7 Common Travel Scams (and How to Avoid them)

You can fall victim to travel scams matter where you are in the world — but it is a sad fact that often tourists do make the most vulnerable victims. A female traveler can be seen as especially easy prey, and so be targeted for a number of scams designed to relieve you of your money and/or possessions.

The good news is that most scams are easy to avoid as long as you’re aware of them. Forewarned is forearmed, so familiarize yourself with the most common tricks of the trade before you travel, and keep them in mind – the moment you can recognize that a situation might be a scam, the more likely you are to be able to get out of it.

1. The Distract & Grab

This is basically pickpocketting, but sneakier. The thief will distract you by trying to engage you in conversation, throwing something at you/ at your feet, or surreptitiously dousing you in mustard, ketchup or any other messy condiment before “helpfully” toweling you down – and robbing you in the process.

The easiest way to avoid this is to maintain an awareness of yourself, your personal space and your surroundings, and be especially aware of your valuables if someone seems to try to be invading your space.

The Tea Scam
2. The Tea Scam

You are approached by one or more friendly-seeming locals who want to “practice their English” or help show you the sights. You end up going with them into a café or tea room and are served drinks – but when the bill comes, it is extortionately high (sometimes hundreds of dollars) and you are the one being coerced into paying it.

This is best avoided by not automatically following your new local friends into the place they first recommend – although this does require a sad level of cynicism, making up some excuse about needing to head to a different part of town or not being thirsty, should send the scammers packing sharpish. If it’s already too late and you’ve got the bill before you, you have two options – either call them on their scam and refuse to pay, or pay up and get out of there. Some scammers might turn violent, so it’s up to you to gauge the danger of the situation.

3. Fake Police

This relies on you, as a foreigner, not being able to recognize a fake police uniform or car. Fake police stop you and “search” you or your vehicle – robbing you in the process. Variations include them demanding an on-the-spot “fine” for some incomprehensible misdemeanor, or asking to check what valuables you’re carrying before later robbing you.

Avoid falling for this one by checking beforehand what legit police would be wearing and driving, and always ask to see their official ID. If you smell a rat, offer to go to the nearest police station to sort this out (although don’t get into their car to accept a “lift” there, as who knows where you may end up).

The Found Wallet Scam
4. The Found Wallet

You see a wallet that’s been dropped near your feet and pick it up; that, or a passerby sees it at your feet and offers to split the contents with you. Either way, you’ll quickly be met by the angry owner of the wallet, demanding you reimburse him for the contents. Another variation of this scam involves being randomly but vocally accused of stealing a wallet, and being ordered to prove you haven’t by emptying your pockets. The accuser will then know what valuables you’re carrying, and where they are, and will be able to rob you later.

The easiest way to avoid this is by never picking up anything you see on the ground, especially in tourist hotspots, train stations and airports, where this scam is often used. If you do pick something up, don’t look inside but immediately hand it in to an official. And if you find yourself accused by the angry wallet owner, stand firm and don’t give in to their demands or threats – they might threaten to call the police, but they won’t really. After all, they are the thief, not you!

5. The Runaway Taxi

A lot of taxi drivers see tourists as a great way to make a little extra money, often by charging them inflated fees or driving them needlessly long distances.

Many travellers avoid this by trying to eschew taxis for public transport whenever possible. If you do get in a taxi, make sure it’s a licensed one, and agree on a price beforehand or make sure it has a meter. Ask your hotel or hostel for estimated prices so you have a good idea what you should be paying beforehand.

6. The Rental Car Accident

You’re out in a rental car or on a rental scooter and are in a minor accident, and the owner immediately takes you to a garage and demands you pay the costs. That, or the vehicle is “stolen” the moment you leave it unattended – by the people who rented it out to you, who then demand you pay the costs of losing it.

Try to rent from reputable companies, and read the small print carefully before signing any rental agreement to see what you might be accountable for.

The Phantom Hotel Scam
7. The Phantom Hotel

You arrive in a new destination, but are immediately informed by your taxi driver, or by the hotel touts around the bus station, that the hotel you planned to stay in is closed. Instead, you should stay at a great hotel that they know about – they are, of course, working with the hotel, and you have no way of knowing what kind of place you might find yourself staying in.

The best way to avoid this is to say you have a reservation somewhere, and are planning to meet your bother/ husband/ father who’s already there – and then stick firm with this story. If you don’t have a specific reservation already – just an area you want to head to before checking out the options – perhaps get the name and address of a hotel in the area that you can give to your taxi driver, so that he won’t try and deter you.

Don’t let the fear of scams make you too scared or cynical while traveling – of course most of the people you meet will be genuinely trying to help you and engage with you. Just keep a sense of awareness and remember to trust your instincts, and you’ll be fine.

Have you fallen victim to a scam? Do you know about any not included here? Share it below!


About Author

Leah Eades is a compulsive traveller and freelance writer, whose adventures so far include working in an Italian nightclub, contracting a mystery illness in the Amazon, studying at a Chinese university, and cycling 700km along the Danube River. She blames cheap Ryanair flights for her addiction. Having recently graduated with an English degree, she is currently based in Florence, Italy.

1 Comment

  1. Great article girl! I was a target of a subte scame in buenas aires. It didn’t come to pass thankfully. I refer to it as the barf and run haha. Two dudes got on the subway and I noticed they sized me up and my purse while iit was crowded and I was standing. I alerted my friend with my eyes and sure enough the one guy pretended to vomit jus as the train was slowing down to the next station. this caused everyone to panic and move about. I saw the other guy moving towards me and I quick switched my purse across my body as I sorta ran past the attempt. Sure enough no puke and the guys left. Ladies heed this one. Another common BA scam is marking a hit (target) with paint on their shoes unknowingly

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