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10 Most Devious Street Cons (And How to Avoid Them)

Everyone thinks they’re too smart to fall for a scam until it happens to them. No matter how sure you are that you can spot a con, sometimes it just takes you by surprise. It doesn’t have to be a flashy stock market swindle; it can happen when you’re just walking down the street. Street con artists have worked for years at perfecting money-making scams, and they still get away with it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to become paranoid, or you’d never leave the house! But there are some common scams that are worth looking out for, and some simple solutions to avoid being played for a chump.

10. The Pig in a Poke


The Con:

A simple trick dating back hundreds of years, the Pig in a Poke involves selling an item on the street, but switching the container so the buyer ends up with nothing. Originally, this involved convincing the gullible customer that a bag contained a delicious pig, when it actually contained a worthless cat. Though it seems archaic, versions of this trick are still practiced today. The street seller shows the mark their product, but exchanges the package after the sale is made.

How to avoid it:

Don’t buy things on the street as a general rule of thumb. If you do, make sure you’ve been given what you paid for. Especially if it’s a pig.

9. Art Student Scam


The Con:

You are on the street and are approached by young people claiming to be art students, selling their wares to make some extra cash for their studies. In reality, the artworks are very cheap copies and their production costs a fraction of the asking price. A particular version of the scam has been used in China, where tourists are lured to an exhibition and sold paintings at high prices.

How to avoid it:

Be careful when approached to buy goods on the street. Always be sure of what you’re paying for. If you’re a tourist, don’t get conned into making unwanted purchases through guilt or cultural embarrassment.

8. The Melon Drop


The Con:

A simple trick, where the scammer intentionally bumps into someone on the street, dropping a pre-damaged item, and then insists they pay compensation. The aim is to convince the victim that they are at fault. The name of the con comes from the practice of conning Japanese tourists into paying for a dropped watermelon, at disproportionately high prices.

How to avoid it:

If you collide with a stranger, you’ll know whether it was accidental and whether payment is justified. Be polite but reasonable, and don’t immediately take the blame. Oh, and keep an eye on current melon prices.

7. Distract and Grab


The Con:

The most fundamental of street cons, but an effective one. This one can take place on a busy street. One con artist creates a distraction, perhaps by causing a commotion or talking to the victim. Their accomplice takes advantage of this diverted attention to pick your pocket. There are many variants, and they all employ misdirection, so you don’t realize anything is wrong until too late.

How to avoid it:

It’s difficult to remain vigilant at all times, but try to be aware of what’s going on around you, particularly in areas where pickpockets are known to operate.

6. The False Good Samaritan Con


The Con:

This trick relies on presenting the appearance of helpfulness, when in reality the con artist is profiting from the charade. A popular version of this scam involves two con artists working together. The first poses as a mugger, stealing the victim’s wallet. The accomplice then plays a hero, 'rescuing' the stolen item from the mugger and returning it to its owner. The aim is to receive a reward, which can then be split between the two tricksters.

How to avoid it:

You don’t want to mistrust every good deed, but make sure you stay alert and look out for acts that seem suspicious. There may be genuine heroes in the world, but they’re usually in costumes.

5. Street Mechanic


The Con:

A stranger approaches a car owner with some helpful advice: something is wrong with their vehicle. It’s a problem that’s expensive to fix, but luckily the stranger has the mechanical know-how to fix the problem themselves. What the victim doesn’t know is that the stranger has created the illusion of the fault themselves (usually by something as simple as sitting on the bumper). After they’ve rectified the 'problem', the scammer asks for a relatively small amount of money. After all, they’ve saved the motorist hundreds of dollars!

How to avoid it:

Make sure any car trouble is checked over by a trusted source or professional mechanic. Be wary of strangers that just happen to be around in the right place at the right time.

4. Zig Zag Scam


The Con:

This scam is often pulled on tourists, and involves authorities accusing people of committing a crime. The victim is then held for the offense until a large sum of money is paid as 'bail'. Fake CCTV footage is sometimes used to provide further 'evidence' of the crime. It is sometimes known as the Thai Zig Zag scam, as it has been frequently reported in Bangkok.

How to avoid it:

As this scam can be perpetrated by the authorities, it is difficult to prepare for. If you’re a tourist, it is best to make sure you’re accompanied by a trusted guide, to ensure that any danger spots are avoided.

3. The Fiddle Game


The Con:

The success of the Fiddle Game as a con relies on the greed of the victim. The most famous example of the trick takes place in a restaurant. A con artist claims to be unable to pay for his meal, but leaves a violin as collateral while he goes to get money. While he’s gone, his accomplice claims to be an expert on the valuation of the instrument, and offers to pay a large price for it. The hope is that the mark will offer to buy the violin from the original owner with the aim of selling it for a higher price. But by the time the purchase is made, both scammers are gone, free to share the money, and the mark is left with a worthless fiddle.

How to avoid it:

Unless you’re in some kind of violin emergency, it’s probably best not to buy one in a restaurant. But seriously, beware of overly happy coincidences.

2. Three-card Monte


The Con:

One of the most familiar street cons, and yet one that continues to take people in. The gullible bystander is asked to gamble on being able to spot the odd card out, after the cards have been rearranged. The con artist often uses shills to make it appear that winning the game is possible. But through sleight of hand and misdirection, the con artist can make sure the desired card is never found.

How to avoid it:

If you don’t play, you can’t lose.

1. The Pigeon Drop


The Con:

A trick that requires fooling someone into giving up money with the lure of prospective gain. The con artist convinces the mark that they should pool their resources with the promise of a larger haul down the road. But the money is switched out, and the greedy victim is left with nothing. There are a number of variants, sometimes involving convincing the mark to take off with the 'money' when they’re really escaping from the actual thief.

How to avoid it:

Always be suspicious of lucrative deals offered by strangers. As the old saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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