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London's Latest Scams: Pedicabs and "American" Candy Stores | Frommer's mrtravelbunny / Shutterstock

London's Latest Scams: Pedicabs and "American" Candy Stores

Scams come and go in London. Two of the latest target tourists by wearing a cloak of false legitimacy.

In the first decades of Frommer's guides, published in the 1950s and '60s, London's worst scams seemed to be mostly shame-based. Unscrupulous local ne'er-do-wells had a way of trapping lonely single male visitors who, once full of drink and misplaced lust, would wander into the wrong massage parlor in Soho and weren't allowed to depart again without paying a king's ransom.

But post-pandemic London is trying to contend with a pair of nuisances that are seducing tourists with candy-colored false legitimacy.

The first scam: Visitors wandering the West End at night, after the shows let out, are finding themselves besieged by fleets of pedicabs. These human-powered cycle rickshaws are often festooned with colorful lights and loud speakers that attract the attention of visitors who mistake the vehicles as a quirky form of traditional local transportation.

Pedicabs linger near theatre doors, blasting music as drivers all but blow kisses at tourists to convince them to climb aboard.

Some London pedicabs are legal. The legitimate ones are even licensed. But many are fleecing operations, and the city is having trouble clamping down on them.

Just like the postwar Soho massage parlor scam, they work best on revelers who are too distracted to use better judgment. Passengers fail to negotiate a fair price before setting off, or, worse, they fall prey to a rigged meter, only to discover at the end of the ride that the driver demands huge amounts of money.

Last summer, one visitor was ripped off for £500 (about US$636) for a 10-minute ride. This summer, a Belgian tourist who thought her two children would love the open-air journey was shocked when her pedicab driver demanded £464 (about $590) for a 7-minute ride.

The driver in that case reportedly intimidated the mother and parked the pedicab well away from security cameras around the visitor's hotel.

"I felt so threatened, and my kids felt scared," the tourist told the BBC.

Stories of London pedicab scams have become so widespread that city officials have threatened pedicab operators with fines, prosecutions, and stricter regulations.

But the rip-offs keep happening. 

Even when pedicab drivers charge the correct licensed amount, they still have a way of cutting off pedestrians, swarming sidewalks, and playing music so loudly it wakes the neighbors.

In 2022, the city doled out £21,000 in fines across 68 drivers. But the profits must exceed the wrist-slapping costs, because the tourist scams and noise pollution persist, night after night. 

(Credit: Alena Veasey / Shutterstock)

Another scam business in London has proven even more pernicious and difficult to eradicate. That's the dreaded "American candy shop" (one is pictured above), a deceptively attractive type of boutique that visitors to London will easily find across the city under names like Candy World, American Candy Store, American Sweets, and NY Candy.

Sweeping in by the dozens when Covid-era vacancies left a vacuum, the candy shops line major tourist thoroughfares including Oxford Street and around Leicester Square, taking up some of the most expensive retail rental space in town.

Most of the time, each pristine-looking shop has nearly no customers, and the items for sale, which include confections, vapes, and tourist staples like phone chargers, have no price tags.

If you mention American candy shops to anyone you meet in London, you'll hear the same thing: Nobody knows anyone who has ever bought anything at one of these places. 

Inspectors are constantly raiding the shops, which are widely thought to be money-laundering operations, and seizing junk like counterfeit chocolate bars of dubious safety, mobile phone cases, dangerous charging cords, and vape pens that administer twice the legal limit of nicotine.

The storefronts have bumped out legitimate businesses, and they have a nasty way of skipping out on rent before authorities can catch up with them.

London city officials have seized more than £1 million in counterfeit and illegal products from these shops between 2021 and this year. The authorities would like to fine American candy shop owners a lot more, but most of the stores are operated by shell companies that dissolve the minute legal accountability comes around. When one shop vanishes, another sprouts up with a new name and new ownership.

The problem is so bad that small businesses are being offered rent-free leases in world-famous shopping districts like Oxford Street just so the city can get rid of the bogus candy shops.

Like so many scams that go after tourists, London's shifty pedicab operators and "candy shop" owners skate by on a false facade of respectability—then screw visitors out of their cash.

If you're headed to London anytime soon, you're advised to steer clear of both of these honeypots.