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Beware scams lurking amid Budapest's charms

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lucian Kim
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2003

BUDAPEST -- The charms of Budapest are legendary: stately bridges spanning the Danube, grand 19th century boulevards, and the largest neo-Gothic parliament building in the world. Just as legendary, though devoid of charm, are the stories of the Hungarian capital's tourist scams, from the $100 beer to crooks posing as policemen.

The American embassy here posts a special advisory on common tricks used by con men and their molls. Budapest's black list of bad businesses, the embassy claims, is unique among US embassies around the world. Of course you could get bamboozled in Bombay or hoodwinked in Windhoek. "The one thing that is different here is that the scams keep on happening in the same establishments, year after year after year," said US Consul Philip Skotte.

Certain establishments apparently stay in business only by means of flattery backed by brute force. Reports to the authorities are depressingly similar: Two women, young and not unattractive, chat up a foreign man and offer to show him a "good restaurant." After consuming drinks, sometimes food, the unwitting tourist is presented with an exorbitant bill, often upward of $1,000. If he refuses to pay -- or doesn't have the cash -- obliging bouncers materialize to show him to the nearest ATM.

Technically, it is not illegal to charge $100 for a beer, and scam victims might neglect to check the menu first. Furthermore, few tourists would go to the effort -- not to mention embarrassment -- of pressing charges.

In the Lonely Planet guidebook for Budapest, the writer gives these words of caution: "We get letters from male readers complaining they've been ripped off all the time. Guys, please: if it seems too good to be true, it is -- trust me and the mirror."

One notorious locale, Varoskozpont (or "city center"), is named on the US embassy website. Perhaps the only truthful thing about this establishment is that it is located on Budapest's central pedestrian street, Vaci utca. Ominously, it is accessible from the street only by a separate elevator. The menu display cases are empty, and the only hint that there might be some sort of business upstairs is mysterious signs advertising "the best dance music orchestra in Hungary." There is no restaurant at the phone number given on the poster. According to those unfortunate enough to have been inside, an ATM is conveniently located in the establishment, and the door is controlled by a buzzer.

Skotte said that men who get ripped off in seedy strip joints -- and there are plenty in Budapest -- have only themselves to blame. His gripe with Varoskozpont is that it poses as a restaurant. "I think we'd be negligent, since we know about it, not to tell people about it," he said.

Just because men are the exclusive prey of the Budapest's "konzumlanyok," or consumption girls, is no reason for women travelers to let down their guard.

In another common scam foreign visitors are approached by a dubious fellow offering to change money on the street. Of course, the tourists know better than to do something so foolish and they refuse. They are then approached by "undercover cops," wielding some sort of IDs, who ask if the foreigners had just changed money. Next the "policemen" demand the tourists' wallets to check if all of their money is still there -- by the time the swindlers have left, it most certainly is not. An American couple recently reported being relieved of $2,000 in cash in this manner.

Nevertheless, Budapest has very low levels of violent crime when compared with US cities. "If you use common sense, you won't have any problems," said Skotte.

Tourism officials point out that of the 400,000 American tourists who visit Budapest every year, only a few become victims of scams. One official at Hungary's State Secretariat for Tourism said that the number of incidents is decreasing, thanks in part to a multilingual police hot line and more police in tourist areas.

Lucian Kim is a journalist based in Berlin.

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