Many travelers don’t realize the importance of the little paper receipt that they receive each time they buy something in Italy, often leaving it on the counter and walking away. I urge you to always take the receipt with you as you leave, no matter the size of the purchase.
When ordering a coffee or pastry in a bar, for instance, some bars require that you to pay in advance at the register, and then carry the receipt to the barrista, who then makes your drinks and fills your order. Often the receipt is torn slightly when the order is completed, but walking away without that little piece of paper can sometimes lead to a big problem that can be easily avoided.
The Guardia di Finanza is the branch of the Italian government that collects taxes from citizens and merchants, and they have agents both in uniform and in plain clothes who may stop a customer within 100 meters of a shop or restaurant, show their identification, and ask you to return with them and with your receipt to the place where you just made a purchase. The Guardia agents will compare the records of the merchant to your receipt, to assure that the receipt is for the same amount that the business has recorded for tax purposes. If your receipt and that of the business are equal, you are thanked for your cooperation and are free to go. If, however, the merchant can show that you didn’t carry the receipt that he provided out with you, or you have no receipt in your possession (discarded already), you may be subject to a fine that you never anticipated.
The point of this system is to help the Guardia di Finanza to identify merchants who are operating “in nero,” avoiding paying taxes on their sales or a portion of their sales, and pocketing some or all of the money received without any written record for tax authorities. The merchant is required to provide a receipt to the customer, but it is also the customer’s legal obligation to carry the receipt out of the business, in case the Guardia stops him and asks for the receipt. This applies even to street merchants and produce sellers at the farmers markets, who must give a receipt for each sale directly to the customer.
For an example, last fall a group of 12 friends went out to eat at a local pizzeria, paying individually at an outdoor cash register. Some of us were already outside when two officers of the Guardia di Finanza in plain clothes showed us their IDs, and began asking each of us for our “scontrino”—our receipt. Although it was 10:30 p.m., the tax officers were still at work, looking for any tax cheats by comparing the customers’ receipts with the records in the pizzeria. In this case, each scontrino matched the records of the pizzeria, and the tax agents moved on without issuing any citations or finding any suspicious transactions.
You may be thinking, “I paid for it, I received a receipt, and they saw me receive and take out what I bought—so who needs to take the paper receipt?” Because of the methods of the Guardia di Finanza, it is important that you know taking the receipt is your responsibility, and you can be fined for not complying with a law that you may not know exists. And, understand that you must return with the officers to the business when shown their official IDs, but only for a few minutes and only if you are still within 100 meters of the business or restaurant where you made a purchase. If you have the receipt with you, you are in the clear and will be quickly on your way.
The next time you are in Italy and you are given this little piece of paper, it is not insignificant—remember to take the “scontrino” along with you when you leave!