I’ve long been an advocate that travel is safe, but there are scams waiting to part tourists from their holiday dollars. We make easy targets: excited, confused, anxious, eager to meet locals. Most people abroad are wonderful, but it literally pays to be aware of whom you’re talking to, and what you’re getting involved in. Below are some of the scams you might encounter, but keep in mind that all of them can be easily avoided by walking away, being firm, or asking to speak to authorities.
1. No Change
In many countries, you’ll get nailed with the “no small change” shrug, which isn’t bad when it costs you pennies, but sucks when the street vendor is rounding $12 off to $20. When using foreign currency, it’s best to try and keep a range of notes, particularly smaller amounts for things like water and snacks. Watch out for the “5 for 50” scam in which people claim you gave them a five bucks when you actually gave them fifty. This might happen in countries where notes look the same.
2. Settle on the Price
Before getting into any taxi, or hiring a guide, or being taken to a show, settle on the price. I’ve seen some horrific scams in this category, including a 50 euro taxi fare for a 5KM ride because a price wasn’t settled on beforehand. Scammers typically defer this conversation for as long as possible to hook you at the end (and threaten hysterically if you refuse to pay). Once a price has been agreed on and if it seems fair, you’re good to go.
3. The Jewellery or Rug Store
Popular in Thailand, India and Turkey, your taxi driver or guide inevitably tries to steer you towards a jewellery or rug store where you can get “amazing deals” from some cousin or family member. The reality is that you’re in kickback town, so it’s in everyone’s interest except yours to get you to buy anything. You’ll hear very well rehearsed sob stories and pleas of desperation. If you do want to buy rugs or jewels, go on your own accord, you’ll probably get a better price.
4. The Fake Jewel Scam
I know veteran travellers who still get taken in with this one. If something looks too good to be true, it’s because it isn’t. Those cheap emeralds that you can sell for a fortune back home are usually cut glass. Unless you’re a jeweller and know what you’re looking for, don’t take the risk.
5. I Want to Practice English
Once the conversation is flowing with your new friend, it inevitably leads to stories of poverty, distress, a sick mother needing medication – anything that will tug your heartstrings and open your wallet. Whether you choose to believe this is actually true is up to you. Most of the time, it’s simply a way to get your cash. In Ethiopia, I had a long conversation with a bright kid, and we discussed why scams are preventing foreigners from having authentic conversations with locals. It was great, and then he tried to scam me.
6. Taxi Drivers
I know there are plenty of honest, hard working taxi drivers out there. I salute you. Unfortunately, many taxi drivers around the world just love ripping off clueless tourists. You have no idea where you’re going, so it’s common for a 3-block ride to end up taking a half hour. You cough up the dough thinking they’ve done you a favour! Watch out for bogus extra charges like baggage or new taxes. Where possible, ask a local/hotel/restaurant to call an established cab company. Always make sure the metre is working from the start of your trip.
7. Hot Spots
Transit zones and tourist traps are always hot spots for scams. Airport arrivals, subways, train and bus stations are especially confusing and stressful, leaving you particularly vulnerable. Be vigilant and less trustworthy in these locations. Don’t get into a strangers car, don’t believe people will actually look after your things, be weary when a stranger offers to take your photo (and ask for money afterwards). Keep an eye on your bag at all times, especially when there are groups of kids hanging around.
8. The Distraction Scam
In Lima, it’s the water bombs. In European capitals, it’s mustard or ketchup. Something will distract you just long enough for someone to rifle through your pockets. Watch out for invaders in your personal space! There are scams that have a “victim” getting mugged . People drop everything to go help, which are promptly collected by the “victim’s” friends. If you do find yourself getting sprayed or distracted, make sure to keep walking on, firmly, and well aware of anyone getting too close.
9. Fake Tickets
Always a risk with scalpers, but also watch out for fake tour operators issuing fake tickets for excursions, bus rides, or train trips that don’t exist. In Delhi, I ended up in a fake train ticket office and would have bought an expensive ticket if I didn’t notice a typo on the fake letterhead.
10. Hidden Costs
Scams don’t always come from shady looking characters. Airlines and tour operators have a special knack for burying hidden costs in the fine print. Watch for “surcharges” , “local spending”, “resort fees” and “administrative costs.” Make sure you know what the final price is before handing over your credit card.
I truly believe most people you meet are there to help not hurt. Other than a taxi rip-off here and there, I’ve never been the victim of any scam in the 100 countries I’ve been to. There’s no need to be paranoid or neurotic. Just use your common sense, listen to your gut, and don’t be afraid to say no.
Previously published on Sympatico.ca
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.