Riga, Latvia: Thriving rip-off scene is the other side of tourism

Tom certainly had some useful recommendations when he recently made the case for visiting Riga. But any pitch to check out the Latvian capital and all it has to offer — a charming old town, beautiful architecture, one of Eastern Europe’s better restaurant scenes, some nice museums — would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge the growing problem of tourist-targeted scams that are prevalent in the very areas of the city in which you’re likely to spend most of your time.

Having recently returned from Riga, I remain shocked at the extent to which the city has adopted some of the nastier byproducts of a thriving tourist industry, namely the most inconspicuous, yet persistent (and dangerous) street hustles I’ve encountered in nearly five years of traveling in the former Eastern bloc.

I’m not talking about shout-out men stuffing strip club leaflets into your hands. I’m not talking about pick-pockets or complicated currency rackets.

Out on walks most nights, I watched as packs of well-dressed and beautiful women descended on groups of tourists — of course, mostly men — and lured them into bars and clubs not with the promise of sex of anything untoward, but simply for a drink. There these hapless souls will buy the ladies and themselves a few drinks (or, more likely, the drinks will simply start showing up) and when it comes time to settle up, they’ll find out that that bottle of wine they ordered for the table cost hundreds of euros. Upon balking at the expense, they’ll be greeted by one or two big, threatening bouncers and — in some reported cases, at least — roughed up if they don’t pay.

That’s a relatively easy scam to avoid: Don’t go anywhere with a woman who would not give you the time of day in your hometown.

A harder one to avoid, because it’s carried out even at a few reputable-looking restaurants and pubs, is the fake credit card machine. You’ll go to settle up, proffer your credit card and be told it was declined. You might hand over another card, which will also be declined. Eventually you’ll pay cash, and the next day you’ll find that said establishment has charged you thousands.

Think I’m just hating on Riga?

Search most travel forums online for Riga and scams and you’ll see travelers talking about this.

The problem is such that the government late last year announced that it would begin cracking down on establishments known to be rip-off centers (there are 180 criminal proceedings against fraudsters currently active). Also, at the behest of foreign embassies, who are pissed about fielding complaints from their citizens about this, police in Riga are gradually becoming more responsive to tourists in trouble. The government has outfitted patrol officers in Riga with 24-hour translation help, and tourists can now lodge official complaints in Latvian, English and German.

Speaking of embassies, the US Embassy in Riga has this extraordinary warning for tourists on its Web site, where it names the places to avoid in the city center. (The embassy has also officially banned its employees from setting foot in these places.) I’ve listed the places to avoid here.

All this started to be a problem back in 2005, about a year into Latvia’s EU membership. More recently, authorities say it’s gotten the way it has thanks, in part, to the onset of budget airlines that have made Riga accessible to most Europeans, lured here by low prices. British stag parties have made Riga a favorite party spot, which has probably contributed to the problem.

Such a reality doesn’t play well for guidebooks, I know, but it’s something to keep in mind.