The Paris Gold Ring Scam

Posted on
Jun 17, 2013

I know I owe you a few stories out of Sydney, but I absolutely have to tell you about something that happened to me – TWICE – in Paris. We’ll get back to Sydney later this week. I promise.

The first time this scam was attempted, I wasn’t far from here.

Remember the movie The Matrix?

Please, please say that you do, and that you weren’t, like, in the womb when the movie premiered, okay? Because I recently had an exchange with the lovely girlfriend of a friend (both of whom are slightly younger than us) and even though I consider us contemporaries, I realized that I saw Jurassic Park in the movie theater as a teenager when she was 2 years old.

I dealt with this revelation in the mature manner, adding a couple of tablespoons of metamucil to my vodka soda and whispering something about how the music was too loud.

Anywho, The Matrix: there’s this part where Trinity talks about the difference between how Neo sees himself (in the Matrix world) and what he really looks like. It touches on the nature of self-image, and how sometimes, there is a large delta between how we see ourselves, and how the rest of the world sees us.

I tend to think of myself as looking fairly cosmopolitan. That I blend into a city, especially when we’re in Central Europe. If I ever go anywhere without my massive camera, I get asked for directions, having been mistaken for a local. And even when I do have my camera, it’s not like I’m an easy mark, right? I mean, no one would look at me and think, “That girl looks easy to rob.”

Right, you guys? RIGHT?

But in Paris, I realized that’s a bunch of hooey. Someone might as well have put a sign on my back noting that I was a tourist with an expensive camera and no idea where her hotel was. Because no less than two people saw me and felt that it was appropriate to try to pull a scam on me. And it was the same scam – the gold ring scam.

Apparently it’s a popular one in France – there are posts about it on Trip Advisor, and on countless blogs. It’s fairly simple, and even now, I wonder if there isn’t more to it.

The first time it happened, I was by myself near the Palais Garnier Opera House in the 9th arrondissement. I was a few blocks from our hotel, but nevertheless hopelessly lost. I needed to pull out my map. Doing so always freaks me out, because it makes it painfully obvious to anyone within a block radius that you are not only a tourist, but a clueless one to boot. Plus, it involves opening up my purse.

I found a corner where the facade of a restaurant jutted out slightly from the storefront next to it, pressed my back against it, so I could stand comfortably, without worry that anyone would sneak up on me. I found the street I was on, and looked at the tiny little rues that burst out of it like rays of the sun on a child’s drawing. My hotel was on one of them but … good heavens, why was the print so small? Don’t mapmakers realize that those of us who get lost also tend to lose their glasses?

As I squinted at the map a pair of men walked by, and one of them stooped to pick something up in front of me.

Weird. I didn’t notice anything on the ground, and I tend to look (I’m constantly looking out for pooh).

He held it up to me. It was a men’s wedding band, simple and gold.

“Is this yours?” he asked in French.

Reflexively, my hands slapped down on my purse and camera. This happens every time a stranger tries to talk to me in a foreign city: my heartbeat quickens, and I’m convinced I’m about to be robbed. It isn’t because I’m savvy – it’s because I’m paranoid as hell. I shook my head, wide eyed, my back against the building behind me.

“NO,” I said firmly, clutching my things and staring at the ring.

He shrugged, saying something like, “I guess I’ll keep it then” to his friend, and the two of them walked off.

In those brief moments, a million things went through my head. I wondered if it could have been Rand’s wedding ring. No, that was impossible. Rand’s ring isn’t gold.

I then thought of all the men I knew who had legitimately lost their wedding rings while playing with their kids or doing chores around the house, and how sad they’d been about it. I imagined a poor pair of elderly tourists walking through the city and one of them realizing that the gold band they’d worn for 40 years had somehow slipped off their finger. Maybe I should have told the man who’d found the ring to go to the authorities? Or taken it from him and offered to go myself.

But he’d never have believed me in the case of the latter.

“Give me the ring. I’ll get it to its owner.” Yeah, right.

Besides, I didn’t even know where was at that moment.

Looking at the map,  I wondered if it could have been a scam. Some sort of distraction or … ? I couldn’t figure it out, so I just focused on figuring out where I was.

I eventually made it back to the hotel, my possessions and a small portion of my sanity still intact.

I told Rand about my day, and I mentioned the ring.

“That was a scam,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“You think?”

“Definitely,” he replied. Rand guessed that it was some sort of pick-pocketing scheme. I wasn’t sure – the guys were well-dressed, and didn’t really seem shifty – but wouldn’t that have been the point? Plus, I realized that I couldn’t remember either of their faces. I’d only seen the ring, held just under my nose. That was odd,  because it meant that the gentleman had to be holding it quite low (I’m short).

The more I considered it, the odder the scenario seemed.

“Oh, man,” I whispered to myself.

The next day, Rand and I were walking not far from the Eiffel Tower, near the Quai Branley Museum. Though we’d encountered crowds of tourists everywhere, we found ourselves relatively alone as we walked down a narrow, tree-lined promenade. The only other people around were a heavily pregnant woman heading towards us, holding the hand of her small son, who looked to be four or five. She wore a long skirt that touched the ground, and her hair was up in a scarf. I wondered how she wasn’t dying of heat when I noticed her bend down to pick something up off the ground.

She struggled to get up – why the hell was a pregnant woman bending over like that? I’d have helped her had she been closer to us. She straightened up, and as we passed, I saw that she was holding a gold ring out to us.

“Is this …” she began.

“No,” I snapped, my hands squeezing tightly around my purse and camera. As we rushed away, I looked at Rand, my jaw hanging open.

“Told you,” he said.

My mouth hung open for a while. I’d been hit by the same scam two times in as many days. I realized that I looked like a tourist, but I hadn’t figured I’d been such an easy mark. Just a reminder that how we see ourselves isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world sees us.

Oh, and the next day? Two different people asked me for directions. Go figure.

—————

The Essentials on The Paris Gold Ring Scam:

  • Where: People try to pull this scam in all the major tourist areas. I’ve read about it happening near the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, The Jardin de Tuileries, and countless other places.
  • How it Goes Down: This is traditionally not, as Rand has assumed, a pickpocketing scam (though I don’t rule out the idea that it could be used for that). A man or woman “finds” a ring on the ground. They pick it up, and ask if it’s yours. Even if you say no, they press it upon you, occasionally with the excuse that it’s “against their religion to wear jewelry.” (I’m pretty sure that’s only true for the Amish.) As you leave with the ring, they mention that 1.) they’re hungry and broke or 2.) that it would be nice to be compensated for the ring they just gave you. You give them a few euros, and leave with your ring – which turns out to be made of brass and utterly worthless.
  • How to Avoid it: Just keep walking. Don’t stop, don’t take the ring, and don’t engage in a conversation (this is incredibly easy to do if you speak virtually no French). As long as you shake your head knowingly and give a firm NO, you should be okay. If someone reaches for you, don’t hesitate to pull your limbs away. As always, if you feel threatened, make some noise and get loud to draw attention.
  • Related Scams: The other notable Paris scam is perpetrated by the bracelet guys near the Sacre Coeur. And pickpocketing is such a problem in Paris that the US embassy actually has a whole page written about it.

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  • I’ve just recently heard of this trick, although I guess its been around forever. Here in Madrid, I guess they ask tourists if they’ve lost the ring as they’re putting it on your finger. Then, they scream for the police, telling them that you’ve just robbed them. Then, the police (who I guess are in on the scam) tell you that either you go to jail or you pay a cash “fine”.

    So, obviously, it makes me wonder who in the world would say, yes, that nasty old ring is mine and slap it on their finger. But I guess it’s such a weird sitch, that you just forget in an instant that it’s not your ring? I don’t know…weird all around.

  • Ohh they are still at it.. I wonder how come more people are not aware of it. And yes I think Rand is right, depending on situation/ place there is a chance of a bag snatching.

  • I feel like Paris has a higher per capita rate of scam artists than almost anywhere else I have been, barring Egypt. I taught my husband a few lines of French (Je ne comprend pas Francais) before we went, however, he chose to try it out on the scam artists and beggars. Cue them following us around, harassing us in English.

    C’est la vie in Paris!

  • It’s insane how many number of scams there are in various countries. When I was in Paris last year, two women surrounded me, shoving paperwork in my face asking me to sign it while they patted my hair and my entire body. No amount of elbowing and telling them to fuck off worked, and they ran off with my cell phone (which, honestly, was the least of my concerns). It just seems really sad that you can’t even see the major sites without being harassed and fearing having things stolen.

    • John

      Time for tourist to fight back by calling on Governments to act.
      My wife who is being treated for cancer ( she is obviously bald and looks ill to any scammer) was caught with the gold ring scam and asked for 5 euros for a coffee. I am grateful that she was not assaulted and robbed. I think it is time for the French Govt and their Police force get of their arses and deal with the epidemic. I watched some police walk past the petition pests, scammers etc as if they did not care. The authorities need fight back and increase penalties and police this pesky vile criminal activity if they want tourist dollars to help rebuild their ailing economy.
      This crime is assault and it is sad to not be able to enjoy your one wish in life – to see beautiful Paris without constantly being harassed.

  • We couldn’t believe how many gypsies there were in Paris. They equaled the number of tourists.

  • kokopuff

    When in Rome on my honeymoon, my honey and I were approached by two dirty, thin, little girls, right by the Coliseum. They were holding out a map and asking where something was…luckily they were new at this and my hubby felt the one little girl’s hand in his pocket and grabbed her and yelled at me to grab the other one. So we hung on to them, while he pried the pickpocketer’s fingers open and took back his money. They then ran over to a group of people and they all shuffled away. It mad me sad because I realized the little girls were probably going to be in a heap of trouble for screwing up what was probably one of their first times trying the scam.

  • Poe

    It totally happened to me last fall! Even after I had read about it! I still have the ring in the bottom of the purse I took to Paris. I kept it as a reminder that despite my advanced years and travel experience, I’m totally a gullible sucker. It’s become a running joke in our household – “Don’t get ringed” or “Ask Poe, she’d buy a gold ring off a scammer.” Humiliating.

  • It’s alright. I, too, blend in. AND I tend to have resting bitch face most of the time, which scares off a lot of people, like would-be attackers for instance.

    But, the minute I let my guard down — in my own hometown, nonetheless — I was promptly followed by a homeless dude asking me to “buy” him “a motherfuck’n sandwich.” Of course the only thing I had on my was a set of keys and a pen that could possibly be used as a shiv, just in case.

    Then there was that other time, I was particularly having a great time in Brussels. Only, to feel hands go in my purse and I see some chubby guy’s fingers pawing for stuff. Jokes on him, though. There was only a tampon and ten cents in my purse.

  • It’s really sad that European tourists must be on their guard for such scams. We’ve seen ’em all as well.

  • This scam seems like a lot of work for a potentially fruitless outcome. How silly! Thanks for sharing though! 🙂

  • Glad you are safe. But, this is fascinating to hear the other, dark, side of experiences on your awesome travels and enountering jerks. That is totally a shame to have that in the back of your mind all of the time. World we live in.

  • karin

    Paris is lovely but she is filled with poo.

  • Tovi

    I’m lucky I wasn’t approached by a scammer in the eight months I was living in Paris, but when my dad visited from Vancouver in the fall he was faced with the same scam! Also in the Opera area. There is also a big phone stealing problem in Paris.. one of my friends chased down the guy who stole her iPhone from her hands and the police caught him!

  • The bracelet scam got me the first time I visited Paris. The second time I said no quite firmly and was then mocked for saying no. I chalk it up to the fact that they were probably ticked that I was wise to their game. Never heard about the gold ring scam though…good to know!

    • Paul

      Our first time in Paris 5 years ago our 16 year old daughter was taken in by the bracelet scam at sacre Couer. It really upset her. We returned last year and I walked up to a random scammer at the Sacre Couer Funicular and started yelling that he had attacked my daughter and for someone to help. Got quite a crowd going. The guy and his team of course ran off for at least a little while. It made me feel a little better. Crazy Americans.

  • Kez

    On one of my trips to france I encounted not, nor two but four different times of theft and countless times of being approached by ring bearers and petition holders. Thankfully I didn’t lose anything and wasn’t scammed, but I could see how easy it was to fall for it all.

    The thefts however were sad. The first was acutally to me – I was pickpocketed on the Train on the way to Monaco. The joke was on the pickpocketer tho (similar to above) only I had just bottles of water and apples in my bag. My purse was inside my jeans (I sew a secret pocket in there just for this sort of thing). The next three thefts I saw –
    1. a girl sitting at a cafe across from Gard de Nor put her camera (a beautiful SLR) on the table, picked up her coffee and a chap ran past and picked up her camera…Gone!
    2. two girls sitting at a cafe, a gypsy lady walks up with petition, distracts the girls and swipes their phone thats sitting on the table whilst they are looking at the petition.
    and 3. A chap sitting at a cafe in Tours with his laptop on the table, he bends down to his breifcase/bag besides him to get out some papers and a chap runs past, swoops up the computer and runs away.

    I was gob-smacked each time I witnessed these things happening. One thing I learnt was don’t sit in the front row of sidewalk cafes. and of course, there’s no such thing as something for free.

    Thailand’s a shocker for scams too!

    • Everywhereist

      This is heartbreaking. However, I now feel much more vindicated that I ate every single meal with my camera and purse in my lap (not slung over the chair behind me or on the ground or anything like that).

    • Molly

      Had #2 happen while I was at the table, but not to my phone. I forget how the guy distracted us, but a few minutes later my friend realized his phone was gone. It was more a nuisance for him than a real problem, but it was shockingly unnoticeable.

  • Dan

    Mike and I experienced something similar (also twice) in Istanbul. There, the scam consists of a shoe-shine guy dropping his brush and pretending not to notice as he walks away. The hope is that you will be kind enough to pick up the brush and return it to the guy, who will then very assertively try to convince you to let him shine your shoes in return. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen during or after the shoe shine. Mike picked up the brush the first time and the guy started trying to shine his sneakers before we firmly declined and quickly moved away. The second time we noticed, but just ignored the guy and kept walking.

  • Molly

    Never been at the receiving end of the Gold Ring scam, but I did have one of those bracelet guys grab my arm at the Sacre Coeur as I was walking away from him. I came so close to assaulting him in return, but managed to hold off. They are pretty brazen.

    • Jaclyn

      I has never heard about these scams before my husband and I visited Paris and encountered the bracelet guys. Luckily, my husband and I were fresh from extended stays in eastern Europe and central Asia for graduate research, so were very wary of gypsy pickpocket scams. What I didn’t expect, though, was the brazenness of those guys at the Sacre Coeur! I thought being with my tall, dark, and physically imposing German husband would be a deterrent to would-be scammers, but a bracelet guy actually grabbed me by the arm with both hands and tried to jerk me away from my husband, which led to a row that attracted a lot a attention. I guess the lesson is to keep your arms crossed tightly when those guys are around!

  • AM

    Another scam in Paris is on the bridges, people will come up to you with clipboards to get you to sign a “petition” and while you are distracted, they will pickpocket you.

    My mom had her iPhone stolen this way, which was on the inside of her purse, next to her body and she was telling the lady No No No. They are quick and the police don’t really care. I also had a Matrix moment about how we are perceived when abroad, especially in France, as we both speak the language and I thought “looked the part”, at least to some degree? hmmm.

  • Jen

    They tried the ring scam on my husband & I in Paris in 2006. It was our first day there and we were walking along the Seine River. A gypsy girls approached us. I could see her grimy, male co-conspirator lurking just far enough away. As she walked towards us, she stopped suddenly and picked up a gold wedding band from ground and handed it to me. She asked if it was my husband’s. My first thought was ‘REALLY!!! How f#%ing stupid do you think i am???’ The ring was about the circumference of a half dollar —- it my have fit an NBA player but not my husband. Besides the fact that the gypsy ‘found’ the ring in the opposite direction we were walking. My first instinct was to throw the ring in the Seine. But, since we had only been in Paris a few hours, I thought it best not to rock the boat. I handed the ring back and we walked away. In hindsight, I wish I had launched that ring, with the best baseball throw I could muster, and watch the expression on her face as it kerplunked into the Seine.

  • Ciara

    Oh! This same thing happened to me last year in Paris and I did not realise it was a scam at all… oops! Luckily I did just walk away from the guy.

    Unfortunately I think I always stand out as an obvious tourist no matter where I am. As pale as possible Irish skin is just too hard to blend in!

    Of the various places I’ve been I have to say Barcelona stood as as the worst for scams and pickpockets. Partly because it’s the only place I have actually been caught out (iphone swiped from a bag getting on a train) but also because the first thing anyone said to me when I mentioned I was visiting the city was to watch my things at all times.

    It’s such a pity that that would be the first thing people would think when a city is mentioned. I’d be ashamed if I thought my own city had a similar reputation. Hopefully Dublin isn’t quite that bad.

  • Ah yes, that old nugget. Happened to me too, and the mayonnaise one in Buenos Aires. That one was particularly upsetting as we ended up covered in the stuff!

  • The thing that gets me is this scam only works on dishonest people! The first time they stopped me I was so sad for the person who lost his wedding ring that I suggested we find the nearest police station to turn it in for the lost and found, which made the guy disappear in a hurry. That’s how I realized it was a scam!

    As for you looking like a walking target, not necessarily. My Frenchman gets hit up regularly and I’ve been stopped while wearing my work outfit yammering away on my cellphone in French.

    On the upside, I just spent the WE in Chicago where every Monday they give the week’s murder count, so I’ve made peace with my gypsies….

  • Wow, I’ve never herd of this! People these days-sheesh! I’ll be sure to take this into account when I leave for Paris (first time ever) in August.

  • yup I was braceleted in paris. I wore it for years 🙂 I also had my camera stolen outta my hotel room by the cleaning staff and concierge. It is still one of my favorite cities though.

  • Michael

    Yep, happened to me twice during our week in Paris last June. Once crossing a bridge with my brother, I think it wasn’t far from the Louvre or in that vicinity, I was with my brother who was a far more experienced than myself. The guy called from behind us, my brother turned and said no, not ours. The guy said we should take it anyway, and my brother gave him another no. The guy gave up and we moved on.
    Second time was at the end of the week, I was “experienced” enough to find my way around the city on my own by that point, and was somewhere near the roundabout approaching the Arc after a walk down the Champs d’Elysee. I saw a guy to my left out of the corner of my eye, bending over to supposedly pick up something. I knew what was going to happen from my earlier experience, and sure enough I hear the guy yelling behind me, “Sir!….SIR!!!” I just ignored him and kept walking briskly and that was the end of it.
    I never bothered to research this ever since returning home, although I wondered at the time what the scam was. I figured their had to be more to it than some petty reward money, but I guess that’s it. Seems they’d have just as much luck panhandling or selling cheap jewelry in a more legitimate way. Ah well, c’est la vie.

  • Michael

    p.s. I loved Paris, can’t say enough good things about it. Would live there if I could find a way, but definitely plan on returning. Despite this little scam, I felt far more safe there than I do in many large American cities, and the Metro system is great.
    Highly recommend.

  • Sarah

    Have just returned from Paris ourselves, my husband, son and myself. Yes we fell for the ring scam! It was around the fancy shops at the back of the Louvre , the woman looked like a ” decent ” person but there you go. My husband ended up giving her ten euros to get rid of her. As someone said earlier it shows how dishonest we can be which is a shame. I didn’t feel threatened by the incident, not like the gypsy woman at gare de nord – we had just got out of the taxi , struggling with suitcases etc and she was on us. Crying and begging my husband for money ( the joke is that my husband looks like a gypsy and has gypsy blood himself ) he just told her no to which she started cursing him in a loud voice. There was a pack of them all together, none of the men begging, they all looked clean, smart and swigging beer. I did feel sorry for the women but I bet they had more money than I had after a week paying Paris prices for food and drink that’s the real scam!!

  • JP

    My son and I were standing on a sidewalk in Paris when an elderly woman bent over in front of us and stood up holding a ring, and asked if we had dropped it. My savvy son quickly grabbed the ring and pocketed it and said “Why, yes! It is!” The woman stood and stared at us and accused us of stealing her ring, at which time I suggested we just yell out for the nearest gendarme (police) to allow them to settle the matter. The old woman became quite nimble at that point and hustled away. We discarded the carnival ring and went on our way.

  • Shaye

    In Cologne, Germany, I was in Zara trying on shoes and I had to put my purse down to get the shoes on. I looked up for a second (my purse was between my feet!) and looked around for my friend and when I looked down again my purse was gone! Of course I looked towards the door to see if I could spot the person, but these clever thieves went straight to the change rooms to empty my purse and contents in privacy and left everything they didn’t want right there.

  • Anthony

    Me and my now fiancé have just returned from paris and this weekend I have dropped my gold ring 5 times! I must be so forgetful because I cant remember having one…. this happened to me loads in paris, usually in less populated areas and most of the time you could see them put it down then pick it back up, they kept saying to me congratulations misère you are lucky man here’s your wedding ring back. after a while it got funny and we started pretending it was ours but we are to poor to give them anything in return and offered them a hug, this really peed them off and was fun but I wouldn’t recommend doing this aha.

  • Daniel

    I wouldn’t worry about seeming like a target! My cousin is a native Spaniard from near Madrid and recently someone caught her off guard in the city and stole her purse, which had her phone, wallet, etc. She figured that because she’s lived there her entire life and looks Spanish she wouldn’t be a target, but it happened.
    It’s also really sad to me to see all the antiziganism that goes on when people (not Geraldine) talk about pickpocketing in Europe. The stories you hear are seldom totally true, and people also tend to make assumptions that the thieves are Roma because of the “Scary Ethnic Robber Beggar Lady” stories people tell them all the time.

  • Martin

    I’m just back from Paris and i had this exact same thing happen to me beside the Eiffel Tower except there was only one man. Me speaking no French had no clue what the guy was talking about except him mentioning “good luck” while pointing to me and my friend. I stupidly took the ring as he wouldn’t leave me alone then he started screaming at me as i couldn’t understand what he was asking for. My friend quickly stood up from the bench we were sitting on and walked off leaving me to deal with him. Not knowing what else to do i just started screaming back at him for scaring my friend. Turns out he could speak more English than he let on as he clearly understood what i told him i was going to do to him if he didn’t fuck right off. Luckily my tirade attracted quite a few stares and laughs from surrounding people and the guy made a sharp exit. If i knew this was a scam id have taken his picture and called the police. The ring is a pretty decent fake with a fake hallmark on it saying its 18ct 750 weight.

    • Everywhereist

      Wait, your friend just LEFT you? That’s so not cool!!

  • I have recently been to Paris and I was really surprised by the ring scam. I have heard a lot about pick pocketing in Paris but never about the ring scam. I reached Paris at 6 and I was in metro station to travel to my hotel in champs… I was traveling the whole night and bit drowsy so I missed to notice a group of men following me .my friend noticed that some guy putting his hands in my pack bag… God she was in right time… To snatch the bag. … Next day I was surprised as one man was trying to start a conversation with my friend by giving him a ring .as I was resting I saw dozens of men dropping the ring themselves and pretending to pick up….

  • Mel

    Dishonest people don’t just fall for the ring scam. This just happened to me today while I was near the Opera House. I only speak a tiny bit of French. As I was crossing the street and stepping up to the sidewalk, the same thing – a man runs up and picks up a ring. He started speaking french very quickly – Same as Martin – I only understood “Bonne chance” and maybe he said it in English? He pressed the ring into my hand and walked away. I walked the opposite direction, thoroughly confused and gripping my purse because I was sure it was a distraction to pick-pocket me. I took about 15 steps and he caught up with me and asked me for money for coffee, still in french. I understood this, and kept saying no. Continually said no. I still had the ring in my hand and I gave it back to him. He grabbed my wrist tightly. I continued to say NO until another American – dad with his family – came over and yelled “LEAVE HER ALONE!!” He finally walked away.

  • Erica

    A good friend of mine had a funny incident happen to her in Paris. Just as in the regular ring scam, a man walked by her while she was sitting on a bench. He picked up a ring that was on the ground and asked her “Is this yours?”. She replied “No”. He then gave her the ring and told her to keep it anyway and then walked away. She took it back home to Ireland and had it evaluated. Turns out it was worth several hundred euros and was indeed made of real gold….

    • Everywhereist

      No. Way.

  • pj

    Yes just back from Paris and I am shocked that nothing is done about these con artist pests.
    I was asked several times about the petition under the Eiffel Tower,and was subjected to the gold ring routine beside the arc de triomphe. Needless to say they all got nothing but I felt very uneasy about the whole thing and did not feel safe.Despite the obvious increased security on the streets.
    I have been to New York and have never been intimidated in such a fashion and never felt safer in any city.
    I will not be returning to Paris anytime soon.

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