine. I smelt a rat and threw the watches back through the window of their white sports car.

The car sped off at high speed leaving me somewhat bemused. According to the police these chaps have been operating in the area – although whether they managed to con anyone is a mystery. A quick scan of a tourist guide to Italy and travel websites revealed how common these scams are. This is from bq125 Belfast writing on Tripadvisor: “There is also a mature Italian man stopping unsuspecting tourists and asking directions. He thanks you and then offers some cheap clothing samples and then he says that he is out of petrol and could you lend him some money. As he has given you something for nothing you almost feel obliged to help. A refusal will see him grab the clothes back and make of at great speed.”

And this is from Brenda Reed at the website Virtual Tourist: “We were walking to the Colosseum area when a small oldish car pulled up to us and the driver asked if we spoke English. He proceeded to tell us how he was running late and needed directions to the train station (which was right around the corner). In the process he told us that he was from Milan and worked for a famous designer – even showed us a well-worn notebook of pictures. We used his map to explain how to get there and he wanted to thank us with a gift. He ‘just happened’ to have a really nice leather jacket in Hubby’s size and a designer handbag for me, and he was sure to point out how much they cost. When we refused, he said we offended him and he tried to talk us into keeping them. As we stood there holding the stuff trying to get out of this conversation politely, he then showed us his broken credit card and asked for gas money. Hubby quickly threw the “gifts” in the car and we walked away.”

Brenda said that normally the gift bearer demands more than a token for gas (after all, he gave you such nice things) and once the duped tourists walk away with their jacket and handbag, a motorcyclist quickly rides up and grabs the stuff so it can be reused on the next victim.

On the Fodors website Europe Forums Tom had this story again in Rome: “I have been approached by three scam artists in the last 24 hours. The first was yesterday as I was headed to Castl st Angelo. It was the ‘found ring’ scam. I must admit, the lady was pretty smooth. But as soon as I saw her bend over and come up with a gold ring, I just kept walking. The other two happened today about 30 minutes apart. The first one was the ‘Versace Salesman Gift’ I was near Ponte Palantino, when he pulls over and asked for directions to the French Embassy near the Vatican. After I showed him how to get there he offered me a ‘gift’ which at this point I kept walking. “The third one happened less than 30 minutes later as I was walking be Circus Maximus. It was the ‘Phoney Cop – Let’s See Your Money’. It was instigated by a man acting as a tourist stopping me and asking for directions. As I was showing him on the map, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a slight wave of his hand. Within 30 seconds, another man showed up in ‘uniform’ with a badge and an ID that saying “police”. He then goes into this spiel about fake money and asks us both to see our passports and wallets to see if we had fake money. His partner whips out both. But for some reason, his partner only has $100 bills US. I tell him that I have no money or wallet and just show him the photocopy of my passport. Then I just turn and left. Off to my left I see their third partner, a lady that I had seen earlier up the street reading the newspaper.”

Ironically I played the spiv in the Axbridge Pageant in 2010 – and performed a comedy show entitled Harry The Spiv at the Roxy in the town based on an incompetent dodgy black marketeer. Judging from these stories – incompetent spivs are not as unusual as you might think. All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t fall for the scam in Cross – I might never have been able to live it down.

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