In many large cities across the globe, thieves hunt from the shadows. They are armed with countless travel scams to take your money. These travel tips help you avoid them.
Quite similar to a lion, stalking its prey on the Serengeti, thieves aim to blend into their surroundings while staring intently at their next victim. They’re waiting to catch them with their travel scams. The good news is that, akin to lions hunting for weakened gazelles, travelers can avoid being robbed by being aware of their surroundings. Thieves are willing to take risks, but they also calculate those risks.
Crooked opportunists take many shapes and forms and while your time abroad will probably be spent incident-free, it is vital to be prepared.
Table of Contents
How to Avoid Travel Scams
Here is a list of common travel scams to make it easier for you to spot the danger signs and avoid any sticky situation.
1. Bump and Grab
The most common travel scam is the bump and grab, where a thief or a gang of thieves distract you with a bump and then proceed to lift your valuables from your pocket and/or purse. This method is most popular in the metro.
Victims of this method are often swarmed by several people who are pushing them, while at the same time, pick their pocket. Another trick is to grab the purse of someone standing/sitting near the door and get off the metro just as the doors are closing.
How to Avoid the Bump and Grab
The best way to avoid these travel scams is to stay one step ahead of the thief.
- First – spread out all your valuables; never keep all your important documents, cards and/or your passport in one place.
- Second – never put a wallet or anything of value in either your front or back jean pocket.
- Third – Individuals should always opt for cross-body purses with zippers (no flimsy one button purses).
- Pay Attention – Whenever I am bumped on a subway, bus or in the street, my hand immediately goes to the zipper of my over the shoulder bag.
I am always aware of my valuables and my attention immediately goes to my things before they can catch my attention. It may just be an innocent bump, but if someone is trying to pick my pocket, they won’t succeed.
2. Distraction – ‘You have Gunk on You’ Scam
There are two variations of this travel scam but it starts out with someone putting something, such as mustard or ketchup (there have been reports of human/animal feces being thrown at travelers), on your body.
The thief will either smear something on your back or the substance will be thrown at you from an unknown location. Then, a seemingly innocent bystander will come to tell you that you have something on your back or offer you a tissue. The point of this travel scam is to get you to take off your backpack, purse and/or camera.
How to Avoid the Distraction
If someone tells you that you have something on your back, do not take off your backpack to check! Instead, keep walking, ignore any “Good Samaritans” and only remove your bags when you are in a safe and secure location.
3. Fake Officials
When traveling you’d think that you should be able to trust the police or security. Every so often on trains and in the streets, you will come across fake officials who ask to see your documents. To get them back, they ask for a bribe. Don’t ever hand over your documents if you feel that something is fishy.
How to Survive Fake Officials
Instead, ask them to take you to the police station where you will be happy to show your documents. Or ask the people around you for help. “Many friendly locals in India offered us advice and helped us when in need”.
4. Wrong Class on Transportation
When traveling in India, we came across many fake officials on trains that tried to separate us from our money and documents. This is a difficult travel scam to catch since we are conditioned to trust the police.
Official-looking men boarded the train to ask for our documents. They looked official complete with a notebook and official badge. When they asked to see our tickets, they told us we were in the wrong class and compartment but told us we could stay if we paid the upgrade fee. We fell for this once.
It wasn’t until another official came by later to look at our tickets that we realized we were scammed. The real offical simply stamped our tickets and moved on,
How to Avoid This
Avoiding this travel scam can be tricky; especially in a place like India where figuring out the train system is complicated. The best way to avoid paying extra fees is to do your research. Ask the ticket desk how much it is to upgrade on the train and know the full cost of the ticket before getting on.
Officials will never ask for more money than they need. And when in doubt ask the people around you. Locals are always happy to lend a hand.
5. Bus Scams
Buses can be one of the riskiest places to be separated from your belongings when traveling. It’s important to remain diligent while traveling on a bus and keep an eye out for these travel scams.
Common travel scams on the bus
- a stranger helping you stow your bag above your seat while his accomplice picks your pocket or slashes your backpack.
- Another variation of this scam includes a Good Samaritan that was helping you stow your luggage suddenly takes off with your bag and/or hands it off to a runner near the front of the bus.
- While you are sleeping, you wake up to find all your belongings gone.
How to Avoid Bus Travel Scams
The best way to avoid bus scams is to be extremely wary of overly helpful locals. And to keep an eye on your belongings. Never let your bags out of your sight, keep your most valuable possessions as close to you as possible and never allow strangers to touch or handle your bags.
If we do go to sleep, we wrap our bags around our feet or arms. We also carry a PacSafe or padlock on a chain to lock our valuables up while we are sleeping.
- We have more tips on how to travel safely on a bus here.
6. Counterfeit Money
This type of travel scam is most common in restaurants and in taxis. At the end of the meal/ride, you hand the employee a bill and he/she will claim that your bill is fake. They will return the bill to you and ask for a different type of payment.
The problem is that you did end up giving them a real bill and while you weren’t looking they swapped the real bill with a counterfeit one.
How to Avoid the Counterfeit Money Scam
To avoid this type of scam, make sure to familiarize yourself with the country’s currency before arrival. Pay close attention when paying and use exact change when you can. Try to change money into small bills at your hotel or a bank, so that you won’t be a target in this scam.
7. ATM Scams
ATM skimmers can apply different methods in order to steal your card and relevant banking information. A common traevel scam is to connect a skimmer device attached to the mouth of an ATM. It will then secretly note the credit card and debit card information when customers slip their cards into the machine.
Another method of this travel scam is to place a sticky or plastic slip inside of the slot, which will cause your card to get stuck in the machine. Once again, a “Good Samaritan” will be on hand to “help” you and might suggest that you call the phone number, often a fake number, on the machine for help.
How to Avoid the ATM Scam
The best way to avoid this travel scam is to always use ATMs in reputable banks. When in a foreign country, we always give the ATM card reader a little shake to make sure it is real.
If the ATM sucks in your card, refusing to give it back, then go into the bank immediately. And if you end up losing your card, call your bank immediately and cancel the card. We have had ATMs keep our card in both Argentina and Turkey. But had no problem after letting our banks know what happened.
In the end, never give out your personal pin to anyone in person or on the phone.
8. The Swarm
Similar to the distraction, this travel scam sees you surrounded on a bus or subway by a group of people. It seems innocent enough. It’s crowded and they are moving around you to find a space. While people nudge and distract you, others rummage through your bags and take what they need.
Dave and I were victims of this in Namibia. A kind looking gentlemen squeezed into the seat beside me while the bus filled up with people. We laughed together as we acknowledge how tight the quarters were, and didn’t notice until we left the bus that our shiny new camera was gone.
How to Avoid this Scam
In the end, the best thing you can do to avoid this is to be prepared. If people are making eye contact or trying to get your attention while the crowds grow, ignore them. Keep an eye on your belongings.
Keep your valuables zipped up in an over the shoulder bag, or sitting on your lap attached to your body. And keep your hands at the zipper to keep things safe.
19. The Ring Scam
We had the ring scam happen to us in Paris, but it is also popular in Rome and other European tourist destinations. Places like the Eiffel Tower and Colosseum seem to have a lot of ring scamming going on. A lot of scams happen around famous tourist sites like Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, so always be on guard in any city’s popular tourist destinations.
As you walk along a street, a ring falls on the ground in front of you, and then a woman runs to pick it up asking if it is yours. Honestly, I was tempted to say yes.
I wish I did say yes because when you say no, the “kind” passerby offers to sell it to you. When you say you don’t want it, they keep badgering you until you hand over some money.
How to Avoid this Scam
We have learned that the best way to avoid travel scams at popular tourist attractions is to keep a serious look on your face, don’t make eye contact, and give the impression that you are well-traveled. (even if you are not)
When people approach us, we give a sharp head nod “no” while looking very serious. It gives the impression that we’ve already fallen for this scam and they can’t fool us twice!
10. The Friendly Local
I hate to say ignore friendly locals. Usually, the local people are just that, “friendly locals trying to help.” But other times, they are not.
People will often approach us and say they want to practice their English or learn about your country. After a few minutes of friendly chatting, they suggest that you come with them to their office or shop. You feel obligated to be nice to your new friend and soon find yourself in a high-pressure sales situation to buy art or jewelry.
How to Avoid This
There is no harm in talking to locals and we’ve had some great interactions with people. So, to avoid this, we suggest when you talk to someone, simply be aware that it could happen.
Keep an eye on your belongings, keep your valuables locked in their zippers, and when they ask you to come with them, say no. You have a right to say no and if they keep pressuring you, tell them you have to be somewhere and cut them off. Be firm, but be nice and they will usually walk away.
11. It’s Closed Today
The “it’s closed today scam” is a very common travel scam in Southeast Asia. Many times as you approach a tourist attraction and locals will tell you it’s closed before you have a chance to see for yourself. Don’t fall for this.
They are going to talk you into going to another attraction that isn’t as good and that they will get a kickback from. And you’ll end up missing out on the attraction you want to see.
How to Avoid
The way to avoid the it’s close today scam is to take a look for yourself. Even if they are persistent, tell them you want to see for yourself. Keep walking, look straight ahead and keep an eye on your valuables.
Chances are they will walk along with you trying to distract you, but don’t fall for it. They are hoping you will eventually believe them and follow along instead of forging ahead. But it never hurts to check things out for yourself.
12. I’m Your Waiter at Your Hotel Scam
We’ve had this travel scam more often lately. The scam goes something like this. We’ll be walking down the street when a man says “hi!” acting like he knows us.
They then he says, “I served you last night at your hotel.” Surprisingly, they often get our hotel correct. It could be because they have followed us from our hotel and kept an eye on us for an hour or so before approaching.
They then tell you that it’s the last day of a big sale or big festival and if you want to see it, follow them. Coincidentally, they are on their way there now.
Don’t fall for this
A server or front of house staff at your hotel will never approach you on the street. If someone does, ignore them. They have probably been watching you.
In Cuba, there was an entire network watching us in Havana. After leaving our hotel, a “friendly waiter wanted us to buy cigars,” when we went back to the main city square, another “friendly guy” knew our hotel as well and told us his cousin could give us a cheap deal on a Classic Car tour. “Special for Iberostar guests!”
The way to avoid this travel scam is to find your own tour and if in doubt, book through your hotel or at the tourism information centre located in most downtown squares.
13. The Switcharoo
We fell for this travel scam in the Middle East in Marrakech. Before visiting a local family for dinner we bought some figs at Jemma el Fna Market to take with us as a gift. (A tradition when visiting a home in Morocco)
We tasted the delicious juicy figs and ordered a large bag to take with us to dinner. While talking away to the very friendly vendor, we didn’t notice that he went behind the counter and filled the bag with old rotten figs. It was quite embarrassing to show up at a house with a bag of bad figs.
I have heard this happen to people on a far more expensive scale. They have paid for expensive carpets, jewelry, and expensive art only to unwrap it and find it is not what they bought.
How to Avoid the Switcharoo Scam
To avoid the “switcharoo” travel scam, make sure you keep an eye on your purchase at all times. Don’t let it out of your sight.
Once you have picked out the item you want, make sure it doesn’t go into a back room or behind the desk before it is wrapped. Don’t let people distract you with conversation and never let them take it away to wrap it up. Double-check everything before you leave the store or market.
14. The Bracelet Scam
I (Deb) get this one a lot. This travel scam is common on beaches and in cities. A woman will often come up to me to offer a free bracelet, or a hand made crown. Instead of waiting for me to say “I don’t want it,” they put it on without giving you a chance to say no and refuse to take it back.
The more you try to give it back, the more they offer their services to braid your hair or put more jewelry on your wrist or head. Before you know it, you are wearing bracelets, your hair is half braided, and they are painting your nails.
How to Avoid the Bracelet Scam
I have learned to give a firm head shake when I see this travel scam happening. When they approach me I firmly let them see “I know what you are up to.” It’s quite amazing how quickly they will turn and walk away when you say no with a firm nod.
I can usually tell now when someone is going to try to put something on my head or arm. It’s all about catching them in the act before they have a chance to pounce.
I admit, I was in a good mood once on a visit to Istanbul and when someone put a crown on my head, (see photo above) I paid them a couple of bucks. Once in a while, I know I’m being scammed, but hey, even some of the scammers are people too right?
15. Short Change
We just had this travel scam happen in Mexico at a pharmacy of all places! Dave and I were on one of our first official vacations in years. Usually, we check exchange rates before leaving home and have all information on hand. But this time we booked an all-inclusive luxury stay and had no plans to venture off the resort.
On a rainy day, we decided to go to the pharmacy to stock up on medication. We only had USD, but it is widely accepted in Playa del Carmen so we didn’t worry. We paid with a 20 dollar bill and she gave us change in Pesos. Since we were in a pharmacy, we didn’t question it. When we got on the bus to go back to the resort, we realized she shorted us about $5. Letting our defenses down cost us money. Not a lot, but we were still out $5.
How to Get the Correct Change
This is a common travel scam in high tourist areas. Scam artists rely on the fact that most people don’t know the exchange rate and that most people aren’t changing their money into local currency.
Before you travel, look up the exchange rate and use XE Currency converter. Don’t be embarrassed to count your change in front of the person giving you the change before you leave the establishment.
And, look up what coins and local currency look like before leaving home. We were lazy and fell for one of the oldest travel scams in the book.
16. The Begging Baby
Common in Southeast Asia, Central, and South America, this travel scam sees young women who will often approach you with a baby in their hands. Usually, it is just a doll. Sadly, sometimes a young girl is given a baby by criminals to prey on the emotions of tourists. You feel sorry for them and are compelled to give money. Don’t give into this. It only helps support the crime rings.
There are many similar scams like this with maimed or injured beggars too. You may feel that you want to help the poor child or help the injured, but they have to give the money to the leader of the organization and you are not helping them at all.
How to Avoid Falling for This
After watching Slumdog Millionaire my heart sank. Dave and I actually saw old blind men singing on trains in India that clearly had their eyes scorched out by criminal rings years ago. It was unbearably sad. But if you give to them, you are only helping the men/women who put them there.
If you want to give money, find a charity to give you instead. Don’t give to kids on the street.
17. Taxi Scams
There are so many taxi scams around the world, they deserve their own article. Taxi drivers rig their meters or say that the meter is broken in every city. In many places, people pose as taxi drivers when they are not licensed or qualified.
A common cab scam is that many taxi drivers will take you on a wild goose chase driving you to establishments that pay them a commission rather than taking you to your desired destination.
How to Avoid this Scam
The best way to avoid taxi scams is to look for official taxis. It’s easy to do a Google search to find what the official taxi colors are of the destination you are visiting.
If you need a taxi when landing at the airport, go to the official taxi stand, or official taxi office before you leave the airport. Don’t fall for touts approaching you at the luggage carousel. Go to the official taxi stand or waiting area.
At your hotel, have the concierge or manager call you a taxi.
18. Prepaid Taxi Scam
This is one of the most common travel scams you will find throughout the world. You have arrived at the airport or train station. You are exhausted and it is the middle of the night.
Cab drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, motor taxis, and more will approach you before you barely have time to get off the platform and offer their services to take you to a hotel. They will tell you that the prepaid booth is closed, or that there isn’t one there.
How to Avoid this Scam
Don’t let these touts pressure you. They are really good at their scamming skills, but just ignore them and continue to look for the official booths. Take your time to look around and ask the right people where the prepaid taxi booth is.
You will pay a fair price to your hotel of choice and avoid being overcharged or taken to the wrong destination.
19. If It’s Too Good to Be True, It is
If someone offers you a ride for a price that seems too good to be true, it is a scam. We’ve fallen for this travel scam ourselves. A tuk-tuk driver has asked us where we’re going, we answer and they give us a price that is way below the expected fee. Excited we say yes.
You hop in the taxi (in Asia it is often a tuk-tuk) and instead of taking you to your requested destination, your driver takes you all around the city stopping at gem dealers, carpet shops, and tea houses.
You end up in the completely opposite direction of where you asked to go and the only way to get back is to appease them and go into all the shops wasting your day.
How to Avoid the Too Good to be True Scam
The way to avoid this is to know the approximate amount of your cab fare before getting in the taxi. It’s easy to check online or ask at your hotel. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Follow your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
20. The Over Charge Scam
Dave and I have fallen for this one so often it is embarrassing. We’ve actually had an argument while sitting in the taxi that was scamming us, as we blamed each other for getting scammed at this exact moment. Our driver didn’t care. We were in the middle of the scam and it was too late. We had to pay him to get out of the cab.
How to Avoid Being Overcharged in a Taxi
The best way to avoid being overcharged by a taxi is to agree on a price before getting into the cab. Negotiate on a price while standing outside and then get in only when the price is agreed upon.
Or if they have a meter, request that they use it before you get in the car. It is also good to have a rough idea of what a taxi costs. We were just in Cuba and did our research before going. We learned that short trips in a Taxi Particular cost about $5. That gave us a rough idea of where to start so we could judge the distance on longer trips.
The internet should be your best friend, Google should be used religiously and you should never leave the house without proper travel insurance.
Remember to be aware; be cautious, but most importantly have fun!
Easier targets for travel scams can include confused travelers, drunken messes and overly anxious first-timers that tend to clutch their valuables in order to protect them.
Simply put; if you are confident, aware and most importantly, sober traveler than they’ll probably move on to an easier target.
Have you ever been duped? Tell us what Common Travel Scams you’ve fallen for around the world.