Please sign in to post.

Random Passport Checks: Real or Fake Police?

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?

Posted by
8813 posts

I haven't got a clue if the people who approached you were real police or not. But I would report this to one of the US consulates in Austria. They can call their police contacts and ask if they it was on the level. If it wasn't they can release some sort of scam alert via the state dept. website.

Posted by
6092 posts

Police in France, both uniformed and plain clothed, have been stopping people and demanding to see their papers as long as I can remember, and that goes back to 1974 (forty years already!).

Posted by
4274 posts

I noticed warnings about this kind of scam posted in Frankfurt main railway station. Firstly they ask for documents, then they move on to examining your money, which either gets confiscated as fake or part of it is palmed.

Doing a quick search this is one of the regular scams of the year with a group caught doing it in Edinburgh too.

Posted by
4392 posts

As you concluded, it could be a scam or it could be legit. Much of Europe is facing significant immigration issues and I wouldn't be surprised if some countries are cracking down. They certainly have the right and ability to check your passport at any time, not just the borders.

Yet it is a rare but known scam. As the above posters noted, instead of just checking your passports and moving on, they want to see your money or your credit cards or give you some BS about your passport not being proper. THAT would certainly be a huge warning sign that you are not dealing with legit authorities.

I would advise people that if someone did approach, (check ID which you did) and if not convinced, insist on doing the check at the police station or having a uniformed officer arrive as backup. If they refuse, you can bet they are scammers. I wouldn't run away since that might get you arrested for fleeing police. But demanding to conduct the inspection in a hotel lobby gives you witnesses in case they were fake. A scammer won't try to steal your money in front of a local.

Posted by
16344 posts

Thank you for making a thorough report, and for even following up at the police station. While I've always known that European police could check ID on the street, it has never happened to me, nor most people here, without some other reason. Douglas's advice sounds like the right way to handle it.

Posted by
11196 posts

I think Douglas' tip on how to handle it is a good one. Ask for a uniformed back up, get witnesses,, and never show them your money( if your passport is good there is little reason for them to check your money).

I think in this case the police may have been legit .. they followed you into the hotel and after seeing your passport left.. scammers would not have done any of that in front of a desk clerk.

Posted by
343 posts

Never happened, and my passport is usually in hotel safe.

Seems that you handled them well, and I like the safety measures you took. I will definitely remember this in case we ever have a problem.

Thank you so much for sharing.

Posted by
8158 posts

Much of the advice above ("Ask them this ... ask them that and tell them this") depends on one's fluency in German. I'd be lost. My German consists of doppel zimmer, danke and bitte.

Posted by
343 posts

Always the ray of sunshine from Norma :)

I would be speaking in English. Most of them know some form of ENGLISH. You want my info, you will speak English!

Matter fixed :)

Posted by
8158 posts

I think that demanding that a couple of guys who purport to be Austrian Immigration Police communicate with you in English is asking for trouble, as well as being the height of arrogance. But that's just me being a self-effacing, polite Canadian.

Posted by
507 posts

I am with Ginger on the language. It goes along the lines of (rephrased) "Tourist beware." Europeans are taught English when in school.

Given the scenario in the 1st post w/plain clothes (supposed) officials in my face demanding to see my only means of international ID, I might resist showing also. I would think officials checking passports would be polite rather than demanding.

To date I have not been asked to show my passport in Italy, France, Spain, or England while at undergrounds or train stations. Maybe that is b/c my travels have been with groups

TY Douglas for giving info as to how to handle such a situation.

Posted by
108 posts

Marc,

Thanks for the information. It is nice to know all these little things could happen. A few more ideas to keep in mind. I have traveled to Europe a few times and have never had any issues with this before. All the others who have offered tips were great too.

Posted by
2353 posts

We have been asked twice while on trains that were stopped at a station but both times by gun totin', uniformed police. One was on a long distance train and one was a regional. We happily obliged as I carry ours with us.

Posted by
2703 posts

12 years of one month stays throughout Europe - never seen this - yet? Thanks for all of the suggestions that folks have posted. I do know that next year will be our 13th.

Posted by
11196 posts

Colette and Ginger.

You are wrong. Simply wrong.

Many europeons stil speak only a very little English. I took years of French in school and I can still barely speak French and I have logged hundreds of days in France. Yes in SOME countries there is a higher proportion of youth now speaking English but you are being naive by you countng on it in many places.

Your attitude that they MUST speak English is very arrogant and we will see how far that takes you.

Spend some time on this and the many other forums and you will read about how much fun some unfortunate tourists have had trying g to file police reports for thefts and rental car accidents ( for instance)with police who do not in fact speak English or do not speak it well enough to make things easy.

Don't live in a bubble.

Posted by
9110 posts

Pat's right.

Anybody who thinks everybody speaks English (or has immediate access to someone whoe does) trods a very narrow path.

Posted by
6092 posts

We'd cooperate with police in the US, so there is no reason not to cooperate when overseas. We should inquire as to whether anyone speaks English and excuse ourselves for not speaking their language. Anything less makes us an ugly American. If we begin to suspect a scam, then we'd follow the instructions posted above. There is no need to make demands up to that point.

Posted by
5600 posts

Thanks Pat. I wanted to respond to them but wasn't sure how to say it politely (or at least non-snidely). I was involved in an accident with my rental car in rural France 2 years ago and neither of the police who responded to take the report spoke English. Luckily someone in one of the other cars involved spoke a little English (very little but enough). It's very presumptuous to assume that all public officials in another country speak English (let alone that that many Americans think they should) - not always true.

Posted by
9110 posts

Funny thing about Americans -- they're ego-centric as all get out.

And, just because they have limited foreign experience, and then mostly dealing with the tourist-service industry, they stereotype an entire nation. Toss them out in the mainstream and they'd come away bug-eyed. So much for the notion of 'interacting with the locals'.

Posted by
30308 posts

marc,

Thanks for posting this. I've heard of this sort of thing before, but this is a good reminder. Many European countries are experiencing huge illegal immigration problems, so it seems logical that they would be expanding checks. The main question in your situation seems to be whether these individuals were actually Police. If they had also asked to see money, that would be a huge "red flag" for me. You handled the situation well.

I've only encountered uniformed and armed Police doing checks so far (mostly on the trains), but they never seem to check me. I suppose that's a good thing.

Posted by
6092 posts

I'm not sure I agree with you Ken that they handled this well. They ran away. I think they are lucky they weren't thrown to the ground, cuffed, collar-bone broken, deported, or tossed into jail for a few hours to teach them a lesson. This did turn out to be a legitimate immigration check, so anything could have happened. Because they had heard about scams but didn't know about plain-clothes officers doing checks, they overreacted. No one asked to see their money only a passport.

Being American probably saved them from further trouble. If this had been someone from eastern Europe or a developing country, they probably would have faced a lot more problems for running away.

Posted by
30308 posts

@Bets,

In terms of "handling the situation well", I felt that going to the hotel to show the Passports was a good idea as that provided a local witness who may have been able to tell whether the officers were "real". As the desk clerk wasn't even sure if they were legitimate, that seems like a significant point.

The other questionable point in my mind was the fact that the I.D. differed in appearance from the real I.D. that the OP saw at the Police station. As was noted, the I.D. was very basic and could have been produced on a home printer. As can be seen on THIS website, there's often not much difference between a real insignia and a fake one.

It's possible they were legitimate and a trip to the Police station would also have been a good way to handle it (provided they were taken to a police station and not down a back alley).

Posted by
2 posts

I got a reply from the US Consulate in Vienna (Grammar errors were in the original email):

Thanks for your e-mail.
We are sorry for the unpleasant experience, but we can confirm that Austrian police in civil clothing make randomly checks especially near train stations. On the other hand, we can also confirm that we heard the Eastern European gangs are presenting as police officer and are fake scams.
We hope that the information helps.
Regards,
U.S. Consulate
American Citizen Services

Posted by
8813 posts

Thanks for the update. Probably 50/50 that they were real police. Looks like you handled the situation correctly. Best to always go with your "gut".

Posted by
4 posts

You could always give them a swift "Verpiss dich!" and see if you end up in jail ; ) Whatever the case keep your wits about you and you'll be fine.

Posted by
11825 posts

Hi,

To have my Passport checked by non-uniformed police, I myself have only encountered that on a train in France, Austria and Germany, mainly on regional trains, when the guy identifies himself in German and I see the ID badge hanging from his belt. Yes, it's always two of them. They only ask to see the passport. I always thought it was legit since they check everyone else too. Because it was a check of everyone's ID, be it passport or "Personalausweis" I never suspected scam. And, no mention was ever made of seeing your cash.

You two may just been targeted because your partner looked Asian to them. They didn't know he was American too. No one mentioned that. That makes it less than a random check. I've seen in France when the riders had no ticket, they were told to get off at the next stop, which they did. That was in Perpignan in July 2011.

If you go with your gut and smell scam, nothing wrong with just using English, regardless of their level.

Usually it's uniformed personnel who patrol the train stations like the Grenzschutz, (see their shoulder patches).

Posted by
11825 posts

Hi,

One more thing...my compliments on your tenacity in pursuing this incident, that you simply didn't let it go, that you had them follow you to your hotel, (one reason for staying neat the train station), that they saw your passports in front of German speaking witnesses (the hotel staff). Gotta say that the hotel didn't seem to enthusiastic to give you an answer...the indifferent "maybe". I would have been interested in seeing which word, linguisitcally, the Polizei ID used for "alien"..Ausländer? Also, that you went to the police station. Since they had to resort to English, otherwise no communication, you could have seen their level of their language.

In Germany on the recent trips I saw something unknown to me at the time, gus wearing patches with "Wachtpolizei". So, I asked (not them of course) what the difference was between Wachtpolizei and Polizei. Only the Polizei is the more important whose instructions you need to comply with.

Posted by
507 posts

@Fred . . . Thanks for catching the fact that Marco's partner was Asian-American. That puts me on alert as my husband is first generation Chinese-American.

Posted by
11825 posts

@ Colette....You're welcome. Those times I was asked to produce my passport were always by plain clothes police ("Zivilpolizei" is the word) on a train. Plus, they checked everyone else too. One did not get the feeeling that anyone in particular was being targeted; they were polite (not intrusive, demanding, as you say) and very low keyed about it. Since I was sitting (obviously), they standing, I could see the ID badge hanging from the guy's belt.

I look at their shoulder patches. Private security patroling at a train station is not going to ask you to produce your passport....never saw that in Germany. It's usually 2 guys walking together.

Posted by
507 posts

"I am with Ginger on the language. It goes along the lines of (rephrased) "Tourist beware." Europeans are taught English when in school."

CLARIFICATION OF PARAGRAPH ^

  1. I made a generalization implying all Europeans know English. FALSE! I apologize for making that generalization.
    (Referring back to the initial post . . . "Now we go to police station" is pretty good English, don't you think?)

  2. When I visit the European Mainland, I do not expect the residents to speak my language. If I were stopped by local officials for documents, I would expect them to be polite, not demanding as the initial post characterized the "stocky, bald man".

My husband reminded me that we were on the train from Calais to Paris when an official came by to examine everyone's passport. We had boarded the train after disembarking the ferry between Dover & Calais. That was 40 yrs ago. So, officials have requested (not demanded) to see my passport.

When I need help, I politely ask "Do you speak English?" The answer several times has been "Non", sometimes said emphatically. Despite the language barrier, I am able to communicate my need.

One time a young man at the door in a Paris Hard Rock Cafe greeted my daughter & me in French (expected). I did not know what he was saying. So, I did a "time out" signal while asking, "Do you speak English?" His answer was, "Hell, yes. I'm from Denver, Colorado!" We both had a good laugh.

I politely request other posters to refrain from labeling me & other travellers when we misstate our thoughts. Speaking for myself, I do not ponder how to post & not offend others. Please ask for clarification if you are taken aback by a post.

[ Pretty please with sugar on it. :-) ]

Thank you.
Colette

Posted by
11825 posts

@ Colette....Your point is well taken. Even if that particular official /policeman can't speak English well enough, they'll get another colleague who can speak.

Posted by
17290 posts

"Europeans are taught English when in school."

Being taught something in school and remembering it as an adult are not the same.

My daughter took three years of French in high school and got all 'A's. Ten years later she can't construct a simple sentence in French. Most American's learn a second language in school. How much do we remember? When I met my German cousin, she was 16, and said she had studied English in school for seven years, but she couldn't have a conversation with me in English.

The latest report on language usage by the European Union indicates that only 34% of the over 500 million people in the EU know English.

In many small countries, English speakers are common. In the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, with only 32 million population combined, English usage is high, 86%.

In large language groups, Spain, Italy, and France, with over 170 million people combined, English usage is low, just 28%. In none of those countries is English usage more than half. Only in Germany (81 million people), is English usage over half (51%).

Fortunately, the English speakers tend to be concentrated in tourist areas.

Posted by
4292 posts

@Lee
thanks for making that point. Plus, even Europeans who speak English, are not required to speak to you in English.

Posted by
507 posts

OK, OK, EVERYONE!

This thread is about a possible scam RE: an official who demanded (according to the initial post) to see the poster's passports. Please read that post.

My previous post was not intended to be up for comment. It was my attempt to clarify my post of 08/01/14 & apologize to others who were offended by it.

I do quite well in my own way of communicating even though I do not speak any of the languages on the European Mainland.

@ Fred . . . Thank you for your input.

@ Lee . . . . I have 3 daughters of my own. All three are fluent in the language they learned in HS & college b/c they use it in their jobs. I am sure if there was no need for them to be bilingual they would have forgotten the language they were taught.

As for me I had no choice. I lived in a city were the primary employer was the federal government. Dad wanted me to be a secretary & felt secretaries did not need to be bilingual.

Now can the posting go back to staying on the topic of the initial post? I feel the posts are beginning to be in reference to my previous post.

Thank you.
Colette

Posted by
11825 posts

True, that Europeans ( assuming their level of English is good enough to communicate) don't have to speak English with you but they had better if they want to communicate or, better still, otherwise come up with another common language if they want to communicate with you.

Posted by
9305 posts

@Colette you are an amateur at unintentionally getting people riled up on this forum. If you want to know how to do it like a pro, just follow my lead.

As for the topic........."stuff" happens but it would be surprising that they would assign a cop to train that crosses borders that did not speak some English. The only time I ever experienced that was in Canada.

Posted by
2 posts

I had a similar experience couple of days back on Oct, 3rd. I was walking on the street side walk opposite to the Vienna city park from my hotel to find an ATM. As I was walking looking around, there was another gentleman was also walking like me stopped and asked me something in German which I did not understand. Then he asked me whether I am local for which my aswer was no! Then he started asking me where I am from and shook hands with me. By then there was another man who suddenly appeared from nowhere and said that he is a police officer showing his id and asked for our passports. The other guy showed his European id but I told the police officer that I don't have my passport and showed him my US driver license. He then asked us whether we carry any cigerette which my answer was no as I am not a smoker but the other person showed his cigerette case. The police officer smelt it and gave it back to him. Then he asked whether what currency we carry for which I told him that I am actually looking for a ATM machine to take cash. The other guy showed him his Euro. The police officer then left saying thank you and the other gentleman also walked away. After reading this thread I thought I should share my experience. I don't know whether the police officer is fake or real but he was polite.

All I can say is that I have traveled to many countries in Europe and other parts of the world and I have never experienced a situation like this!

Posted by
11825 posts

I think you were lucky to have the other guy around...maybe., still sounds fishy, since they could've been a team. When asked if you were a local and where you're from, etc. answer back with a "na, und?" Did this police guy speak to you and the other guy all in German or half English to you? I've done alot of walking alone in the last recent trips to Vienna and don't run into these sort of encounters. The next trip includes going back to Vienna again.

The fishy part is the shaking hands with you, which could have been a sign for that "police" guy to pop up out of nowhere. Police in Austria, France, Germany work, patrol, in pairs, at least. In France sometimes 2-4 of them are patroling around. In Austria and Germany, at least, a pair, both male and female, police. This guy, alone, makes his appearance....fishy. That first guy's questions be they in German or English would have put me off automatically.

Posted by
2 posts

The police officer spoke in half english. The more I think about the incident and the circumstance, you are right, I was probably lucky. It could have been the real police got doubt when suddenly two people walking on the street stopped and shake hands or those two guys working together either from law enforcement or fake police trying to get something out of me... Either way, I learned few lessons and thanks for your tips.

Posted by
11825 posts

What makes it suspicious/fishy is that this police guy pops out of nowhere alone after a definitely visible signal of a handshake. Chances are if you had been approached by real police, there would have been two of them standing in front of you. I've always seen police in Germany and Austria, be they private (look at the shoulder patches for the "Wachtpolizei" or private ones for Deutsche Bahn) or public city or the Grenzschutz (comparable to the Border Patrol) working in pairs, even traffic cops. Some guy popping out solo like a jack in the box is not genuine...chances are.

Posted by
11613 posts

Colette, I appreciate your clarification of your previous post, but as my mom taught me, think before you speak (something I need to learn again every day). Trust me, I still write off-the-cuff posts that are unclear, and someone calls me on it, but it's not the responsibility of other posters to figure out my intentions.

Posted by
39 posts

I've traveled internationally extensively, but I have not made it to Austria - can't attest for their laws. I haven't had the passport request by police ever in any city. And, I don't carry my passport with me in my purse - it stays locked away wherever I am sleeping. I DO carry my Texas driver's license - a picture ID with my address clearly written. I have had to show that a few times, most often when exchanging money (which I don't do often any more since I just use ATMs for cash nowadays).

Lisa

Posted by
11825 posts

Since I have a tendency stray and deviate, I'll gladly remind myself to adhere to the topic, better than the alternative.