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10 Common Travel Scams (And How To Avoid Them)

by Elizabeth Rogers Sep 20, 2007
It’s hard to prevent a scam that you don’t know about, and you won’t always have time to weigh the facts.

“Congratulations! You’ve won a free trip!”

It’s no secret that travelers are targets for any number of scams. At home it’s easy to check up on something that may not be legitimate when you have time and resources on your side.

But what about when you’re traveling? Even if you’re not the target of financial scams or too-good-to-true travel deals there are still many opportunities for criminals to take advantage.

It’s hard to prevent a scam that you don’t know about, and you won’t always have time to weigh the facts.

To help you out, here are some of the most common scams to watch out for:

1. Great deals at the airport or bus station

You get off the bus, train or airplane in a new country and someone offers you a great deal on a night’s stay or transportation.

While the deal may sound appealing, chances are you’re being led into a trap or the services you receive will be substandard. Scammers often take advantage of travelers when they are tired and disoriented.

Avoiding this scam is fairly easy but requires a little planning: even if you’re opting for a flexible style of travel, have a room waiting and reliable transportation booked for the first night at any new destination.

You can look for other accommodations after you’ve had a good night’s rest and something to eat.

2. Fake cabs

Whole articles have been written about taxi safety abroad.

It’s true, hailing a taxi on the street can put you in danger. Being charged inflated fares and taken “the long way” to a destination are minor concerns compared to the risks of express kidnapping, assault or robbery.

Many travelers choose to avoid taxis altogether and opt for cycling, walking or public transportation (as appropriate). If you plan to take a cab, make sure it is a legal, fully-licensed, in good condition (including fully-functional door handles on the inside).

Ask about the rate to make sure you are being charged an appropriate fare. Consult your map before leaving your room to get a feel for the streets, and pay attention to where you are going. Make it clear that there will be no stopping to pick up other passengers.

Most importantly, trust your instincts. If you suspect something is wrong, pay the driver and get out.

3. Phony police

Being approached by a police officer in a foreign country can be an intimidating experience.

This scenario has at least two versions:

  • 1) You’re approached by a policeman who asks to see your credit and debit cards, and he needs your PIN information. He might also ask to see your cash and jewelry; or
  • 2) Your are pulled over and the “police” need to search the car – robbing you in the process.

Criminals are counting on the fact that you can’t tell a fake uniform from a real one. Help yourself by knowing what the local police uniform and marked cars look like.

Legitimate police will not ask for your credit cards and PIN information or to see your jewelry. This tactic is often used by people who will grab the goods and run.

If you’re pulled over, you can ask to see the police officer’s badge (take note of the name and number) and call the local police to verify this person is, in fact, a police officer.

4. Distract and grab

There are many variations of this tactic, where one person distracts the victim while another picks his or her pockets. There are tales of tourists being sprayed with mustard, having coins scattered at their feet and even having “babies” tossed to them.

It’s hard to beat instinct and not react to the distraction, but there are some things you can do prevent becoming a target. Thieves tend to target popular tourist destinations, transportation depots, and large venues and events – so your best approach is to be vigilant and avoid crowds.

Money pouches hidden beneath your clothes and “dummy” wallets are also an option.

5. Over priced food and drinks

It’s a common trick to overcharge tourists, but some destinations take this tactic to extremes with excessively high bills – and then threaten physical violence if the bill is not paid.

Sometimes there’s a face to this scam: a pretty girl who asks a male traveler to buy her a drink, or a friendly local who wants to practice his or her English over a cup of tea.

The trick is to ask the price before you order and pay up front if necessary. Reputable bars and restaurants should have a menu that lists their prices. A good understanding of local currency and a few key phrases in the local language can be a boon in this situation.

6. Spiked drinks

We’re all aware of this problem at home and take measures to protect ourselves – drinking with trusted friends, placing your own orders and keeping a close eye on your drinks.

The same rules apply when you’re traveling, especially since tourists are often targeted for robbery as well as sexual assault. There have even been reports of vendors and bar owners spiking drinks.

If you’re suspicious of the staff or drinking alone in a strange place, opt for a drink in a sealed bottle or can and look for signs of tampering. If you don’t feel well, seek medical help immediately and contact the police.

7. The hotel needs your credit card information

You’re settled in for the night after a long day when the front desk clerk calls your room. There has been a mistake processing your registration or a form is incomplete, and they need your correct credit card information.

The request seems harmless, but who is on the other end of the line?

A hotel should never bother a guest during the middle of the night unless it is an emergency. Advice on recommends that if you do get a call, tell them you will come down in the morning to straighten out the error and hang up.

Do not give out any information or offer to call back. Report the issue to management in the morning.

8. Lost wallets

This scam comes in two forms:

  • 1) someone finds a wallet near you and offers to share the contents – but the original owner shows up and demands to be repaid for money that wasn’t there.
  • 2) Someone has lost their wallet and blames you. They want you to empty your pockets (so they can run off with your wallet). In either case, the criminal may try to extort money from you with a threat to call the police.

It may be tempting, but never pick up dropped wallets or money, or respond to someone who does. Simply walk away.

Chances are the scammers aren’t going to make a scene, they’ll simply move on to another target. These scams are popular in public places such as airports where there are usually lots of security cameras.

9. The phone call in the middle of the night

Your parents get a phone call in the middle of the night saying you have been detained or taken to the hospital. The official-sounding caller requests that money be wired immediately to a bank account.

You’re out enjoying yourself and aren’t even aware there is a problem. Is there something you can do to prevent it?

Yes. Here’s where your back-up plan comes into action: Make sure your parents know how to contact you and your government’s emergency consular assistance hotline. The embassy can act to locate you and can advise your parents on what to do.

Ideally, your parents already have your itinerary, a copy of your passport and the details of your travel insurance policy to speed up the process.

If you are in trouble, you should also contact your embassy. Most governments also recommend that travelers register their trips with the embassy so they can locate you in an emergency.

10. Car troubles

Most locals are willing to help if you find yourself in trouble, but beware of people who are too willing to offer assistance – they may have caused the problem in the first place.

Their most common target is your rental car. There have been many cases of tourists being robbed while a “good Samaritan” is helping them change a flat tire.

When you rent a car prepare for emergencies. In addition to understanding local laws and hazards, know who to call for help rather than relying on a fellow motorist. In some countries, the only people you should accept roadside help from are police.

You can also take proactive measures: Before you head out or head back to your hotel, quickly inspect your car for anything suspicious like a nail or slash in your tires. On the road if someone indicates for you to pull over, drive to a safe, well lit area if possible.

If someone approaches you at your hotel about a problem, take along security guard to check it out.

One important thing to remember in any of these situations is not to resist if you are threatened with violence. Cash and travel documents can be replaced.

Remember most people are not out to harm travellers, and a little preparation can help you avoid the ones who are.

The more you know about your destination – including the culture, safety risks and local language – the better prepared you will be for any challenges.


Elizabeth Rogers is a professional writer and educator. She currently plies her trade working as editor and content manager for AllSafeTravels, where she writes about travel and safety issues.

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