Barcelona is the fourth most-visited city in Europe, and is a magnet for tourists of all sorts. It's just one of those places that everybody seems to want to visit, from hitchhikers to cruise ship voyagers.
Where there are tourists there are inevitably people who are only too happy to lighten their wallets, and unfortunately not always legitimately. Barcelona has a reputation, unfortunately justified, for being the top city in Europe for petty crime, particularly pickpocketing. This shouldn't stop you visiting, because Barcelona is one of the world's most fabulous cities, but you should be aware of the various scams and dangers and know when you're most likely to be at risk.
Some areas are worse than others, and in general the more tourists there are, the greater the risk. Cruise ships unload at the bottom of La Rambla and most other tourists head there within a few hours of arrival, so this is an obvious high-risk place. Be particularly wary on the beach, on the metro, in any public parks and in other tourist hotspots such as Passeig de Gracia.
Pickpockets are by far the biggest problem in Barcelona. Some things should go without saying: don't put valuables in your back pocket or a rucksack, don't take all your money and cards out at once, do keep your valuables out of sight as far as possible. Unfortunately pickpockets are more sophisticated than that and will use distraction tactics to get you to drop your guard. Be careful of anyone who gets physically close to you, for example...
The Bird Poo Scam
You're enjoying a pleasant walk along La Rambla when a local man starts gesticulating and pointing to your jacket. You look and there's a big blob of disgusting white stuff stuck on your back. The man waves his arms around, flaps, points up to a bird. Dammit! Bird muck. Fortunately, the man has a bottle of water and a handkerchief and sprays and wipes until the poo has gone. Unfortunately for you, he's used the opportunity to remove your camera and wallet from your jacket pocket, and he's long gone by the time you realise.
There are a few variations on this type of distraction. Tricksters might flick a dab of mustard or ketchup on your back or accidentally knock your drink over. If anything like this happens, go into a bar or restaurant and ask for a tissue and some help.
Of course, not all distractions are quite so sophisticated or daring. Young men walking along the bottom half of La Rambla late at night are often joined by 'prostitutes' who link arms and flirt with them, pretending to be touting for business while fishing for their wallets. Someone might drop something at the top of the escalator on the metro, forcing those behind them to bump into one another and creating the physical contact that makes theft easier. Someone might even just tap on the window of your cafe and gesticulate that they want to know the time. Remember, it only takes a second or two.
Sneakily Does It
Sneak thefts are also very common, particularly around the coffee tables on La Rambla and Placedil;a Reial, on the beach and in the city's parks. Most of the time, the victims have simply been careless: falling asleep on the beach, perhaps, or hanging their bag or jacket out of sight on the back of a chair. Sometimes the thief is cleverer than this, though - showing you a fanned-out handful of postcards 'for sale' and out of sight beneath them grabbing your camera or phone. Bear in mind as well that the salesmen who come around the tables selling novelty sunglasses and the like are not always entirely trustworthy and could well be checking where your valuables are. Never let your valuables out of your sight for a second, keep them hidden whenever possible and take extra precautions when you can (for example, by wrapping the strap of your bag around your chair leg).
Hit and Run
We were on the metro going out to Sagrada Familia and just pulling into Passeig de Gracia station when four men stood up as if ready to get off the train. As the doors opened, they turned as if that were a signal and surrounded an old Japanese man who had his camera around his neck, trapping him in the doorway on the off-side of the train and cutting him off from his family. They tried to snatch his camera and I think they were trying to intimidate him into giving it up. As the 'doors closing' beeper went, one of the men went to the door and blocked it open so the gang could get off the train; the doors closed and we sped off. The whole incident took less than ten seconds, but must have felt like a lifetime for the poor tourist. They didn't get the camera, but the old man looked totally crestfallen, his holiday ruined, and everyone in the carriage, locals and tourists alike, looked aghast.
The above is a description of a fairly typical 'hit' on a tourist. The metro is the prime location for this sort of crime, because if the thief can get off the tube as the doors are closing, the victim is powerless until the next stop. It's an effective and cowardly tactic, and some pickpockets will target people standing by the doors and make their escape in the same fashion.
The advice is simple: avoid standing near the doors, keep your valuables hidden, and be extra vigilant at stations.
A similar tactic is also used on the streets, whereby the pickpocket or thief quickly hands over the stolen items to a runner, so that if the criminal is caught they will not have any evidence on them and can claim to be a victim of mistaken identity.
If you carry a shoulder bag, make sure you wear it diagonally across your body at all times and ideally keep the bag itself in front of you. If you wear it over just one shoulder, it's a prime target for a snatch by a thief on a moped or bike. Choose one with a broad strap, as thieves have been known to cut through thin straps with scissors or a blade.
All of the above are ways in which people will get you to part with your valuables, but there are some real scams as well. Let's look at a game of chance - a simple betting game that you know you can win...
The Pea and Cup Game
This one gets naive tourists all the time, so just don't get involved.
You're walking down La Rambla when you come across some kind of street game. The 'host' of the game has three cups, one of which has a pea underneath it. He shuffles them quickly then takes bets on which cup the pea is under. You watch for a moment and realise you have this game completely sussed. Every time, you know exactly which cup the pea is under! And there's some serious money flying around. In the fourth game, a guy wins €150, and you knew where the pea was! And while you're pretty sure it must be a scam, some people do seem to be winning...
The host notices your interest and asks if you want to have a bet and you start to think about it seriously. People are betting big money, up to €50 a time, but crucially they're all betting on the wrong ones. You know which cup the pea is under, and there must be four or five hundred euros to be won there... so against your better instincts you have a bet, and of course someone walks in front of you, obscuring your view, and of course the cups are switched, and of course you've lost your money. You try to protest but the table, host and players are all gone within seconds, and you're left wondering what the hell just happened.
Of course, the other players are in on the scam. They are 'betting' against one another, nobody is really winning or losing, and the whole point is to draw tourists in. They'll be noisy, cheer lots when they win and laugh and joke with one another - all this is designed to draw your attention and make you think winning is really possible. And when you lose and realise you've been had, a couple of the other players will remonstrate with you, telling you they won your money fair and square, while the 'host' makes his way down the steps of the nearest metro station.
Still, in this one at least you're just being egged on until you foolishly part with your cash. More compelling is the...
Fake Copper Scam
You're wandering around near Sagrada Familia when a man comes up to you and in broken English asks you for directions. You point him in the rough direction of Gaudi's masterpiece, and he's not even out of sight before two other men come up to you, flashing some sort of official-looking ID. They claim to be undercover police officers and explain that the man you were speaking to is a drug dealer and you are a material witness. They ask to see your passport.
This scam has a variety of forms and can go a number of ways at this stage. You may be asked to pay a 'fine', whether you have your passport or not1, you may be 'searched' (and your valuables removed) or your wallet may simply be grabbed. You need to get help by getting to the nearest bar, cafe or shop. Clearly this is an intimidating situation to find oneself in, and it works because tourists think it might just be possible that the 'policemen' are telling the truth. They aren't - and even if they were, no real policeman would object to you all going to a local bar to confirm some details, would they? Try to get into a cafe or bar, ask to inspect the 'id' more closely and don't panic! Street crime in Barcelona is very rarely violent.
Fortunately, this is a rare scam and one you'd be unlucky to be caught up in. Much more common, and one that you'll probably see every day, is the...
Gypsy Lucky Lucky Heather Scam
...in which an adorable old gypsy lady will take all your money in exchange for a bit of 'lucky lucky heather'.
If you've been anywhere in Spain before you'll have certainly met this scam, even if you don't know the details. Outside just about every cathedral and religious site in Spain you'll find people apparently begging; there is still a strong tradition of asking for alms and, whether you choose to give to them or not, these people are not scammers. Neither are the gypsy ladies who sell tea-towels and shawls outside cathedrals and churches - many non-Catholic visitors don't know that you have to cover your shoulders to be allowed in, and these ladies are exploiting a gap in the market with an efficiency that would make Lord Sugar proud.
No, the lucky heather scammers will come up to you and push a scrawny-looking bit of heather into your buttonhole or try to pin one onto your clothing. You'll refuse, of course, but they'll tell you it's 'lucky lucky', tell you it's a festival day2, promise to do a bit of impromptu flamenco for you and, as a clincher, tell you it will only cost you one cent. Some people at this stage decide that a cent is worth it just to get rid of them. Of course, nobody has a single cent in their pocket, the ladies won't take a whole euro, and one of them will helpfully go through your purse trying to find a one cent coin. As her forefinger pokes around looking for the elusive coin, the rest of her fingers are helping themselves to your euro notes.
Most of these scams are not unique to the city of Barcelona, and anyone who has travelled to any of Europe's major cities (particularly Spanish cities) will probably recognise at least one of them. However in Barcelona scams and petty thefts are rife, and despite various initiatives the police stations around La Rambla and the old city remain busy with tourists. Many crimes go unreported, as a significant proportion of victims arrive by cruise ship and do not have time to linger. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the odds of you becoming a victim.
- Don't look like a tourist. Catalans take a certain amount of pride in their appearance, and even in the height of summer you'll see businessmen hurrying to meetings in full suits and ties. If you're waddling down the street in flip-flops, shorts, bum-belt, a 'I NYC' T-shirt with expensive camera overlay and a 'Kiss Me Quick' hat - you're going to stand out as a target.
- Don't get lost. You'll draw plenty of attention to yourself if you'd standing on a street corner with a map flapping in the wind. Plan your route in advance and work out a few landmarks you'll pass on your way so you always have a good idea of where you are. You'll find there are lots of signposts to guide you to the major sights, and once you get to know the names of the main streets navigation is fairly simple. If you do find yourself temporarily mislaid, find a cafe, order a coffee, and work things out there rather than on the street.
- Keep valuables hidden as far as possible. If you flash your iPhone or SLR camera around, someone will want to take it off you.
- Take extra care on the metro. When you take out your wallet to pay for your tickets, remember that someone could be watching and noting where you put it when you're done. If you're going to use the metro regularly, consider buying a travelcard (you can buy these at Tourist Information Centres and many other places if you prefer) and keep it seperate from your wallet. Stand away from the doors when you can and keep a hand on your valuables.
The best advice of all, though, is don't be put off! Barcelona is a wonderful city and gets so many visitors for so many reasons. If you're aware of the scams that go on and take a few simple steps, then it's almost certain that you won't be a victim of them.