Having bummed around the centro storico running errands all morning, I was about to head back to the flat. Sitting in the park across from the train station, I recognized the man approaching me as someone I’d often seen hanging around the station. Mid-30s, casually but neatly dressed in jeans, and with a confident gait. He greeted me with a big grin.
“Lei parla inglese?“
My Spidey sense had already kicked in, but when he said he’d seen me earlier and wanted to be my friend, and could we exchange phone numbers, I became downright annoyed. Dismissing him out of hand, I had to wonder how many people fell for his schtick.
There must be quite a few, or it wouldn’t be worth his time. He would just move on to another station.
Ignorance is NOT bliss
Many new expats don’t recognize such threats. There’s that urgency to meet new friends and feel like we “belong.” And there are preconceived notions of what criminals look like, or the erroneous belief that these things just don’t happen in our new country.
So, let’s stop and think for a moment.
By what criteria do we deem someone trustworthy? Do they just look innocent enough? Folks sometimes become victims of their own prejudices.
But predators are not limited to any one country, region, age, ethnicity or gender.
The pickpockets roaming tourist areas everywhere are an age-old problem, but the global grift is another story. Beyond phones and wallets being stolen, new expats are increasingly victims of con artists and cyber thieves. They’re targeted on dating sites, or duped by criminals purportedly wanting to “help” them get settled, show them the ropes, etc.
Just recently a classmate told me of an online apartment rental agency, supposedly based here in Florence, that turned out to be a scam. Tours, taxis, and many other services – both online and in tourist centers – must also be viewed with caution.
Trust no one
So, what’s an expat to do?
Open our eyes.
The guy at the train station was clearly targeting Americans or other foreigners who might be on holiday or new residents in Italy. He had no doubt found victims who thought he was a clean-cut, friendly Italian man who just wanted to be helpful. How many of them had given him their phone number, connected with him on social media, and more? (Many people would never send money to an unverified person or company but may indeed give their phone number to a total stranger on the street.)
Grifters operate by gaining their victims’ confidence, initially befriending them casually either online or in person, and then convincing them to invest, lend, or simply give their hard-earned money. And they are hard to monitor.
For example, we all know that as soon as online scammers are shut down, they just move on to a new scam. They’re always one step ahead of the law, and there’s no end to potential new enterprises. Of course, cyber crimes are accomplished virtually — through a device rather than in person. Our phones are computers, and we’re connected worldwide. Thieves are finding their way around safeguards, even hacking into phones that are simply within a certain proximity.
They can also spoof a caller ID, making it appear as if calls are coming from a trusted source.
Adopting the “trust no one” philosophy may sound harsh, but it has served me well around the world:
• If you receive a communication supposedly from an immigration or law enforcement official, bank, phone company, etc., don’t respond or click on a link. Initiate your own contact to that office to determine if there’s a problem.
• Don’t share personal information or place orders with strangers or unfamiliar sellers;
• Never click on links in unsolicited messages;
• Take time to get to know those you meet both online and in person, even in fellow expat groups; and, verify information from online sources.
Staying on top of your accounts is also important, both in your new country and your home country. Freezing your credit with the three major credit bureaus (Experian and TransUnion) is an easy safeguard.
As for in-person risks, never get too close to a stranger. Even in a crowded station we can manage our own space; be wary of the those who seem overly friendly, or ask personal questions; and, think twice about asking strangers for directions, thereby revealing your itinerary or whereabouts. (“Can you point me to the nearest ATM?” Duh.)
So, this is just another reminder that recognizing certain of life’s realities is essential to becoming a successful expat. Arriving in a new country hopeful for a better life is a good thing. But, there are scammers, thieves and grifters in every corner of the globe awaiting your arrival, hopeful that it will mean a better life for them.
Read more of Carla’s work here in Dispatches’ archives.