Violent crime is quite rare and Spaniards are very accommodating to tourists. However, street crime and scams are a serious and growing issue throughout the country, particularly in Barcelona.
Spain has the second-highest unemployment rate in the EU at 13.6% (Greece takes first place with 18.1%) and is also a common landing point for many illegal immigrants and refugees escaping turmoil and violence in North Africa. Flimsy laws and clogged court systems mean there is little deterrent against petty crime. This unfortunately leads desperate people to turn to illegal activities and view the streams of tourists as easy income.
The best way to avoid becoming a victim of street crime is to avoid being picked as an easy mark. Trying not to appear like a vulnerable tourist is a good first step.
Dressing as you do at home is a sure way to make yourself stand out in Spain. As a rule, Spaniards stick to elegant, fitted clothes in subdued colors. They are fairly relaxed but wearing shorts anywhere other than the beach will instantly point you out, men and women alike.
Excessive jewelery, expensive cameras and obvious displays of wealth will also get criminal mouths watering.
There are a few easy things you can do to show you are alert to the threat of pickpockets, which is often enough to deter them.
Recognizing a pickpocket or scammer is the best way to send them skulking off. Knowing the classic techniques is a good start.
Ladies offering flowers are just looking to either extort a few euros from you or pocket your wallet as you try to fend them off.
Beware anyone offering to clean 'bird poo off your back. While they're cleaning it off they'll clean you out.
Delays at Metro doors, escalators and bus lines are used to keep you still and distracted long enough to rifle through your bag. This is often paired with a "divide and conquer" technique so don't let anyone get between you and your friends or family in this situation.
There are thousands of stories relating a huge amount of techniques, some ingenious, other insulting in their simplicity. But they are all just variations on the misdirection theme.
The difficulty for most travelers comes in deciding what's questionable behavior and what is just cultural difference. In Spain, it's an easy answer. Anyone who is overly friendly or persistent should be treated with caution, whether they're offering an opinion, service or advice. Most Spaniards won't approach you out of the blue and they certainly won't try and touch a stranger.
This doesn't mean adopting a constantly cranky demeanor but maintaining an air of vigilance is a good idea.
Pickpockets aren't the only ones trying to take you for a ride. There are several scams that can see you scratching your head as someone makes off with your wallet.
Be wary of bogus uncover police officers. These gangs of conmen flash a phony ID at you and try and intimidate or confuse you with some trumped-up charge or story. They'll ask for your documents and try and get you to hand over your wallet for "verification".
There would rarely be any reason for a plainclothes policeman to deal with tourists in Spain. If they did, they'd only ask for your documents, never your wallet.
If you run into any of these counterfeit cops:
Card skimmers have increasingly been used in Spain, on ATMs and at some dishonest shops and cafes.
Skimming devices on ATMs are easy enough to spot if you're looking out for them. They've usually been tacked on over the original card slot and stick out awkwardly from the machine. However, if you're just ducking in for a quick withdrawal it's easy to swipe your card before you realize something's amiss.
When handing cards over to pay for a meal or goods, make sure you never let it out of your sight. It only takes a second for a dishonest shopkeeper to collect all the data from your card.
One way to ensure you're not completely cleaned out, should you fall victim to the skim, is to keep a separate account for traveling that you only top up as needed.
One of the more bizarre and ingenious heists we've heard of involves a bus, a suitcase and a contortionist.
One thief would buy a ticket on the bus from Girona Airport to Barcelona, stowing his suitcase in the compartment below. As soon as the bus set off his contortionist companion would emerge from the suitcase and begin going through all the other passengers' bags. At the end of the journey, he would stuff himself and all his new loot back into the case and wait to be collected. The cunning ploy was only discovered when thief number one failed to pick up his buddy after one trip.
We're not suggesting there are more of these flexible felons operating but it does highlight the need to keep your valuables close when traveling on buses or trains. If you're going to stow your luggage, make sure not to leave your wallet, passport, camera or any cash inside.
No, this doesn't refer to vanloads of bearded swashbucklers scouring the roads for booty. However, as strange as the concept sounds there are gangs who occasionally target rental cars and cars with foreign plates, particularly those towing caravans, and try to rip them off.
Their approach is a little more subtle than wheeling out the cannons. They'll try to convince you to pull over, by indicating there's something wrong with your car or that you've damaged theirs. When you stop to take a look, they will either forcefully rob you or sneak off with anything they can grab while you're busy looking under the hood. Some even wait in rest stops, puncturing tires and following victims down the road until they stop to change it.
If at all possible, avoid stopping on isolated stretches of road, especially during the night. The exits from Malaga airport and the surrounding highways are known targets for these gangs, as is the AP7 Highway from between Barcelona and the French border.
In the middle of 2011, the Barcelona city council began pasting up posters calling for a stop to antisocial behavior. Written in English and French the campaign clearly targets tourists and urges us not to urinate in public, buy from hawkers, drink in public or obtain sexual services. Hefty fines are listed for each offense.
While it's a little rich for the council to be hoisting the responsibility for street crime and antisocial behavior onto tourists, (everyone knows where the hawkers, prostitutes and dealers loiter, why not target the source?) there is a lesson to be learned here. If you buy into illegal activity or allow yourself to become a victim you are perpetuating the cycle and stimulating street crime.
Just by being a little more careful you can help tackle the problem for future visitors and for the locals.
It's worth mentioning that sleeping on the beach or buying alcohol from street vendors can also net you a substantial penalty.
As of January 2011, the Spanish tradition of lighting up indoors has gone up in smoke.
In January of 2011, the Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent ceasefire. The group, believed to have been severely weakened by hundreds of arrests in the past few years, has apparently turned to dialogue as a path to Basque independence.
However, the Spanish government is wary of the ceasefire, citing past examples in which the ETA has broken such agreements. A ceasefire in 2006 ended with a bombing at Madrid's Barajas airport, which killed two people.
The ETA primarily used targeted attacks against individuals or organizations, rather than civilians. However, tourists have been caught up in attacks in the past and even distant or hoax attacks can cause major delays and disruptions.
Even though the threat of interprovincial violence is diminished, Spain remains at risk of attacks by Islamic extremists.
The 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 192 people, were claimed by a group representing Al Qaeda. In 2008, police arrested 11 men who allegedly plotted to stage a series of suicide attacks throughout Barcelona.
US diplomatic cables, exposed on Wikileaks, describe Spain as "both a significant target of Islamic terrorist groups and a major logistical hub for Islamic extremist groups operating across the globe."
We're not suggesting you dodge popular sites but you should stay up to date with government warnings and recommendations. Also try to keep abreast of any relevant information, whether via the news or just talking with locals.
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