Common travel scams (and how to avoid them)
Time flies, I’m still on the road, visiting new cities and new countries, and I still meet many people while traveling, either in a bus, a famous tourist spot, or in my hostel. Honestly, I really like it. I meet very interesting and enriching people. Talking to all those travelers, I realized two things. 1. Almost all the travelers fell for various travel scams on the road. 2. I’m doing quite well compared to many people I met on the road.
I fell for a few travel scams (mostly unscrupulous taxi drivers screwing me), but I tend to scent travel scams very fast. Probably due to my nature : very observant and wary. Open but on my guard. I think it’s because I live in Paris, where despite its image of a glamorous and romantic city, we quickly understand growing up there that thefts, scams and other vices from deceitful people are the harsh reality. We keep this state of mind when we go overseas, and we anticipate better the travel scams.
Unlike, for instance, travelers from other countries who spend the day outside, leaving their laptop and tablet on their bed in the dorm. Or those who go to the toilets in the restaurant, leaving their phone on the table. Or those who leave their backpack wide open in the dorm of their hostel… In my case, in the hostel, everything is tidy and nothing’s lying around in the room. Outside, I’m always watching my surroundings. And I see coming quite efficiently the travel scams. I’m gonna list here common travel scams, and I’m also gonna give advice to avoid them. You’ll quickly realize that you often just need common sense, and spot suspicious behavior from certain people.
Wallet on the floor
A traveler I met fell for it in Kiev, Ukraine. There are several variations. In his case, a guy walking just in front of him dropped his wallet on the floor. He picked it up to give it back to the absent minded guy. The Ukrainian guy got back his wallet and thanked our good samaritan, checking nothing was missing… And surprise, surprise! It’s missing money!
Exactly at this moment a fake police officer (an accomplice) comes out of nowhere and asks what’s going on. The two Ukrainian guys start jabbering in their language, and then ask our poor traveler to pay the amount missing. “The money didn’t vanish! You pay or you’re gonna end up at the police station, and believe me, if you go there, you’re gonna pay a big fine, you’re gonna spend a few days in jail, etc…” He paid…
Sometimes the wallet is already in evidence on the floor, and when you pick it up two guys approach you. “Fucking thief! It’s my wallet, I’ve been looking for it for a while now!” says one of them. They get it back and moreover, they ask for a bribe, otherwise they send you to the police station! Sometimes, they wait for you to take out your wallet to pinch it and run away!
Advice : you see a wallet on the floor? Before touching it, look around you. Someone’s discreetly watching who’s gonna pick it up? It’s probably a scam, don’t approach the wallet and keep walking.
One of the most effective travel scams targeting us, men. I almost fell for it in Bucharest, Romania and I scented the trap in Langkawi, Malaysia. But I met a guy who fell for it in Baku, Azerbaijan. A very pretty woman (sometimes two or three) approaches you in the street. You start talking, there’s a good feeling… And she naturally asks if you’re up for a drink in a bar. You obviously won’t refuse to have a drink with this bombshell!
There you go, in a bar, you’re having a few drinks and at a point, the girl slips away but never comes back. However, the bill is coming right away! And you have to pay hundreds of euros just for a few drinks! You think about disputing the bill, or just leave… Before realizing the burly guys blocking the exit… And they won’t let you go until you pay! Variation : the girl chats you up directly at the bar, more efficient! Sometimes it’s worse, you get drugged and when you wake up, all your stuff is gone!
Advice : Be wary of very (too?) attractive women hitting on you a bit too aggresively, or if they absolutely want to show you the best bar in town (and curiously there’s almost no one in her bar…). If a girl wants to extend the conversation in a bar and have a drink, YOU choose the bar (even though you’re the tourist and she claims she knows her city). In Malaysia, two girls came to me thay way, but their speech didn’t sound natural. I brushed ’em off nicely. In some areas of the world, our attractiveness can be multiplied (it’s especially the case when you’re black!). But you still need to be careful and use your common sense…
One of the most common travel scams in the world, the overpriced taxi. The scammer is like “This traveler is in a country he knows nothing about, he doesn’t know the fares and he has a lot of money for sure! I’m gonna set my price!” And the taxi driver will tell you the meter is broken, or he’ll tell you it’s cheaper without the meter and charge you a huge rate. There are also those meters where the price goes up super fast. Very common near airports, train stations, etc…
Oh and I can’t forget the taxi drivers who don’t respect the rate negotiated beforehand, those taking a longer route… I stupidly fell for this famous scam in Manila, Philippines. End of the day, tired, head in the clouds, I lost my automatic reflexes. I started thinking about the negotiation on the way. But it was too late…
Advice : do some research on how much the ride should theoretically cost before taking the taxi (for instance asking your hotel the price before arriving in a new destination). If the driver turns the meter on, that’s cool! If the fare on the meter seems to go high way too fast, ask the driver to stop and just get out. If he doesn’t want to put the meter on, try to negotiate the fare price (you know it, since you asked your hotel!). If he wants to charge a ridiculous price, take another taxi.
And with the smartphones today, we’re not completely dependent on them! We can check thanks to our phone’s GPS they’re not taking a longer route, even without internet access! On the road, I started to realize that apps like Uber are very useful. No scams possible, there’s a price set in advance. Finally, for those like me who are not divas, choose public transportation rather than taxi. It’s cheaper, and you won’t get ripped off.
Deceitful taxi driver
Oh yes, taxi drivers are smart. You wanna go to your hostel, and the driver claims it’s closed, but he knows another one “very good for you“, obviously a lot more expensive and if he gets you there, he’ll receive a nice commission. There are also those taxis stopping at various shops (common in Kochi), luring you there and getting their little commission.
When you need to go to a tourist spot far from the center, the taxi driver sometimes proposes getting you there, and then coming back. Always pay just half the price when he gets you where you needed to go, and the other half after the second ride. If you pay everything upfront, the taxi will definitely not wait for you after the first ride… A taxi driver tried to rip me off this way in Taal, Philippines and a guy fell for it in Dili, East Timor.
Advice : always stay vigilant. A taxi driver tells you your hotel is closed? Ask to go anyway and insist on going there. You have a reservation, so check by yourself! If he stops at a shop, stay in the taxi. He has to understand this customer (you!) is stubborn. Or get in the shop and don’t buy anything. In Bangkok, in a shop, I told the storekeeper “I’m just watching, I never asked to come here” And he replied “If you wanna watch, go to the zoo! There are animals to watch there! This is a shop to buy!!!”
One of the most common travel scams in Southeast Asia! You rent a scooter (or a motorbike) and when you bring it back, the renter claims it’s damaged, actually you damaged the scooter and you’ll have to pay expensive repairs! Although you did nothing wrong! Sometimes the renter sends someone to damage the scooter or steal it. It happened to many travelers I met on the road, especially in the north of Laos, not far from Luang Prabang or in the north of Vietnam around Hanoi.
Advice : always take photos of the scooter before leaving, and do it in front of the renter! Use your own lock, and stay vague about your itinerary. Finally, park the scooter in a safe place.
Or pregnant women, or women with babies. Most often you’ll see kids, blind, deaf or mute. Who come to you for some money. How can you say no, this kid must endure a lot at such a young age. Quite often, they get around in groups. And while a poor child distracts you, the other ones steal your valuables. Or they spot where you put your wallet when you’re about to give them money, just to nab it more easily a few moments later.
Advice : NEVER give money to children, not even pens (as they often ask in India or in Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Those kids belong to organized mobs, and they don’t earn the money you’re giving them. And the more money they get from people like you, the more those mobs will keep them in the streets “to work”, instead of going to school! If you really feel sorry for them, give them food.
The clumsy local
Someone “accidentally” spills drink/ketchup/mayonnaise on you, and your stylish T shirt is now all dirty. Sometimes it’s even a fake pigeon poop! The clumsy local profusely apologizes, is sorry, it was an accident, etc… And a good samaritan (an accomplice) comes out of nowhere and helps you cleaning up the mess. And while he’s dabbing the stain, the clumsy local is picking your pockets and steals your wallet! By the time you realize it, it’s too late, they’re already far away! It happened to a blogger. Read his full story here. Variation : someone bumps into you, and during the confusion, steals your valuables.
Advice : don’t let strangers encroaching on your personal space. The clumsy guy got your T shirt dirty and apologizes, ok. But push away glue-pots, step back and clean up the mess yourself. You have to stay alert.
Travel scams in India
There are maaany travel scams there… In Jaipur, a local asked me why tourists don’t wanna to talk with the locals. He was actually trying to lure me in his shop. Still in Jaipur, I almost fell victim to keylogging. The crook asks if he can borrow your laptop because he needs to book a flight/send an urgent email/do something important on the internet. The scammer takes all his time, and waits for you to stop looking at the screen. This is when he quickly installs a spy spoftware on your computer which records everything you type on the keyboard. He can now give you back your computer. All he has to do now is wait for you to buy something on the internet (it’s gonna happen one day!), and he’ll have your credit card information! In Goa, a guy on the beach told me he could see I was sick, he could cure me, I had to pay… And still in Jaipur, that tuktuk stopped before the end of the ride, and he wanted me to pay two rides!
Advice : stay alert, all the time! From experience, especially in Jaipur!
Travel scams in Paris
A lot of travel scams in Paris. Crooks are impressive there, the most daring even trying to rip off the locals! One of the most common travel scams in Parisian tourist attractions : the fake petition. Usually a woman or a teen comes to you and tries to get you to sign a petition in support of a charity. If you do so, you’ll have to pay! Either you accept, and you lose a few euros. Or you refuse, you start fighting with the petitioner and while you’re arguing with the scammer, you’re pickpocketed by the accomplices.
There are also those guys coming to you, have a quick chat, and then place a bracelet around your wrist. Too late, now you have to pay, otherwise they’ll cause a scene! And sometimes an accomplice comes as backup! Oh there’s also this good samaritan who asks you if the ring he just found on the floor is yours. “Hmmm no“. And he finds out, after inspection, that the ring is made of pure gold! But he doesn’t need it, he found it, and it’s not yours. So he proposes selling it to you for a fair price, considering it’s pure gold. But needless to say, it’s not gold, which means the price he gave you is way too high for this shitty ring!
And of course this game where you have to bet which one of three cups in front of you contains the ball. The scammer switches the cups around at a fast speed, now it’s time to play! A lot of people fall for this scam! You see someone playing and winning! You decide you should give it a try, you start to play, and you start winning… Before losing everything! Yes, all the people around you are accomplices! Damn, I was six and I knew it was a scam!
Other travel scams…
There are many other travel scams. The inflated prices at the restaurant because you’re a tourist, those restaurants adding dishes on the bill, those who make mistakes when giving you back your change… It happened in Tajikistan. Monkeys raised to steal tourists’ valuables. everything was in my bag, but I saw just in front of me a monkey stealing a guy’s sunglasses in Mount Popa, Myanmar. Locals then ask for money to get back your stuff taken by the monkeys.
Those good samaritans who want to help you out at the ATM (seriously, some people still fall for it!?). They watch your PIN number and scan your card with the card skimmer in their pocket. In Tehran, a local wanted to see what euros looked like. “You have a bill?“. It happened somewhere else but I forgot where it was… Anyway, you know what they want, your money!
All those fake police officers who want to extract money from you (it happened to a traveler I met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but it’s everywhere!). The free tourist attractions where someone tells you that you have to pay, or that having a guide is mandatory (not true!). Or someone tells you donations are compulsory, offerings are obligatory and it’s not free…
Advice in general to avoid travel scams
Admittedly there are many travel scams, but on the road, don’t be paranoid! Stay relaxed but spot the risky situations. It gets easier with time and experience. NEVER give your passport to a stranger, even if the guy claims he’s a cop, you’ll be at his mercy. Always hand a copy, and tell the guy your passport is at the hotel (even if it’s not true). It’s common sense, but don’t buy drugs from a local, even if he looks trustworthy and you really want to relax with a fat ass joint. A cop could come out of nowhere, and you’ll get in serious trouble.
To avoid paying a tourist price, especially with street food or bus tickets, just watch what the locals are paying, and pay the same amount, without asking “How much is it?“. Give the exact change, it will be perfect!
Often, locals came to me just to talk. Some of them are sincere and friendly, others want something from you (mostly money…). I scent this quickly : unnatural speech, commercial smile, etc… Give the least information about yourself, and “brand” yourself as an uninteresting target.
Someone asks me where I’m going? “I’m meeting some friends now“. Yeah but where? “I know the way but I don’t the name of the street, it’s that way…” Someone asks me how long I’m staying here “It’s my last day, I’m leaving tomorrow” even if I just arrived there. Where do you stay? “I forgot the name, it’s that way not too far from here…” even if Im on the other side of town. I always stay vague… The scammer cannot come with me since I’m meeting (imaginary) friends, he doesn’t know where I stay, and he won’t ask for my contact in order to rip me off later (for instance asking if I need I guided tour of the city “for a cheap price tomorrow“), since it’s supposedly my last day in town.
I almost forgot this… Stay alert when a local approaches you, asks you where you from (in my case Paris) and what a coincidence! Their son/cousin/niece is studying/working there. Very common in Southeast Asia, especially in Phnom Penh. It screams travel scam. They’re gonna try to lure you somewhere, and get money from you. Politely shorten the conversation, and just leave. This is one of the most effective travel scams, they know travelers in general are open to talk with the locals.
With all the tips I gave you, I guess you’re now ready to avoid the most common travel scams! There are many other travel scams, but those ones are very common, and unfortunately, some travelers I hung out with fell for those scams… Do not hesitate to comment if you know other travel scams!
Before leaving home, do not forget to get a travel insurance! And for your online security, use a VPN! I use ExpressVPN, fast and efficient! If you’re planning a trip, my travel resources page can help you out!
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