How to Spot and Avoid a Travel Scam

January 10, 2017

If only ours was the world that can be seen through ‘rose-colored glasses’.  Alas…it is not… and, there are shysters, rip-off artists, pickpockets, con men and women, and outright thieves all over this beautiful earth who want to take what you have and will stop at nothing to get it!  Would you be able to spot and avoid a travel scam?  It can be very difficult….these people are very ‘crafty’ and are masters at their ‘craft’!  When you travel, you meet so many wonderful people – locals, fellow travelers – and you don’t want to become so cynical that you lose all faith in everyone you meet; however, in the interest of your travel safety…you should be aware that these sorts do exist…in droves, sadly.

Numerous travel scams are alive and thriving throughout the world…with new ones rearing their ugly heads all the time.  Some cities are more notorious for scammers than others – Paris, Rome, Hanoi, to name a few – but wherever your travels take you, you need always to beware. It’s a sad commentary on our society that we need to be wary of ‘friendly’ people, but when it comes to travel safety, you are wise to err on the side of caution in these matters.

For your travel safety, here is a list of some of the many travel scams from which you need to protect yourself, and tips on how to protect yourself, your belongings, and your hard-earned travel dollars from ending up in the wrong hands.

Travel Scams to Avoid

1. Shady Tour Operators

We all want to get the biggest ‘bang for our buck’, and when we see an exceptional deal on travel, particularly tours…we may be tempted to think ‘where do I sign?’ and reach for our credit card before this ‘time-limited offer’ expires!  Unfortunately, not all tour operators are legit!  Some are downright scammers, that will gladly take your money….and then disappear off the face of the earth…or, at least, from your computer :-).  Others will provide you with some service, but it may turn out to be a mere shadow of what you thought was included in the price you paid.

Book with a reputable tour operator

How are you supposed to sift through all the ‘time-limited’ and ‘once in a lifetime’ deals to determine which ones are travel scams – where you “pays your money and takes your chances”…and you end up in some ramshackle hotel sharing the bathroom with the two other guests they were able to look into their ‘deal’, and which ones are legit – where you end up in that cozy mountain chalet tucked away just minutes from the chairlift that will take you high aloft so you can swoosh your way down again?

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: The wisest thing you can do is to book with a reputable tour operator or one that is recommended by your travel agent.  The ‘cheap’ deal may end up costing you more than you budgeted for.

2. The Overly Friendly Cabbie

Some taxi drivers are very informative; others may offer you assistance of all kinds – whether you ask for it or not.  “Oh, that hotel is closed down now, but I can take you to another nice one.”  “That attraction is closed today.  Let me take you to another one that’s even better.”

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: Thank him, and ask him to take you to your planned destination anyway.  Likely your hotel and the attraction both are very much open for business.  He possibly was hoping to take you to one owned by his brother or his cousin, or to another place where he is paid a ‘kickback’ for bringing in customers.

Be wary of overly friendly cabbies

3. The ‘Good’ Samaritan

A person is nearby when you get something on you – mustard, relish, bird poop (often they are responsible for putting it on you).  They rush over and start to wipe it off for you.  What they actually are doing, is feeling for your wallet so they, or another of their team, can take it from you in the very near future or right then and there.  Or, they may approach you from behind to let you know that you have something spilled on your backpack, hoping you’ll remove your bag to clean it, and they can grab it and take off.

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice:  If someone offers to wipe something off of you, thank them, but say you can manage.  If something has spilled on you, head to the nearest restroom and clean it off by yourself.  Don’t remove your backpack to check it until you are in a safe location.

4. The Pickpocket

Usually, a pickpocket won’t engage in any conversation with you.  They merely take advantage of your surroundings – as you wait in a crowded subway station, browse in a busy market, or stand to enjoy live entertainment.  They may watch you for a while to see which pocket you pull your wallet out of.  Once they know and have their ‘mark’ in sight, they quickly and seamlessly move in for the attack.  They are so good at what they do, you will be completely unaware.

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice:  Carry your cash and credit cards in a neck wallet or in a hidden money belt…someplace where it is not clearly visible or easy to get at.  If you do have your money in a handbag….always keep it fully zipped or snapped, and keep your hand over the top of it.  Otherwise, it’s easy enough for a pro to unzip, reach in, and grab your wallet without you being aware.

NEVER carry your wallet in your back pocket!  For a pickpocket, that is like ‘taking candy from a baby”.

Wallets in your back pocket is a big no-no!

5. Begging Children

Unscrupulous gangs often use children to get money from you, as like most of us, you’re a sucker for a hungry/sad/needy-looking child.  In some places in India, children will ask you to buy bread for their family.  Of course, you want to help, so you pick up a loaf of bread for them. Then they ask you to add some other necessities….milk, rice.  When you pay for the items, you may think, “That was pretty darned expensive!” and you wouldn’t be wrong.  The scheme here is that once you have purchased these items, the children then give it back to the grocer for resale, and are given a share of the ‘profits’ – the excess amount you’ve just paid for items – to be handed over to the ‘employer’ of the children.

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: Buy something for the child – such as a fast food meal, or give him something you may have brought with you for that purpose – a pack of gum, a pencil, and eraser, a small toy – anything that will not make money for their ‘employers’.

6. Specific Scams

In Rome – a friendly local may inquire as to which bus stop you wish to get off at, then will proceed to show you this stop on your map.  His stop, conveniently, is the one just before yours and, once he’s gone, you realize that while he was close to you, ostensibly to look at your map, he has lifted your wallet!

The map scam is most common in Rome

In Paris – women who appear to have ‘found’ a gold ring and wonder if perhaps you have lost one.  Apparently, their ‘schtick’ is either to pickpocket you while you are examining the piece of jewelry…or to try and sell it to you at a very discounted price (which undoubtedly is still far more than its actual worth).

In Hanoi – a scam that comes up time and again…a friendly local man chats with you (particularly a lone male traveler) in a bar.  When he learns where you are from, he tells you his sister is a nurse wishing to work in your country, and he’d like you to meet her…usually at a place of his choosing (alarm bell!).  She may show up (she’ll be gorgeous…ding, ding!), and you end up going with them to dinner, and eventually…in some convoluted scheme… being asked to cheat a casino at which he ‘works’ (ding, ding, ding!!).  Of course, it is all done so very slickly that you may be tempted to fall for it!

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: Run, don’t walk, away from any circumstance that sets off alarm bells in your head, or gives you a ‘bad’ feeling.  Trust your gut instinct….9 times out of 10 it is right!

7. Guard your Drink

It’s easy enough for your drink to be ‘spiked’ if you aren’t paying close attention.  Many tourists have ‘come to’ in unfamiliar surroundings, valuables and money were stolen, with no means by which to get themselves back to their hotel.

Never take your eyes or hands off your drink

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice:  Never take your eyes/hands off your drink, and most definitely, don’t accept one from a stranger.

8. Questionable WiFi Connection

WiFi is widely available in most locations in the world now.  Just beware of any ‘free’ public WiFi connections, as they may be the work of hackers waiting for you to sign on so they can gain access to your passwords, maybe even your online banking site.

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: Rather than calling the Front Desk of your hotel from your room, physically go and ask at the front desk for the secure WiFi connection.  These hackers are ingenious and may have wired your hotel phone to go directly to them rather than to the actual Front Desk. The same in a coffee shop or wherever else you may find a ‘free’ connection – ask the manager or person in charge before logging on.  Better yet, get yourself a VPN (virtual private network) which allows you to input and receive data as if you were using a private, rather than a public, connection.

9. Say ‘Cheese’

Some kind soul offers to take a photo for you – of you and your sweetheart, or of your entire group – with your camera or your cell phone.  You hand it over, and off he goes!  What the heck just happened??

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice: Tourists regularly do this favor for one another.  Ask other tourists to take a photo for you in exchange for taking one of them. It’s better to ask someone to take your picture with your own equipment rather than accepting an offer from ‘Joe Blow’ to do it for you. Not everyone has bad intentions, though. I’ve often asked tourists in my own city if they would like me to take a photo of them so that they are all together in their photo rather than the photo being minus the group’s designated ‘cameraman’….and I have zero intention of absconding with their camera or cell phone

Want to take a groupie shot? Ask a fellow tourist instead.

10. But He’s Wearing a Uniform

Unfortunately….not all uniforms are created equal.  You’re walking along, minding your own business when someone approaches and offers to sell you something illicit….”Psstt….wanna buy some amazing hash (or some other drug)?”  Faster than you can say, “No, I’m good, thanks dude”, a couple of ‘uniformed officers’ appear and ask to see your passport and other documents.  You hand them over, but they won’t return them….until you pay them a tidy sum.  Officer, smofficer!!

Tarriss Travel Safety Advice:  If you feel something suspicious is afoot and that they are not genuine ‘officers’, don’t hand over your passport or any other documentation.  If you know where the local Police Station is located, and it’s nearby, offer to walk there with them where you will be delighted to show them your documentation.  If they are ‘faking it’, they’ll likely just walk away…..and try their scheme on someone less savvy than you.

Of course, not everyone is out to ‘get’ you while you are traveling, and there probably are more genuinely kind, friendly, generous people in the world than there are crooks.  However, it behooves you to be aware that there are people who prey upon and take advantage of tourists.  Don’t take that to mean that you’re better off to sit at home – it means simply that ‘to be forewarned, is to be forearmed.’

Written by Emma Ghattas