Athens, Greece…Everyone imagines international travel as an exciting way to see new places and experience new things, but more importantly, it’s also a unique opportunity to meet people and learn about their culture. But how do we know if talking to a stranger is safe?
I’d heard that people in Athens, Greece generally spoke English and were warm and open. I planned to be there over a month so I hoped to make some friends while I was there. This is my story…
One glorious sunny afternoon as I walked through a park, an older man stopped to ask me a question in Greek. I answered that I didn’t understand. Then he switched and spoke to me in English about the coffee shop he was looking for. We started a conversation and ended up sitting on a bench, talking for about an hour. Nic told me he was a chemical engineer on a break from meetings and had to get back. He seemed happy to explain Greek politics and culture to me, so we agreed to meet the next evening for a walk and a drink. I was thrilled to have an escort to explore Athens in the evening, feeling safer with a local male.
When we met the next evening, we walked through some bustling restaurant areas and had an enjoyable conversation about travel over a glass of wine. As it got dark, Nic suggested we go up the hill near the Parthenon for a spectacular view. Getting there required walking up an unlit, deserted street, and I was a little apprehensive. My new friend seemed kind and was not very large, so I didn’t think he would harm me, but there was no guarantee there weren’t some thugs waiting on that road for passers-by. However, I decided to trust him and keep alert as we slugged up the steep hill.
At the top, we were greeted by a truly magnificent view: the Parthenon lit by floodlights, a full moon hanging over it. I was astounded and instantly grateful to be seeing this. We sat on some rocks and talked, surrounded by a dozen other people, soaking in the magnificence of this perfect evening. I was learning a lot about Greece from Nic as we discussed politics and the refugee situation. He said he wanted to take me to a folk-music and dance dinner that weekend with his sister. I said that sounded nice. We agreed to meet for drinks in a couple of days and he walked me to the metro station, reminding me to be cautious.
The next time we met, Nic seemed agitated He explained his sister was pressing him to get tickets to the dinner but his ATM card wasn’t working. Over drinks at an outdoor café, he told me stories of how “crazy” his sister was and how she would make his life miserable if he didn’t get the tickets. I mostly nodded, skeptical, looking around us now to see if we were going to run into his “sister.”
Then Nic asked me if he could borrow 100 Euro to go get the tickets. I declined, said I was no longer interested in the dinner and told him I was going home. He, of course, said he couldn’t pay the bill, so I gave the waiter a 50 euro bill, all the money I had. Nic went inside to use the restroom while I pulled out my phone to locate the metro station. The map app was really slow to load and I felt disoriented from the wine and on edge by his attempt to get money from me. I looked up only to realize the waiter had never returned with my change. I went inside and learned that my “friend” had intercepted my money and left through the front door.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should have gone inside myself to pay the bill, but I didn’t. And he seized the opportunity, literally, and ran with it!
While I managed not to fall for his “loan me some money” scam, I let my guard down while trying to wrap up the evening and Nic robbed me. I was terrified, not because I had been robbed, but because, thinking we were becoming friends, I shared some of my personal information with him on previous encounters. He knew my name, phone number, my business, roughly where I was staying and for how long. The previous night when I used the restroom, I trusted him with my jacket containing my phone, money and credit card.
Panic set in and my mind raced. Did he access my phone or take my credit card number? Would he have me followed? Had I been followed already? Was someone going to rob my place or hack my internet? Was I in danger of disappearing because he thought I was a wealthy American? I did not sleep well that night and battled terrible anxiety for days, kicking myself for being so trusting and “stupid.”
I put an advisory on my accounts and with the credit agencies. I also did some internet searches about how to deal with and prevent being scammed.
Here are some things I adopted as a result of being “taken” by a stranger:
Be Stingy with Personal Info
Develop and use a “cover story.” Like a spy, I generally give a false occupation and city when asked what I do or where I’m from. I don’t give out my phone number and tell people I’m not on social media. Sometimes now I’m blunt when I’m asked how I afford to travel by telling people “I was taken by a con man and do not give out personal info anymore.” Hopefully, it makes them think twice about being nosy and perhaps makes them realize they, too should guard their details.
Meet in Neutral Locations
Agree to meet at common landmarks rather than where you’re staying. I’m careful to be vague when people ask where and how long I’m staying, or where I’m going next.
Keep Your Personal Effects Close
Minimize how much you carry and don’t leave your jacket or bag with anyone, ever.
I don’t like being mistrustful and lying, but the lesson learned is that playing it safe feels better than being a sucker. I was fortunate that the con man only got money and didn’t take my phone with all its data. I still monitor my credit report and bank accounts closely and it doesn’t appear he did any lasting damage unless he sold some of my info on the dark web. For several weeks after the incident, I was afraid to talk to strangers, and I don’t like being suspicious of everyone I meet, but perhaps my being more cautious will me avoid other situations in the future.
I sincerely hope you can learn vicariously from my experience. This is one blog post I wish I could have read before I embarked on this journey. It’s embarrassing to admit my blunder, but I happily share it with you, hoping you can stay safe and still make friends.
Happy and safe adventures to you!