BY TATIANA CIRISANO
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Old Town Square, and the postcard-perfect scene is already swarming with tourists snapping photos of the historic gothic church and medieval astronomical clock. But Janek Rubes is here on the lookout for one thing only: scams.
“Here we are in Old Town Square, the mecca of tourist traps and of bad things happening,” Rubes jokes, pointing out taxi drivers who will charge up to 15 times the legal rate and a currency exchange center that offers customers 12 Czech korunas for one dollar, instead of the roughly 24 korunas the official rate dictates.
Rubes, a local videographer whose viral YouTube series “Honest Prague” exposes scams like these, is becoming something of a vigilante against Prague’s notorious tourist traps. With weekly videos that cover everything from where to safely party in Prague to how to leave the airport without getting ripped off, Rubes says he’s helping break down the “wall” between tourists and locals.
The 28-year-old made his first big break last summer, when he went undercover as an American tourist and filmed his rides in Prague taxis, some charging him more than $40 for a two-mile trip. The video has since racked up more than 77,000 views on YouTube, and in November, a court trial began for six of the drivers accused of ripping off passengers.
In one more recent video with more than 900,000 views, Rubes stood for hours outside the aforementioned currency exchange center warning more than 200 would-be customers of the scam and handing them flyers with alternative places to exchange.
“If you think about it, this is happening for two decades, three decades, 25 years,” Rubes says, treading Old Town’s cobblestone paths in beat-up Converse. “These same guys are standing on the same corners, the same exchange place, same everything, and they’re getting away with it.”
Lifting the lid off these scams is something of a thrill for Rubes, a lifelong skeptic who likes to look for cracks in the status quo—and see just how much he can get away with.
Honza Mikulka, a longtime friend of Rubes’ who films the “Honest Prague” series under the internet television channel Stream International, says he admires Rubes’ thirst for truth.
“Janek has been living in this city nearly 28 years, and when I say ‘living,’ I mean it,” Mikulka says. “Because he’s so into this city and cares about it, he asks questions and he questions the status quo.”
But Rubes’ work as a pseudo-vigilante is only half the job. The videographer also publishes a range of videos with smart, frank advice for tourists on how to deal with phone data abroad, eating on a budget, how to park in the city, and other useful topics. He’s even got a popular video explaining which Czech sweets to avoid, and which are a must-try (hint: skip the trdelník).
“We want people to come here, have a fantastic time, want to come back and talk about the city,” Mikulka adds. “The reason is simple—we just love our city and we want other people to share this feeling.”
And despite the presence of scams, tourism in the Czech Republic continues to flourish. Nearly 28 million foreign tourists visited the Czech Republic in 2015, an eight percent jump from the previous year, according to CzechTourism, the country’s official travel site. The same report found that each tourist spends an average of 2,769 Kc per day, or about $115.
Still, Vit Hofman, a spokesman for Prague City Hall and its tourist marketing organization, Prague City Tourism, maintains that the government’s hands are tied when it comes to regulating scammers.
“We know that some exchange offices in Prague are doing our city bad reputation abroad, but we cannot solve the situation,” he explains over email. “We are drawing attention to this unethical behavior, because the city has no legal possibility to intervene.”
With tourism continuing to soar in Prague, Rubes’ role as resident watchdog is more important than ever—and it’s not going unnoticed.
Rubes, who has lived in Prague his whole life, has grown used to foreigners stopping him on the road to ask, “you’re the YouTube guy, right?” Walking across the Charles Bridge on a recent October day, an Australian couple stopped to tell Janek that they spent their first few hours in Prague watching the entire “Honest Prague” series in their hotel room.
“If you want to ask me, it does bring tears to my eyes,” Janek admits after snapping a photo with the couple. “But please don’t make fun of me for that.”