In many large cities across the globe, thieves hunt from the shadows. They are armed with countless travel scams to take your money. These are the travel tips you can do to avoid them.
How to Avoid Travel Scams
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.
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.
The best way to avoid these travel scams is to be 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.
- Furthermore, individuals should always opt for cross-body purses with zippers (no flimsy one button purses).
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.
It may just be an innocent bump, but if someone is trying to pick my pocket, they won't succeed.
I am always aware of my valuables and my attention immediately goes to my things before they can catch my attention.
2. Distraction: You have gunk on you’ Scam
There are two variations of this 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.
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. But when traveling in India, we came across many fake officials that tried to separate us from our money.Every so often on trains and in the street you will come across fake officials who ask to see your documents.
To get them back, they ask for a bribe. Don’t hand over your documents if you feel that something is fishy.
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.
Wrong Class on Transportation
On trains in India, we often had official looking gentlemen board the train complete with a notebook and official badge asking to see our tickets. When they looked at them, they said we were in the wrong class and asked for money.
We fell for this once, but after another official came later, took look at our tickets and didn't ask us for anything, we realized we were just scammed.
Avoiding this scam can be tricky especially in a place like India where figuring out the train system is complicated. We often boarded the wrong compartment and had to pay an upgrade fee. We also knew that sometimes the trains are overbooked, but people don't show up, so taking the chance in 1st or 2nd class and paying an upgrade fee is possible.
How to avoid this scam
The best way to avoid paying extra fees is to do your research. Ask the 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.
4. Bus Scams
Some common travel scams on the bus include;
- a stranger helping you stow your bag above your seat while his accomplice pickpockets you 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.
The best way to avoid bus scams is to be extremely wary of overly helpful locals, 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.
We have tips on how to travel safely on a bus here.
5. Counterfeit Money
This type of travel scam is most common in restaurants and in cab rides.
At the end of the meal/ride, you hand the employee a bill and he will claim that your bill is fake, return the bill to you and ask for a different type of payment.
The problem is that you did end up giving him a real bill and while you weren’t looking he swapped the real bill with a counterfeit one.
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.
6. ATM Scams
Always use ATMs in reputable banks. If the ATM sucks in your card, refusing to give it back, then go into the bank immediately.
In Chile, for example, many of the outside bank ATMs would require someone to scan their card to gain entrance into the ATM area and only one person was allowed inside at a time.
ATM skimmers can apply different methods in order to steal your card and relevant banking information.
A skimmer is a device that can be attached to the mouth of an ATM and will secretly note down credit 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.
In the end, never give out your personal pin to anyone in person or on the phone. If you end up losing your card, call your bank immediately and cancel the card.
There are so many taxi scams around the world, they deserve their own section.
Taxi drivers rig their meters or say that the meter is broken and many 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.
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.
When landing at the airport, go to the official taxi stand and at your hotel, have the concierge or manager call you a taxi.
7. Prepaid Taxi Scam
This is one of the most common 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.
Don’t let them pressure you. 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.
8. If It's Too Good to Be True, It is
We've fallen for this travel scam. Someone offers you a ride for a price that seems too good to be true.
You hop in the taxi or 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.
The way to avoid this travel scam is to know the approximate amount of your cab fare before getting in the taxi. And if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
9. Over Charge Scam
Dave and I have fallen for this one so often it is embarrassing. We've actually had an argument in the taxi telling each other we were just scammed!
The best way to avoid being overcharged by a taxi is to agree on a price before getting into the cab.
It is also good to have a rough idea what a taxi costs. We were just in Cuba and there aren't any Ubers or Lyfts in Havana, but we did our research before going and learned that short trips in a Taxi Particular costs about $5.
That gave us a rough idea where to start so we could judge the distance on longer trips.
10. The Swarm
Similar to the distraction, the swarm 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. The kind gentlemen squeezed closer into our seat while the bus filled up with people.
We laughed with them as we acknowledge how tight the quarters were and didn’t notice until we left the bus that our shiny new camera was gone.
In the end, the best thing that you can do to avoid these travel scams is to be prepared.
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!
11. The Ring
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
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 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. 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.
12. The Friendly Local
I hate to say ignore friendly locals. We’ve reached out to tourists in our hometown of Toronto to offer advice or directions, but I do suggest being aware that they may have alternative motives.
Often people will say they want to practice their English or learn about your country, but after you chat for a bit, 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.
13. It's Closed Today
Many times you'll go to enter 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 travel scam.
They are going to talk you into another attraction that isn't as good and that they will get a kickback from.
Always look and see for yourself.
This is common in South East Asia.
14. The Begging Baby
Young women will often approach in places like India with a baby in their hands.
Often times, it is just a doll or a young girl given a baby by criminals to prey on the emotions of tourists.
Don't give into this or help the criminal rings.
There are many similar scams like this with maimed or injured beggars too. You feel sorry for them and are compelled to give money.
After watching Slumdog Millionaire my heart sank. Dave and I actually saw blind singers on trains in India that clearly had their eyes scorched out by criminal rings. It's 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.
15. The Switcharoo
We fell for this in the Middle East in Marrakech. We were going to a local family for dinner and bought some figs at Jemma el Fna Market to take with us as a gift.
We tasted the delicious juicy figs and ordered a large bag to take with us to dinner.
While talking away to each other, we didn't notice that he went to the back 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. When buying souvenirs, make sure you watch them wrap it up. People have been scammed with cheap carpets, handicrafts and jewelry.
Double check everything before you leave the store or market.
16. The Bracelet
I (Deb) get this one a lot. It is common on beaches and in cities.
A woman will come up to me to offer a free bracelet, or a crown and instead of waiting for me to say “I don't want it,” they put it on and won't take it back.
The more you try to give it back, the more they offer their services to braid your hair or sell you more jewelry.
I have learned to give a firm head shake when they approach to let them know “I know what they're up to.”
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. It's quite amazing how quickly they will turn and walk away when you say no.
I admit, I was in a good mood on our last visit to Istanbul and when someone put a crown on my head, I paid them. Once in a while, I know I'm being scammed, but hey, even some of the scammers are people to right? n
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.