Is Spain Safe for Travelers? How to Avoid Crime and Scams

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Just how bad is crime in Spain, and is there really anything travelers should worry about? Find out how to outsmart con artists and avoid trouble with these safety tips.

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Illegal street vendors in Barcelona Photo © iStock/NaLha

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In the 2020 Global Peace Index, Spain ranks number 38 out of 163 countries when it comes to safety and peace in the country. In Europe overall, Spain ranks 25 out of 36 countries.

Violent crime is rare, and Spanish locals are usually very accommodating to tourists. However, street crime and scams are a growing issue, particularly in Barcelona.

Spain has an increasingly high unemployment rate, sitting at 15.33% in the second quarter of 2020 (as recorded in May 2020). Couple a high unemployment rate with clogged court systems, and there is little deterrent against petty crime. This unfortunately leads to illegal activities, and a steady stream of wealthy tourists makes an easy target.

But, there's no need to panic. These are the types of things travelers should be aware of before traveling to Spain, plus a few safety tips to help you out of trouble if you land in it.

Theft and pickpockets in Spain

You can easily avoid becoming a victim of street crime by not making yourself look like a vulnerable tourist.

Spaniards dress elegantly, often in fitted clothes in subdued colors. Their clothing is fairly relaxed, however wearing shorts anywhere other than the beach will instantly make it clear to locals that you are a tourist – men and women alike. 

Excessive jewelery, expensive cameras and obvious displays of wealth will also get a criminal's mouth watering. Try to dress like the locals, in casual, comfortable attire.

Here are a few easy ways 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 minimize 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.

The emergency number to call in Spain is 112.

Common scams in Spain

Pickpockets aren't the only ones you should be watching out for. By recognizing common scam tactics and their techniques, you'll escape their spell before they target you. Here are several scams to watch out for in Spain:

  • Ladies offering flowers are just looking to either extort a few euros from you or pocket as you try to fend them off
  • If anyone offers to clean bird poo off your back, walk away. While they "help" clean the mess, they'll try to pickpocket you
  • 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.

Most scams are variations on the misdirection theme. But, you should also be wary of bogus undercover police officers. These gangs of conmen flash a phony ID and try to intimidate or confuse travelers with a 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-clothed 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 counterfeit cops:

  • Don't be confrontational, as they have been known to resort to violence
  • Politely ask to see their ID again, and if they persist, ask to walk to the nearest police station before handing over anything
  • Never get into a car with them.

Stranger danger in Spain

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.

Card skimming in Spain

Card skimmers are becoming common 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 attached over the top of the original card slot, and stick out awkwardly from the machine. But, if you are making a quick withdrawal it's easy to swipe your card before you realize something isn't right.

When handing cards over to pay for a meal or goods, don't 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.

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 sets off, his contortionist companion emerges from the suitcase and begins going through other passengers' bags. At the end of the journey, he squeezes himself and his stolen goodies into the suitcase and waits 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 this is a common occurence in Spain, or that there are more of these flexible felons out there, but it serves as a reminder to keep your valuables close when traveling on public transport. If you're going to stow your luggage, don't leave your wallet, passport, camera or any cash inside your stowed away luggage.

Roadside crime in Spain

In Spain, be aware there are gangs who occasionally target rental cars or cars with foreign plates, particularly those towing caravans. These gangs try to rip-off tourists.

Their approach is subtle. They'll try to convince you to pull over, by indicating there's something wrong with your car or that you've damaged their vehicle. 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 of these trouble-makers will wait at 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 in Spain, especially during the night. The exits from Malaga airport and the surrounding highways are known targets for these gangs, as well as the AP7 Highway between Barcelona and the French border.

Antisocial behaviour in Spain

Hositility towards travelers due to overtourism is an increasing issue across Europe. in 2011, the Barcelona city council had to put posters up, calling for a stop to antisocial behavior. Written in English and French, the campaign targeted tourists, urging them not to urinate in public, buy from street vendors, drink in public or obtain sexual services. Hefty fines are listed for each offense.

While it may seem unfair for the responsibility to fall on visitors, there is a lesson to be learned here: If you buy into illegal activity, travel irresponsibly, don't show respect to the places you visit or allow yourself to become a victim of crime, you are perpetuating the cycle and stimulating street crime.

By being more careful, you can help tackle the problem for future visitors and for the locals.

Smoking in enclosed public spaces is prohibited.

Terrorism in Spain

The Basque separatist group ETA was founded in 1959, declared a permanent ceasefire to their terrorist campaign for an independent Basque Country in January 2011, and formally disbanded in 2018, marking the end of violence that resulted in more than 800 lives lost.

The Spanish government remains wary of the separatist group, with some politicians claiming the ETA's influence is still alive in northern areas of Spain.

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 have caused major delays and disruptions to travel plans.

Though the threat of interprovincial violence is diminished, Spain remains at risk of terrorist attacks.

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.

The best thing you can do is stay up to date with government warnings and recommendations, and follow relevant advice.

Civil unrest in Spain

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many European countries into turmoil, and it will remain unclear what the long term effects are. Spain has experienced periods of civil unrest, and with unrest, riots and demonstrations are common.

Political unrest in the Catalonia region has resulted in large demonstrations that often turn violent. Stay across developments by reading local news reports, and avoid protests or crowded public spaces as best you can if you know protests are taking place.

Overall, Spain offers very little danger to careful travelers. The biggest threat to your health and safety is likely to come from a plate of artery-clogging chorizo. Use your common sense, stay up to date with local news and media, and you'll have a safe, enjoyable time in Spain.

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