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Five Rules for Recognizing and Avoiding Travel Scams

by Buzzy Gordon May 29, 2008
Protecting yourself while on the road comes down to preparation, vigilance, and awareness.
Common scams / scam-artists and how to recognize them

Unofficial “Moneychangers”

Changing money is an activity that should be confined to banks and licensed establishments, or ATMs, which will dispense cash in local currency. Avoid moneychangers who approach you on the street or in terminals promising you a better rate; these guys are skilled at counting out money and then palming some of it back as you conclude the exchange.

Finally, if you must transact business with these people, do it at a table or other surface where the money can be counted out into visible piles. Be prepared for them to balk at this suggestion.


The most common scam is shortchanging, because it takes advantage of foreigners’ inferior knowledge of the language, abetted by lack of familiarity with the local currency. It works on every level, from cheating backpackers to fleecing the rich.

I knew one French traveler who financed his trips by routinely shortchanging drivers from the UK when collecting tolls in Calais. Take your tine and count your change carefully before walking away from the cash register.

The Bus Ticket Switch

A bit more sophisticated than the wrong change con is the bus ticket switch: you pay for a round-trip ticket but are given a one-way ticket. The first way to avoid this is to get to the station in plenty of time so you’re not rushing to buy a ticket and running to catch a departing bus. Secondly, as above, get into the habit of counting your change slowly and out loud after this (and every) transaction.

If you are victimized, don’t be shy about approaching the police, especially if the country has a Tourism Police Force (as Honduras does). Just be aware that following through could cut into your travel time.

The “Friendly” Local

Be slightly wary of friendly people who offer to be your guide. This is a tricky situation, because some of your best travel experiences can be spending time with local people.

If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc.

If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc. If they offer to take you somewhere in a taxi, use your best judgment in deciding how far it is and if it is worth your time and money to go there (and back). If they’re genuine, you can always beg off and say you’ll meet them there the next day.

One of the best ways to prepare for these eventualities is to carry small souvenirs of your home city or country that you can dispense as little thank-you gifts to all sorts of people who show you kindnesses.


Watch out when taking taxis. If there is a meter, insist on using it. If not, or if it is “broken,” negotiate an agreed fare in advance. It is inevitable that once in a while you will fall victim to an unscrupulous driver who takes the long way or pulls something else.

Border crossings call for extra caution: buses are preferable to taking taxis; some taxi drivers have been known to rip foreigners off by taking them to fake checkpoints, or to lie about border crossing hours of operation in order to snag an extra fare late in the day.

How to avoid getting scammed, or at least deal with it

1. Nothing takes the place of preparation.

I learned this from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, and it applies to every stage of life: school, work, marriage and of course, travel.

In the context of travel, preparation includes studying maps, routes, guidebooks and all other materials that give you as clear a picture as possible about traveling from Point A to Point B, as well as stopovers in between.

Remember that maps can be deceiving if you fail to factor in topography: what looks like a short city walk can take forever if it involves climbing a steep hill; differences in altitude between cities can mean tremendous variations in temperature. I remember a long, freezing night in a bus because I failed to take altitude change into account.

And remember that while maps indicate roads, they generally won’t tell you the bus routes that travel those roads, or give you information about border crossing points. If using public transportation, it is important to check and coordinate schedules as well. Getting stuck somewhere with few options makes you more vulnerable to rip-off artists.

It is always helpful to learn in advance a few words and phrases in the language of the country you are going to. This is especially the case when it comes to numbers and currency; if you have a total mental block in this regard, do what many merchants do when conducting transactions: carry a small calculator (most cellphones are equipped with them).

Finally, no matter how prepared you are, once in a while things are going to go wrong. This leads us to #2.

2. Go with the flow.

Your mental health is connected to your physical health and general well-being. One of the biggest energy drainers is ranting and fuming about things that are not under your control.

As trite as this sentiment may seem, try to make the best of a bad situation. If you are unexpectedly stuck in the same city a night longer than you’d planned and you liked the vibes in the hotel you stayed in the night before, go back and find the people you enjoyed talking to, or take the opportunity to make new friends.

Try a restaurant you didn’t have time for earlier. Or, make it a really early night and catch up on some probably much-needed extra sleep.

Meditation is a great coping mechanism when things do not go as planned. If there is anything I would do differently from when I started traveling 30 years ago, it would be to have learned to meditate much earlier than I did.

3. Carry proper identification, backup I.D. and supporting documentation.

Make sure your passport is not only valid and legible but has at least six months left before it expires, as well as enough empty pages left to accommodate several large visa stamps. Be aware of your destination countries’ visa requirements and any other rules for entry.

Some countries have the ridiculous requirement that you must have two facing empty visa pages; I have seen people denied boarding on their flight for not having their empty pages opposite one another — even though upon arrival and departure, the immigration agents paid no attention to this detail!

Make several photocopies of your passport’s front pages, your driver’s license(s) and your credit/ATM cards. Keep one copy with you or your traveling companion (separate from the originals) and one with reliable relatives or friends at home. Scanned digital copies stored online or on a thumb drive should work just as well.

This Backup Principle applies to all sorts of situations, not just data. For example, if you need to wake up at a certain time, try to arrange a wake-up call as well as setting your alarm clock. If you’re traveling in a non-English-speaking country and you have a medical condition, carry a translation of your condition and know the generic names of any medications.

In a previous article, I wrote about the advisability of carrying a letter from your congressman or senator to present to authorities in times of need. This is less important if you are not traveling in third world countries or crossing land borders.

Still, if you are planning on spending more than a month in one particular country, it is a good idea to register with the embassy or consulate of your home country.

4. Practice money vigilance.

Just about everyone knows by now that travelers’ checks are a thing of the past; with ATMs in every country now, the new money is plastic. I am in the habit of carrying three cards: two ATM cards (stored separately on my person, with precautions taken against pickpockets) and one credit card. (One does not need two bank accounts to have two ATM cards; you can get prepaid ones these days.)

While I was furiously running around India trying to get a machine to cough up enough money to buy a bottle of water, a letter was sitting in my mailbox at home saying that the bank had frozen my account because it had detected “suspicious activity.”

Overkill, you say? Perhaps, but consider this: aside from the threat of one being stolen, my bank once temporarily suspended my card, “for my own protection.” While I was furiously running around India trying to get a machine to cough up enough money to buy a bottle of water, a letter was sitting in my mailbox at home saying that the bank had frozen my account because it had detected “suspicious activity.”

What had set off alarm bells at the bank? Sudden ATM withdrawals (my own, needless to say) from different cities in India!

The credit card is handy for larger or unexpected purchases, like plane tickets. It is useful not only in emergencies, but if you buy a ticket from a discount operation, you can later dispute the charge if the ticket turns out to be bogus in some way.

5. Know when to travel alone, and when not to.

This rule applies to couples traveling as a single unit as much as it does to those traveling solo. There are times when even those who prefer to travel alone are well advised to seek company, especially when walking at night in an unfamiliar city.

Whenever you’re crossing borders, a busload of people is a safer bet than going alone, since there will be locals traveling as well. Moreover, it is good to have someone who might be able to carry a message for you in case your crossing is delayed for some reason or other.

On the flip side, there are occasions when you will want to experience certain things alone, or shared only with a special someone. For example, you may want to rush through a museum in order to move on to other things, while others would choose to linger.

One experience I had would never have been the same had I been even with one other person. When visiting Tikal, a gentle rainshower began to fall. The lone group of tourists there ran for shelter. Suddenly, I was left all alone in the main plaza. As the rain abated to a fine drizzle, the silent place enveloped me in a magical way.

Don’t miss: for more on travel scams, check out BNT’s Top 10 Travel Scams (And How To Avoid Them).

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