Travelling can broaden your mind, awaken your soul and generally make you a better person. It’s also scientific fact that travelling can make you more trusting as it increases your faith in humanity, makes you open to new things and less fearful of the unknown. Unfortunately, with this new heightened sense of trust, travelling can also make you the perfect candidate for scams.
Most travel scams are relatively minor and it’s likely you’ll laugh about them once it’s all over. Yet there are some travel scams out there that are more elaborate, taking advantage of a persons’ good nature and the scenario (which usually involves language barriers and a lack of understanding of the culture). These sneaky tricks can have the potential to ruin a holiday and no matter how many times you’ve travelled; it can also happen to you.
The following list should act like a caution, not a deterrent. Most scams are created from a genuine sense of survival and it’s important to understand that the people formulating the scams are just trying to make money. Sure, it can be a pretty immoral way to do it, but sometimes it’s their only option. The best advice is to always do your research before you travel and try not to be an overtly tempting target (wearing a Rolex around in 3rd world country would classify as this).
TAXI DRIVER SCAMS
This is a relatively minor ‘scam’ and can actually happen anywhere in the world, not just overseas. It’s when you jump into a taxi and instead of taking a direct route to your destination, the driver takes you on an unnecessary scenic tour (aka the longest way possible). You then arrive at your destination half an hour later than you should and with an exorbitant bill to pay.
Popular in: Anywhere in the world, but particularly rife in 3rd world countries.
How to avoid it: Do your research before you go and know roughly how much you should pay. Always negotiate rates ahead of time and if the driver refuses, demand that they use a meter. If you’re able to show that you have some sense of the directions, then this will also be a deterrent to getting over-charged.
This is a really tricky one. Society has taught us to obey the law and that police are there to serve and protect. But what happens when police are corrupt? There are so many variations of what can happen, but as an example I’ll tell you what happened to me in Bali. My boyfriend and I were riding along doubled on a moped (both wearing helmets and obeying the road rules) when police standing on the side of the road signalled for us to pull over. Straight away they told us that we were going to jail because we ‘broke the law’ and they proceeded to search my bag. All of a sudden one of the officers was holding a marijuana bud in his hand saying it was mine. I’d heard about things like this happening and knew that they wanted a bribe (even though it certainly was not mine). I pulled out a few rupiah notes thinking they’d take it and we’d be on our merry way, but they then demanded that we get off our bike and go to the police station with them. Before I could even think about what this meant, my boyfriend just sped off with me on the back and the policemen on foot chasing after us. Thanks to a few sneaky back alleyways, we got away easily and never heard a thing about it again.
Popular in: Bali, Thailand and Vietnam
How to avoid it: Every country has a different law and order system and I definitely wouldn’t recommend running away from the police. Things certainly could have turned very sour in that scenario and thinking about it now makes me feel ill. The best thing to do is ask the police to show you their badge, tell them that you’re ringing the police station (do this to check that they really are official policemen) then ring the embassy if you can. Never, I repeat, NEVER, hand over your passport. Handing over your passport can mean they have leverage to take further bribes and also means you’re stuck in a country (and in the worst case, without proper legal representation). Always be friendly and cooperative, and if you do have to go to the police station, do not sign anything that you don’t understand.
When we use ATMs in Australia, our card comes back first, followed by our money. However, when we use the ATM it in other countries like Bali, it will spit our money out first, thus making it quite easy to walk away without waiting for our card. This isn’t a scam, it’s just the way the machine is set up. However, locals have clued on to this and are often waiting nearby for tourists to leave their card in the machine so they can quickly make another transaction to drain the account of all the funds. Another common trick is someone distracting a traveler whilst they use the ATM and making note of their pin (ready to skim their card later).
Popular in: Bali and Argentina
How to avoid it: Just be aware when you’re using the ATM and always make sure you have your card and cash before walking away. Don’t use dodgy looking ATM’s on the side of the road and don’t get distracted when you’re drawing money out.
TAKE A PICTURE
I don’t think there’s anything worse than losing all your photos from a holiday, but unfortunately this can happen faster than your camera captures a shot. That friendly passerby who offers to take your photo for you? Think twice about trusting them. Chances are, just as you’ve got your signature hand-on-hip pose right, they’re zooming down the street with your camera (or these days, with your phone).
Popular in: This can happen literally anywhere in the world (especially if you look like an easy target – aka the unsuspecting Rolex-wearing tourist).
How to avoid it: As a general rule, if someone offers to take a picture for you, be wary. However, I’ve often asked strangers to take a photo with no trouble at all – sometimes it all comes down to who approaches who.
BABY FORMULA SCAM
Up there with one of the more elaborate scams out there, the baby formula trick is destined to pull on your heart strings. A beggar comes up to you on the street holding a tired and malnourished baby, begging you to buy them some baby formula to feed their starving child. Most humans with any ounce of sympathy wouldn’t blink twice at the cost of formula if it meant the child gets fed. Once you’ve purchased the formula and left, the adult beggar then takes it back to the shop and receives a cut of the cost (the shop owner is in on this too). Seems pretty innocent, right? Unfortunately, it’s not. The malnourished baby has actually been fed drugs and had smoke blown in its eyes to make it look that way. As much as this scam will make you feel very internally conflicted and maybe even guilty, please don’t fall for it.
Popular in: Vietnam
How to avoid it: Simply walk away. Don’t even engage in conversation and remove yourself from the scenario as quickly as possible.
Intended as a distraction technique, this scam happens when a flurry of children shake newspapers in your face offering to sell them to you. This seemingly innocent act is not there for convenience, it’s actually there to confuse and distract you whilst some busy fingers are stealing your valuables (in other words, pick pocketing).
Popular in: Spain, Italy, France
How to avoid it: Just hang on tight to your valuables and tell them to go away.
THE KIND BYSTANDER
This happens when a seemingly innocent bystander kindly points out that you have bird poo on your shirt. This same person also just so happens to have tissues and a bottle of water handy to help you clean it off. Well, my friend, unfortunately whilst you are being cleaned, you are being cleaned out. As you’re being distracted by the ‘kind’ stranger cleaning up the mess, the stranger’s friend is fleecing your back pocket. The ‘bird poo’ is actually melted chocolate – these guys have fine tuned this scam into a few different variations and caught out many a traveler.
Popular in: Spain and other parts of Europe
How to avoid it: The best way to avoid a scam like this is do your research before you go. This one is pretty well publicised and I hate to say ‘don’t trust strangers’ (as how else do you get to make amazing new friends) but maybe don’t trust strangers that have water and tissues a little too handy.
There are few variations of this scam but the most common one happens in a taxi on your way from the airport to your hotel when the driver tells you that it’s full and he’ll have to take you to an alternative property. They will even tell you that the hotel you booked is now closed down. The trick is that the alternative hotel is actually a much more expensive version and the hotelier is in on the scam, paying off the taxi driver.
Popular in: India
How to avoid it: Insist that you want to go to the initial hotel you booked, regardless of what they tell you. If they are telling the truth, what’s the worst that can happen? Another cab ride, or a stroll down the road to a different hotel.
THE FLIRTY BEAUTY
Most people should know by now that if a gorgeous woman approaches them and is overly friendly, then they’ve got to want something in return, right? This happens quite a lot where a beautiful woman lures unsuspecting travelers into a bar, orders several drinks and when the bill comes, it’s vastly inflated and the women refuse to pay. Suddenly you’re surrounded by bulky looking security guards who are ready to escort you to the ATM to get more cash out. Unfortunately, in this scenario you’ve been scammed and chances are by now those gorgeous women are nowhere to be seen.
Popular in: Thailand and Bali
How to avoid it: Avoid any unsolicited invitations to socialise from attractive women, or otherwise just be aware that you could be in for a very expensive night.
This scam occurs in airports all around the world where a fellow traveler is eating a hotdog and then suddenly mustard squirts all over you. Similar to the newspaper attack and bird poo trick, it is meant as a distraction technique and as they’re making a fuss over the mess, your valuables are being swiftly stolen before you can even say bon appetite.
Popular in: Thailand
How to avoid it: Keep your bag in between your legs at all times and never leave valuables unattended.
You’re waiting in line at the security gate and someone comes rushing through claiming they’re late for their flight (just as you’re about to walk through the electronic arch). After pushing in front of you, the late-comer seems to have something that’s setting the sensor off and now there’s a hold up. Once the issue has been resolved you continue through, only to realise that your laptop and wallet that you left in the tray are now gone. Unfortunately, complaining is futile as airport staff are also in on the scam.
Popular in: Thailand
How to avoid it: Don’t place your valuables in the trays until the very last minute and keep a close watch on them as you head through the security arch.
This happens when you’re walking along minding your own business and suddenly a friendly passerby bends down beside you and picks up your ‘lost ring’. Even if it looks similar to one you own, it’s actually just a cheap brass ring and it will soon become pretty apparent that you’re not getting away without paying a reward.
Popular in: Barcelona and Paris
How to avoid it: Keep walking, ignore them and don’t engage in conversation as they can get very aggressive when you refuse to give them any money.
MONEY CONVERSION TRICK
I’ve personally been caught out by this one on more than one occasion. It happened to me about 5 years ago, when I got fleeced of my hard earned rupiah (from the same person, 3 consecutive times)! I wanted to exchange my AUD into Rupiah and get a good exchange rate, so I went to a dodgy looking money exchange vendor on the side of the road. A few days later and after visiting the man a couple of times I realised I was running out of money pretty quickly and couldn’t figure out why. After asking around and taking my friends in with me to do the exchange, we realised that I’d been scammed. Perfectly timed sleight of hand and some well-positioned holes in the bench meant that as the friendly vendor straightened the notes up, some of the notes fall back through the holes in the bench (and straight back into his till).
Popular in: Bali and Thailand
How to avoid it: I can laugh about it now and warn my friends, yet these guys are literally like magicians and I don’t think I would have figured it out if it wasn’t for a fellow traveller explaining it to me. Best way to avoid it is to only use the banks and Kodak stores (the more reputable looking businesses). Always ask for higher notes in the exchange – 100,000 rupiah notes are easier to count than a huge wad of 20,000 rupiah notes.
CATCH MY BABY
This is one of the worst scams ever created. You’re walking along and then suddenly a baby is thrown at you. Most decent human beings with any ounce of compassion will attempt to catch it. Unfortunately, as you drop your bags and your hands fumble to catch the flying baby, your pockets and bags are getting fleeced.
Popular in: Rome, Italy and other European capitals.
How to avoid it: This scam normally targets women (it’s that maternal instinct) and the baby is normally a doll wrapped in blankets. It’s hard not to react to a scam like this but best to walk as further away from beggars as possible.
This trick is done when you hire a car/bike/moped/jetski. Once you return it, the vendor claims you’ve damaged the item and demands exorbitant fees for repair. Another variation of this scam is when your hired bike is ‘stolen’ from your hotel and your forced to pay for the cost of it.
Popular in: Thailand, Bali, Mexico
How to avoid it: Take several photos of the item as you’re hiring it and make note of any damages. Never give your real hotel name to the vendor as they’re usually in on any of the scams (especially the one where your bike gets stolen).
Getting caught out when it comes to transfers is sometimes unavoidable, especially in poorer countries. Friends of mine were travelling through South America and looking to cross the border from Peru to Ecuador. After being warned that catching a cab isn’t safe, they pre-booked a bus to depart from Mancora Peru. After arriving ready to board they found out it was a minibus (not the coach they had originally booked), but in order to avoid delay, they boarded the minibus anyway. Well, this is when things got interesting. Instead of being taken across the border they were dropped off at a spot close to it and convinced that they had to ‘transfer’ to a cab there. The cab driver then demanded a border fee of US$100 each, however instead of taking them across the border, the driver drove them through the back streets and into a compound. Before they knew it the gates shut behind them and a bunch of heavy looking guys intimidated them into handing over all their money. Finally, instead of being taken across the border, the cab dropped them back into town. Certainly not the transfer they pre-booked!
Popular in: Any country! Try to go off personal referrals when it comes to transfers in places you’re not as confident in.
How to avoid it: Unfortunately, things like this can’t always be avoided. If you need to book a transfer do your research and try to pre-book through a reputable company. Another tip – If you’re offered a transfer that seems a lot cheaper than the others, politely decline and pay the extra money just for safety’s sake.
BEST TIPS FOR KEEPING SAFE
- Make sure friends and family have your itinerary and a photocopy of your passport.
- Always make sure you write down key phone numbers and addresses.
- Keep most of your cash close to your body when in transit.
- Always have travel insurance – it’s likely that you won’t need it, but it’s certainly helpful when you do. Companies like Cover-more offer unlimited medical cover and 24/7 emergency assistance, so there’s always someone available if something goes wrong.
- Use a travel card instead of your normal ATM or credit card. Most banks offer great options that allow you to load several different currencies onto the one card. Plus, they will give you two cards, so if one gets lost or stolen you can easily cancel it and use the other card. Comparison site Finder has done all the hard work for you and compared some of the top rated travel cards.
- Remember that material possessions can be purchased again, so never put yourself in danger in order to avoid losing valuables – it’s just not worth the risk.
- Don’t be too trusting of strangers.
- If the situation seems too good to be true, it usually is – trust your instincts!