It was about 9.30 in the morning on a relatively quiet road. I needed a top-up of Euros having arrived the evening before with my wife and two (female) friends for a weekend of rugby (yes, I know). So naturally we'd run out of cash since the shops had already been open a good hour. (Note to self... rugby trips are cheaper with blokes). I went up to an ATM outside a post office while the girls stood to one side. I had noticed a couple of teenagers hanging around nearby (one bizarrely was sitting on a grating in the pavement (sidewalk) apparently warming his butt), but I paid them no attention. I inserted my card, entered my PIN and then realised that the kids had flanked me on either side. The guy on my right held a piece of newspaper on top of the lower screen (the one with the keypad buttons). My immediate thought was that he was begging for money and that I was meant to read the paper. Foreign beggars quite often thrust scraps of paper in front of you with bad luck stories instead of struggling with the local language, so I assumed that was what was happening this time. I pushed both kids away from me and at the same time heard, shouted from a car parked nearby, the word "Dégagé", which I knew meant something like 'stop'. Glancing behind me I saw a car containing 4 more youths. My lady companions were by now getting quite scared and saying things like 'let's go'. The youths in the car were black and the kids at the ATM were Arabs or Eastern European, but I saw no reason to assume that their ethnic differences meant they weren't in the same gang. Me + 3 girls vs 6 youths. Not great odds. The fact that the chap in the car was telling them to 'stop' only served to persuade me they were connected in some way - but I later learned the blokes in the car were really trying to help by trying to scare off the muggers. But at the time, yelling at them to 'dégage' with me suggested things had the possibility of becoming unpleasantly violent. I was really keen to dégage as well (how I wished my current rugby chums had been my normal rugby chums...).
But here's the scam bit. So far no money had been stolen as far as I was aware. Remember that piece of paper held over the keys? Well the next thing I knew was my card being rejected by the machine. I hadn't pressed any buttons to ask for money. When I saw the card emerge, I assumed the transaction had been aborted for some reason, so I grabbed it and quickly strode away from the kids thinking 'everyone's OK, nobody's been hurt, and I've still got my card so even if they saw my PIN it's useless if I've still got the card'. All I wanted to do was get away from these threatening youths. They didn't follow me. As we strode further and further away, we chatted about the events and agreed I'd had a lucky escape... But then I started thinking 'Why did the machine spit out my card when I hadn't pressed anything?'.... which you are probably thinking was an obvious question - but remember a lot of things were going on and I was only concerned with protecting a) my life, b) my female companions, and c) my card/PIN. We've all had cards rejected when transactions go wrong or when machines are out of order or money. This only happens when YOU DON'T PRESS ANYTHING, which I hadn't. So I reasonably assumed I'd had a lucky escape and that the transaction had aborted.
But that piece of paper had obscured the fact that the kid on my right had pressed a button. He'd requested the highest amount I could withdraw... €200, without me knowing. And there is always a pause between taking your card and the cash emerging. The kid on my left was also covering up the money slot. My natural reaction was to grab my card and get away as quickly as possible to avoid any trouble. So I never saw my money emerge. It was only when I realised what had probably happened that I phoned my bank and discovered money had indeed been withdrawn. They advised me to make a report to the local police, which I duly did. At the police station the chaps on the desk and the detective who took my statement (a rather charming girl who was also going to the game that night, so sympathy abounded) all immediately asked "were they Romanies with a piece of paper"? I couldn't say whether they were Romanies or not (quite possibly), but they knew all about the piece of paper scam! "It happens like that all the time", they sighed, wearily (in French, of course. You can just picture the Gallic shoulder shrug, can't you).
And the chaps in the car? About 30 minutes after the incident, I went back to the ATM to get the details about the corner it was on etc (rather boldly I thought) while the women decided to carry on shopping (nothing phases them). The car with the black guys was still there. Remember I wasn't sure if they were connected with the muggers or not, but as I approached the car the windows came down so I thought I'd better say something in broken French like 'did you see the voleurs'? Stupid really. If they had been involved, 'non' would have been the obvious response, and then what would I have said? But one of them spoke very good English. He got out of the car and told me they had witnessed everything and had tried to get the kids to stop what they were doing - hence the shout. Because I left so quickly they didn't realise that my money had yet to emerge. He gave me his contact details as a witness and was happy for me to give them to the police. I've still no idea why they were hanging around in that car, but I'm deeply ashamed to admit any racist conditioning that might have affected my judgement at the time, was duly and rightfully kicked well and truly into touch where it should have been in the first place.
I asked the police whether I had been in any actual physical danger. They said it never becomes violent and that the scam usually works exactly as it did with me. I've gone over it many times in my mind since. The worst bit is that I felt a complete twit. I walked away without checking if any money came out. But why would I assume it might? As far as I was aware, no money had been requested. And cards are always automatically rejected if transactions fail. So I guess I wasn't as stupid as I felt. What would I do if it happens again? Now I know I shouldn't be having violent thoughts towards children, but....
So be warned. If your card comes out unexpectedly, always wait and check no money follows it.