Crime & scams in Spain → Read this to avoid them!

For the most part Spain offers very little danger to savvy travellers. The biggest threat to your health and safety is likely to come from a plate of artery clogging chorizo.

Counterfeit sale in Barcelona

Violent crime is quite rare and, although they can be spicy, the Spaniards are very accommodating to tourists. However street crime and scams are a serious and worsening issue throughout the country, particularly in Barcelona.

Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU 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.

Beating pickpockets in Spain

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 like you do at home is a sure way to make yourself stand out in Spain. As a rule the Spaniards stick to elegant, fitted clothes in subdued colours. They are fairly relaxed but wearing shorts anywhere other than the beach will instantly point you out, men and women alike.

Excessive jewellery, 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.

  • Carry your bag in front of you and close to your body when on public transport or in a crowded market.
  • Keep your wallet in your front pocket and occasionally brush your hand over it to make sure it's still there or catch out any pilfering fingers.
  • Don't ever put your bags or luggage down unless you can keep a constant eye on them. One second is enough for an opportunistic crook to swoop off with your stuff.
  • Even if you are hopelessly lost, keep an air of confidence. Standing on a street corner, squinting at a map screams, "I'm vulnerable, rob me".
  • If you only carry what you need for the day you minimise your potential losses. The same applies if you keep your valuables separate rather than dumping it all in a backpack like a neatly wrapped present for potential thieves.

Recognising 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.

Stranger danger in Spain

The difficulty for most travellers comes in deciding what's questionable behaviour 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 demeanour but maintaining an air of vigilance is a good idea.

Card skimming in Spain

Pickpockets aren't they 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 plain clothes 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:

  • Don't be confrontational, as they have been known to resort to straight out muggings.
  • Politely ask to see their ID again and then, if they persist, ask to walk to the nearest police station before handing over anything.
  • Don't ever get into a car with them.

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 realise 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 travelling that you only top up as needed.

Staying safe on public transport in Spain

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 travelling 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.

Roadside crime in Spain

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.

Antisocial behaviour in Spain

In the middle of 2011 the Barcelona city council began pasting up posters calling for a stop to antisocial behaviour. 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 offence.

(Barcelona's "Keep your hands off our prostitutes" campaign - huh?)

While it's a little rich for the council to be hoisting the responsibility for street crime and antisocial behaviour 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.

Terrorism in Spain

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 organisations, 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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