Travel scams are widespread and surprisingly entrenched in many popular tourist destinations. It stands to reason, as most travellers experience at least some degree of disorientation and culture shock while travelling. The sad thing is that scams often get in your way of really engaging with a destination or culture to the full; the apprehensive traveller is one who is closed and suspicious, which is hardly the best approach to meeting new people and learning about the place that you’re visiting. But how do you protect yourself then? Well, the best advice is to be prepared – read up on the classic travel scams, and be aware of how they work. Also have a think about the best strategy to employ if you find yourself being scammed.
In most of the scams below, the common thread is to create distraction, put you off your guard, and play on your fears of not knowing the culture. Some simple tips to keep you safe include keeping your cash and valuables safely hidden around your person, away from easy reach of pickpockets; if you feel you’re being scammed, demand to bring the matter to the police – in most cases that will cause the scammer to give up.
In the unfortunate case that you do end up being scammed, make sure you report it both to the police and to your relevant embassy. They may not be able to do anything to help you directly, but being informed of the scam allows them to be on the alert to protect other travellers. In the same spirit, if you’ve been scammed try to share the details with as many people as possible (including with TMO!). Most of these travel scams work only because people don’t know about them in advance. Take away the element of surprise and the scam becomes much harder!
This scam is relatively new, but has been reported in a number of locations in Russia. In an airport, while you queue for something, a fellow traveller comes up and asks if you will mind their baggage while they go to the bathroom. In their absence, minutes later, two undercover policemen will arrive, search the bag which they will claim is yours. There will be illegal material in the bag, and you’ll be intimidated into paying a fine.
This is an old perenial scam, with variations. I first came across it in Arequipa, in Peru – but tourists report it worldwide. You’re walking down the street, when suddenly someone will point to your shoulder, and the sky, as if indicating that a pigeon had targetted you with its poop. While you look bewildered at your shoulder, an accomplice will pickpocket you or try to grab your bags. In some variations you’ll actually get some kind of liquid thrown on you.
A classic, that, thanks to gps technology and mobile phones is thankfully becoming harder to do. You get a taxi in a foreign city, and the taxi driver takes you on a lengthy drive, when your destination is really just blocks away. I met a businesswoman once, in Rome, who had taken a 25 minute taxi from Termini railway station to her hotel, just 4 streets away.
In many countries and cultures the waiter in a restaurant is more than someone who just takes your order to the kitchen; he/she is also someone who advises on what’s good that day, in terms of specials, who can also advise on wine etc. That’s why this scam is such a pain, because it puts you on your guard even in perfectly normal and harmless situations. The scam works like this – you arrive in a restaurant and browse through the menu. The waiter will talk to you, and gain your confidence, and then suggest that you let him choose a menu for you. All well and good, until the bill comes, where you’ll find that you’ve ordered the most expensive items. In one extreme case, with two japanese tourists in central Rome, the bill was up to €2000. If it happens to you, do as they did – bring a complaint to the local authorities, and kick up a fuss.
On a motorway you will be signalled by some helpful motorists, suggesting that you have something wrong with your car. When you pull over, they will also pull over and offer help – while you’re checking your tyres etc, one of them will be checking your car for valuables – or in extreme cases they will attempt to steal the actual car.
Reported in a number of Eastern European countries, you will be stopped by someone on the street offering an advantageous rate for changing currency. Regardless of whether you accept or not, minutes later two undercover policemen will stop you with the accusation that you’ve illegally changed money; they’ll demand to inspect your wallet, and while doing so they’ll steal notes/credit cards etc.
This is yet another variation on the idea of tricking you into accepting something that you didn’t ask for, and kicking up a fuss when you don’t pay. In lots of cities around Europe this scam works as follows – someone comes up to you, chatting to you, and before you know what’s happening they have placed a bracelet on your wrist, secured with a difficult to undo knot. They’ll call it a friendship bracelet or something similar, and then ask for payment. If you refuse they’ll kick up a fuss, to the point that most tourists relent and pay up.
This happened to me directly, when travelling in Egypt. While trying to cross a busy street in Cairo – a difficult feat at the best of times – we were approached by someone who asked if we were lost. When we responded no, he continued talking to us saying he wanted to practice his English. We exchanged pleasantries, and on learning that we were on our way to an Embassy, he shook his head in surprise, telling us that it was a national holiday. He apologised profusely, playing up to our stereotypes, and offered us a coffee. Over coffee, he went through all the things that we should do in Cairo – including going to a perfume factory. Before you could say ‘hey presto’, we found ourselves in his friend’s shop, buying some crappy over-priced ‘genuine’ perfumes. It was, of course, business as usual all day.
In popular tourist locations hackers will setup a free wi-fi hotspot with the hope that you’ll connect, and give them access to your laptop/smartphone/personal data. Free wi-fi spots are a security risk in any case, but if you’re using them in a cafe, do make sure that you’re using the official network, and not one setup by scammers.
Reported in various countries, including Spain and Italy, it occurs when staying in a hotel. At night-time (when you’re less likely to go to the front desk), a call will come through claiming some problem with your credit card details. They will ask you for your details over the phone, though in reality they have nothing to do with the hotel. The aim is simply to get your card details. Never give your details over the phone.
This has been particularly reported in the airport of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Unsuspecting tourists are targetted in the duty free shop, having touched items. They’re accused of shoplifting, and the police (who are in on the scam) are brought in. Obviously with the fear of missing flights, the tourists settle to pay a hefty fine. It’s been reported in Bangkok, but be on your guard in any airport when something suspicious like this happens.
We’ve all done it – asked a stranger to take a picture of us, posed against some classic landmark or beautiful travel scene. The difference with this scam is that it’s someone offering to take the photo, rather than being asked. As soon as you’re in pose, the helpful photographer, with your expensive camera or smartphone, has a couple of paces, and the advantage of surprise, to let it. The best option here is to choose your photographer, rather than be chosen, and where possible choose other tourists to whom you can return the favour.
Reported mainly in North America, this scam involves someone sliding a take-away menu under your door in a hotel. You browse through it, and order online, where you’re asked for your credit card details. You give these over, and spend the night wondering why your burger hasn’t arrived, all the while the scammers are ripping off your credit card as quickly as they can.
Looking for/buying drugs in a foreign city is always going to be risky. In this scam, you are offered drugs by a taxi-driver. When you buy them, you get swooped upon by some of these ubiquitous undercover policemen, who threaten and intimidate you until you pay a fine, hoping to avoid a stretch in the slammer.
You’re in the queue to buy tickets for a busy tourist attraction, when someone approaches you with some tickets. Often there’ll be a story, about how they can’t use these tickets because a wife/child has fallen ill. The tickets may look genuine, but be wary – the likelihood is that they’re fake.
This is common in a lot of train stations. Tourists, along with the elderly, or lone women travllers, are targetted. As your train arrives and you struggle with your bags, a helpful local will step in and offer to help. They will accompany you, carrying your bag, through the station. At the point when you want to get your bag back, they’ll demand a porter’s fee. As with many of these type of scams, where you’re given an unrequested service, the aim is to isolate you and scare/embarass you into paying a fee.
There are cases where coins and notes can look similar, but have very different values. Reports range from people being given €1 coins instead of a sterling pound coin (doesn’t seem very probable though, as the coins don’t really resemble each other), to singapore dollars being given in change in Italy instead of Euros. It’s debatable as to how real a ‘scam’ this is, as much as simply coins entering erroneously into circulation – but that’s not much consolation to you when you find you’re given change that isn’t legal tender, or is worth much less.
Most of the scams here travel well. Some, like this one, are pretty much bound, by circumstance, to a particular place. In this case the taxi driver takes advantage of the similarities between the 5 and 50 Lira notes. If you hand him a 50, he’ll use sleight of hand to switch it for a 5, and claim that this was the note you gave him. A simple mistake, and you end up paying over more notes. Make sure you know the difference between the notes, and threaten to call the police if you’re scammed.
This often happens in airports – where people will have valuable carry-on items with them, like laptops, tablets etc. What happens is that someone will be putting ketchup/mustard on a hot dog, and will accidentally squirt it on you (obviously it could be anything that will stain – coffee etc). They’ll swoop on you trying to wipe it off, apologising, while their accomplice takes advantage of your distraction to discreetly pickup your carry-on luggage and steal it away.
This doesn’t apply solely to tourists, but obviously a tourist is at a bigger disadvantage. The scam, which has happened in countries across Europe, is that a fake front is added to an atm – so when you insert your card, it doesn’t actually go into the atm machine, but instead goes into a card reader. You enter your pin, which is captured by the reader. after a couple of seconds your card is spat back at you, and your transaction has failed. You walk away looking for another atm, believing this one to be merely faulty – instead your card is being cloned, and the thieves will be emptying it of as much money as daily limits allow. Less technological versions of this include helpful locals intervening to explain/translate the atm for you, whilst actually trying to glimpse your pin. They then try to pickpocket your card. If in doubt with an ATM, report it immediately.