Believe it or not, the planet is a fairly peaceful place. Most people - no matter their culture, income, or strange language - are friendly and will only do their utterly most to help you. But then there are those few who are trying to take advantage of vulnerable travellers. Everyone can fall victim to their tricks but being aware of the most well-known travel scams will steer you clear of the worst.
Here is a list of travel scams and if you know others please share with us.
Risk zone: South America and Southeast Asia, especially at full moon parties
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 which he uses to lure another unsuspecting stoner. 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. The motto of both 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.
Card gambling scam
Risk zone: Southeast Asia, especially Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Bali
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).
Cheap overnight bus scam
Risk zone: Thailand
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!
Claim it on the travel insurance scam
Risk zone: Worldwide, but seems very popular in India
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.
Coin collector scam
Risk zone: Asia
This is a little harmless trick performed mostly by very young kids. A "collector" will approach you and ask for any foreign coins you might have. Appearing incredibly knowledgeable about currency and nominations of your local money, they thus convince you that coin-collection is actually their prized hobby. In most cases, travellers will happily hand over a few coins believing they are supporting an innocent hobby. So, when a good collection of foreign coins have been accumulated, the next step is to then sell them back to other tourists for the local currency under the excuse of some tourists having paid them in Swedish Krona or Japanese Yen. Clever, right?
Credit card fraud, part I
Risk zone: Worldwide
Oh boy, don't get us started on this one. The tricks are too many and too painful. SO... only use your credit card to withdraw cash from ATMs that look authentic or to make purchases at well established businesses (and no, that tailor down the side street in Agra is probably not well established).
Credit card fraud, part II
Risk zone: Worldwide
So now you only use your credit card at ATMs, but your sorrow isn't over yet. 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.
Dirt on shirt scam
Risk zone: Europe and South America
You are walking in a crowded street and suddenly you get something on your jacket, it can be anything from coffee to dog poo. Faster than lightning, a diverse group of friendly locals appear to help you, offering to clean your jacket with their napkins brought for the occasion. Before you realize what is truly going on, your wallet/money belt/camera/daypack is changing hands. The best advice on this one is to stay cool when it happens, firmly decline any service offered and walk away fast. 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 aggressively. Of course, use your good judgment, but trick thieves in general are rarely into attention and violence.
Risk zone: Worldwide
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.
Risk zone: Worldwide
This scam comes in many disguises around the world, but this is the Chinese tea house version and it takes place at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. You are chatted up by two sweet looking young ladies who claim to be studying English. They ask if you have some time to chat so they can practice their language skills. Sure, why not. They will suggest some tea, so they 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$-200$. Of course, declining any offer by anyone approaching you around Tiananmen or Wangfujing is the best way to avoid this scam, but if you do find yourself confronting an outrageous bill, the best thing to do seems to be a laughing rejection and a stern threat of calling the police. Modesty and politeness will make things worse. And yes, the girls are in on this, no matter how cute and friendly they might seem.
Risk zone: Worldwide
This trick is particularly famous in the Philippines, but again it could happen anywhere from Europe to South America. 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 or otherwise vulnerable.
Risk zone: China
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. There is a lot of fake Chinese money in circulation (especially 50 RMB notes) and quite a few end up in the unsuspecting hands of tourists.
Fake cops, version I
Risk zone: South and Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia
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 stuberness.
Fake cops, version II
Risk zone: South and Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia
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.
Finder do not keep
Risk zone: Russia
This has been the going scam on the Red Square 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.
Risk zone: Thailand and India
This is a classic Bangkok scam (but the gem part is also popular in India) and every guide book carries warnings against it and for good reasons. It typically starts with a very cheap tuk-tuk ride. Your super friendly driver wants to show you a special temple, possibly because your choice of destination is closed... because today just happens to be "Buddha day" or some other noteworthy day you are unlikely to be in a position to either know of or argue against. The driver might start talking about a special government promotion on diamonds with no tax and mentioning the promotion as only being for today. When you get to the temple 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. Don't get tempted, everyone is in on this scam. The goal is to trick 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 and of course with a huge profit. 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.
Risk zone: Southern and Eastern Europe
This is a classic scam and typical in both 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.
Money swapping scam
Risk zone: Worldwide
This is quite a simple trick but unfortunately very effective. You have finished your taxi ride and pay the driver a note of ten of the local currency. The driver takes the money and then returns another note to you claiming that you only gave him a note of one. You are almost certain that you paid him a note of ten, but what to do? So, in most cases you end up paying out another note of ten. Not very nice of him, is it?
Motorbike rental scam
Risk zone: Mostly Asia
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.
Old money scam
Risk zone: Worldwide
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, familiarise 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!
Risk zone: 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 afterparty. 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.
Risk zone: Middle East, Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Nepal
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 spent money ever. Don't fall for the "it could pay for your trip if re-sold at home". It most likely won't. 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.
Ping-pong banana show scam
Risk zone: Where there are strip bars
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.
Rape accusation scam
Risk zone: Cambodia, but probably elsewhere too
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.
Reverse exchange rate scam
Risk zone: Central America
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?
Robbed fellow traveller scam
Risk zone: Southeast Asia and South America
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. Luckily, the con-artist is always some dodgy looking guy and not some trustworthy-looking lady (who probably could make a fortune if she had no morals). In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we met the same unlucky "robbed" guy within months intervals, the scam also seems 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.
Risk zone: Thailand and India
This scam is essentially the same as the gem scam, but without the gems. A friendly tuk-tuk driver offers you a far too cheap ride. After a bit of sightseeing in the back alleys, he takes you to a tailor, a silk, a gem and basically 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, it will be a bad idea to bring a tuk-tuk driver since they get a commission in every shop. And no, just for the record, the shop owner is probably not the driver's uncle, brother or other relative as otherwise claimed.
Wrong hotel scam
Risk zone: Worldwide, but especially India and Vietnam
Commission rewarded taxi drivers try to convince you that the hotel you want to go to is either closed for refurbishment, torn down or simply just fully booked. Luckily, your driver knows of another existing and available hotel, which of course always turns out to be overpriced and badly located (but the taxi driver gets a commission for every guest he brings there). In Vietnam, they have even taken this scam a bit further by nondescript hotels being 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 the taxi driver. So never trust a taxi driver's alternative suggestions and always insist on being taken to the hotel of your choice. In the case of Vietnam, always make sure to be taken to a specific address and not just a hotel name. All shops and hotels in Vietnam have their addresses stated on their sign, so it is easy to check if the address of the hotel is correct or not.
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