11 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them
Travel is full of wonderful experiences, but not when you're tricked out of money or possessions. These are some common travel scams to look out for with tips on how to avoid them.
We travel for many reasons, but meeting and interacting with people of other countries and cultures surely tops most lists. These are some of the most rewarding experiences for travelers, and can lead to life-long friendships and an intimate understanding of our world. But in every country, there are scammers who prey upon travelers.
I’ve encountered far, far more generosity and genuine friendliness when traveling than the few scams I’ve fallen for or have avoided. Where I live in the United States is arguably far more dangerous than many of the locations I’ve visited. That said, scams are a fact of life when traveling abroad. For some people, tourists toting cash are just too much temptation. Scammers’ reasons for targeting travelers are many; for some, it’s a sport. For others, it’s the only way they can find to survive. Whatever the reason behind tricking people out of their money and/or possessions, travelers can be prepared to avoid these scams.
Sometimes the line between scams and outright theft is blurred, such as when a scammer interacts with a traveler just to pickpocket them. Scammers are often bright and talented, delivering award-winning performances. No one should ever feel ashamed for falling victim to a scam or being pickpocketed as these are pros who practice day after day, and are often taught by other expert scammers. There are new scams being devised somewhere in the world as you read this, but these are some common scams experienced by travelers all over the world. By understanding how these age-old scams work you can avoid these unpleasant experiences.
Scam 1: “What Time Is it?” This has gotten me several times. It’s such a reflex to be friendly and stop to answer this innocent question, but it’s nearly always a trap. Scammers need to stop you in order get what they want from you. They ask for the time in English, then engage you in friendly conversation. Sometimes a bracelet or trinket is given to you with the expectation of payment. Sometimes they just so happen to have a relative who just so happens to live in your same city, could you come to their shop and help them write a letter and have some tea (for which you're then presented a bill)? Sometimes they know a better place than the one you’re heading to, and have you follow them to a shop or service you don’t need. Sometimes their partner pickpockets you as you chat. It’s safe to assume there’s always a catch when you’re asked for the time walking down the street. In my case, I was asked for the time and was engaged in a nice chat. The scammer made a call, and before I knew it I was somehow on the line for an expensive piece of custom jewelry for my wife. He followed me, getting more and more aggresive until I said I had to go into an ATM booth to get money. I used an old debit card I carry for such emergencies, and when it wouldn't work I pretended to get upset. More and more people had come into the ATM booth by then, and the scammer got nervous and finally left.
What to Do: Just keep walking. The scammer’s asking of the time in English confirms to them that you’re a traveler. You can pretend like you don’t understand or don’t hear the person, or you can give the time as you walk or say “I don’t know.” If you can give the time in the local language, all the better. I’ve gotten into the habit of not wearing a watch on streets as it’s too much of a temptation for scammers and pickpockets, and removes the excuse to stop me. If the person follows you or insists on the time, you know for sure something is up. Aren’t there plenty of other people to ask? Don’t be afraid to keep on walking, and refuse to give them control of the situation by stopping you.
Scam 2: The Bracelet/Trinket. Typically encountered at tourist destinations in busy European cities, a usually English-speaking man comes up to you and immediately begins tying a bracelet onto your wrist, explaining that he’s welcoming you to the country or that it’s a sign of friendship. Once knotted and not easily removable, his friendly demeanor becomes increasingly aggressive as he demands payment for his “gift” that you can’t readily take off. He may have some accomplices who suddenly turn up and demand that you make a payment. A less aggressive version of this is someone placing a small figurine or other item into your hand saying it’s free but then asking for way more money than the item is worth.
What to Do: No one anywhere should ever touch you without your consent. Don’t hesitate to pull your hand back and firmly say “No, thank you” in the local language. Don't feel obligated to shake hands. If a stranger asks to see your hand, no matter how politely, refuse and keep walking. These scammers count on tourists being in a great mood and open to meeting friendly new people, and also on them being flustered when a scene is made. Oftentimes they’ll tell you that the bracelet is a free gift to reassure you only to demand payment anyway, or to give you another reason to give them money. It may feel rude to firmly say no to a person acting friendly when you're traveling, but rest assured it's a scam. A more sinister scam is that an accomplice pickpockets you or steals your bag while you’re distracted with the bracelet situation.
Scam 3: "The Attraction Is Closed." A “helpful” taxi driver or passerby informs you that the attraction you’re heading to is closed at the time, but that he’d be more than happy to take you to another attraction or somewhere else to bide the time until it opens. In actuality your destination is not closed, and the friendly helper gets a kickback when they deliver you to another attraction or to their friend’s shop.
What to Do: Always verify opening hours before leaving for your destination, and polity refuse to be lead anywhere else. If your taxi driver informs you that your destination is closed but offers to take you somewhere else, decline by saying you need to contact your friends that you’re meeting or some other excuse and get out of the cab. Politely thank anyone on the street who tried to stop you en route and keep walking, despite their attempts to engage you in conversation.
Monique Cordier who runs the travel blog My Perfect Itinerary recounts a story about a situation she encountered while visiting temples in Bangkok. “We got dropped off about a mile away from the temples due to traffic and had no idea where we were going. There are several large maps on the sidewalks so we stopped to look to make sure we were going in the correct direction," she says.
"Next to the map, there was a nice man who was wearing a suit...He nicely asked if we needed help finding something and when we mentioned the Grand Temple, he said they are closed until 2 p.m. (it was approximately 12 p.m. at the time). He said there are many temples across the river and there are endless boats that will take us. He even offered to negotiate for us because if we didn't speak Thai, they would rip us off. He said the tours take about two hours and they can drop you off right in front of the Grand Temple at 2 when they open," remembers Cordier.
"We said that sounds perfect. We just wanted to grab a quick bite to eat before heading on the tour. When we walked to the nearest restaurant, we saw many men in suits standing by the maps, partnered with tuk tuk drivers parked nearby. While eating at the restaurant, we overheard other tourists' conversations stating, 'I can't believe we almost believed that the Grand Temple was closed! Good thing we didn't listen to that guy!' Then it all clicked." Like other tourists who believed a helpful, trustworthy-looking local was only helping guide them, Cordier and her sister had fallen into "The Attraction Is Closed" trap. "We decided to walk down to the Grand Temple to see for ourselves, and there it was, open as ever," she recounts.
Scam 4: "Ticket Machine Doesn’t Accept Your Credit Card." You’re getting ready to use an automated ticket machine when a helpful, English-speaking man informs you that the machine doesn’t accept "foreign" credit cards. He’d be happy to take your cash, though, and purchase the tickets on his local credit card. He takes your cash and purchases your tickets and bids you good day–only to have you find out that your new tickets are for a child and worthless to you. The scammer has made a tidy profit.
What to Do: While some automated ticketing machines can be confusing and help may be welcome, rest assured your credit card is most likely accepted. It’s not uncommon for locals to help visitors purchase tickets, but money and credit cards should never be exchanged. Also be careful if you have to enter a PIN number, and make sure you put your card back in a place where it can't be pickpocketed.
Scam 5: "Your Train Is Cancelled." You’re rushing through a train station when you encounter either an official-looking person or a helpful person who speaks English. They manage to engage you and look at your ticket, frown, and tell you your train has been cancelled. But never fear, they will sell you a new ticket or get you transportation to a tourism office so that you can get a refund and purchase a new ticket. You’re taken to an off-site office and pay for a new ticket.
What to Do: Your ticket is fine, the helpful person sells you a bogus ticket or is in cahoots with the driver and the unofficial ticket office. If the ticket is legit at all, it is marked way up. Don’t give up your ticket and go ahead and continue making your way to your train. If the train is indeed cancelled you’ll know for sure and be given official instructions.
Scam 6: "Let’s Get a Drink." A friendly English-speaking man strikes up a conversation and eventually asks if you want to get a beer at a great local place he knows. Sure, you say, excited to hang out like a local. You both hop into a taxi and soon you’re at a place with lots of “character.” Perhaps an attractive member of the opposite sex sits down next to you and begins to drink as well. After a few it’s time to go and you’re presented with an exorbitant bill. You protest, but a huge man appears and in no uncertain terms tells you to pay the bill.
What to Do: Making new friends is one of the joys of traveling, but be wary when your new friendship has you leaving to go somewhere unfamiliar. Also, be on guard when attractive members of the opposite sex start taking a shine to you. You’re good looking, no doubt, but this is a classic set-up for a big bill.
Scam 7: Mess on Your Dress. You’re walking through a busy city when suddenly an excited man starts pointing at you. A bird has scored a direct hit on your dress (or in the case of the related Poo on Your Shoe scam, you’ve stepped in a dog mess that is somehow on top of your shoe). Never fear, this kind local produces a cloth and begins to clean you up. Finished, he hurries off, and you realize you’ve been pickpocketed or your purse or bag is gone. In the case of the shoe scam, the man takes you to a nearby shoeshine stand that he knows, and after cleaning you up a high fee is demanded. You may also find your bag or wallet missing in the process.
What to Do: Whenever anyone approaches you on the street, be aware of your belongings, politely thank them and keep walking. If they follow you and insist on trying to “clean you up,” don’t let them clean you out and tell them "no thank you" firmly. Be aware of others behind you during the interaction who may be targeting your possessions.
Alex Trembath, who writes about his travels here, fell for a variation on the "Mess on Your Dress" scam while traveling with his wife in Buenos Aires. "We were victims of the classic distraction scam, whereby someone threw a substance over us without us noticing, and then an accomplice offered to help us clean up. While we were momentarily distracted, our bags (containing our passports and all our valuables) were stolen. We nearly had to cancel our whole trip, and ended up having to drastically change our travel plans while we waited in Argentina for new passports," he says.
Scam 8: The Souvenir Switch. You’ve stopped at a stall or shop and have selected a nice keepsake. The shopkeeper takes your money and the item in order to carefully wrap it up for travel. When you get home and unwrap your item, you discover it’s not what you bought but some other item that’s cheaper or even broken.
What to Do: This is a hard one because so many helpful shopkeepers do genuinely wrap items for safe travel. This is often a case where travelers have to use their gut to determine if they sense anything shady. If you lose sight of your item in the wrapping processes (for instance, they take it to a back room), reopen the item right then to “admire it” and call out the shop keeper if there’s an issue. A classic take on this scam is someone on the street offering to sell you an expensive watch, smart phone or other item for far less than you could purchase it in a store. The deal is made and the seller “boxes up” the item and takes off, only for you to discover later that the box is filled with something worthless. The lesson here is buying expensive products off the street is always risky.
Eric Wychopen of travel website Penguin and Pia tells me about a similar experience in St. Mark's Square in Venice with a souvenir scammer. “With a bit of time to spare, I went looking to buy a small memento (a shot glass) from a tourist shop. I stumbled upon a stall with a great selection and a smiling woman behind the counter. Upon choosing a glass, I handed it over to the woman who motioned that she would wrap it in paper. I nodded, and the shot glass went out of sight down behind the counter," he recalls.
"I met my group not too far away from the stall. A friend asked to see what I had bought. And I am lucky he did. Upon opening the paper package, we saw the same design of shot glass, but this one was absolutely filthy and had a large crack. It was not the same glass I had handed the shopkeeper. She had switched the glasses, packaged a worthless version, and handed it back to be," Wychopen says. "Upon discovering this, I went back to the shop with my friend. Speaking Italian, he confronted the shopkeeper. At first she seemed to play dumb. But after some probing, she grabbed the broken glass and motioned to 'grab one and go.' I'm sure there were a few choice words in there as well. In the end, I got my souvenir - and I now know to keep an eye on items purchased in any shop. I also check the product just outside the shop, just in case.”
Scam 9: "Let Me Take Your Picture." A classic scam (or robbery, really), a nice person asks if you’d like him to take your photo in front of an attraction. Sick of selfies, you say sure, hand over your phone or camera…and they run off. In an even more aggressive version, a nice person asks if you could take their photo, and they hand you their camera. When you give it back, they claim you broke it, and demand payment.
What to Do: Offering to take photos of strangers has become a wonderful way to show good will when traveling, but also prime territory for thieves. Use your instincts, and if the person claims you damaged their property, insist on finding a police officer for "insurance purposes" or gently set the camera on the ground and walk away.
If the person won't let you leave, you're being robbed. Do what you need to do to stay safe, and then report the incident if possible. Bino Chua of iwandered.net offers evidence that scams aren't restricted to foreign cities either. He experienced a "Let Me Take Your Picture" scam on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, telling me, "I was approached by a guy who asked me to take a picture of him and his companion, using his camera. Now, I typically avoid all indicators of a scam, like people offering things to me or claiming that the place I am going to is closed, etc. But I have to say I fell for this request because it just seemed so good-natured. I mean, who hasn’t been asked to take their picture?"
"I thought this was normal since I carry a professional camera with me and I typically get asked a lot. These scammers used the opportunity while I was distracted taking the photo to gather up his pals. Without me noticing it, I was soon surrounded in a circle and I could not get away. The scammers then used the opportunity to claim that I damaged their camera and demanded that I hand over the money in my wallet," says Chua, who learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
"Always be on your guard, even in seemingly innocent situations. While it’s not a good idea either to just ignore every stranger who tries to make small talk, always keep a look out for indicators of a scam."
Scam 10: The Scrum. You’re walking through a city when suddenly a child or group of children come up to you asking for money. One holds a newspaper or cardboard sign up to you so that you can’t see below it. During the hustle and bustle, someone has unzipped your pack or reached into your pocket before the group leaves as quickly as it arrived. Children can be as young as 5, and both boys and girls. They have often been trained by adults to steal, and children younger than 14 can’t be prosecuted in nations such as Italy, so the reward far outweighs the penalty for them.
What to Do: Encountering children apparently in need is an emotional situation that adult scammers and criminals take advantage of. It’s heartbreaking to see poor and disabled children asking for money, but many aid organizations ask tourists not to give cash. In the end, though, it’s your decision, but make sure it’s safe to do so if you choose. Child poverty is a tragic topic encountered all over the world, and children are often used by adult criminals in many ways. If you’re being mobbed, use basic pickpocket precautions and hold out your arm to keep people at an arm’s length, say “please, no” and back up while turning from side to side to make it hard for someone to get into your backpack from behind. In cases of non-threatening begging, understand that the children most likely won’t keep any money you give them, and it will be taken by their adult handlers who could be tied to organized crime and child trafficking rings. You can also stop in a market and purchase a few healthy local snacks to give instead of money, but even in this case aid organizations warn that the snack will only be resold. It’s OK to ask at your hotel or other trusted local site for an opinion on whether or not to give. If you’d like to truly help impoverished youth during your travels, research legitimate local charities such as Salaam Baalak Trust Delhi in India and visit UNICEF, Save the Children and other accredited organizations. Visit Charity Navigator to see how a charity you are considering rates.
Scam 11: The Money Switch. You’re making a purchase, and hand the shopkeeper, gas station attendant, taxi driver or other teller local currency in a 100, 200, 500, etc. denomination. The person takes it and shows you a bill in a 10, 20, 50, etc. demonination, saying you picked the wrong bill and asks for the remaining balance. You’re not familiar with the local currency and not paying attention, so thinking you made a mistake you hand over another large bill, and may even receive change. What has happened is the person has quickly switched your initial large bill with a bill a tenth of its value, and then gotten even more money out of you.
What to Do: Always give money transactions your full attention, and verbally say the denomination as you’re handing over the bill. Beyond avoiding this scam (the teller will know you’re paying attention), you’ll learn about the local currency. Points if you do this in the local language. This will also avoid innocent mistakes as well.
These are just a few of the most common scams encountered by travelers. Common sense and trusting your gut are the best ways to avoid many unpleasant situations. Don't make it easy for pickpockets by keeping your valuables in easy to reach areas, and feel free to ask your hotelier about any crime waves or advice about local scams making the rounds. Feel good about paying for and tipping legitimate services, and know that the tourism economy is very important to many good, hard-working people all over the world. Most of all, be alert but not fearful when traveling, and cherish the many wonderful people you'll meet and experiences you'll have exploring the world.