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The good news is that simple honest theft and straight-forward knifepoint robbery are largely a thing of the past. Lots of oid money combined with heavy police presence is not the environment that supports street crime. Relax.
But trickery and scam that belong to the neither/nor grey zone short of criminal offence remain as common as ever.
Here I’ll try to give examples of scams and tricks I regularly see and, sorry to say, occasionally still fall for..
Naming a lower price over the phone to entice you in is a common practice is more of a rule than an exception. To reduce the chances of this happening to you try to speak direct with the seller or repairman, not with the outsourced secretary.
Last summer a car repairman confessed that it is their usual practice to promise that the car will be repaired by certain time even though they know full well it won’t. Why do they do that? Because otherwise clients will go to someone who’ll make a better promise. I haven’t found a way to counter this habit. When making plans assume delays but at the same stress to the vendor that not finishing the job on time will bring the end of the world.
It is common to add surprise charges, eg. taxi drivers may add “per bag” fee or car repair shops slapping an unexpected “diagnostics” or “parking” or “parts delivery” surcharge.
SEPARATE “STUPID FOREIGNER” PRICE LIST
Done by taxi drivers. Know local prices, offer your own fee, pay in advance to make it harder to claim misunderstanding.
Dealing with taxis is part of my Moscow orientation tour. It takes 2-4 hours, costs $50-100, but is likely to save you time and money. The tour includes the layout of the city, a list of essential Russian phrases, using public transit, shopping, safety etc. etc. I’m no longer in Moscow. Questions are welcomed but I am not able to do orientation tours in person.
INVOLVING YOU IN A SHADY ACTIVITY
This is for the stupidest of the stupid. The trick is to entice you into shady activity like splitting the content of supposedly lost wallet. The game is to make you an accomplice to make it harder for you to take your story to the police. At some point of the game you pull out your won wallet and part with content.
CRIMES AGAINST DRUNKS
Many foreigners lose control when they see how cheap and available booze is. They get into it without knowing their limits. And very soon they are drunk and disoriented. Stealing from the drunk is not really considered a serious offence, one possible rationale being that “he’ll lose it anyway”. Don’t be drunk in public or among casual acquaintances.
Taxi drivers, especially those that belong to the airport mafia, will often lie through their teeth. Don’t ask them about availability of public transport (they will say there are no busses or trains), distances (they will exaggerate them wildly), or common prices (if they see you are not oriented they will easily ask $300 for a Domodedovo to Sheremetyevo ride while the “right” price for it is half of it at the very most).
Scams by taxi drivers deserve a separate page. I’m too lazy to write it so my advice is to avoid airport and train station drivers or those who prey on travellers to Moscow altogether.
Talk to me if you need to be picked up. It is $80 car upkeep contribution. I’ll try to meet you myself, or send someone I know.
LENDING MONEY TO YOUR RUSSIAN FRIENDS
If in doubt don’t. There is no culture of responsibility. Very little value is places on reputation. No easy appeal to courts. Russians are not responsible borrowers.
What complicates the situation is that some of the most trustworthy people I met are also Russians. At this point I have no advice how you tell these apart.
“TRAVELLER IN DISTRESS”
A very common scam. The scammer may claim himself/herself to be a traveller in distress. He may ask for a loan or offers to sell you a watch or jewelry. Often the trick starts with a small request that is simple to fulfill. On my way to Kandalaksha in August 2011 a truck driver waved me down and asked for some engine oil. When I said no problem and proceeded to retrieve a can of oil for him he started dumping progressively aggressive requests on me. And when I sensed it is time for me to go he grabbed me by the arm. Only when I left him I realized that I already saw him pestering people on the parking lot. How do you avoid these? Before acting look at the situation and at the person. If in doubt avoid contact. Once you respond, they will not leave you easily.Beware of small innocent requests that escalate! Especially careful with “lost foreign travellers”.
POLICE BLUFFING YOU INTO GIVING THEM CASH
“Your documents are not in order. Let’s proceed to the police station. You will be held for two days for identity check.” Act calm. Call your embassy if you are lucky to be a citizen of one of very few countries whose embassies give a damn. Call your travel agent. Record the policemen’s badge number. If they were expecting you to just give them some cash, they will leave you alone.
Avoid making “friends” that will take off with your possessions. Lending money in Russia is in most cases worse than throwing it away.
Beware of foreigners who spent considerable time here. They outdo Russians.
If a Russian owes you money he will look for a pretense to complicate his relations with you so as to say something likr “when I took your money you were my friend. Now you are not. Why should I pay to someone I don’t like?”. Yes, even I ran into this situation very recently.
No sharp separation here between good and bad guys. The system of ethics a Russian will espouse depends on the situation and even his mood at the moment. So the model of behaviour may change drastically in minutes. I remember a client who made important arrangements with a successful Russian businessman. In two days the Rublevka dweller just disappeared and my journalist client failed to deliver part of an important assignment. I tried to explain when a Russian says “I will do X” this statement is to be understood as “At this moment I feel like doing X”. No more and no less. A Russian promise is a statement not of future fact but of his psychological state at the moment. I don’t know how to say it better but sapienti sat. My Norwegian clients did not understand the mechanics of it (which is entirely excusable given the cultural gap) but did not take my advice (which was silly and had a disastrous effect on the project).
Let’s say you are told on the phone that a certain service will cost one thousand roubles. When you come to the shop it all of a sudden becomes two. You express your surprise but are told that it was just a telephone secretary who gave you incorrect price and he, the repairman, is in no way associated with her.
WHEN RUSSIANS DON’T LIE
Non-lying types are usually found among older professionals or in remove villages.
RUSSIAN BRIDES SCAM
That’s a classic but some still fall for it.
If you feel something is not right, send me samples of your correspondence with your e-mail friend and a small contribution to my project, and I will point to the obvious. I urge you to do that BEFORE sending her money for her ticket, visa, dying mother, or ransom for her brother kidnapped by the Mafia.
CHEAP APARTMENT TRICK
Moscow enjoys a glut of $80/month rooms and $200/month apartments. Such may be the first impression based on reviewing notices glued to lamp poles, fences, or bus shelters. These ads – made to look like hand-written notices – are there to entice you to agencies that will try to get you to pay for a worthless printout supposedly listing cheap rooms and apartments.
ATM scam is NOT common here. I vaguely recall hearing a story of a sleeve being inserted into the card slot of an ATM to capture a credit card that the thief then pulls out. The trick also requires someone to watch you punch in the code. My bank in Canada told me recently that Russia is NOT on the list of the most problematic countries as far as credit card scam goes. Still, I advise you avoid unnecessary credit card transactions.
SMALL TRICKS IN CAFES
You order a beer and a snack. Your beer is brought first. The snack is delayed till you finish your beer to force you to order another round. Usually done in cafes run by “southerners”.
CELL PHONE SCAM
Cell phone companies will trick you unless you dedicate your life to studying the bill and arguing every questionable item. One of the common tricks is to sign you up for a paid service (such as weather reports) without, of course, your asking for it, and the charging you for it. To avoid the charge you need to explicitly ask for the service inflicted on you to be removed!
Watch the machines that receive payments for mobile phones. Scam may range from taking 10% commission for just making the payment, which is excessive even for Russia, to “losing” your payment, to dead machines with slots for money still open.
That’s a classic. One trick is to announce an attractive rate and inconspicuously post a notice saying that this rate applied if you exchange over 8th. dollars. Or to claim that this notice “fell off”. Avoid places called “obmen valyuty”. Exchange money in proper banks only. A few years ago they at least started doing this simple operation in a simple straight-forward way.
No Russian bank will clearly state interest on its loans. The percentage may not be given at all. Or the real one will be obscured by “service fees” or “maintenance charges”.