Home :: Going Solo :: Travel Scams

Home :: Going Solo :: Travel Scams :: September 2012

How to Avoid Travel Scams
6 common scams and how NOT to fall for them

All that glitters isn't gold: travel scams are specifically designed to part you from your hard-earned cash, not to provide you with any value.

Don't be fooled. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Moroccan lampsAll that glitters...

New hoaxes crop up each day and the list of potential cons below is in no way exhaustive - but it's a start.

Have you ever been a victim or witness of a scam or deception during your travels? If you have, please share your story with the rest of us - keep us all on our toes.

Being a woman traveler can be like wearing a stamp on your forehead that screams "easy mark". Not that we're less wise, on the contrary; if anything we're more prepared because we've carefully done our research, knowing that people might mistake us for soft targets.

It's more about how others see a woman on her own, young or old, as vulnerable, or possibly without family. Very tempting when it comes to taking advantage...

A scam can take many forms: product substitution, shortchanging, pickpocketing, accommodation scams, outright theft and even worse.

I traveled on my own for years and was scammed a few times - but far fewer than I might have been. And most instances were insignificant.

I had my passport stolen in Beijing. My fault. I put it in my backpack instead of my travel money belt, utterly stupid and self-inflicted. Another time my reading glasses were stolen from my blouse pocket by children in Dar-es-Salaam. Good thing I was able to buy them back at the market an hour later.

Over the years I've had good merchandise substituted for bad, been shortchanged in countries with unfamiliar currencies, or been overcharged for goods or services. Each event grafted itself into my knowledge bank, making me more aware of potential dishonesty and firmer in my efforts to avoid it.

The 6 most common travel scams and how to make sure they pass you by

1. Product Substitution

This is the bread and butter of those who prey on travelers.

In Marrakech many years ago I bought a perfectly white sheepskin. The kind vendor took it into the back of the shop to wrap it for packing. When I eventually got home it had turned a muddy shade of brown along with the white - it wasn't the one that I'd bought but a cheap and ugly substitute. I'd fallen for the oldest travel scam in the book: I'd let something out of my site, providing an opportunity for substitution.

There are more nefarious forms of product substitution, for example with counterfeit drugs, which can not only harm your health but even lead to death if the drug is needed to save a life.

Things like tap water substituted for water in a bottle (thieves can find ingenious ways to break the seal and reseal bottles) used to be common but bottle manufacturers are making bottles increasingly tamper-proof.

So if you need something for your health, buy it from a credible source. It's not a guarantee, but your chances are better.

2. Fake or Forbidden Goods

A Rolex Oster (misspelling included) or a Frolex for $20? A $5 ICE watch? A Vuitton bag for $35? A Lacoste or Ralph Lauren polo shirt for $2?

Despite missing letters and poorly drawn logos, these counterfeit goods always find buyers - as do cheap computer operating systems, fake DVDs (shot with a wobbly camera from the darkness of a movie theater) or pirated software. Just remember you will get what (little) you paid for.

A number of countries are becoming seriously intolerant of copies, and have specially trained customs officers whose only role is to distinguish authentic from counterfeit.

In France where I live, customs officers are trained to spot counterfeit goods and large posters adorn border crossings warning you about fake crocodile logos or synthetic Hermes scarves.

Take them home at your own peril.

Counterfeit goods in KL

Make sure you know the law before you buy.

In Russia, it is illegal to buy anything older than 50 years. Yet these items - especially religious items and communist military artifacts, such as medals - are openly on sale in flea markets. It's hard to imagine you might end up in jail as a smuggler for buying what is openly for sale.

Another hot item is the precious stone, especially in Asia. You might be offered gems to take home and sell, along with promises of high profits. Beware. Genuine gem dealers have sales and distribution networks and don't need a lone woman traveler to sell their stones. They can do it without your help.

3. Diversion, Theft and Other Money Scams

These are among the most common scams.

The first thing to watch for is someone trying to part you from your money, whether another backpacker or someone you've just met.

- I need money for an emergency flight home.
- I have a sick parent who needs care.
- My school fees due but my parents are unemployed.

These are just a few of the heartrending stories you might hear. They're borderline, and falling for them won't set you back too much - and who knows, once in a long while the request might be legitimate.

But some 'no-way' situations and should be avoided at all costs:

  • Losing sight of your money or credit card: if anyone wants to take it out of the room - to get change or a credit approval - your reaction should be a resounding NO.
  • Losing sight of your passport or identity papers by putting them somewhere you can't reach them (like in a backpack in Beijing for example, instead of somewhere secure) 
  • Always pay AFTER you receive a service. With your money in hand, the temptation to run off might be too strong.
  • Anything to do with gems or precious stones should make your warning bells clang; for stones, go to a government-approved store.
  • ATM fraud: be cautious when you withdraw money; go with someone if you can and if not, choose an ATM located indoors, with a security guard in. Don't walk around with your cash; jump into a taxi.
  • Luggage theft can happen anywhere. On buses, if your bag is on the roof or in the belly of the beast. Keep your eye on it at every stop. In the trunk of taxis, if it's not locked and your driver is part of the scam (someone can open the trunk and grab your bags at a traffic light). At the train station or the airport, if you don't keep constant physical contact with your bags.
Rural ATM machine in SE AsiaIt's almost impossible NOT to find an ATM machine where you're going. But the same security rules apply. Photo Frank Hebbert via Flickr CC

Watch out for pickpockets, particularly at crowded transport hubs like bus stations, train stations, boat docks and airports.

It can happen in a blink: you're standing on a crowded subway which brakes a bit or jerks and throws you off balance. Someone holds out an arm to steady you and next thing you know your wallet is gone. I witnessed this one myself in Barcelona but it happened so quickly I only noticed it once it was over.

It's called a diversion: something happens around you, you are briefly distracted, and by the time you realize what's happened it's too late.

4. Internet Scams

There are hundreds of major internet scams around and just because you're on the road doesn't mean you're protected - in fact, it may be the opposite.

Apart from the well-known Nigerian email scams and its imitators, a computer is a tempting place to do evil. Technology has advanced to such a point that it can track your keystrokes when you type in account numbers and passwords, so keep your Internet banking off public computers.

If you think you'll need to use a computer often, bring your own laptop. Or your tablet. But don't use an internet cafe for anything more than sending basic email or Skyping.

5. Confidence Trick Scams

Confidence scams are often a combination of other types of scam - theft and money for example, but they involve some sort of breach of trust. Here are a few to beware of:

  • Your first night: you might be approached at the airport or bus station by touts offering great discounts if you stay in their hotel - don't. Most often you'll pay more. Make a reservation or know where you're going for your first night and save yourself the hassle.
Cats in front of tourist policeWaiting for the tourist police? Looks official to me! Photo by The Camera is a Toy via Flickr CC

Another common deceit is known as a uniform scam: someone wearing an official uniform asks you to do something or go somewhere that inevitably costs you money.

  • In one of the better documented travel scams, a uniformed man warns women there is a bomb scare at the airport and that she'll have to spend the night in a hotel. Needless to say, there is no bomb scare, and no prepaid hotel.
  • Thieves have been known to pose as plainclothes tourist police asking for identification - running off with wallets when they are produced.

The good thing about these travel scams is that they quickly become common knowledge and countries who prize tourists will usually take quick action.

If approached by someone in uniform with an unexpected request, make sure you move into a well-lit or crowded place, ask to see identification and start taking down the number or photograph the ID with your phone. That will usually be more than enough to discourage a scammer if you're in a crowded area. Asking to walk together to the police station should also weed out the real from the impostor.

  • If someone offers you something for free, it probably isn't and that includes corn to feed birds, 'friendship' bracelets, good luck coins to toss into a fountain... By the time you realize you have to pay for this it may be too late to say NO.
  • You might be approached with goods you can't get rid of, like a bracelet slipped on your wrist that you can't take off - what choice will you then have other than paying for it?
  • If beggars approach you, think before giving (I know, we shouldn't have to do that). They're not all legitimate: one famous beggar in Madrid used to drive a Mercedes on her day off! There are plenty of real poor but you can't know which is which - and that's why I don't give to beggars. Give to charities instead. The exception is the very old and infirm - even if they're not really beggars I'd rather err on the side of charity. But I never give to children. In some parts of the world they are trafficked, bought or sold, or kept in slavery. Even if that chance is small, I don't want to contribute to the possibility.

6. Taxi and Transportation Scams

Taxis that try to overcharge are unfortunately all too common.

Scams can range from a malfunctioning meter ('it's broken, it's not necessary, we don't use them in this country') to asking for 'extras' to carry a bag or taking a circuitous route to your destination.

In a new city, it's easy to be misled when all buildings look the same. Try to become familiar with a place before you arrive, by looking at a map or on Google Earth or better yet, figure out the shortest way from A to B on your smartphone before even stepping into a cab.

Taxi signTaxis who overcharge won't break the bank but they are irritating - and help lower trust in a country.

Here are some common taxi travel scams:

  • there is a riot/demonstration/accident up ahead so we'll have to make a detour
  • there is too much traffic so we'll take the autoroute/motorway and you'll have to pay the tolls (at many times the real price)
  • if the price magically increases during a trip, mentioning the word police once you arrive and have exited the taxi should do the trick (the word 'police' is almost universal)
  • starting the meter at a higher rate - the only way you'll know is if you've done your homework, so find out the starting cost of a taxi meter before you get into the cab
  • wrong change: the best way to fight this is to familiarize yourself with the currency or with bills that are no longer in circulation.

TIPS: If at all possible, try to team up with someone for a cab ride. Ask around the taxi line at the airport. Don't get into an unofficial taxi unless that's the country's norm, like in Cuba, where most taxis are unofficial. And always make sure you can open the doors from the inside.

Don't let all this scare you!

These travel scams may seem a little frightening but they are relatively rare. They'll be even rarer if you're aware of them because most of them succeed if they catch you by surprise.

Travel is a wonderful adventure and I've rarely faced anything other than kindness. I can count the number of times I've been scammed on the fingers of one hand.

A few final words: if something does happen, please DON'T be ladylike! Don't hesitate to raise your voice if you feel someone is being dishonest.

My main rule: if a situation gets a bit uncomfortable, just walk away. This will work in 99% of situations in which people approach you.

Have you been the victim of a travel scam?

If you travel a lot, you may have run into the occasional dishonest operator who is only after your money.

The best defense is to spread the word.

Have you ever been ripped off on the road? If so, please tell us about it - your story can help someone else someday. It's all about paying it forward!

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

Paris: Some Things Never Change 
Some things never change, and some scams are the same today as they were years ago. Knowing that makes them easier to spot. I can sympathise with many …

Nairobi: Two-Part Tourist Scam 
I got caught in the fist part of a two-part scam in Nairobi. A middle-aged man approaches me in the street and begins to chat. He is very polite, very …

Small Band Hustlers in San Jose 
Small band of youngish (teens +/-) all hustled around me when I was getting into a taxi in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was dusk, the street was crowded, but …

The Monk at Angkor Wat 
Beware the 'Buddhist monk' who stands at one of the main entrances asking for quite an expensive admission fee. He looks sweet and genuine and is very …

Transportation Scams 
I hired a taxi from the train station to my hotel in Montenegro. On arrival, I offered the driver 10 euros for a 6 euro fare. (I had every intention of …

A Common Scam in Argentina 
In Buenos Aires a common scam is for someone to throw some substance on your back and then point it out, saying that you have bird droppings on your shirt …

Begging Bungles 
I was travelling in India when an Indian gypsy woman walked towards me. She was carrying a baby. She also had a some mashed banana in a saucer in her other …

Click here to write your own.

STAY ALIVE and hold on to your stuff!
Are you a walking target for thieves and pickpockets?

Become travel savvy the quick and easy way before you set off on your adventure. Nothing is more likely to spoil your trip than getting robbed or attacked or unexpectedly ending up in a war zone.

If you want to travel safely, without fear, Travel Safety is the one book you need to read before you go. It's filled with common sense precautions but also tells you what the government warnings don't. If you want peace of mind on the road, be proactive about your safety!

Find out more

Solo travel tips for women like you - the first Tuesday of every month >>>

(and to say thank you I'll send you the 'list of 9' indispensable items I NEVER travel without!)