Traveling is an amazing experience, but it is important to be vigilant so that you don't become the victim of a scam. Around the world, many people try to take advantage of tourists by convincing them to pay for something they don't actually need, or by outright stealing. Often, Westerners are targeted because they are perceived as not being knowledgeable about other parts of the world, but people of any nationality can find themselves the victims of a scam.
Before you travel, research common scams in the areas that you are visiting and be aware of your surroundings. Try not to get duped into giving money to people who do not need it, and, above all, keep a close eye on your belongings so no one can grab them. A stolen purse can easily ruin an otherwise great vacation. Here are just a few common scams from around the world:
The Missing Hotel
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This scam begins with an offer of a free ride to your hotel from the airport. Everything seems fine until you’re told your hotel is out of business, burnt down or under construction and the driver tries to convince you to go elsewhere. This most likely isn’t true – the driver is attempting to get you to move to a place where he can receive a commission for bringing new guests.
Instead, insist on going to your hotel, give taxi drivers the address you are looking for (instead of the name of a hotel), or better yet, don't take a free taxi ride from the airport.
To stay safe at airports, only book official taxis or public transportation. Many criminals will pretend to run legitimate taxis and then charge exorbitant rates, try and get you to stay in a different hotel, or worse.
The Sexy Single
A single male traveler might be approached by a gorgeous woman on the street. The woman may pretend to be a tourist or sometimes it's just a very friendly local that wants to show you around. You two may chat for a while, then go out for drinks or a meal.
That’s when the scam occurs, in the form of an extremely high bill. It might be several hundred dollars more than expected. Only then does the tourist notice the burly bouncers guarding the exits. There are several variations of this scam.
The “Extra” Site Fee
At a public park in Taiwan, somebody will stand at the entrance, pretending to be charging a fee. Only after paying and entering the park will you realize that the park was public and free all along.
The Needy Beggar
There are many scams run by seemingly needy people that prey on your generosity. In one, a lady with a little boy asks for money to buy milk or other necessities. While you may think, “What’s the harm in buying a mom some milk,” when you get to the store you will find that the situation gets worse.
When you get there, they will ask for more supplies. Then, once the tourist leaves, the milk (and whatever else is purchased) is sold back to the store for cash. The store then keeps a portion of the money, and the ‘beggar’ continues their racket. There are similar scams for textbooks, rice, and educational materials.
The Friendly Locals
Similar to the scam with the sexy single, there is a common scam in China where two friendly young students approach tourists, often to take a photo. Once that exchange occurs, they will offer to show you around. If you are a man, the woman might even touch you and seduce you a little to get more of your attention.
Don’t be surprised if you get invited to a "tea festival,” which you may mistakenly believe is an outdoor event. When you get there it will actually be a more secluded affair with a high price tag. Once you enter, you won’t be able to leave without paying (the bouncers at the door will make sure of that). You may be able to get them to reduce the exorbitant bill, but keep in mind you are in their “territory.” Once this happens, there is little you can do other than pay up and get out. If you want to spend time with seemingly friendly locals, don't follow their advice on where to go.
Distract and Conquer
Often, a scammer will distract you while they or a partner simply reaches into your pocket to grab your phone or wallet. To prevent this, watch your pockets and bags and keep valuables out of reach of pickpockets. It can be helpful to carry a purse that zips shut, or keep valuables in a front pocket, where it is harder for someone to grab it sneakily. Here are some specific distraction scams, though there are many variations:
The Hot Dog Trick: A stranger “accidentally” squirts mustard on you while eating a hot dog. He will apologize while an accomplice grabs your bag and slips away.
The Injured Old Lady: An old lady falls down in a public place. While everyone runs to help her, her partner swoops up as many bags as he can carry and disappears.
Catch My Baby: Someone throws a baby in your arms (it is usually a doll), and while you are in shock, an accomplice quickly empties your pockets.
The Airport Line Cutter: Just before going through a metal detector, as soon as you’ve sat down your bag on the rolling conveyer belt, someone cuts ahead of you. You are likely annoyed, but let them go. It gets worse, as the line cutter repeatedly sets off the alarm, delaying everyone. He may have forgotten to remove his watch or loose change. Meanwhile, an unknown partner has taken your belongings from the baggage scan area and left.
Watch the Sign: Scammers write signs that are hard to read and show them to you. As you are trying to decipher them, someone else – often a child - goes through your pockets. In London, there have been reports of scammers covering your phone with the sign. While you are busy reading it, they are cunningly grabbing your phone.
The Broken Taxi Meter
In many parts of the world, taxis that tweak their meters are common. Keep in mind, just because they are willing to use a meter doesn’t mean that the meter is set appropriately! Use your best judgment. You’ll start to notice how fast the meter should run if you pay attention. If it’s going too quickly, call the guy out on it, threaten to tell the police, and leave.
Conversion Fee Markup
Sometimes, you find a great souvenir at a shop overseas and want to buy using a credit card. As a convenience, the clerk may offer to convert your credit card transaction to U.S. dollars. It may seem like a good deal at first, but actually it is not. It’s called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC), and it is higher than the standard conversion rate. When a merchant uses it, they are making an extra profit off of your purchase.
They keep the extra money and the traveler never even knows. To avoid this, always pay in local currency. Also, keep in mind that DCC fees can be added only to Visa and MasterCard credit and debit card purchases, because American Express cards use a closed system.
Also, never change money at the airport. They often charge rates that are 4 times higher than what you can find in the city. Only convert money at the airport if it is an emergency.
The Friendly Tuk-Tuk
In Thailand, you will likely come across "friendly" tuk-tuk drivers that offer local guide services. While it may seem tempting- especially since they speak pretty good English- resist the urge. These unauthorized tour guides can be found near major tourist sites, hotels, and shopping areas and they'll tell you that the places you want to see are closed for some reason or another.
Now, instead of seeing what you expected to see, they give you a cheap, day-long tour of the city, consisting of fake (or overpriced) gem stores, local merchants, and sometimes even worse. The tuk-tuk may sell you a sob story, explaining that he will get a commission for bringing you by the stores (to cover his gas, of course) and that you aren’t required to buy anything. Even if you do it out of pity and keep your wallet in your pocket, you’ve still wasted valuable holiday time.
Too Good to Be True
In France, intriguing gypsies run seemingly simple gambling games, where you can triple your money if you can guess under which bowl a trinket (like a marble) is hiding. It seems easy enough but be warned: these games are rigged, and you can quickly lose $100 or more by playing.
In India, it is common to come across a scammer that offers beautiful stones at a discounted rate. They may claim that these ‘gems’ will sell for a fortune in your native country. They will not - they are just pretty stones.
The Jet Ski Scam
Want to take a jet ski in Thailand? Beware; tourists in Pattaya and Phuket have reported a popular Jet Ski rental scam. Here is what happens: after renting a jet ski, they will accuse you of damaging the equipment. They will then demand you pay for the damage.
What they don’t tell you is that the scratches and dents were already there, and every tourist gets accused of causing it. If you rent anything, be it a motorcycle, car or jet ski; make sure all scratches and dents are documented before you leave the building.
Counterfiet Train Tickets
Just like at concerts, counterfiet tickets can get you into trouble. In Hungary, people sell fake train tickets at the train station. If there is a check on the train and you only have a fake ticket, you will be fined. They may even break the ticket machine at the station so that you will buy from them.
In other countries, you may find official-looking people outside of the station. They will offer to help you book seats. They then take you to their nearby “travel agent” who pretends to call the train booking office. They then say the train is full (it’s not) and try to sell you a seat on the buses they sponsor. Make sure to book tickets yourself from official sources.
Riding While Touring
In some countries, even the police officers are in on the scam. If you are in a taxi, and the police stop your car (and no one else’s) to tell you to pay a road fee, it is likely a lie. The cab driver might be a good guy and tell the cop no, which might happen, or they may be in on the scam and play along with the cop. You are basically held hostage until you pay. You can either pay the “fine”, “fee” or “tax” or you can argue with the cop.
In the end, if the driver won’t work with you, you’re going to end up paying. The money does not go to the road; it’ll go to the officer's pocket. However, there are countries with legitimate toll roads where the passenger (not the taxi driver) has to pay. Know your legal requirements and stay safe.
Bolivian Nap Time
On nighttime buses in Bolivia, thieves sometimes put sleeping gas on the bus to make extra sure everybody falls asleep. Once they are down, they go seat-by-seat throwing their bags out of the window where another accomplice waits to grab the bags. Keep your belongings close and avoid nighttime travel.
The Trunk Thief
On buses in Thailand, there will be a person with a flashlight hiding in the trunk for the course of the ride. Once everybody is on the bus, he will go through all the bags and search for valuable items. This occurs in broad daylight while everyone is seated on the bus. Take your valuable items in a small bag that you keep with you.
While in foreign countries, it is important to be aware of the value of your currency. Many places will offer to exchange money for you, assuming you don't know the exchange rate, and then profit massively from your ignorance. Research exchange rates before you travel and count your money whenever you exchange cash.
It is also common for people to take advantage of the fact that you are not familiar with the local currency, doing things like switching a 50 note for a 5 note. These might look very similar to the undiscerning eye, so it's important to keep a close watch when you are paying with cash or getting change.
Sadly, many people will try to take advantage of your compassion for children in need. Sometimes, these kids will serve as “employees” for scammers, begging for money on street corners and then returning that money to the adult running the scamming ring.
It can be very difficult to say no to small children who seem hungry, but often the money you give them will line the pockets of an adult criminal, and not go towards feeding the hungry kids.
The Embarrassed Tourist
In Spain, there have been reports of a charismatic man voluntarily tying bracelets on unsuspecting tourists' wrists, seemingly as a gift. You may refuse the “gift” but when you attempt to take it off, you are unable. The “gift-giver” then demands payment for the bracelet and accuses you of theft if you do not comply.
They will even begin shouting loudly to embarrass you into paying them money. You can either pay the money or risk the embarrassment of being called a thief. This has been very popular around the famous Spanish Steps.
Declined Credit Card
In this scam you may receive a call at inconvenient times (late at night, or early in the morning). Some will pretend to be from the front desk and claim that they need to confirm your credit card number. Many times they will say it is because the computers are broken or that your card was declined and they just received the notification. They may sound sincere, and even offer a discount for the inconvenience, but what is actually happening is they are stealing your credit card information. They are not with the hotel. Spend the extra effort to go to the front desk and confirm this instead of being scammed.
These are just a few examples, and there are many other scams to keep an eye out for. Scammers are always looking out for new ways to dupe tourists, and often scamming is their full-time job. Many of these scams are prevalent all over the world, just with slight variations. So recognizing all of them is essential for staying safe.
International travel is an incredible adventure, and it's easy to stay safe as long as you are aware of common scams and make a point of being careful. A theft or other scam can quickly ruin an otherwise great vacation, leaving you with bad memories and a lot less money. Keep your eyes peeled for potential scammers, arm yourself with knowledge about your destination, and you will have the adventure of a lifetime without being victimized.
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