My partner and I are pretty experienced travelers—over 70 countries and counting. We thought we were hip to all of the classic travel scams, but our experience in Graz, Austria, left us a bit shaken—but also intrigued.
On a Thursday morning around 9:30 am we were waiting for a tram at the Graz Hauptbahnhof when we were approached by a stocky bald man in khakis and a polo shirt. Initially he spoke to me in German, then realizing that I didn't understand him, he said, "Documents! Passport! Documents!"
He pulled out a laminated card that said "POLIZEI" and said that he was "special alien police" and demanded documents. Now having traveled all over Europe for over 20 years, neither my partner (who happens to be Asian-American) nor I had ever encountered this sort of thing before, but we were quite aware of the many fake police scams. We refused to show him anything.
We proceeded to leave the tram platform and run up the escalator toward the main station building. At this point the officer was joined by another young woman who was also in plain clothes.
At the top of the stairs, the "officer" grabbed me and said, "Now we go to police station."
We kept moving. Since our hotel was directly across the parking lot, we told the officers that we would show them our passports inside our hotel. We got inside the hotel and asked the desk clerk, "are these real police?" and she said, "Maybe."
Perhaps we were really dumb to do this, but once at the hotel front desk we showed the "police" our passports. They looked at them, muttered some things to each other, then left.
Later we asked around as to whether this thing ever happens. Another hotel employee said, "no, that doesn't happen." Another guest at the hotel said "it sounds like a 'maradona'—a Romanian scam." At the tourist office, an agent told us that, "only uniformed police do that." We did a cursory Internet search and didn't find anything about plainclothes immigration police. So we thought we'd just had an encounter with the fake police scam.
The next morning we were still a bit curious so we decided to go to the police office at the Graz train station. We told the desk officer our story—then he told us, "yes, there are special plainclothes immigration police" that work the station.
He showed us a real police ID that looked similar to—but not identical to what the "special" police were carrying. What I found amazing was that the real IDs didn't have any holograms or anti-counterfeiting features—they looked like they could have been made on a cheap computer printer.
He went on to say that "since there are no border controls the local police have to look out for illegal aliens."
Politics aside, this can be a very scary situation. Has anyone else ever encountered random stops by real police within the Schengen zone? Is this going to become the new normal?