As thousands of families prepare to take the car on holiday to Europe, evidence is emerging that fraudsters are targeting British tourists driving on the Continent. But forewarned is forearmed, so here’s what’s happening, with some advice on how to steer clear of trouble. In one example from France, criminals disguised as police have been stopping tourists’ cars and stealing their valuables. And in Spain, biker gangs have been reported slashing unsuspecting tourists' tyres in order to trick them into paying up to £1,000 for a new one. So whether you are taking your own car on the ferry or hiring a car on arrival, read on for some top tips to avoid being taken in by their scams.
Fake French police scam
If you are driving at night on French motorways and an unmarked police car with a flashing light on the roof tries to make you pull over on the hard shoulder, there is a distinct possibility that the occupants are not police officers. There has been a spate of robberies committed by criminals dressed as police who force their victims to pull over so they can "search" the vehicle, stealing anything of value. And you are more likely to targeted as a tourist because the thieves know that foreigners are less familiar with French police procedures.
Police in France are therefore advising visitors not to stop for the police if they are in doubt. "If you do stop, keep the doors locked and the windows up, and ask for identification," Captain Alain Archaimbault of the French Gendarmerie told France Inter radio, adding that French police would never use unmarked cars for routine checks on motorways and would only pull vehicles over in "well-lit rest areas". If you do not stop, however, it is vital that you call the real police on 17 or 112 as soon as possible. That way, you can explain your actions if it was a bona fide police car, and report the attempted theft if not.
Spanish slashed tyre scam
Imagine you are driving along and one of your tyres suddenly starts to deflate. You might well assume that the tyre simply blew out. But there could be another explanation. Biker gangs in Spain are known to be working with local garages to scam tourists into paying way over the odds for a new tyre. The scam starts with a biker slashing your tyre as you are driving, before pointing out the "blow out" and offering to help by calling their friends to come and tow your car to a nearby garage. Once at the garage, you will have your tyre replaced – but the bill for the new tyre will be huge, up to £1,000 in some cases.
That’s why Sean Tipton, from travel association ABTA, advises tourists in Spain and other countries to be wary of unsolicited offers of help: "Unfortunately tourists are often attractive targets for scammers," he said. "Many pose as Good Samaritans, warning you about issues with your car and offer to help." The best way to avoid being caught out by this scam is to refuse the offer of a tow and to contact a local garage – or the hire company or your European breakdown provider if you have one – to find a new tyre. If you are taken in, however, you can alert the local police by calling 112 or 091.
Holiday hire car scams
While there are many honest car hire firms, there are others that will use sneaky tricks to con you out of money. In Spain, for example, Britons report being charged for pre-existing damage and pressurised into taking out overpriced insurance. In Italy, meanwhile, there are instances of drivers being unfairly charged “out of hours” fees for returning the vehicle late. And in the US, motorists are sometimes offered a “free upgrade” that turns out not to be free at all.
Ways to avoid being taken in include always checking the small print of the agreement and taking photos of the car when you collect it so you have a record of any pre-existing damage. You can also use our sister company, TravelSupermarket, to compare prices and find a reputable car hire company to use while you are away.