On our first day in Milan we had a run in with some of the shady street “vendors” that congregate in large tourist areas. We had taken the metro to the city center where many of the landmarks are. We emerged from the metro station into the central square to be greeted by two gentlemen, each with an armful of what looked like small colorful strings. They immediately made us for tourists and asked if we wanted “African Friendship Bracelets”. I initially said no, but the men said they were “free” and that there was “no charge”. I was suspicious, but thought maybe it was part of some sort of outreach or awareness campaign, so I agreed.
Instead of handing me the “bracelet” (a very cheap piece of string) one of the men pulled me aside and started putting it on my wrist (note that we were in a very public place, there were hundreds of people around). While doing so he asked me friendly questions, in good English, like “where are you from?” and “what have you seen so far?”. I started to get antsy and try to wriggle away, but he kept saying he was almost done. When he finally finished tying it (after maybe a minute) I finally started to pull away, and that is when he began to aggressively solicit for money.
I was unnerved and so I don’t remember the exact words, but he was basically asking me for a donation “for Africa”. The first time he asked I said sorry, but no, and started walking away. He continued to follow me and then began to be more direct, telling me that I needed to give him money. At this point I fully realized the game and went to find Annie, who was nearby, but not as far along in the routine. I told her we needed to go, at which point the man she was talking to protested and skipped straight into his aggressive “you need to give us money” speech.
I think Annie was unsure of what to do, especially since we had already “accepted” the offer. I had no qualms about ditching these hucksters and I tried to explain to her that we needed to go. It did not help that both of the gentlemen were now in our faces almost yelling at us for a “donation”.
At this point Annie could see that these guys were con men, but was unsure of how to get away. She is kind to a fault (it is one of the reasons I love her) and I think was hesitant to walk away from guys who gave us a gift, even if it was a poisoned one. So I took her arm and marched in the opposite direction, pulling her with me. They followed us for a few feet, but gave up when they saw how serious I was about getting away. Did I mention I was glad we were in a public place?
We got away unscathed and checked our pockets afterwards. Luckily I was wearing my money belt, as it would have been very easy for a confederate to have picked my pocket during the ordeal (especially while the bracelet was being tied). As we walked through the central square we saw these guys everywhere. Maybe it had something to do with the camera’s that were glued to our faces, or the large map we kept pulling out, but somehow (inexplicably) we looked like tourists. In fact, we were approached by a different bracelet guy about twenty minutes later. He forced the “free” bracelet into my hand at which point we quickly walked away.
Apparently this is a pretty common scam in major tourist destinations. I found several more accounts online and It sounds like we were pretty lucky to get off so easily for having been so deep into the routine. It is described here as the Paris String Scam. The version described (and shown in the video) looks worse than what we encountered as it takes longer. If the hucksters had actually braided the bracelet on my arm it would have been harder (from a psychological standpoint) to ditch them. But not impossible.
After doing some reading, it looks like there are plenty more scams that would have been a lot easier to fall for. Good for a quick read before going anywhere (especially Asia).
Update 12/23/2013: Annie cut off her friendship bracelet sometime after returning the states. I decided to see how long mine would last. It has now been more than three months and this little string bracelet, now significantly faded, is still resting snugly on my wrist. Barring an accident with scissors or a chainsaw, I would guess this little guy will hang on there well into 2014. Who would have thought these little pieces of string would be so resilient. Maybe they were worth a Euro after all.