Tag team scammers in Napoli

Her mouth is agape and her face devoid of colour as she stammers the words, “my wallet”. It takes a couple of seconds for my brain to take in the scene and assemble the past 15 minutes of seemingly unrelated activity.

We’d just hopped off our train in Naples from Rome. Excitement grew as we departed Napoli Centrale train station on our connecting journey to our ultimate destination, Sorrento, on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Jenny was looking at her carry-on bag. The zipper was open. She opened it fully and that’s when she realised that her wallet was missing. This was the perfect tag team scam.

max at train station in italy

Dave, our friend, was watching for pickpockets from the sidelines at the Napoli Centrale ticket office. None were spotted here. We are all seasoned travellers and are aware of scammers, especially after what we had heard about Naples. But this scam was different. This was a team effort – well practiced and executed. This is how it went down.

An older guy was near the ticket booth. He was wearing a suit and resembled a railway official. He had heard our request for Sorrento tickets and started hassling us, yelling, “Sorrento … train leaves 12 minutes – different platform. You must hurry. Next train three hours” (We later found out that these trains run every half hour). Three hours indeed, Mr ‘suit’ man — crap!

The lady (scammer #1) in the ticket booth takes my 50 Euro and gives me change, in small denominations. The old small denomination change trick (think Maxwell Smart voice) – lots of notes but missing a few! Our friend Nerida does the same and puts the change in her purse without counting it. Was she ripped off as well? Most likely.

All this time the ‘suit’ (scammer #2) is yelling out “hurry, hurry”. With this he picks up two of the bags and starts to run – up the escalator. There is confusion and urgency about the situation. We do what anyone would do – follow him. Bloody hell, he’s running away with two of our bags. So, up the escalator we go. I am counting my change as I ascend. Short-changed by 10 Euro. Bugger! Do I go back and have an argument? No. This guy would be on another platform by then and I’d not only lose contact but miss the train. Scam # 1 – tick.

This guy is very fit for an oldie. I reckon he repeats this ploy many times in a day. Who needs the gym?

We climb up and down stairs, go through turnstiles and haven’t a clue where we are. Eventually we get to the platform. The train is there. We have six minutes until departure. The crunch comes. He holds out his hand and demands 5 Euro each (that’s about A$35 for the four of us). We say “no way mate, get lost”.

Now he is yelling, ranting and raving – yeah, I know, this is a diversion. We end up giving him a total of 10 Euro just to get rid of him. Of course, we are all focused on him – he has done his bit. This is scam # 2 – tick. And while he is distracting us, scam # 3 is taking place. Someone has stepped into this chaos and with sleight of hand; unzipped Jenny’s bag and removed her wallet. Okay, we’ve just been ripped off by scam # 3 – tick.  

So, this tag team has just pulled off a perfect scam. Very polished, I must say. They would be now sharing the spoils of their efforts – cash and credit cards.

So, what are the consequences of this scam? Okay. call that 1800 number and cancel the cards. This was the first thing that was done – within two hours of the theft. However, the scammers had managed to rack up about A$1500 worth of purchases within this time. New cards had to be prepared and sent to Italy for pick up about a week later. We now must also get a new drivers’ licence, Medicare card and health card. More importantly, Jenny’s hair colour formula was written on a piece of paper and was in her wallet – essential as we’re travelling for nine weeks. Oh no!

This is a monumental disaster and seemingly more stressful than the other stuff taken. A few emails and phone calls back home to her salon and all’s well. Okay, I know, I’m in for it now for letting the cat out of the bag! (My life won’t be worth living once she reads this. Fare thee well YourLifeChoices readers!)

We arrive at Sorrento police station and see some undercover cops removing machine guns from a car boot. Maybe there’s lots of crime in these parts. Perhaps they’ve had a tag on the ‘suit’. We spend a few hours filling out forms for an insurance claim. There’s also the anxiety and stress over such an incident. Oh, and what about the humiliation in the fact that we allowed ourselves to get into this situation?

What advice can I give? I’m very aware of scammers, but most of them are professionals and unfortunately even the most seasoned travellers will probably be scammed at some stage. They come from left field. Distraction is the key for the ultimate scam. Take note travellers!

Anyway, it all ended well. All cards were replaced, and the insurance claim was paid in full. Oh, and Jenny got her hair coloured perfectly in Sorrento. But for now, tag team 1, Max’s mob 0.

Have you ever been scammed overseas? What advice would you give travellers for avoiding these scams?

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