This article is a travel topic.
There are common scams that occur in many places that the traveller should be aware of. These are designed to get your money or business from you under false pretenses. They fall into three categories: overcharging you, deceiving you or coercing you into paying for a service you don't want, and outright theft.
Prevention is based on knowledge: researching your destination will both alert you in advance to scams in the area and let you know what the usual prices and truly good sights are, so you will be less reliant on the approaches of helpful individuals when you're vulnerable.
At the same time, if you do get stung, don't be too hard on yourself: you were dealing with people who knew the location a lot better than you and with people who were out to deceive you. In some cases you were dealing with hardened criminals. If you think what happened to you was illegal and the police are trustworthy, report it, otherwise you'll have to chalk it up to experience. Note that if you wish to make a theft-related claim against an insurance policy, you will generally need to make a police report and keep a copy for your insurance company.
Several bits of common sense may help you stay out of trouble, without needing to know exactly what scams are practiced in what areas:
- if you have travelling companions, keep each other informed of the general outlines of your plans for the day;
- don't carry unnecessary amounts of cash or expensive toys around with you, as if you don't have it it is impossible for someone to scam you into handing it over;
- remember that astounding deals and amazing winnings are as unlikely as they seem and likely to be part of a scam;
- be wary of any stranger who seems to be singling you out for extended special attention, especially if they are trying to persuade you to leave your friends or accompany them to an unknown area;
- you are not required to be polite or friendly to anyone if they refuse to leave you alone when you request it;
- alcohol and other drugs affect your judgement and should be indulged in only among people you have good reason to trust; and
- being in situations where you are among a group of strangers who are all known to each other and unknown to you give them a great deal of power over you.
Research into your destination, its general layout and the usual price ranges are helpful in avoiding many scams.
These scams are based upon the idea of offering you help or advice that is actually deceptive, trusting that you will rely on the scammer's "local knowledge". They usually involve giving advice that results in you paying for something you otherwise wouldn't or going somewhere you don't want to go. Some scams in which a helpful local offers to cut you a good deal can be outright fraudulent — convincing you to buy fake gems for example — but many simply get you to pay for something that you wouldn't pay for if you knew the area better.
One of the biggest traps of these kinds of scams is the desire to be polite to people who are polite and friendly to you; and the scammers know this. While you shouldn't become a hard-nosed nasty person, you should receive unsolicited offers of help with polite caution, and when you are reasonably certain that you're being scammed, there's no need to be polite in fending it off: feel free to walk away, yell at the person or yell for help. Pretending they don't exist, which entails not making eye contact, not walking faster, not saying 'hello' or 'no', will often humiliate them or tire them out without frustration on your part. Do not respond if they call you racist to attract your attention. Another common mistake is to say 'no thank you' in which case they have their 'foot in the door' tactic up and running and feel that they can engage in a conversation with you.
Another trap is the "too good to be true" offers: they are almost certainly not true.
Your driver or guide will tell you that the place you're heading to is gone, or if you've booked, that it's no good or too expensive and that he knows somewhere better. While this may be true, it's likely that the 'better' place is giving him a commission for referrals, and his commission is just going to increase your room rate.
You must insist on going to your planned destination. In some cases the driver will not drive you to your hotel even if you insist. In some cities in India, taxi drivers will take you to the wrong hotel and insist it is the one you requested! Get the correct name, because there are a lot of copies, example : Shavam instead of Shivam.
To avoid being held hostage by a mercenary taxi, keep your luggage with you on the back seat, so you can credibly threaten to walk out and not pay. They'll usually back down by the time you start opening the door — and if they don't, it's time to get a new driver.
You may arrive at a major tourist destination only to find a very helpful local near the entrance explaining that there's a riot/holiday/official visit at the place you want to go and it is closed. (Sometimes, taxi drivers are in cahoots with these helpful locals and will purposely drop you off to be received by them.) The local will then offer to take you to a lesser known but infinitely more beautiful sight or to a nice shop. Generally the destination is in fact open for business: simply refuse the offer and go and have a look. Even on the rare occasions when they are telling the truth they may not be as helpful as they seem, so it would be better to pursue your own backup plan. Just walk away from them and walk towards the main tourist entrance where they stop following you.
You are met in the street by people who say they are art students. They speak English well and invite you to visit their school. Then they will try to get you to buy one of their works for an excessive price. The "students" are usually attractive young women who are employed by the gallery to attract customers and to make the customers feel obliged to purchase "their" works to encourage them and repay them for their friendliness.
Sometimes a local will simply try and force themselves on you in order to help with a ticket machine, a subway map or directions. They might just be overly helpful but they may also be looking for, and demand, a small tip for their forced help. In general, be wary of anyone who forces their way into your personal space, and who starts doing things for you without asking you if you need them. If you have received help and then some coinage is demanded it's probably easier to pay it. However this kind of situation can also leave you vulnerable to substantial theft, be polite but firm, and then simply firm, by telling the person that you are fine now and that they should leave you alone.
Just been robbed
This scam involves a person approaching you and asking you if you know where the police station is. He will seem frightened and shaken and inform you that he / she has just been robbed of the money he needed to get back home which is very likely to be in a different city or even country. Again they will get emotional and say the police perhaps won't be of much assistance and they will turn to you for help. Although they only expect you to happily hand over a small amount, the more people they con the more money they make themselves. This scam also takes the form of refugees escaping a war torn country, for example Sudanese in Kenya or Tanzania.
Poipet (on the Thai/Cambodian border) is a classic example of the border crossing scam. "Helpful" people will charge you for doing a useless service (like filling out your application form), "friendly" people will charge you twice the normal fee for obtaining a visa (which you can do yourself -- you can fill in a form, can't you?), crooks will tell you that you must change money at their horrible exchange rates (they will also tell you that there are no ATM anywhere in the country) and tuk-tuk drivers will charge you some idiotic amount for taking you 100 metres.
The cure is simple: read up on any border crossing before you cross it, know the charges in advance, and don't believe or pay anyone not in uniform.
Gifts from beggars
A beggar stops you on the street and gives you a "present", like trying a "lucky charm" around your wrist. Alternatively, they "find" something like a ring on the street and give it you. After a few moments of chit-chat, they start demanding money and follow you until you give them money.
Avoiding this scam is easy enough: remember what your mother told you when you were in kindergarten, and don't accept "free" gifts from strangers.
Another similar scam involves overly pushy people who pose as collecting money for charity. This is particularly common in developed, wealthy countries. Usually an old woman will approach you, tie a small flower to your shirt and expect you to "donate" money. They never say the specific charity, they often say "for the children." Enquiring about the specifics of their "charity" may help scare them off.
Begging for medicine to sick family members
This scam is practised in parts of Africa, where it's known that tourists travel with their own medicine such as penicillin or anti-malarial drugs. Beggars will approach on the street, telling a sad tale about their little daughter or son who is dying with malaria or some other disease. They will then ask you if they can have your medicine to save them. The sobbing story makes it difficult to refuse the request and they may accuse you for everything from racism to willingly letting an innocent child die. As soon as they receive your medications they will run away, presumably to save their daughter but in reality running to the local pharmacy to sell your medications. Expensive drugs such as Malarone may fetch up to $10 USD per tablet.
This scam places a lot of emotional stress on the victims, but remember that if a child really was sick it's highly unlikely that the father would be running around in the streets begging tourists for medicine. The child would have been brought to the local dispensary and if there really was a scarcity in drugs you would probably be approached in quite a different manner. The cure is to not get soft-hearted, simply ignore the person and walk away.
These scams are based on your ignorance of the area and rely on getting you to pay well over the market rate for goods or services. Some will rely on a helpful local steering you to the goods, but others will simply involve quoting a high price to you. In some countries this is institutionalised: foreigners have to pay more even for genuine sights.
Getting a general sense of accommodation price ranges and the like is the best way to prevent being overcharged. In some places it's assumed that you'll bargain down overcharged prices, in others you will just have to walk away or pay up for goods although you should still challenge the amount in the case of a service if it is clearly overpriced.
All over the world, but especially Asia are shops that will give your driver or tour guide a commision to bring in tourists. Often these shops sell low-quality goods at exorbitant prices and claim to be cottage industries or child-labor free. They hurt real quality products because the items are made in a factory, and force tours to waste more time at these shops than at an actual site. It is heavily recommended to avoid buying anything from them, especially if you have been directed by someone. Or to decide what you want and to come back without a driver and demand at least 30% off the price (roughly the amount the driver gets)
One way to benefit from these shops is when sightseeing independently instead of with a tour group. You can request for the driver to take you to one, thereby lowering your fare, or as a way of offering him tip if he is especially helpful. They always have very clean western bathrooms, which can be hard to come by otherwise.
If you are persuaded to buy souvenirs or other items from people selling on the street, look at the change you are given from the sale before putting it in your wallet - it may be in a different currency of similar appearance. For example, in China a street-vendor may hand you a 50 Ruble note in change instead of 50 Yuan; the former is worth one third as much as the latter. Also be careful the notes you receive are not ripped or damaged as these may not be accepted.
Precious metal items such as Gold bracelets are sold as 'dollars per gram' in some countries. Comparing the price between shops and then against the current gold price makes the practise appear open and transparent. So much so that you may rely on the seller to do the calculation, especially if it's 78 grams x $18. It won't be till later, if at all, that you will realise that the price you were charged is much more than the calculated price.
Scenic taxi rides
Since you don't know the area, taxi drivers can take advantage of you by taking a long route to your hotel and getting a large metered fare. The best prevention is knowledge: it's hard to learn a new city well enough to know a good route before you arrive for the first time. ALWAYS ask your hotel roughly what the taxi fare should be when you book or to arrange a pickup with them if they offer the service. Often you can negotiate a fixed price with a taxi before you get in and ask what the range of fare to your hotel will be. Good taxi drivers drive the route to your hotel every day and can give you a very accurate price before you or your luggage get into a cab. Watch your luggage as it is loaded! Get into the cab after luggage is loaded and out before it is out of the trunk.
Taxis not using the meter
In cities where the taxis have meters, drivers will often try and drive off with tourists without turning the meter on. When you arrive they'll try and charge fares from the merely expensive (2 or 3 times the usual fare) to fares of hundreds of US dollars, depending on how ambitious they are. If you're in an area known for this scam, and you know where you're going and want them to use the meter (rather than arrange a fixed fare), ask them to turn the meter on just before you get in. If they say that it is broken or similar, walk away. They will usually concede: a metered fare is better than no fare.
A related scam is using the wrong metered rate: setting it to a more expensive late-night setting during the day. You need location-specific information to prevent this one.
However, an ambitious traveler can actually work this scam in their favour, as in certain countries where meters are required (e.g. China) the fare cannot be forced to pay for an "informal" (that is, unmetered) taxi ride. A tourist is therefore free to walk away after the ride without paying anything at all: once you step out of his vehicle the driver will have no proof of transaction to show the police. This tactic is not recommended for use by the weak at heart.
Gem and other resale scams
You are taken to a jewelry shop and offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase gemstones or jewels at special discount prices. Another customer in the shop, well-dressed and perhaps from the same country as you, tells how he made incredible profits last year by reselling the gems and is now back for more. But hurry! The sale ends today and you have to pay cash.
Of course, once you get back home and try to sell your booty, it turns out to be low grade and worth only a fraction of what you paid for it. This scam is particularly prevalent in Bangkok, but variations on the theme with other products that can supposedly be resold for vast profits are common elsewhere too. Another variation involves you exporting the gems for a supposed 'commission' in exchange for the scammer taking a photocopy of your ID cards and/or credit cards, which can of course be used to make a tidy profit in identity theft cottage industries.
Cruise ship art auctions
Passengers are lured to auctions of supposedly investment-grade, collector art. Free champagne flows like water. The auctions may or may not be conducted by licensed auctioneers and may not adhere to standard auction practices. Since the sales take place at sea, making claims under consumer protection laws are difficult. Buyers may have little recourse if the art is misrepresented. Furthermore, in traditional auctions a bidder buys merchandise which is for sale right-here, right-now. Cruise ship auctions sell the art on display, but the winning bidder actually receives a different (but supposedly equivalent) piece which is shipped from the auction company's warehouse. Many art buyers at cruise ship auctions have later found that their shipboard masterpieces were worth only a fraction of the purchase price.
Buying expensive antiques anywhere is risky. Even experts can sometimes be deceived by fakes, and a naive buyer is at great risk of being overcharged nearly anywhere. An additional complication arises in the many countries which, quite understandably, have various restrictions on export of relics of their culture. Egypt and India, for example, have strict rules on export of antiquities and China requires a license for anything from before 1911.
Check the laws in any country you visit before buying antiques. Otherwise, you might have your purchases confiscated at the border and be hit with a hefty fine as well. In some countries, licensed dealers can provide paperwork that allows export for some items, but bogus documents are sometimes provided. Try to deal with someone respectable and traceable.
In some countries, the whole thing becomes a scam. Instead of preserving the confiscated "heritage" items, corrupt border police may sell them right back to the tourist shops. The shops then sell them to another unsuspecting traveller.
These scams rely on trapping you in a bad situation and forcing you to pay money to get out of it. They're best prevented by avoiding the situation; once you're in it you may well have no option but to pay whatever it takes to get out of it safely. Many of these scams are bordering on illegal.
You are offered a "free tour" of a shop or factory way out of town. Your driver may then suggest that you'll need to buy something if you want a ride back. The best prevention is avoidance, as if you're stuck out there you might well be compelled to do as he 'suggests'. Don't accept any kind of lift or offer of a tour without having a basic idea of where you're going and whether you will be able to get back if your driver deserts you. Of course, if you are strong and assertive from the beginning in dealing with any suspicious characters, you can limit your chances of being involved in this kind of sting. However, always bear in mind that the perpetrator may be carrying a knife or willing to assault you if the situation arises.
You're approached by a well-dressed local gentleman or attractive woman, who suggests going for a drink in his/her favorite nightspot. When you arrive, the joint is near-deserted, but as soon as you sit down some scantily clad girls plop down next to you and order a few bottles of champagne. Your "friend" disappears, the bill runs into thousands and heavies block the door and flex their muscles until you pay up.
This is particularly common in Europe's larger cities, including London, Istanbul and Budapest. The best defense is not to end up in this situation: pick the bar yourself, or at least back out immediately if they want to go somewhere that is not packed with locals. If you do end up in this situation, pay by credit card to get out, then cancel your card and dispute the bill immediately. The police are unlikely to be of much assistance, but filing a report may make it easier to get the charges canceled.
In London, the area this most commonly occurs in is Soho. A common scenario is that an attractive woman will be standing outside of something that appears to be a bar or strip club. She will approach men who are by themselves and entice them to come in. Once the men come in, the woman will sit next to the man in a private room. After small discussion, a larger muscle bound man will enter the room and ask for a "membership fee." He will point to a very small piece of paper in very small writing on the wall that states that if you agree to enter the establishment you will have to pay a "membership fee" of what amounts to hundreds of American dollars. This brute will tell you that by entering it was "understood" that you would pay even if you were never told. He will tell you that you can't leave. He will ask for your passport or drivers license. He will say the police will be contacted and that you won't be let back on your plane to go home if you don't pay. It can be a very scary situation as it appears he will exert force on you if you don't pay. Many tourists have had to fork out hundreds of dollars unwillingly to get out of these places. The lesson is never, ever enter a bar or strip club if you are enticed by an attractive woman outside the door or on the street.
Unlisted cover charges
A fast-talking man (or attractive woman) standing outside a strip club will offer you free entry, complimentary drinks and/or lap dances to get you inside the club. They'll often speak very fluent English, be able to pick your accent and can be very convincing. Of course they are good to their word with the free drinks and dances, but what they won't tell you (and what you won't know until you try to leave) is that there's an "exit fee" of at least 100 Euros. And there'll also be security waiting at the door for non-payers.
A variant of this is practiced in Bangkok, where touts with laminated menus offer sex shows and cheap beer. The beer may indeed be cheap, but they'll add a stiff surcharge for the show. Similarly in Brazil, expect to pay an extra 'artistic couvert' if live music is playing. No-one will warn you of this because it's considered normal in Brazil. Ask how much it is before you get seated.
A bar or restaurant gives you a menu with reasonable prices and takes it away with your order. Later they present a bill with much higher prices. If you argue, they produce a menu with those higher prices on it. This scam is known in Romania and in bars in China among other places. The best way to avoid this is to stay out of sleazy tourist bars. You could also try hanging on to your menu or paying when your drinks or food are delivered, preferably with the right change. Watch out for asking for a menu in English, as the prices on the menu are sometimes higher than the menu in the native language, as this has been found in China -- although given the difficulty of navigating a Chinese menu, and the likelihood that the foreigner surcharge is still pretty low, non-Mandarin-readers may want to write this off as a translation fee. Stay on the look out for 2 menus in restaurants that have locals and tourists in 2 different areas (one usually with AC). Just stand up and grab the other menu from an idle pile.
Passport as security for debt or rental
You rent equipment like a jet ski or motorbike. You are asked to give your passport as a security guarantee. After returning the rented goods, the owner claims you damaged them and will ask for exaggerated prices to compensate or claim to have "lost" your passport (later the police or lost property office want a substantial "donation" for its return). If you do not agree, they threaten to keep your passport. This scam is used in almost all Thai tourist resorts, and is very effective.
Never hand over your passport as a security or guarantee in any circumstances. Pay cash (and get a receipt), or hand over something comparatively worthless, like your library card.
Overpriced street vendors
You decide on a whim to buy a piece of one of the massive cakes covered in nuts and fruits that are a fairly common sight in the tourist-laden parts of Chinese cities. You ask the price, and the western Chinese man tending to the cake tells you it depends on how much you want. You show him how much, and immediately he slices the cake, weighs it out, and gives you an extremely high price. He tells you that since he already sliced the cake, you have to buy it.
The best thing to do in this or any similar situation is probably to leave your purchase and just walk away. If they hassle you, threaten to call the police. Like the art school scam, this ruse depends on using your guilt to coerce you out of your money.
This scam is practiced by criminal gangs in South-East Asia, mostly in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. It has been heard of in the Phillipines. In most cases, the target is alone. The con-man strikes up a conversation (hi, where are you from?) then claims to have family in the target's home country. After some "friendly" conversation, the target is then invited to a card game or other some type of gambling -- just for "fun" of course. The target is taken somewhere far from the tourist area. After doing a few "practice" games, then they start to play for real. Of course, the game is totally rigged. After losing, the target will find his "friend" not so friendly anymore, and then a massive amount of money will be demanded (often totalling in the thousands of dollars). Violence might be used to settle the debts.
Do not gamble for money with strangers or outside of licenced and well-regarded gambling venues.
These scams are outright theft: they involve putting you in a position where someone can take your money by force.
Pickpockets are thieves who steal items — often wallets or passports, sometimes other valuables — from people's clothing and bags as they walk in a public place. For in-depth information on how to protect yourself from pickpockets, see Pickpockets.
Credit card skimming
In this scam, you use your card to pay in a bar or restaurant. However, while your card is out of your sight, it is swiped not only in the machine that sends the information to your bank for approval, but in a second machine which copies the card's identifying information from the magnetic strip. The copy of the card, or the number, are then used by the third party to buy goods. Often this is an "inside" job: employees of the outlet are either using the information themselves or being paid to acquire it.
The best way to prevent this scam is to keep your card in your sight at all times. Unfortunately the typical restaurant custom is to let the restaurant staff take your card away and bring you back a receipt to sign: insisting on observing them while they handle your card may make you unpopular.
Otherwise, you can limit the damage done by credit card skimming by keeping receipts when you use your card and checking them against your credit card statement. Make sure the amounts match up and make sure there are no additional purchases you didn't make. Report any discrepancies to your credit card company: the liability rests with them not with you, as long as you report fraudulent transactions as soon as possible.
Credit-card skimming has sometimes gone a little bit more high-tech than this. Criminals frequently retro-fit Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs)in Dubai, and Asia Pacific [while Thailand is currently the major problem for ATM fraud in Asia Pacific] with card-readers so that card numbers and PINs are taken from bank-owned ATM's. Where possible use ATM's that are inside a legitimate bank. The ATM’s on the street are occasionally owned by organisations who sell the information on to others for fraudulent use. In all cases, your best effort is to check your statements frequently and regularly change your PIN number while travelling.
The Maradona is a scam that is very common in Romania, especially in the capital Bucharest. Someone will approach you and attempt to engage you in a conversation (in English), typically - although not always - about something vaguely illicit. Seconds later, two men will appear in plain clothes but flashing legitimate-looking police badges. They will accuse you and your "new acquaintance" of some illegal activity (usually 'currency swapping', a totally ridiculous charge in a country where legitimate currency exchanges are more common than streetlights), and demand to see your wallet and/or passport.
Do not hand them these things! Keep your documents and belongings in your pocket and out of sight....
Walk away, or yell, or tell them outright that you do not believe that they are the police, or suggest that you all walk to the lobby of a nearby hotel (or police station) because you are not comfortable taking out your wallet or papers in the street, or whatever. These con men thrive because the police fail to enforce laws against non-violent crime and because some foreigners are easily gulled. They will not physically attack you: the treatment of violent offenders is severe - these men are professionals, and they would never be foolish enough to chance a physical attack. Do not threaten or try and fight them.
A person will approach you on the street, telling you that their car just ran out of gas or is broken down and is only few blocks away. They'll usually first ask for money for gas. If you don't believe them, or try to walk away, they may beg you to come with them to the car to see that they are telling the truth. They may offer you some kind of security such as their jewellery and be well-dressed and plausible seeming.
Do not give people money in these and similar scenarios. Do not follow them to where they claim their car is. If you suspect they are really in trouble, you could report their predicament to police.
Distraction thefts take a variety of forms. Generally the thieves work in groups: one or more will distract you and the other will rob you while you're distracted. Examples of distractions include:
- ready-made distractions like a busker, departure boards, or your own phone or music player;
- having an attractive accomplice talk to you;
- minor assaults, such as throwing rotten eggs or faeces over you;
- fake drownings and similar emergencies, causing you to leave your belongings behind; or
- staged assaults or fights between accomplices.
It's best to be aware of what's going on around you in any public place and to be a little suspicious of strangers who appear to be trying to single you out. If you are the victim of a minor assault, suspect that it's the prelude to a robbery attempt and if you feel safe enough, try and get in a position where you can look after your belongings. Unfortunately you may need to refuse the help of concerned onlookers; it's common to have an accomplice pose as a concerned onlooker.
Sexually attractive people are a fine distraction, and conspicuously available ones even more so. However, sampling the local streetwalkers puts you at risk of crime. Prostitutes can be used as bait for a variety of scams:
- leading you into an armed robbery
- having a confederate go through your clothes while you are out of them
- a bogus "outraged family member" (or cop) appearing and needing to be bought off
- hidden cameras and eventual blackmail
Even if you do not allow them to lead you anywhere, streetwalkers can be dangerous. A person who brings one to his hotel is quite likely to miss his watch or wallet in the morning. In some countries, such as some places of China, prostitution is illegal and hotel staff have the local police arrive at your room door not long after checking in with one.
If you are willing to take the health and legal risks of hiring a prostitute, go to a "massage shop", "sauna" or whatever the local euphemism is. These establishments are significantly safer than the street workers.
This page was last edited at 03:52, on 26 March 2009 by Jani Patokallio. Based on work by Andrew Fox and Peter James, Wikitravel user(s) Hypatia, Pashley, Morph, Dubbaluga, C421103 and Tatterdemalion, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.