Taxi drivers, hotel clerks, busboys, money exchangers; is there no one we can trust?! Travel scams can hit you anytime, anywhere and it can be the people you least expect. Shady people all over the world have honed their eagle eye to spot a tourist a mile away and have fine-tuned their craft so that even the most well-researched and savvy of us can fall victim to their schemes. From the little old lady who is offering a sprig of rosemary as a sign of friendship to the good old broken taxi meter trick there’s a scam around every corner. If you travel there’s no doubt that you will encounter one eventually but if you keep your wits and sobriety about you, you can minimize the risk.
The Broken Taxi Meter:
Common all over, but particularly in Thailand and South America, drivers will wait until you’re inside the taxi and inform you that the meter is broken and proceed to charge you an exorbitant amount upon arrival at your destination.
How to avoid
Ensure that as soon as you get into a taxi, the meter is running and if the driver insists it’s broken either get out and find another cab or negotiate a fee before you set off. When I was in Thailand, Taxi drivers everywhere claimed that their meter was not running but the price they offered was just as cheap. Very rarely this may be true but just know that it’s illegal for a taxi to operate without a working meter in Bangkok and for every taxi that tries to scam you there are many more honest ones that will happily earn your business.
The Phantom, Closed or Crappy Hotel Room:
Common EVERYWHERE! You get to your hotel, feeling super organized and excited about your online booking only to discover that your ‘beach view room’ overlooks a brick wall and your ‘spacious room’ could be mistaken for the closet. Sometimes the hotel might not even exist. Misleading photos on websites, fake TripAdvisor reviews and even a fake front desk can all be to blame for this. Some hotels even work with taxi drivers to convince tourists that the hotel they booked is closed and there’s a much better deal to be had at this place they just happen to know about.
How to avoid
Hotel scams abound so when you’re booking a hotel, double-check the actual website to ensure all the details line up. If someone tries to tell you it is closed, walk away and ignore. Always check multiple sources to check reviews of the hotel.
A related scam see thieves call your hotel room in the middle of the night and inform you they are from the desk and your credit card details need to be confirmed over the phone. How likely are you to actually go down to the front desk and give it to them?
‘Free’ Friendship Gifts:
Common in South America, Europe, Asia. I have never come across this personally but have heard from many people just how easy it is to be sucked in. We westerners are accustomed to be as polite as we can when someone talks to us, asks for directions or offers us something. We will automatically take something offered to us but it can often be a distraction or a scam. An old lady will offer you a spring of rosemary (a sign of friendship) or a friendship bracelet. Once it is in your possession, she will demand payment and cause a scene if you refuse. In some cases a vendor will physically tie a bracelet onto your wrist while you are distracted and when you refuse to pay they will make a scene, embarrassing you into coughing up the cash. Some even have accomplices who will go through your pockets while you are distracted and take your valuables.
How to avoid
Don’t take anything offered to you by someone you don’t know. If someone forces something on you, drop it and walk away. Quickly.
Common in popular tourist destinations in Europe and Asia. Ever seen those ever-helpful ‘tourist-police’ who wander around offering help and dishing out fines? Yeah well, be wary. A common scam sees people dress as tourist police and try to fine people on the spot for illegal behaviour. But don’t worry, if you pay him personally in cash, he’ll make it all go away. A common scam in Indonesia and Thailand, an ‘officer’ will pull over motorbikes and tell you that you were speeding but all you need to do is pay a cash fine. They may also pat you down and lift your valuables.
How to avoid
be aware of what the typical police uniform looks like when you travel and if someone does try to demand a fine from you, tell them you will go back to the station to sort it out. If they refuse, walk away. Don’t ever hand over your passport or wallet on the street. If you need to, ask to see the officer’s badge and threaten to call the police station and check.
Common in Indonesia, Thailand, countries with tough drug enforcement laws. It goes without saying that if someone you don’t know offers you drugs in a foreign country, JUST SAY NO, KIDS! In Thailand we had a tuk tuk driver offer us marijuana which if we had taken, would have been immediately found by a police officer who just happened to be passing, ready to threaten us with jail time if we didn’t pay him. The cop and the driver then spilt the bribe and the weed. Also be careful at Full Moon parties and actually listen to the announcements all over the airports that tell you to always keep your bags in sight. The last thing you need is drugs planted in your bag.
Photo Credit: ABC News
How to avoid
If someone offers you drugs, ask yourself what your mother or your high school principal would tell you to do. Walk away.
A related but much less common scams sees tourists drugged and robbed of their possessions or bodily organs. Be safe and watchful when you are out drinking and stick to higher-class establishments if you’re drinking alone.
Common all over, particularly in South East Asia, Eastern Europe and South America.
So, you’ve safely arrived at your destination. You’re jetlagged and tired but you need some cash for a beer and an aspirin so you head to the closest money exchange where there are several ways you can be ripped off. In some countries, there are two or more types of currency and the old money is worth less than the new notes. In Cuba there are two types of currency, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso (worth 25 Cuban pesos). Money exchangers will give you the rate you can get for your western money but instead of giving the convertible pesos, they give you the almost worthless Cuban pesos.
In other places, once all the money is counted out, the cashier may ‘accidentally’ drop the money and swap the cash for some similar looking notes or coins that aren’t worth nearly as much. Money exchangers have also been known to count out the agreed upon amount of cash and then skim a few notes off the bottom as they hand it to you. Sneaky, sneaky!
How to avoid
Try to check the exchange rate so you know approximately how much you should be getting for your cash. A good idea is to take along a pre-loaded cash card if you are going to have easy access to ATMs or a debit card with low fees. Getting cash out of an ATM or buying it before you leave is so much easier. If you do need to use a cash exchange, watch them closely and count it yourself at the stand before you walk away.
Also, scammers will actually create a complete facade of an ATM. They will literally build a mask with a card scanner that will steal your information. You stand there, insert your card, and nothing will happen, “Darn, it’s broken” you’ll think. Nope you’re broke now. Avoid this by avoiding sketchy looking ATMs. Only go to banks that are legit, not one inside the back of a bodega in the boonies.
Common worldwide. This is one I have watched happen, but luckily my clothes and wallet have so far survived intact. Bird crap, coffee, mustard or some other mysterious stain finds its way onto your shirt. And that helpful local that rushed to clean it off for you? Yeah, he just took off with your wallet.
How to avoid
personal space is always a good thing; if anyone gets too close to you for any reason, be extra aware of where your valuables are.
A related wallet-stealing tactic can involve someone announcing they have found a wallet. Your hand automatically reaches to check that your own wallet it safe and BAM! They now know exactly where your wallet is kept.
Someone comes up to you and offer you a scratch ticket, completely free. You scratch it and lo and behold, you’re a big winner! All you have to do is go for a ride to pick up your prize. And just to make sure you feel super guilty if you say no, he tells you he will get a huge bonus from his employer or he is competing for a promotion that you can help him win. When you get to the destination, what’s waiting for you? A time share presentation. And if you’re lucky a free t-shirt. This scams tends not to cost you much other than time but it can be super annoying and it’s always dangerous to go somewhere with a stranger. We encountered (and unfortunately fell for) this on our second day in Bali and in the following days we saw many other couples being targeted. Always the same script, a shaking of the hand and they will even go take you over to the police stand and the officers will inform you that it is not a scam, and it’s safe to go with them.
The awesome Nicholas Cage movie, Matchstick Men shows a variation of this lottery ticket. See it below.
How to avoid
IGNORE, IGNORE, IGNORE! If ever the mystery prize you ‘win’ on the street isn’t a scam and I just cost you a free 100 inch TV or a free trip to Europe, I apologise. But trust me, even that loss better than sitting through a timeshare presentation.
The world is becoming an increasingly creative place when it comes to travel scams, and the best defence is preparation. Even within the USA there are a vast array of travel scams and just because you’re American doesn’t mean you’re exempt! Travel scammers often hit big tourists cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Even Disneyland has its troubles! When you’re travelling, it’s a good idea to always be vigilant and wary of strangers. Most of the time, locals will pose no harm to you, but being cautious is always a good idea. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is and if someone is offering you something for free…likewise. You’ll never be completely safe, but some good travel insurance and some common sense goes a long way!