A few people had warned me about pickpockets before I set off for Madrid, and besides, we all know to be wary as we amble through foreign cities as conspicuous tourists – a map in one hand and a camera in the other. That said, I wasn’t prepared for the complexity of a particular scam that caught me totally off guard a couple of weeks ago.
If I’m honest, I hadn’t made much effort to defend myself against opportunist thieves. Thanks to a 10 kg limit on my cabin baggage (you’ve got to love budget airlines), I was using a light canvas day bag with no closing mechanism. It’s a wonder people weren’t dipping their hands in and out as they pleased!
So, with complacency settling dangerously on my shoulders, I descended the steps that lead into the Royal Palace’s Sabatini Gardens and began taking photographs. This was when a young, meek-looking Spanish woman approached me. She held a form in her hand and, in broken English, led me to believe she was collecting signatures for a good cause. ‘What’s the harm?’ I thought and, taking the pen she offered me, I began to fill out my information – name, signature, country of origin, etc – below that of 20 or so others. I was half way through when I realised that the final column said ‘donations’ and I must have hesitated because the woman started to point out words like ‘deaf’, ‘blind’ and ‘children’ in the form’s poorly written header. Feeling trapped and under pressure to contribute to the worthy cause, and still under the illusion that it was legitimate, I reached for my wallet and handed her 5 euros.
Up until this point, she had been very unimposing, but as soon as my wallet was in view, four more women appeared and they surrounded me. Suddenly panicked, my first thought was that they had come to distract me while one of them snatched my camera or passport from my bag, so I concentrated on holding it tightly closed against my body. One of the women said they needed to see my bank card to check my signature – an unusual requirement for charitable donations – and she actually removed it from my wallet herself! I wrestled it back as she thanked me unconvincingly and confirmed that the signatures matched. In an attempt to reinforce the original story and shroud my suspicions, she drew my attention to her filling in the donation column of the form. Did I detect a fleeting expression of smugness?
As I walked away, I confirmed that I was still in possession of all of my belongings. But the momentary relief was soon replaced with an air of suspicion. Why had so many of them come over if they had not intended to rob me, and why were they so intent on checking my signature? The only conclusion I could draw was that their little scam involved collecting people’s signatures and memorising their card details – four numbers each would be easy.
I wasn’t prepared to sit around and wait to see what they did with my information. I sacked of the remainder of my sightseeing plans and hurried back to my hostel to look up the lost and stolen phone number of my bank. In retrospect, I can’t believe I was so gullible, but in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to get caught up in a scam like this. In future, I will always use a bag that closes securely and I will think very carefully before getting out my wallet if asked to by a stranger!
For snapshots of my more enjoyable times in Spain, see Photos of Spain.