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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.

travel scamsAll 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.

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.

travel scamsSometimes the packaging is more real than the content

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.

Bird Droppings: A Common Scam 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 and offering to help clean it up. They usually work in pairs, and while one is busy with the tissue, the other grabs anything available - camera, wallet, package... (Contributed by Mary Passmore in Bellingham, WA, USA)

"Thought a bird pooped on me and my travel partner. Disgusted by the smell and gook, a super nice and friendly looking couple that had witnessed this approached us, offering to help wipe us down with what they had on them. They were actually trying to pat us and steal from us." (Contributed by Jane Choi in New York)

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.

Nairobi Scammers: So Ingenious!

"A very nice and learned man invited me to a cafe, where we had a wide-ranging discussion about honesty... and he then asked me money for the bus fare home. After I gave him some, two men approached me claiming they were police - with very dodgy ID. I left quickly." (Contributed by Dzony B. in London) I'm assuming the cops were about to ask for a bribe...

Here's one from MC: "You go to a restaurant or shop, give the waiter or sales person the amount for the food or product (say 10,000 Kenyan Shillings). They walk away with it, then come back with nine 1,000 Shilling notes, and one 100 Shilling note, claiming that you only gave them 9,100 Shillings instead of 10,000. And then it's he said, she said."

And here's one from me: I was walking in leather sandals and a shoeshiner asked to see one more closely - I placed my foot on the stool (BAD mistake) and he grabbed my foot and wouldn't let it go. Then he smeared polish on it and when I yelled, he told me I had to pay because he had used some polish. I yelled "Police" at the top of my lungs - he almost threw my foot back at me!

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.
travel scamsBeware the official uniform!

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.

Travel scamsMost taxis are honest. Those 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.

Young hustlers in San José, Costa Rica - contributed by C.H.

"The street was crowded and I was taking a taxi at dusk. I took out my wallet to find the hotel's business card. I felt I was being savvy, so the driver wouldn't take advantage of me, and I'd act confident and sort of "take charge" before he could. Young people crowded around shouting "Madam! Madam! come this way" "No, Madam! Come this way!". As I looked this way and that a young man just grabbed my wallet out of my hand and took off running with it while the crowd pushed and jostled in, closing in around me.

I got back in the taxi, thinking he would be sympathetic, he'd seen my terrible plight! But alas, he was part of the scam. He drove me around, feigning ignorance. This gave the crooks time enough to fill a tank of gas for their vehicle and buy some beer and groceries, and then throw the card away so they won't get caught. 

Another lesson learned: don't keep your passport in your wallet. At least I had copies of all of the stolen documents stored safely away. (You can fill out lost U.S. Passport documents online to have ready when you show up at the Embassy (early) the next morning.)

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.

Two GOOD NEWS taxi stories

It's not all scams - sometimes you'll be surprised.

Here's what happened to Rebecca from Australia: "On one trip to New York I was very unwell with a bad cold. The taxi driver took me to Grand Central station, then carried my bag into the station to the ticket counter, then walked with me to the platform for Connecticut. He point blank refused the fare and a tip. (No New Yorker believes that story, but it is the truth!) His reason was that his daughter travels solo a lot, and she only ever meets kind people. He said he saw this as his opportunity to reciprocate."

And here's what happened to me: In London I was rushing in a cab to the airport - one of those wonderful big black things. I realized I had left a suede jacket behind - one with a lot of sentimental value. I burst into tears because it was too late (and I was young and feeling vulnerable). The cabbie asked me for my address, and said he'd go get it for me. I eventually forgot about it - until it arrived in the mail one day, nicely wrapped, straight from London.

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.