It is sad when a city gains a reputation for cutpurses and pickpockets. Florence, Rome, and Naples have long suffered. Now it is the turn of Paris.
Recently French police arrested Romanian members of the so-called Eiffel Tower gang, who were robbing tourists of some €4,000 a day. The thieves had successfully operated for two years at the Eiffel Tower and the Château de Versailles, perfecting their craft. Undoubtedly, this is not the end of a serious problem that is damaging tourism and French pride.
The thieves’ tactics are well known to streetwise city dwellers. But it doesn’t hurt to review them for the unwary.
1) Playing the tourist
The Eiffel Tower gang dressed as tourists rather than as suspicious-looking villains so as not to attract attention, sometimes even buying tickets to go up the Tower. People tend to keep an eye on their belongings while at the bottom, then relax their guard at the top.
2) Taking selfies
A new trick in the repertoire of creating a distraction: gang members block an exit – for example by taking a selfie at the top of the Tower – forcing genuine tourists to wait. Meanwhile, an accomplice fleeces those watching their antics.
3) The sympathy ploy
Another way of catching people off guard: “I’ve lost my daughter. Have you seen a little girl with dark hair?” Or, “Can you take a picture for me?” Meanwhile, accomplices are making off with whatever they can get.
4) Working in teams
The thieves work in teams. By the time you notice your purse or wallet has gone, it is far away. But the thief is quite likely to be standing by your side. The Eiffel Tower Gang operated in threes and fours, one working to distract while others rob their victims quickly passing the loot on.
5) Asian targets
The thieves know where to find easy money. Police sources told the French media that the thieves preyed on Asian tourists because they are known to carry large amounts of cash. Chinese tourists in particular have been targeted.
It is rumoured that pickpockets have inside sources at tourist attractions. Since the pickings are so easy – thousands of Euros a day – paying €2,500 a month to a security guard to look the other way is a mere bagatelle.
7) Not footpads but…
Unlike the thieves in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose abode was the dreaded Court of Miracles, the Eiffel Tower Gang stayed in hotels and travelled to and from the Eiffel Tower or Versailles in taxis.
8) Organized crime
As part of a larger network, this particular gang sent back large sums via Western Union or Moneygram to their bosses who invested it in property.
Writing in The Paris Sketch Book of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh (1840), William Makepeace Thackeray began by cautioning travellers: “With regard to the city of Paris, it is to be remarked, that in that metropolis flourish a greater number of native and exotic swindlers than are to be found in any other European nursery.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French critic and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr – who may well have met Thackeray – wrote in the January 1849 issue of his satirical journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps).
In this case, the sooner things change the better, or Paris’s sobriquet will change from the City of Lights to the City of the Light-fingered.