Illegal money changing scams still a problem in centre of Prague

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The height of the summer tourist season in the Czech capital comes with a sharp increase of tourists in the streets, as well as an increase in crime. Signs in trams and the subway system—written in both Czech and English—warn people to keep a close eye on their belongings. Pickpockets are everywhere. Still, in search of a better deal, some people enter the trap of con artists operating in the tourist zones.

Prague is known for its beauty, and unfortunately, its petty crime. On Tuesday I was rushing down Wenceslas Square as I do every day, and as I was about to descend a staircase into the subway system, I turned around to see a man handing another a wad of cash, and the tourist saying a gracious "thank-you." It happened right in front of my eyes: an illegal money exchange made on the edge of Wenceslas Square. Only the unsuspecting tourist had no idea that the wad of colorful bills he had just bought were not Czech crowns, but rather Bulgarian lei. Then, as quickly as the wads of money exchanged hands, the seller disappeared past me into the subway system.

Although tourists are warned of these scams, and good common sense should tell anyone that exchanging money in the street is a bad idea, it happens at an alarmingly high rate. Curious about how frequently tourists may be approached, I went back to Wenceslas Square and Na Prikope Street and asked people about their encounters with black marketers:

"No, I don't do it. Nobody has asked me yet, but I only arrived today."

"I was approached several times. On Vaclavske namesti, but not on a daily basis. A couple of times each year, and I've lived here for six years."

"Yes, but I told them that I don't want to exchange money in the street."

"We're from Spain. Yes, it happened two or three times and we arrived this morning!"

RP: You work here in front of Obecni Dum with the tourists [selling tickets]. During the course of your day, do you have a chance to see attempts at people making illegal money sales?

"Yes, there are a lot of people dealing in false money here, but nobody does anything about it."

The police don't do anything?

"Nothing."

Why, do you think?

"I don't know what the problem is. There are many people here operating with fake money, and the police, they know who these people are. Sometimes the police take them away, but after one day you will see them back here."

Ironically, the incident I witnessed took place in close proximity to an officially licensed exchange bureau. One of the men who works at the exchange office shared his opinion on the problem of illegal currency exchanges:

"Actually, I think this is a famous thing in Prague because at almost all the exchange offices, the employees—the cashiers—they know about this business. I think the police also know about this kind of illegal business, but nobody can do anything about this black market. The police say that these deals are between the customers and some man on the street, so they can't do anything."

The incident I witnessed happened in front of your office at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. Do you ever have tourists coming back to you for help, once they discover that the money they bought isn't real Czech money?

"I think they just want information about what sort of currency they have. That's about all that they can do."

What are the most frequent currencies being passed-off as Czech crowns?

"Bulgarian lei, or leva, and now actually, the most famous currency is the Hungarian forint."

What is your estimate of the number of people who fall victim to this scam?

"I think minimally twice a day someone comes to ask about the currency they bought in the street."

So the lesson to tourists: exchange your money at a licensed exchange bureau, at a bank, or just use the ATM machines scattered all around Prague. You'll have to pay an exchange fee, but you'll avoid a handful of funny money!