Just as I've been writing that it's been a while since I've posted about scams, then 3 come along all at once. This particular scam unfortunately happened to my Auntie and my two cousins whilst visiting this week. As well prepared as they were, there was nothing they could really do to avoid this, as the scam is very well prepared.
First hand (or in my case, second) experience always brings more details, so I'm in a privileged position to explain this one. The scam unfolded on a busy Sunday night on Plaça Espanya metro - Green Line, Line 3. My Auntie and cousins had just spent the evening watching the fountains at Montjüic, and hopped on the metro to come back to my place. Time was around 22:40. As you might imagine, the metro was jam packed and as my family got onto the metro, a man pushed in front of them and a woman pushed behind them. My Auntie had a zipped bag over her shoulder, on the front, but also had a camera which she was clutching - already wary of anyone coming close to her.
The couple (who she later realised were in on the act together) were in their 40s and were white - the guy was ginger haired with freckles and had a backpack, worn on the front, like a typical savvy tourist. The woman pushed constantly into the back on them. The man was shielding his backpack in such a way that he was pressing against my Auntie's chest (shorter than he was). As the doors to the metro closed, the man began asking if he was going in the right direction for Sants (the main train station) which is on the opposite side of the platform - he was going the wrong way. He gestured towards the flashing lights of the metro stops above the door of the metro carriage, and my Auntie, thinking she was helping, suggested that she thought he was going the wrong way, and sure enough at the next stop both the man and the woman got off.
What had happened in the course of the conversation was that one of the two, probably the woman, had unzipped the shoulder bag of my Auntie, then taken out a plastic bag with postcards and pen, unzipped a SECOND compartment of the bag, lifted the noted and then managed to ZIP BACK UP the inner pocket, REPLACE the plastic bag with postcards and pen and HALF ZIP the full outside zip back up before getting off. Bear in mind that the distance between Plaça Espanya and Poble Sec (the next metro station) is around 40 seconds.
It was only when the could got off that my auntie had realised her error, and fortunately the thieves only got away with some cash - they had not taken cards or purses/wallets out with them on any day. However, she felt very duped and guilty at having fallen for such a lame distraction technique and kicked herself the minute she realised her zip was open a fraction.
How to avoid this happening to you? Difficult given the circumstances, as a packed metro is easy pickings for these scamsters, and the added distraction of asking directions, coupled with the fact that the guy looked "foreign" made no suspicion whatsoever. The best advice I can give here is to be cold-hearted and not offer to help anyone asking for directions! Sorry, I know that sounds terrible, as we all get lost in foreign cities, and I myself have been helped in Munich and Amsterdam by extremely friendly locals who (what do I know) may have seen me as easy pickings on my travels, but it's the truth. If you have more than one thing to look out for (i.e. my auntie had her camera and the bag) then just ignore any advances and maybe try and get out of their way/reach.
It's particularly frustrating when things like this happen to close family or friends (on perhaps the only time I wasn't with them), but this is a very well rehearsed scam, and as a comment the other day on this post illustrates, peak times at certain places in the city can be considered "hot spots" for these kind of scams. I hope this unfortunate experience can serve as a warning to others, and that I can be back soon with more Barcelona sights, not Barcelona Scams.
Looking for accommodation in the city this month? check out the Last minute bookings in Barcelona for apartments for rent in Barcelona. And for a great head start to the city, see this Barcelona Guide.