Romania and Moldova traveler warnings

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Despite what other Europeans (and even Romanians/Moldovans) will tell you, it’s not perilously dangerous in either country. Far from it. In fact, violent crime is still so rare in Bucharest that it often makes the evening news. However, pickpockets and the odd scam artist are still working the tourist crowd here. Then there’s the opportunist officials, especially in Moldova, that will occasionally harass you into a bribe situation.


Like anywhere in Europe, slightly heightened awareness for your safety and belongings will probably be enough to keep you out of trouble. I’ve bobbed and weaved through my fair share of scams and bribe solicitors in the region and I’ve heard loads of first-hand tales from others, so I’d be remiss in my travel writer duties by not sharing these experiences with you, even though you’ll probably never encounter them yourself. So, let’s get on with the stories.

Pickpockets

Pickpockets are present in some of the more popular destinations. Unfortunately, more often than not, the offenders are gypsies. Many locals in Romania and Moldova will tell you that gypsies are all beggars and criminals. This is not true of gypsies as a whole, but you’ll encounter the occasional gypsy loitering on street corners in cities with a hand out and you should steer clear of groups of kids mingling in crowded areas. Bucharest and Brasov are the main pickpocket hot-spots, and to a much lesser extent Constanta, Iasi, Suceava, and Timisoara. Keep your bags zipped, and if possible, locked. Slashing bags open is rare but a possibility, so you need to keep your bags in plain sight. In thick crowds, backpacks and daybags should be positioned on your front, not your back. If your pockets aren’t deep, then don’t keep your wallet/camera in them. Back pockets, bad; front pockets, good.

Menu switcheroo

This once popular scam has become pretty rare. Essentially, you’re shown one menu when you sit down to dinner and are given another menu, with grossly inflated prices when the bill is delivered and you make a stink about the total. In some cases, no menu switch is made, but the menu fails to indicate that you are charged per 100 grams of whatever meat you’re ordering and you belatedly learn that 400 grams is the unspoken minimum.

Another wrinkle is when you order a bottle of wine and they uncork and pour the wine before apologetically telling you that the $8, 2002 bottle you ordered was out of stock, so they brought the same wine, but a different year, maybe 1989, which ‘lo and behold costs $120. They didn’t think you’d mind.

I should add that I haven’t heard a first hand report of this scam for about five years.

Thieving taxi drivers

This is classic Bucharest. Buch is better known for their criminal taxi drivers than for stray dogs. These drivers run a number of cons, sometimes several at once, to separate you from your money. These include, but are not limited to:

•  Driving you around in circles or into the nearest gridlocked street to jack up the meter.

•  Demanding that you also pay for their return trip to their ‘taxi home’, typically after they’ve dropped you at the airport or some other far flung place, or the other way around.

•  Doesn’t use the meter at all and decides to charge you an imaginary fee at your destination.

•  Sets the meter at some exorbitant price, which you don’t notice because you are paying too much attention to whether or not the guy is driving you in circles (I fell for this one, with three companions in the car, all looking out for a number of cons, except that one)

•  The sharp-eyed Craig at Bucharest Life recently noticed this doosie.

I’ve heard tell of some drivers locking people in the back seat until they’ve paid the ridiculous fare and if it gets down to the wire, they threaten to drive the victims to their garage where a bunch of his pals will purportedly kick the crap out of them.

The only true defense against these guys is to not take a taxi. Ever. Period. But if you have no choice, one course of action is to only take taxis that have their fares written on their doors. Typical fares should be about 1.6-2.5 lei per kilometer. Anything above 3 lei per kilometer is a rip-off.

Dogs

Though their numbers have been drastically reduced in the past year, stray dogs are still everywhere in Romania and sometimes you’ll actually see them running in packs in the center of big cities. By and large these dogs are calm and they mostly have a healthy fear of humans. That said, just like humans, occasionally you find a dog having a bad day or a dog that’s just plain nuts and that’s when people get bit. Momma dogs with puppies can also get a little snappy. Some locals say that nearly every Romanian has been bitten by a dog at some point in their life and thus many Romanians are terrified of these street dogs, giving them a wide berth and jumping three feet at any bark, no matter what the tone. I advise visitors to do as the Romanians do and just give these dogs their space. In a country where health care facilities and practitioners aren’t generally up to western standards, going to the hospital for something like a dog bite is not a pleasant experience. A simple rabies shot is a no-brainer, but a freak severed artery could be the end of you, as happened to a Japanese businessman in 2006. Unusual, yes, but better safe than sorry.

Cars

I provide more detail about driving, specifically drivers , in the Transport section, but it bears repeating, drivers in Romania are, for the most part, nuts. Using rear-view mirrors, looking both ways, using the brakes, these are not inherent instincts for the average Romanian driver and pedestrians should be on guard. The typical sentiment is that every driver is the center of the universe and everyone else should look out for them. Those that don’t, well it’s all their fault. Rather than spend a little time and money on defensive driving training, Romania recently banned horse-drawn carts on major roads, blaming the slow-moving, easy-to-avoid horse carts for many accidents that could have been avoided if the car drivers would just slow down a little and put down their cell phones.

Whether it’s your fault or not, getting hit by a car in Romania will kill your vacation buzz with a quickness. In fact, considering the response time and motivation of the average emergency rescue person, getting hit by a car will likely just plain kill you. Crossing the street is only part of the problem; the sidewalk in many places is often so smashed (or blocked by parked cars) that people just resort to walking in the street. In the countryside, obviously there are no sidewalks, so you have no other choice. Never assume a Romanian driver 1) sees you or 2) cares about your well being. I can’t find any definitive information on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say that cars have the right-of-way in Romania, not pedestrians. It would behoove you to conduct yourself with this mentality.

Police shakedowns

The good news is that Moldovan police are now paid enough so that they aren’t involved in unconcealed criminal activity. The bad news is that a second, tax-free income is hard to resist. Enter the Moldovan police shakedowns. I have never seen police so shamelessly devoted to bribe shakedowns in my travels. Indeed, I wonder if they have any time to enforce the law what with them padding their drinking budgets. Once I was stopped twice in five hours, both times for ludicrously bogus offenses. I was an easy target though; an American in a mirthfully old and ailing Romanian car, with Romanian plates no less. Though in all fairness, police target locals just the same. They don’t even wait for drivers to do something potentially wrong. The instant they say ‘goodbye’ to one victim, they flag down the next car that happens to be passing at the time and go to work on them, like an assembly line.

Moldova police shakedown

Chances are you won’t be driving, or at least you won’t be in such an irresistibly stoppable vehicle. Well, you’re still not safe. A favorite Moldovan cop pastime on slow nights is to randomly stop foreigners for “looking suspicious” – staggering around alone and drunk late at night virtually invites this kind of harassment. If you haven’t done something truly odious, like steal the police chief’s new Mercedes and poop in the back seat (not that I haven’t considered it), you probably won’t find yourself in too much trouble, no matter the situation.

When stopped on the street, you will be asked for your passport and you will be sorry if you don’t have it. Supposedly, it is law that all foreigners have their passports on their person at all times in Moldova. I know some people walk around with photocopies of their passports, but if you get a cranky cop, I doubt this will be of much use.

Some ex-pats tell me that getting out of a bribe shakedown without some kind of offering is almost unheard of. But others (cute girls) have claimed to have flirted their way out of the situation. I personally escaped shakedowns three times by pretending to not speak Romanian. They just couldn’t be bothered to try to mime their way through the explanation of what I’d done wrong. However, one night a particularly thirsty pair of cops pestered me for an hour and then rung an English speaker on their mobile phone to translate the imagined offense. I ended up only giving 100 Moldovan lei (about US$8), but still, it was the concept of the thing.

Sadly, for now, these shakedowns are just a part of life in Moldova. Chalk it up as a reasonably cheap cultural experience if you get collared.

Greedy tourist scam

This actually happened to me in Kiev, Ukraine, but I’m told the same scam is being run in Moldova too, even targeting locals, so I’m going to include it here.

Basically, some guy pulls up conspicuously close to you as you’re walking and starts matching your stride. After a few moments he’ll make a big scene of picking something up off the ground, the item turns out to be a wad of cash. In my case, he started speaking English to me right away, which was my first tip off that something weird was going on (English isn’t overly common in Ukraine, yet).

He was like, ‘Oh wow!  Yeah!  Hey you!  Good luck huh? You speak English?’

‘Yes, funny you should ask, I speak the hell out of English.  Congratulations.’

‘Hey, Russian tradition, we split it!  Go to a bar!  Come on!’

‘No man.  I’m working, it’s all yours.  American tradition is ‘take the money and run!’  Bye.’

‘No, no!  Wait!  Russian tradition, we split it!  Get some girls.’

‘I’m going in this hotel now, goodbye’

Just then another guy came running up, ‘Oh!  You found my money!  Please, can I have it back?’ and by then I was 10 meters away and accelerating.

I later learned that, had I stuck around, the ‘owner’ of the wad of money would count it, claim money was missing and demand that I give him all mine.  If the police are called, you’re no better off as they’d likely be in on the act too.

The moral of the story is, never accept free money from anyone under any circumstances and be extremely cautious around anyone that wants to be your instant friend.  Females included.

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