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Tourist Scams: what to watch for

When we travel we let our guard down, we are on vacation in our idyllic place and of course we want nothing to change that view. The truth is that travellers get scammed every day. It’s an unfortunate truth. And knowing that you’ve been scammed is the worst way to start or end a holiday. Here are several travel scams you should watch out for!

To the trained eye, you can spot tourists from miles away. You know the ones, Hawaii-print shorts, sunglasses, ball cap with their favourite American baseball team on the front, a camera with a paparazzi lens hanging around their next, guide book or map in the back pocket… Okay, maybe this is overly American but really, when you’re the local you can really spot who is and who’s not (despite how many times a day I get offered a City Tour of my own city…). When you’re travelling on holidays and you’re the tourist you have to watch out, trained street criminals know how to nail you if you’re not paying close attention.

  • Fake police officers:

It may sound silly, but hundreds of tourists fall for this scam. Someone dressed like a police office approaches you and tells you that there has been a problem recently with counterfeit bills. They will ask to check your wallet for any such bills; this appears to be a favour to you. They will go through your wallet, giving it back to you saying “all clear” or “looks all right” but by the time you go through your wallet again, you will notice a couple of bills missing.

Don’t ever, under any circumstances (even if they are real police officers) hand over your wallet or passport, ever. Ask for identification numbers and names if you doubt their identity. Being scrupulous and cautious is not a crime.

  • While one distracts, the other steals:

As classic as a BLT, this scam comes is many shapes and sizes. A lot of con artists work

pick pocketing is common around the world
As soon as you're distracted, your wallet is gone. (img: flickr cc)

in pairs and while one is distracting you, another will steal from you without even noticing. It may come in the form of a women yelling with a street vendor. She is accused of stealing. She creates a scene, a crowd gathers. Her partner on the other hand is making his way into the crowd as well, picking pockets as he goes.

Another, someone accidentally spills something on you, you’re shocked and your wallet’s suddenly gone. A hoard of children may surround you, asking you for money or food, while you’re distracted with them, another already has their hands on your wallet. Unfortunately a lot of these scams happen when we are genuinely trying to help someone.

As long as there is a crowd you can be a victim to this. Easy prevention: don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket or in the front pouch of your bag. Wear a pouch/money belt/small purse under your clothes. For women, use a small purse with a strap, wear it under your jacket or sweater instead of on top of it.

  • Taxis:

There is a long list of taxi cab scams out there. Some, knowing that you don’t know the area will take the long route or a “short-cut.” If you know the approx driving time between point A and B you can avoid this. In many countries cabbies try fixed metres along with fake fare sheets so that there is no arguing when it comes to paying for a ride that should have cost £5 and costs you £20.

In some places they will tell you that your hotel burned down recently and take you to another one, one at which they will receive a hefty commission. Never take a ride from an unmarked taxi. Ask before getting into the taxi what the price will be for your ride, approximately. If you have doubts, ask another nearby taxi what his rate is, its an easy way to find out if they’re trying to scam you or not.

  • Good Samaritan:

As much as you would like to trust every person that comes along to help you, sometimes you just cant. There are a lot of con artists in disguise and who jump at the chance to “help” you in a foreign country. Don’t accept any help when it comes to using an ATM, they are just after you PIN code, to use after they snitch your wallet.

Others will linger at train stations, offering to help you purchase your ticket. You can accept their help but never hand them the money to give to the teller, hand it over yourself directly. They’ll be off with your cash before you can blink.

In Spain it is becoming more and more common to see old women standing out side of the local cathedral. They will push a sprig of rosemary into your hand, a sign of friendship, tell your fortune and then demand money. Don’t make eye contact and keep walking.

  • Monkeys are cute:

Monkeys can be con artists too
They sure are cute! Especially when they have your wallet up in a tree. (img: flickr cc)

Don’t be so certain that it is always humans who are out to scam tourists. Sometimes these cute and oh-so-well trained furry friends know how to pick a pocket just as well as their trainer does. Monkeys are easy distractions, but keep your guard. Avoid a large gathering if the monkey is performing and keep your wallet where its not easily snatched by a furry friend that can quickly climb up a tree where you won’t be able to reach him. This has been reported mostly in Bali on Indonesia holidays. Solution: attach your wallet with a chain to your pants or hide it deep inside a zippered bag.

Have you ever been scammed abroad? What happened? What advice would you give to other travellers?

3 comments

  • Coralie Reply

    I got my wallet stolen in the Paris metro (which as a parisienne, is a shame) while falling asleep on the seat, open bag. But nothing occured when I was all over the world. Sometimes, it's at home that you are the less careful!

  • Katie Reply

    Well, that was lucky! I've had my wallet stolen twice (both times in Spain) and once I actually got it back with all of my library cards still in place, photographs… at least I only had ten Euros at the time, so the loss wasn't that big. My second wallet was a temporary stand-in for the first wallet I had stolen and it also got snitched. No major losses, there is nothing more humbling while travelling than getting robbed. Friends spotted me some cash until I got replacement bank cards and it just added to my experiences abroad. You live, lose, learn and relearn!

  • Almak Reply

    My mum was once walking down the Ramblas in Barcelona (typical place for pickpocketing). Her wallet was stolen, but by the time she realized, the thief returned to her with her wallet, and gave it back (without any missing items inside). You can immagine my mums face and astonishment.
    Unfortunately this is not what happens usually…