Don't fall for the stupid ring scam in Paris!
Chapter one: A visiting American friend and I were walking through the Cour Carrée — the smaller courtyard of the Louvre, which is actually a huge open square. I noticed a man was walking directly toward us from waaaay over on the opposite end, which was strange and conspicuous because the entire courtyard was almost devoid of people; he was making a beeline for us. My scam-o-meter went off and I braced myself for whatever might be coming; I even said to my guest, "Don't stop and talk to this guy." About ten feet before the guy reached us, he theatrically stopped dead in his tracks and looked wide-eyed at the ground, then bent down and appeared to pick up something small in his hand. Just as we reached him, he held up a shiny ring and gasped and said, "I think it's gold!" in awkward-sounding English. I laughed at him and we kept walking. We had no idea what the guy was up to, but it was clearly ridiculous.
Chapter two: Later that same day this same friend and I were walking along the left bank of the Seine, near the Musée d'Orsay, and an old lady did the exact same thing; she bent down and then held up the fake gold ring she had been palming and said, "Is it yours?" We simply ignored her and kept going. Of course my friend and I were intrigued, and we speculated as to what on earth these people were up to exactly. Clearly they were trying to get money off people, but how? Did they really think we would buy this ring off them? Why pretend to find it; why not just try to sell it to us?
Chapter three: A month or two later, I met up with an older cousin of mine who happened to be the most decent, kind, sympathetic man I've ever met in my life. He'd traveled extensively and like me he spoke French fluently and knew Paris inside and out. However, whereas I'm a cynical jerk, he was a sweetheart. He was strolling though Paris (I forget which neighborhood) with a friend, and a man approached them and pretended to find a ring right in front of them. And finally, because my cousin wasn't a jerk like I am, I got to hear how the scam plays out!
The man said, "Sir, is this your ring?" My cousin said no. Now, my cousin was an extremely intelligent guy and I'm sure realized this was a scam from the get-go, but that's where the similarity between me and him ends; I never let these people engage with me at all, but he was too polite not to, and that's exactly what these scammers — and pretty much all scammers — are counting on. (See my note about the bracelet scam at Sacré Coeur; that one really burns me up.)
The man said something along the lines of, "Well, we found the ring together; it's only fair that we split the value of it." Ha! Are you kidding me? Does this work on people? My cousin tried to deflect this by saying, "No, it's okay, you keep it," as I'm sure most people do. The man countered, "Sir, it's against my religion to keep anything of value like this. However, I'm very hungry; I haven't eaten in days, and anything you could give me would be very much appreciated. You keep the ring, please."
And my cousin, this kind, lovely man, who completely understood what was happening, GAVE HIM TWENTY EUROS!!!!!
Wow. He felt bad for this guy, who was clearly a con artist but clearly not well off, and he knew he could afford to give him something. Hey, it's his money.
I do wonder when I'm approached by beggars and scammers like these (for instance, the women at Notre Dame who show you a sign in English that explains that they have hungry babies at home and need your help) what kind of situation they're really in and why they're doing this; one hears things about criminal networks and people who are brought to France from Eastern Europe and forced to beg, or work these scams, and have to give all their earnings to the people in charge. I have no idea how much of this true; I'm sure some of it is. I'm sure some of these pickpockets/beggars/con artists don't have a choice, while others probably do have the choice and simply do this rather than try to get a job in a country that makes it clear it doesn't want them there. I just don't know. But regardless, I'm not the kind of person who would support this system in any way by willingly giving over my money. I don't judge anyone who chooses to. I do not blame anyone for feeling sympathy for these folks; I applaud it, sincerely, but I personally don't think that handing over money is a solution. So my goal with writing about all of this is to help you be prepared for these situations so you can make whatever choice you feel is right, rather than be blindsided and get tricked and then regret it when you've had time to think about it.
I want to be very clear about something here, and it's a lot more serious than the stuff I usually write about for this website. A lot of French people I know will blame this kind of petty crime specifically on Roma people in Paris; people commonly labeled with the outdated and derogatory name, "gypsies" (gitans in French). I've spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe and got to be familiar with Roma people, and when they're in Paris and relatively unassimilated they're very easy to spot, like the guy approaching me from the far side of the Cour Carrée at the Louvre that morning. However — and it feels absurd to have to say this but it needs to be said — they're not all criminals, and not all criminals in Paris are Roma; not by a long shot! I've had people of every single color and creed try to scam me in Paris (and in New York, and Berlin, and Amsterdam, et cetera).
I've unfortunately encountered a lot of casual racism in France (just like in every other country on the planet) and it's important for me to point out that these stereotypes are absolute bullshit, AND at the same time that doesn't mean you don't need to be careful when you're a traveler in a foreign country and strangers approach you; in many cases they're approaching you because they can tell you're not from around here and might be easy pickings. Just be alert and use your head! Believe me, I'm just as wary when a French white guy in a suit approaches me. When any stranger talks to you in any big city there's an excellent chance they're going to try to take advantage of you. There's also an excellent chance they won't, but you've got to be careful anyway.
Where the heck am I going with all of this? Ah, yeah, well, anyway, my very progressive, politically-correct sensibilities made me really want to not mention the Roma or any other specific people in this article, but I know my French acquaintances will think I'm being remiss at best — and dishonest at worst — in not doing so. So there you have it. I hope I've written about this a sensitively as I intended to. It's a complicated topic and I welcome your opinions on it!
One more thing about the ring scam. Going back to my two experiences with the scam, above: If this had happened to me in a more crowded area, I would've been way less interested in the person with the ring and way more interested in watching out for pickpockets while the person with the ring tries to distract me. Fortunately both times this happened to me it was in completely wide-open spaces with no one around but me, my friend, and the scam artist. (Oh man, what if my friend was in on it??? The long con!)
The ring scam seems so unviable as a con that it might serve better as a distraction while other people around you grab your bag or rifle through your pockets. I wouldn't be surprised if it's used this way too. So be alert!
And that reminds me of the clipboard ruse; I've never met anyone who's been got by this, but I've seen videos of it online: someone asks you to sign a petition for a worthy cause, and then while you're signing they pickpocket you under the clipboard. Clever! Again, I would never speak to anyone who's trying to talk to me in the street, so this would never happen to me.
As always, I will close by saying that Paris is a very safe, friendly city and the vast majority of Parisians are lovely, honest people. I've never been the victim of any crime in all my time in Paris, but that doesn't stop me from being careful all the time, and indeed, it may be because I'm so careful that I've thus far gone unscathed. Just use your noggin and you'll be fine!
Good luck, safe travels,