Confidence tricks – alongside small bags going missing – are perhaps the biggest annoyance and danger to any traveller. These type of tricks are a mainly urban phenomenon. ‘Do you remember me?’, ‘My daughter goes to university in your home town.’ or ‘Would you like to have a drink with my family or see a traditional tea/coffee ceremony?’ are the sorts of lines you get wise to very quickly. If you fall for them – which is not that difficult – you lose only a few dollars but gain a ton of experience. The other (more limited) side is far more sinister, often involving bogus policemen and sometimes drugs.
If you are unsure, the sensible approach is to never go somewhere with anybody who approaches you in the street. Make up a bullshit excuse or if alone cross the street. It is advisable to avoid getting into conversations – as the longer you spend talking the harder these characters are to shake off. If you do see the situation becoming serious, i.e. the stranger has lit a joint and now the ‘police’ are here, simply keep your head, don’t answer questions, hand anything over or go anywhere (apart from the police station by your own means).
. Keep your head and don’t be sucked in. Walk away or say no at any stage. The best advice when it comes to money is trust no-one and display it unduly. Be wary of paying in advance when there are no business premises or guarantees. Be clear on agreed on prices for goods or services when you are paying after the event (i.e. taxi ride). These will be greater issues if you are on your own. Shady people love to take advantage of tourists, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to become a victim. As travellers, we think that we are smart enough to avoid getting ripped off. But it happens to the best of us. Technology makes it more likely than ever that you’ll encounter a scheme – consumer fraud is up 60% since 2008, and half of it happens online.
These sorts of tricks work on fear, bullying and guilt (the other party will always be very friendly in order to build a relationship before hitting you for money). Confidence scams and tricks work because humans are psychologically programmed to be gullible. What a confidence artist sells is hope – hope that you will be happier, richer and somehow superior. It’s best to question those hopes, no matter how real they seem. The best defence is knowledge.
Travel scams exist the world over. While it is nearly impossible to know when you will be scammed, it is important to know what kind of scams exist, and what to do if the situation arise. The more you know about these scams, the less likely you’ll fall for them.
There must be thousands of different scenarios, but this will give you a good idea of the many varieties.
1. Taxi Scams
The dreaded taxi. It feels like even the honest ones are trying to rip you off. Many drivers try to scam unsuspecting tourists so be aware of common scams.
a. Meters. Meter rates in many countries are extremely low. It is hard to believe that they make any money at all. As a result many drivers refuse to use a meter. The driver may inform you that the meter is broken or they simply refuse to use it and charge you more than the ride is worth.
b. Kidnapped by a taxi. You get picked up and driven somewhere where they take your debit or credit cards, force the pin numbers from you, clean out your bank accounts and then leave you abandoned. Go to www.katharinaandpeter.info to read about a young Austrian couple, Katharina Koller and Peter Rabitsch, on a round-the-world trip in 2006, who were kidnapped by a fake taxi in La Paz, Bolivia, held in an apartment, gave their credit cards and pins, had several withdrawals made on their cards and were murdered. A young Spaniard was held by the gang at the same time and was likewise killed. Their bodies were found in unmarked graves.
c. Overbooked Or Closed Hotel. While en route to your hotel, the driver says your hotel is either closed or overbooked and then takes you to a more expensive hotel where the driver receives a commission. Nondescript hotels can be re-named to match the name of popular hotels, tricking newly arrived travellers into believing that they have indeed been taken to the right hotel by them.
d. Money swapping scam. This is quite a simple trick but unfortunately very effective. I have heard of this in China where counterfeit 100RMB notes are common. They have a palpable strip so that the authenticity of the note can be ascertained in the dark. You finish the ride and pay the driver with a 100RMB note. He takes your note, switches it with a counterfeit bill claiming yours is counterfeit or of lesser value than what you gave him. You are almost certain that you paid him with a good 100RMB note. You end up paying again.
e. Taking You to a Business Common with tuk-tuk in SE Asia, the friendly driver offers you a cheap ride. After a bit of sightseeing, he takes you to a tailor, silk, gem or any you-name-it shop. “Just for looking” suddenly becomes a very persuasive sales talk in each one of the places. Even if you are genuinely interested in shopping, the driver get a commission in every shop making the purchase more expensive. And the shop owner is probably not the driver’s relative as claimed.
f. Leaving your luggage in a taxi. In Amman Jordan, a Chinese fellow in my dorm room had taken a taxi to buy bus tickets, leaving his luggage in the trunk. When he came out, the taxi was gone!
How to Avoid Taxi Scams
Use A Reputable Company. Call ahead and make an appointment for a taxi. One on the street there is more likely to be sketchy.
Use Taxi Stands. These are places where real taxis pick up people, but don’t assume they’ll all be honest.
Go By The Meter. If the driver refuses to use a meter, they’re always going to rip you off. Insist that they turn it on. Negotiate rates ahead of time, or ensure the meter is working before you get in the car. If he still refuses to turn on the meter, or tells you it’s cheaper without the meter, get out and opt for another car. Not all cab drivers are scammers.
Ask Tourist Office/Hostel About Price. They can tell you how much you should be paying for your ride. Ask the cab driver for this estimated cost and compare the two.
Memorize and write down the license plate number and company name if you leave your luggage to go on an errand – or better yet, always take your luggage with you.
Get Prices Upfront. On non-metered taxis, triple check the price before getting into the car. Always negotiate with predetermined prices. Research what the fair price is before you arrive in the city.
Call your hotel in advance and make sure they’re open. Ask if they offer shuttle service and schedule a pickup. If your taxi driver still tells you the hotel is not available, insist that he take you there as you have a reservation (even if you don’t). Never trust a taxi driver’s alternative suggestions. In the case of possible similar names, always be taken to a specific address and not just a hotel name.
Never get into a taxi with other passengers – they may be accomplices of the driver. Don’t carry your cards with you at night but leave them in your hotel room. Only take trusted taxi companies.
Bags In The Backseat. Don’t chance getting your bags being taken “hostage” in the trunk.
Carry Small Bills. Some drivers might claim to not have small change so you get back less money than you should.
Make Your Money Clear. Hand your money to the driver slowly, bill by bill. Then make sure you get all your change back.
Never Take Recommendations. Do not let seemingly helpful taxi drivers lure you to an establishment they recommend – they may receive a commission for bringing victims to the hotel/store/club/restaurant.
2. Free Bracelets, Flowers or Rosemary
This scam tends to prey on female travellers. A friendly man or woman will approach to chat, then place a “free” friendship bracelet on your wrist, or hand you a sprig of rosemary for good luck, or offer a free rose. Once you have it, they will demand money. This is also used as a distraction for pickpockets.
How To Avoid It: Don’t allow anyone to put anything on your body, and be extremely wary of accepting anything for free unless there is a good reason for it, especially in very touristy areas. Ignore them and keep walking.
3. Buying Drinks and Food. This scam comes in many disguises around the world,
a. The Chinese tea house version is the most well-known. At Tiananmen Square in Beijing, you are chatted up by two sweet looking young ladies who claim to be studying English and want to practice their language skills. Sure, why not. They will suggest some tea and take you to a traditional Chinese tea house. This can be done so discreetly and subtly, making you believe you might actually have picked the place yourself. At the end, you might offer to pay for the tea or maybe you find the girls are gone when the bill appears. In any case, the tea turns out to be extremely expensive at around 75$-200$. Declining any offer is the best way to avoid this scam, but if you do find yourself with an outrageous bill, the best thing is a laughing rejection and a stern threat of calling the police. Modesty and politeness will make things worse.
b. A fellow comes up to you and asks where you are from. Then they say their daughter goes to university in your country and ask you if you would like to go to a restaurant to chat. Girls may be invited. When the bill for the alcohol and food arrives, you are expected to pay for their “good” company.
c. A variant, common in Cuba, is “Today is my birthday” or “My father died yesterday” or anything along these lines. It is meant to induce you to feel pity, offerd drinks, pay for the drink (perhaps double or triple of what is normally worth) and the person gets the drink and the commission.
d. Also in Cuba, I tried to buy cigarettes but the store had no change. A fellow offered to take my money and get change. When back, he had bought a small bottle of rum and we sat around and drank it. He was in fact very nice, not much money was involved, we had a lot of fun and he took us to a concert that night. Not all scams are so bad and these people are unbelievably poor.
e. Flirtatious Local Women. You arrive to a new country only to discover that beautiful local women seem to pay much more attention to you than back home. One of them invites you out to a nightclub or bar. However after a wild night, the woman disappears and you’re forced to pay an overpriced bill. Or worse, drugged and robbed. Be wary of attractive women who are unusually forward or hitting on you aggressively. It may be your dream to be hit on, but if you’re not a male model, then it’s probably a scam.
4. Spills On Your Clothing
Common in Europe or South America, a traveler will be walking down the street and feel something plop on their shoulder – bird poop, a fast-food condiment, coffee, dog poo or an oily malodorous substance. Faster than lightning, a diverse group of friendly locals appear to help you, offering to clean your jacket. Before you realize what is truly going on, your wallet/money belt/camera/daypack is changing hands. They often work in groups and follow you into a bathroom to help.
Stay cool, don’t allow someone to help you and walk away fast. Go to a restroom and clean the mess off yourself. You can always check out the stains in a safer place later. If you don’t realize the scam before they are freeing you from your valuables, yell out loud and act aggressive. Trick thieves in general are rarely into attention and violence.
Theft is everywhere, not just in very poor countries where people steal to eat. Wallets, cell phones and cameras are the obvious targets. South America is possibly the riskiest continent. Showing off your wealth with expensive jewelry, rings and cameras make you a target. There must be thousands of scenarios. Go to Travel Security for a more complete discussion of these issues.
a. Pickpockets. These guys are Houdini’s – magicians at relieving you of your wallets and money. Gypsies are notorious pickpockets. Barcelona, Spain is possibly the pickpocket capital of the world. As a major tourist destination, it attracts people from all over the world. Other risky cities are Rome, Siem Reap Cambodia and Beijing Metro. Crowded metros, bazaars and streets are common hangouts for pickpockets. No outside pockets are safe even if they have zippers. The only place that is absolutely safe is inside pockets. I don’t like the bulk and heat of money belts so have had inside pockets sewn into all my pants. I have to undo my belt and fly to access them so they can be a hassle but how often do you need your bankcards and main supply of money?
I carry small amounts of cash spread around different pockets or under the insole of my shoes. Some people carry a dummy wallet with a few old expired cards and small amount of cash. Generally in dodgy places, don’t carry cards or your passport with you at night but leave in a secure location in your hotel.
b. Outright robbery. When threatened with a weapon (gun, knife) simply hand over the small amount of cash you have. This is especially common in New Town in Quito Ecuador.
c. Obnoxious substance thrown on you (mustard, ketchup, smelly fish oil). These guys work in teams: someone throws the substance and their confederates help you clean it off relieving you of your wallet. Refuse any help and don’t let them accompany you to the washroom.
d. Daypacks. I don’t think you should ever carry your passport or money in a pack as they are the thing most likely to be stolen. Women are especially at risk as their shorts have fewer safe pockets and women are used to using a purse or daypack. There is really nowhere safe for a pack except possibly worn backwards across your chest. Secure zippers if worn on your back. Packs can be slashed with a knife or ripped off your body by passing motorcyclists.
Buses are frequent places of theft. Never store in an overhead bin (what happens when you fall asleep) or under your seat where the person behind you can access it.
In restaurants or bus depots, don’t put your daypack under your seat or behind you. The only truly safe place might be on your lap or under your feet with your back strap wrapped around your leg.
e. Hostels. I have never personally had anything stolen in a hostel but theft can be common especially in Europe. The best hostels have secure lockers. When valuables are left at the front desk of hostels or hotels (I never do this), make sure to get a receipt.
f. Kidnapped by a taxi. Read about this in the above taxi scam list. Don’t go out with cards at night. Find out the reputable taxi companies where you are. Memorize license plates of any taxi you enter. Never get into a taxi with a stranger.
g. SLR cameras. There is no safe way to carry a camera. I walked 25m outside of New Town Quito, two young guys appeared, one grabbed the strap and the other the lens and there was no way I could prevent the theft.
6. Attraction Is Closed
A common travel scam in major tourist areas, some friendly local (who just happens to speak excellent English) will approach and inform you that the attraction you want to visit is closed for any number of reasons (religious ceremony, holiday, lunchtime etc.). Then they’ll guide you to a different attraction or shop where you’re pressured to purchase something or pay a lot for entry.
Instead of taking the local’s word, head to the ticket counter or shop and see for yourself. Or ask someone else nearby for confirmation.
7. Helpful People
a. Friendly ATM Helper. Someone approaches at an ATM cash machine to help you avoid local bank fees. What they really want to do is scan your ATM card with the card skimmer in their pocket and watch you enter your pin number so they can drain your account later. Or a “friendly” local offers to help at an ATM. After a split second distraction, he vanishes with the card and money gets withdrawn.
How To Avoid It: Never let anyone near you while you’re making an ATM transaction, and ALWAYS cover the number pad with your other hand while entering your pin code. If someone approaches, take your card and find another ATM.
b. Helpful men at the airport who will carry your luggage (without asking permission first) then charge you disproportionately later on. Just say no and walk away.
c. Street vendors offering to clean you shoes. You have to agree a price up front or it will be exorbitantly expensive. I agreed a price up front it was about $2. The trim was coming off my shoe and he glued it back on, suddenly upon completion the price had become $25.
d. Photos. While hanging out in a busy tourist location or landmark, a local offers to take a group photo of you and your friends. As you’re getting ready to pose for your awesome new Facebook jumping shot, you look up and realize your new friend has completely disappeared – with your expensive camera.
How To Avoid It: This one is tough, you really need to read the situation. But it’s almost always me asking them for the favour, not them offering out of the blue. Busy city attractions are the most risky places for this. If you have to, ask fellow tourists instead and return the favor for them.
e. If you look a bit lost in the street, someone asks if you need help, says he can suggest a good restaurant and turns out that is much more expensive than the rest (he gets a commission).
f. “I invite you to…” – complete the sentence with “my home, a drink” or whatever else. You will be presented with a bill – aka having to pay your meal and that of the rest of the people who joined.
g. A guy offers to help us out to get a taxi or load large suitcases. Even if you planned on giving them money, it will not be enough. Though with the ticket scam, sometimes they’re real tickets, just more expensive. During Chinese New Year we had to go to Macau to activate my work visa and I had read up on how there were plenty of ferries and how you can always buy tickets when you get there… Turns out the travel agent companies got smart and bought up all the cheap tickets to then sell back to us poor saps. It ended up costing an extra 20US$.
h. In Varanasi at the large burning ghat, touts will often stand beside you waiting to be asked to explain something. Even one small question will demand money. One guy became physically threatening with me and followed me for a long ways down the ghat. They say the money is to buy wood for people waiting to die in the nearby hospice. Of course it just goes into their pocket. Don’t ask any questions (go to my post on Varanasi – everything you might want to know is there).
i. I’ve heard of locals helping tourists buy train tickets but instead they buy child tickets and pocket the rest of the money. Be very careful of who you trust.
J. Ticket Machines Dupe. Always be a little leery of people who try to help you at ticket machines. I know some people who got scammed in Paris from a well-dressed man who “helped” them buy metro tickets. They wanted to buy two 5 day passes, which costs about 30€/each, so the man offered to use his credit card because he told them Australian cards don’t work in the machines. He said that they could just pay him in cash. He did buy them tickets, but he bought them a one-way child’s ticket (which looks very similar to a 5-day pass) that costs about 1€ and he pocketed 60€ in cash from them.
8. Injured or Child Beggars
Usually deaf, blind, or pregnant, sometimes accompanied by a “helper”, beggars will ask you for money. Women with babies are common (they might not even be theirs). Children are also frequently used by begging gangs to collect money. Why? Because it’s difficult for most people to say no to the old, injured, or young. Sometimes an accomplice nearby is just watching to see where you keep your wallet so they can pickpocket you later.
It’s practically impossible to distinguish who is legit and who is not, so my policy is to never give cash to street beggars, especially children – it only encourages begging. However I do buy food or giveaway old clothes to them. Then your money isn’t going to a gang.
10. Fake WiFi Hubs (Internet Cafes in General) or Unsecure Lines
While you can find WiFi almost anywhere these days, some of those free unlocked connections might be dangerous. Hackers will set up tempting unsecured wi-fi hotspots in public locations that unsuspecting victims eagerly connect to — giving the thief access to your computer, passwords, online accounts, and more. Internet cafes are notorious places – they may have keystroke recorders.
How To Avoid It: Always ask the hotel/coffee shop/airport staff which wi-fi connection is the official one. Especially when you see a tempting unlocked connection. To encrypt all your online activity, use a VPN, or virtual private network.
An example of this happened to me in Indonesia. I made a small payment on PayPal, evidently on an unsecure line. A few days later, $1000, and then the next day, $5000, was transferred from my linked bank account as a Pending Transfer on my PayPal account (I would not have recognized this if I had not checked my bank accounts). PayPal was unable to reverse the pending transfer and said that it could only be done by my bank, but fortunately, the one thing PayPal could do was to block any further account activity. Due to Canadian banking regulations, this required a hard copy signature that had to be couriered to my branch in Canada (at a cost of US$89 in Timor Leste). In the meantime, the hacker changed the email address on my account and it disappeared. The only way to find the account was through my bank account number. The signature eventually arrived in Canada and the pending transfer was reversed. PayPal, for all the money that goes through it, never uses the security questions you supply when the account is set up. One of the many PayPal people I talked said that it would be too much hassle. This whole process took weeks to complete and a lot of anxiety. PayPal has no log of previous conversations and the whole story had to repeated innumerable times.
11. Renting Motorbikes – Motorbike Rental Damage
After you rent a moped or scooter, carefully check the machine for every scratch and record it on the rental agreement. If it gets damaged (or even stolen), the owner will demand additional payment or expensive repairs as compensation. The owner or his friends may cause the damage or stole the bike.
How To Avoid It: Ideally take photos of the bike first to document previous damage. Use your own lock, not one provided by the rental guy (who may have a 2nd set of keys). This scam comes in two versions. 1) A guy connected to the rental shop follows you and steals the scooter once you parked and locked it with the provided lock, for which, of course, the guy has a key. 2) The rental shop claims you have damaged the scooter, which you might or might not have, and demand you pay an exorbitant amount. These scams can be hard to prevent, but try to pick a rental shop that doesn’t look too dodgy. Go around the scooter before taking off, take some pictures of all of the dents, preferably accompanied by the rental guy. In addition to the provided lock, also use your own small padlock to lock around the chain or one of the spokes – just remember to remove it before speeding off.
Don’t tell the company where you’re really staying, and make sure there’s a safe place to leave the bike overnight. If damage does occur, take it to a repair shop recommended by someone other than the bike’s owner.
12. Bus/Train/Plane Scams
a. Fake Bus/Train/Plane Tickets. Someone offers to sell you train tickets at a discount, or avoid the line and pay a slightly higher price. Maybe a taxi driver offers to bring you to his friend who’s a local travel agent. However the tickets they are selling aren’t real, and by the time you figure it out, the scammers are gone with your money.
How To Avoid It: Always buy transportation tickets from the official ticket office or website.
b. Overnight Bus Theft. This scam is about getting tempted by the price of a too cheap bus ticket for an overnight journey. But don’t! Because during the night, all the bags in the luggage compartment will get emptied for valuables – and some hand luggage might get the same treatment. The thief is part of the bus crew and the ridiculously early arrival time is part of the scam, with nobody realizing what has happened before the bus has left. This scam has been going on for ages. Guide books warn against it, travel forums are full of reports of it, but money conscious travellers still take the super cheap buses to/from e.g. Khao San Road. For overnight journeys, either take a government bus from the bus station (not Khao San Road) or do a bit of research and go with one of the more expensive but reputable private bus companies. And while we’re at it, it’s always advisable to invest in a bag that can be padlocked!
13. Gemstone Or Carpet Deals
A local man casually brings up his lucrative side business of buying jewellery, gemstones, watches or carpets then selling them back home for a fat profit. He offers to share how he does it, and shows you where to find the best deal. The only problem is that these products are fake.
The making of oriental carpets is an ancient art form – and so is selling them. Buying a Persian rug or an oriental carpet on a trip can be the best souvenir ever purchased… or it can turn out to be the worst money ever spent. Don’t fall for the “it could pay for your trip if re-sold at Ping-pong Banana Show Scam
This is the Bangkok version of the classic drinks overcharging scam, not too different from the Chinese tea scam described above. It goes something like this: You are lurked into some strip bar in Patpong in Bangkok under the promises of an outrageously kinky and free show involving flying ping-pong balls (if you don’t know what a ping-pong banana show is, google it!). Maybe you are wise enough to ask for the drinks prices first, but still, you are likely to get very surprised when the bill arrives after a few rounds. Suddenly, the price of a beer is not 100 THB as promised, but 1000 THB, and two big bouncers (yes, they do exist in Thailand too) want the money and they want it now. So what to do? Always ask for prices before every single order and always pay as the drinks arrive, never work up a tab. If there are other customers in the bar, some loud gesticulating talk might get you away with a more reasonable bill, or you could try with threats of calling the tourist police. Always weigh up the situation carefully before deciding on the possible value of making too much of a fuss. It seems that both Soi Cowboy and Nana Entertainment Plaza are better options for hustle-free shows.
Likewise for the gem scam, a common in Bangkok or India. It typically starts with a cheap tuk-tuk ride. The driver might start talking about a special government promotion on diamonds with no tax that is happening only today. When you get to the destination of the driver’s choice, you just happen to meet this friendly guy who is telling you that he is financing his honeymoon by buying diamonds under this special government endorsed promotion. He suggests that you could also make some easy money by buying some. The goal is to get you to the diamond shop and sell you some close-to-worthless diamonds under the promises that you can easily sell them back in your home country with a huge profit. Don’t get tempted, everyone is in on this scam.
How To Avoid It: Don’t buy expensive luxury items overseas while on vacation, no matter how good the deal is. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you are going to buy any, then buy with your heart. If you like it and you have negotiated the price down to something you feel to be acceptable, then do it. But don’t try to outsmart the seller and believe it is a life investment. And never ever pay extra for special features you don’t have a clue about, e.g. “interesting that you should pick that one, for it is a very rare one hundred years old tribal rug made of silk dyed in vegetable pigments… “. Buy a carpet because you like it and not because the seller convinces you it is a good deal – for it rarely will be. The moral is, don’t get tempted to finance your trip by buying diamonds, carpets, or anything else that you don’t know Jack about.
14. Fake Hotel Wakeup Call
While staying at a hotel, you get a call from the front desk in the middle of the night to confirm your credit card details. Only it isn’t the front desk calling, it’s a scammer who will drain your accounts when he makes a copy of your card using the details you give him over the phone.
How To Avoid It: Never give out credit card details over the phone. Go down to the front desk in person the next morning if there is a problem.
15. Pretty Girls/Strip Clubs Scams
a. Pretty Girls. A super common scam involves a pretty girl (or two) and alcohol. They’ll flirt with you and they will eventually ask you to go to a bar/club/restaurant that they know. At the bar they’ll ask that you buy them a drink. What you don’t know is that the girls and the bar are scamming you. Each drinks cost $500+ (they don’t tell you this) and at the end of the night you’re stuck with a $1000+ bill. Magically the girls are nowhere to be found, but they’re replaced by a few scary dudes who want your their money. They’ll happily escort you to the nearest ATM while you withdraw your cash. This scam is verywidespread in Eastern Europe, but it happens everywhere. Many times the police won’t do anything about it, so you’re out of luck.
How to avoid: So if you want buy a girl a drink I suggest asking the price upfront and then paying as you go. This way you won’t have a surprise bill at the end of the night. If they refuse to let you pay you should just leave the bar ASAP. I also suggest carrying only enough for a few drinks when you go out at night. Leave the cards at home so if you find yourself in this situation you won’t have any money to give them. They’ll probably rough you up, so be prepared.
b. Strip Clubs: I advise against going to strip clubs because tourists are scammed there all the time. Much like the scam above, you’ll be charged exorbitant amounts for drinks/talking to the hostess/whatever else you do at a strip club.
A traveller went to a strip club in Paris and they quoted him one price and then they charged him something different. They held him at knife point until he forked over the dough (about $700). This happens multiple times a day.
c. Rape Accusation Scam. This scam is aimed at all you gorgeous boys believing you are simply just too handsome to be resisted. So you meet this local woman who thinks you are hot. You start a consensual sexual relationship under the assumption that she is not into it for the money. After a couple of happy days, you are sharing a beer with some newly found local friends, possibly a “brother” of your new “girlfriend”, when she drops by. She greets you by slapping you in the face and screams loudly that you raped her the other night. The men around the table stand up and start shouting at you whilst mentioning police, jail, and worse things. As it turns out, the only solution is a trip down to the ATM… and as long as your credit card is working one trip might not be enough. So before you jump into bed with a local lady you might want to ask yourself what she gets out of it – for she is probably asking herself the same question.
16. Gambling Scams
a. Cups. They’re so good they almost convince you that you could easily make money because the other people playing are too “stupid” to see which cup the die in under. There are always people playing that are in on the scam, at least 2/3, and usually more. Rule of thumb, don’t fall for anything free, nothing is free but the air and the
b. Cards. This scam is normally quite sophisticated and extremely well executed. First, you are approached by a friendly local who invites you home for some reason (kid’s birthday party, niece is moving to your home country, whatever). Back at his/her place, which is likely to be far out in the suburbs, an uncle shows up and tells you he is working as a dealer at a casino and of course knows some great tricks. He will invite you to start practicing Blackjack and you will quickly pick up his hand signal system so you can tell what the other players have. Now with the two of you being close pals and working as a team, the dealer suggests cheating this “rich guy” who is supposedly arriving for some VIP Mahjong later on. When this guy, now presented as coming from Brunei, Singapore or even the Middle East, shows up, he does not mind some petty card gambling before his real gambling, but of course you will have to play for real money. No worries though, your old mate the dealer pays up and you start to play. Because of the dealer’s earlier learnt hand signal, your cheating system is wining you a lot. At some point, you get 21 and know that the “rich guy” has 20. Suddenly his bets get insanely high and you, of course, can hardly believe your luck. He takes out a large bundle of cash (as in USD 10,000) and requests to see some real money from you too. You are asked to just put in as much as possible, while your dealer friend will cover the rest. With this cash now placed in a safe, the scam can go different ways. Either the game will be momentarily postponed so you can be taken to an ATM for more money, or the game will be postponed to the next day so you can bring more money from your hotel or you actually win the game but are forced to continue gambling and suddenly start losing. There is also the risk of being drugged. No matter how the scam plays out, the point is to part with all your cash (possibly including a forced ATM withdrawal).
17. Buying Drugs
a. This scam can be experienced in Bangkok where a tuk tuk driver offers you some marijuana (or possibly other drugs). If you accept and buy some, you will invariably be cornered by a police officer who ‘happens’ to be walking/driving by a moment later and made to empty your pockets. When they find the bag, they will of course march you straight to a cash point – or even worse to a cell. The tuk-tuk driver then gets a cut of the bribe and his weed back that he uses to lure another unsuspecting stoner.
b. Another version of the buying drugs scam is where people (who are either plain clothes officers or people posing as them) offer drugs at full moon parties. Anyone who buys get immediately arrested and required to pay their way out.
c. In Hui, Vietnam, I was pestered for blocks by a guy wanting to sell marijuana – “Try, no like, no buy”. I finally relented, went to a restaurant and food was ordered. The dealer arrived and he was obviously a much tougher guy. After trying some of the mediocre weed, I said it was weak and I didn’t want any. They became very aggressive and demanded full payment, followed me and finally I had to “buy” them off.
The motto of all stories is obviously to steer well clear of drugs and anyone who offers them to you – or at least be aware of the risk if buying. The weed is of invariably poor quality – full of seeds and of very low potency – and not worth the effort in the first place. This is especially true in countries with the death penalty of drug possession: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. Now the hashish in Nepal and India is a different story and good value – it is available everywhere.
18. ATM Scams
Smart scams range from fake fronts that swallow your card along with the PIN to more sophisticated plastic sleeves that are inserted into the card slot to jam your card and make you believe the card is swallowed after you have entered the PIN. So if at all possible, only use ATMs in connection with banks that are open. If need be, thoroughly check the ATM and see if it looks tampered with in any way. Or simply be patient and wait until you have witnessed someone else using it successfully – without losing their card. Only use your credit card to withdraw cash from ATMs that look authentic or to make purchases at well established business.
19. Fake Cops
a. A couple of plainclothes men come up to you and present some kind of official looking police ID claiming to be “tourist police” or similar. They ask to see your passport and/or money, maybe even mentioning some obscure reason like there being fake money around. If you hand over your passport, you end up having to pay up to get it back. If you hand over your money, you for sure will not see any of it again. If you refuse doing either, they will ask you to follow them to the “police station” in their car, where you will get seriously robbed. So, what to do? Show them a photocopy of your passport at first and insist that if that is not sufficient, you will go with them to the nearest police station – by walking. In the meantime, try to look around for some uniformed officials, like traffic police or military, which you can try and catch the attention of. Whatever you do, do not step into a car – anything else will be a better solution. There is, of course, the very slight chance of them being real cops, in which case act polite but stand your ground – don’t hand them anything (besides copy of your passport) and don’t let them search your bag or money belt – hopefully they will get tired of your stubbornness.
b. This one starts with a (fake) local tourist approaching you. While you two are chatting, a fake cop appears demanding to see passports and money of you both. Your fellow tourist will of course hand this over right away, assuring you that you should be doing likewise. During the inspection, you will of course be relieved of some of your money. So, listen to your mother and don’t trust strangers – at least with regards to your money belt.
c. Sell Drugs. The fake police officer scam is a popular one in many large cities. Most often, a person will approach a tourist and offer illicit items, like drugs. While conversing one or two other people will approach, appearing to be police officers and flashing “badges.” These guys look totally legit. They will then insist the unknowing traveler hand over their passport and wallet. However, they are not police officers.
How To Avoid It: Never hand over your wallet or passport. Request they show you their identification and then inform them you will call the police to confirm they are who they say they are. Or tell them your passport is locked up in the hotel safe, and they’ll need to accompany you to your hotel. If they don’t allow this, simply walk away.
20. Donation Scams
a. Some charity collector imposter – let it be a school kid in Sri Lanka, a monk in China or even an orthodox Jew at the Western wall in Jerusalem, approaches you pretending to represent some do-good cause asking for a donation – the scam of course being the donation ending up in their own pockets. You want to do good, but how can you tell the real charitable person from the con artists preying on want-to-do-the-right-thing travellers? Well, it can be difficult to tell but it is likely to be a hoax if the collector only targets tourists, is being very persuasive and smooth talking (and in good English) and if s/he is asking for a minimum amount while showing you a book of how much other tourists have paid (often being exorbitant amounts). Sticking to established charities and donate through their websites, is the best strategy against this scam.
Some examples of these follow.
b. In Tonle Sap, Cambodia it is possible to take an overpriced boat out on to the lake to visit the floating children’s orphanage. It was customary to take rice or noodles. Rice turned out to be $60 a bag and noodles $20 which seemed excessive. Whichever you buy, on reaching the orphanage, things didn’t seem right. The kids who supposedly were being schooled, just sat around playing, there were no teachers or classes. The overpriced food was swiftly taken away and then they tried to get us to cough up more money. On the return journey they tried to get us to pay another $20 each for a dugout canoe into the mangroves, and then demanded a tip of $20 each. Don’t pay – this very unethical scam involves the whole floating village.
c. Another variation in Bodgaya, India is to be taken to the cave where Buddha meditated for several years and then achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The cave is out in the countryside and the guy shows you a good day driving through rural villages, but then takes you to a school where a donation is requested. Documents are produced of all the foreign “donors” involved with the school and supposedly making ongoing support. The school looks very legitimate (and maybe is) and it will be hard to resist giving money, which possibly is an excellent cause.
21. Travel Insurance Scam
This scam involves you trying to scam others. Yes. A doctor, or a friend of a doctor, chats you up and suggests issuing some fake doctor bills (including report, official stamps, and everything) on your behalf, which you then can claim back on your travel insurance. You will of course have to pay him part of the fake bills value up-front in the belief that you will pocket the other part when the insurance claim gets through. Well, well. Travel insurance companies are well aware of this kind of scam and have probably already seen a number of fake bills from your new doctor friend. Remember that no insurance company will pay out a huge post-treatment claim without having been in contact with the hospital and/or the doctor in question. So as tempting as it might seem at first glance, forget about financing your travels by dodgy insurance claims. Do bear in mind that a little insurance scam at the companies’ expense is likely to make travel insurance even more expensive for the rest of us, as well as the most obvious fact that this, of course, is illegal.
22. Money Scams
a. Menus Change: Some scummy restaurants will have two menus — one with normal prices and then another higher price. They’ll show you the normal price when you order and then they’ll give you a large bill. When you protest they’ll show you the menu with the high prices.
b. Menu Without Prices: I wouldn’t eat at a restaurant that doesn’t advertise their prices. You’re just asking to get ripped off if you do.
c. Fake Undercover Police: A common scam involves “undercover” police wanting to check your money because the think you have some counterfeit bills. They’ll inspect you money and trade it out for small bills without you noticing. They’ll often flash a badge to make it all look official. Plainclothes officers don’t deal with tourists so ask them to bring a police car before you’ll give them any access to your cash.
d. Street Money Changers: Never change money in the street. It is usually illegal and you’re going to get ripped off. If you need to change money, go to an official change office.
e. Short Change: Shop keepers, taxi drivers, and just about anyone else will probably try to short change you at least once during your trip. It is the worst in countries that don’t use the euro because the money is so foreign to tourists. Make sure you count all your money carefully before leaving the register.
f. Counterfeit Money This is especially common in China where there is a lot of fake Chinese money in circulation (especially 50 and 100 RMB notes) and quite a few end up in the unsuspecting hands of tourists.
You get offered a very good deal on goods from a street vendor near a tourist site. The price is not a nice neat round amount so you pay a bigger note and get your change back, so far nothing special. Well, maybe yes. This scam has two sides. First the obvious one that traders will never make deals which are not to their benefit. If a bargain sounds too good, it probably is. The second part is the actual scam, with the vendor giving back your change in counterfeit money.
After a taxi ride, you pay with a 100RMB note, but the driver hands it back saying it is counterfeit (a palpable strip is present on the currency so you can tell in the dark if the bill is counterfeit or not). You continue to hand him more bills and he changes them for counterfeit bill lying beside him on the seat.
g. Old Money Scam. In countries who devalue their currency by printing new money with less zeroes, there is a good chance to be given change in old money. Old money is often worth only a fraction of the new one, or, in worse cases, nothing. Sometimes, the currency is renamed “new”, like Peso vs Nuevo (New) Peso, but it’s not always the case, and the new bills and coins might not even look that different. Do your homework and check on the web how a country’s money looks like before arriving and, if possible, familiarize yourself with the old currency too. The same warning applies to countries with double currencies like Cuba, who has Cuban Pesos and Convertible Pesos, where 1 Convertible Peso is worth 26 Cuban Pesos!
This trick is particularly famous in the Philippines, but again it could happen anywhere. At the bus or train station, you are chatted up by some friendly locals. Maybe they are going on the same bus or train as you; maybe they are just waiting like you. After a while they offer some sweets which you, out of politeness and respect, don’t feel like you can refuse. Unfortunately the sweets contain some sedative drug and when you wake up, you find yourself without any of your valuables. This one is hard to see coming and there is no reason to be paranoid. But do be wary if travelling alone.
Alcohol. Just like at home, don’t accept drinks from random people and don’t leave your drink alone.
24. Finder, Do Not Keep
This has been the going scam on Red Square in Moscow for some time. A guy passes by you on the street and accidentally drops a wad of money at your feet. Another guy comes by, picks it up, and offers you half of the stack. After sharing the money, the second guy disappears and moments later the first guy returns aggressively demanding his lost money. Well, why would anyone really want to share a lot of money with a traveller like you? If it seems too good, it probably is.
25. Gypsy Scams They are notorious pickpockets.
a. Gypsy kids. This is a classic scam and typical in eastern and southern Europe, especially Rome and Milan. A group of gypsy kids approach you. One sullen looking kid shoves a piece of cardboard with some text in your face. Whilst you are occupied and busy reading the text, the other kids expertly go through your pockets. Sometimes this is done so subtly you hardly feel it. Other times, they really just go for it, leaving you fending for yourself. Best precaution is to simply avoid large groups of gypsy kids and not to engage with them with any sign of interest.
b. There’s also the “gold ring” scam in Paris, where gypsy women just so happen to find a highly valuable gold ring next to you and then give it to you in exchange for 50 euros. They’re very persistent!
26. Organized Crime
In poor countries with an underground crime scene, like Albania and Cambodia, this is not actually a scam, more a reminder to stay cool when you go drinking in fancy bars while travelling in poor countries. Since ordinary locals can’t afford this kind of flamboyant activity, chances are that at least one of the other guests is the son of some hotshot: a crime lord, a military general or even the country’s president. Most of time they will of course just ignore a travel bum like you, but some might also find you interesting – if for nothing else but the novelty factor. Some are friendly and they might even invite you back to their after party. Others can be drunk or dangerous, or both. So this is just a kind motherly advice to avoid mingling too much with guys driving expensive American cars in troubled countries.
27. Reverse Exchange Rate Scam
This scam can be used anywhere but is especially prominent where the currencies are close to each other, like between Honduras and Nicaragua.
You arrive at another border crossing and want to get some local money. You might have done your homework and remember what the exchange rate should be, let’s say 1.2. The dodgy-looking money guy agrees to 1.2, takes the calculator and divides your amount with 1.2. So far so good, right? Across the border, however, you find out that the rate was 1 to 1.2 and not 1.2 to 1 as what you got. The rate thus should have been multiplied, and not divided – get it? The point is to not just check the exchange rate, but also to make a mental note of which currency is worth the most. This scam can seem ridiculously stupid and obvious, but beware that chaotic border crossings can disturb even the coolest cleverest minds. And do we need to tell you to always count the bills and check for counterfeit ones?
28. Robbed Fellow Traveller Scam
This scam is ugly because the starring con-artist is someone your instinct tells you to normally trust, namely a fellow traveller. It goes likes this; you get approached by a traveller who claims to have been the victim of a robbery. Having lost everything, he is asking for 20 USD or so, to be able to fax/call/get to his embassy. The scam is popular in the more touristic parts of Thailand. So, again, use your good judgment before handing over your cash, or help by pointing them to the nearest police station so they can report the robbery officially.
29. Sex Scams
a. This is common in Shanghai, the prostitution capital of China. You are constantly approached here “Massage sir?” This is not about massage, but sex. Instead of the quoted “reasonable” price, the price inflates to possibly several thousand dollars.
b. A variation is to be approached by a friendly, flirtatious woman who doesn’t want to sell you anything, but only talk. She may tell you about her excellent job that provides her with an expensive hotel room. You may be asked to share dinner where she offers to pay for half. But on the way to her hotel, she wants to stop in at a “typical Chinese bar” with rather expensive beer. You are given a private room to drink in. She is very sexually aggressive with you, getting you very turned on. Then a prostitute enters the room. You might kick her out, but more prostitutes keep turning up. Your “friend” gets up to go to the bathroom and never comes back. Despite being reassured about the cheap price for sex, if you are tempted, you will be held for extortion paying several thousand dollars for sex. Tough, physically intimidating guys hold you in the room and use your credit card to make the charges.
30. “Free” Gifts. Some dishonest individuals may ask for your address so they can send a laptop, camera, i-pod or other gift to you. A short time later someone will contact you claiming that the gift is stuck in Customs and that you need to pay a fee to release the item from Customs. This is a scam. Customs agencies do not contact people and ask for fees to be sent by Western Union. Report anyone who asks you for money by clicking “Report Abuse” on their profile. NEVER SEND MONEY TO ANYONE YOU MEET ONLINE. NEVER SEND MONEY TO RECEIVE A GIFT.
31. Fake Friend
This is a story I heard that actually happened. Two women from the same country met in SE Asia. They got along well and were together enjoying the travel experience and sharing accommodation for 3 weeks. One morning, on awakening, the “friend” had disappeared with everything belonging to the other woman. Don’t ask me how you protect yourself from this one.
32. Travellers Scamming Poor People
In many countries, bargaining is part of the culture. Prices are artificially high and it is expected to negotiate. Tourists always say “they are not going to lose money”. But I see many tourists, often rich Westerners, who are malicious about getting a “deal”. There are slow times for many countries when tourists are few and bargains are to be had. Probably many things are sold at cost just to clear inventory. But I think it is objectionable to be hard-nosed to the extreme – driving the price low, walking away once or twice and then once it is obviously a great deal, often still walking away. It seems immoral to me. Surprisingly, it is women who negotiate the hardest. They expect to pay prices listed in 5-year-old Lonely Planets.
I rarely buy souvenirs – I have little room in my pack, travel for long periods and simply don’t like knickknacks. But every once in a while, my heart really loves something and I buy it. In Peru, I bought a baby alpaca weaving dyed with natural dyes. It is beautiful and I didn’t haggle at all. It seemed like a fair price for the amount of work involved. I got a huge hug from the woman. In Uzbekistan, I fell in love with suzanis – large embroideries hooked with silk thread on silk cloth in intricate geometric designs. They are a product of the home, done by one family who work on it as a social group activity in their spare time. The average suzani takes 2 years to make. Then they are boiled in onions to colour the background silk a rich gold. Bukhara is the centre of suzani making. The merchants make only about $50 per piece. It was listed for $480 and I eventually paid $430 including the customs certificate and postage home (I also mailed a jacket I wasn’t using and another small old embroidery). For the amount of work that went into it, I thought 480 was a more than fair price.
From my point of view, buy personal things that mean something to you (souvenirs for others might be different). Bargain but not to the extreme. That is the scam perpetrated by many rich Western tourists.