This article is a travel topic
Scams are an unfortunate part of life. Everywhere in the world are people looking for unscrupulous ways to make money, all at someone else's expense, loss, and sometimes quite terrible suffering. Many scammers are quite smart; they know how to cheat money out of others in a manner in which identification and prosecution of themselves are difficult if not impossible, and where the victim has little if any recourse. They take advantage of weak laws and law enforcement, thereby allowing themselves to effectively operate indefinitely while nothing is stopping them.
Tourists are among those most vulnerable to scams. There are many reasons for this. Tourists are unfamiliar with the area, are often in need of help and information and tend to be trusting of those offering it, are likely not to question what they see or are told, do not know alternatives, often cannot speak the language where they are, carry large amounts of cash and available credit, often do not have a vehicle and therefore the freedom to travel anywhere they wish within the area, are unfamiliar with the area's law enforcement agencies, are afraid of getting in trouble with police themselves, are unlikely to return to the area to assist in the prosecution of the offenders, and are unlikely to ever cross paths with the scammers again.
One who has traveled enough is very likely to have been a victim of such a scam at some time in their lives. Some scams are quite obvious once they have occurred; the victim realizes they have been cheated but only after it is too late. Others are more subtle; the victim may never realize that anything went wrong and that they spent money they never needed to spend.
There are common scams that occur in many places that the traveler should be aware of. These are designed to get your money or business from you under false pretenses. They fall into three categories: overcharging you, deceiving you or coercing you into paying for a service you don't want, and outright theft.
Prevention is based on knowledge: researching your destination will both alert you in advance to scams in the area and let you know what the usual prices and truly good sights are so you will be less reliant on the approaches of helpful individuals when you're vulnerable.
At the same time, if you do get stung, don't be too hard on yourself: you were dealing with people who knew the location a lot better than you and with people who were out to deceive you. In some cases, you were dealing with hardened criminals. If you think what happened to you was illegal and the police are trustworthy, report it, otherwise, just chalk it up to experience. Note that if you wish to make a theft-related claim against an insurance policy, you will generally need to make a police report within 24 hours and keep a copy for your insurance company.
Several bits of common sense may help you stay out of trouble without your needing to know exactly what scams are practiced in what areas:
Research into your destination, its general layout, and the usual price ranges are helpful in avoiding many scams.
These scams are based upon the idea of offering you help or advice that is actually deceptive, trusting that you will rely on the scammer's "local knowledge". They usually involve giving advice that results in you paying for something that you otherwise wouldn't or going somewhere you don't want to go. Some scams in which helpful local offers to cut you a good deal can be outright fraudulent such as convincing you to buy fake gems for example but many simply get you to pay for something that you wouldn't pay for if you knew the area better.
One of the biggest traps of these kinds of scams is the desire to be polite to people who are polite and friendly to you, and the scammers know this. While you shouldn't become a hard-nosed nasty person, you should receive unsolicited offers of help with polite caution, and, when you are reasonably certain that you're being scammed, there's no need to be polite in fending it off: feel free to walk away or speak firmly at the person. Yelling for help could be necessary, but it will often just attract more (unwanted) attention. Pretending they don't exist, which entails not making eye contact, not walking faster, not saying 'hello' or 'no', will often humiliate them or tire them out without frustration on your part. Do not respond if they call you racist to attract your attention. Another common mistake is to say 'no thank you', in which case they have their 'foot in the door' tactic up and running and feel that they can engage in a conversation with you.
Another trap is the "too good to be true" offers: they are almost certainly not true.
Your driver or guide will tell you that the place you're heading to is closed, no good or too expensive and that he knows somewhere better. While this may be true, it's likely that the 'better' place is giving him a commission for referrals, and his commission is just going to increase your room rate.
You must insist on going to your planned destination. In some cases, the driver will not drive you to your hotel even if you insist. In some places, taxi drivers will take you to the wrong hotel and insist it is the one you requested! Get the correct name because there are a lot of copies and similarities in their names.
To avoid being held hostage by a mercenary taxi, keep your luggage with you on the back seat so you can credibly threaten to walk out and not pay. They'll usually back down by the time you start opening the door — and if they don't, get a new driver.
The best thing you can do is avoid using taxis whenever possible. Before arriving in a new location have your accommodation pre booked, find out where it is on the map and see if there is alternative transport such as local buses to get to or near your accommodation.
You may arrive at a major tourist destination only to find a very helpful local near the entrance explaining that there's a riot/holiday/official visit at the place you want to go and it is closed. (Sometimes, taxi drivers are in cahoots with these helpful locals and will purposely drop you off to be received by them.) The local will then offer to take you to a lesser known but infinitely more beautiful sight or to a nice shop. Generally, the destination is in fact open for business: simply refuse the offer and go and have a look. Even on the very rare occasions that they are telling the truth, they may not be as helpful as they seem so it would be better to pursue your own backup plan. Just walk away from them and walk towards the main tourist entrance where they stop following you.
The opposite might in fact take place when arriving by car, specially in places like Rio de Janeiro, where scammers might ask for a fee to "keep your car safe" (a widespread scam in Brazil). While sometimes tourist attractions are in fact closed or under maintenance, scammers will state those are open, and demand a small fee in advance. Taxi drivers will also sometimes take a long route to a place and "forget" to mention the place is closed, then suggest an alternative attraction far away from the original place.
You are met in the street by people who say they are art students. They speak English well and invite you to visit their school. Then they will try to get you to buy one of their works for an excessive price. The "students" are usually attractive young women who are employed by the gallery to attract customers and to make the customers feel obliged to purchase "their" works to encourage them and repay them for their friendliness.
Sometimes locals will simply try to force themselves on you to help with a ticket machine, a subway map or directions. They might just be overly helpful but they may also be looking for and demand a small tip for their forced help. In general, be wary of anyone who forces their way into your personal space, and who starts doing things for you without asking you if you need them. If you have received help and then some coinage is demanded, it's probably easier to pay it. However, this kind of situation can also leave you vulnerable to substantial theft so be polite but firm, and then simply firm, by telling the person that you are fine now and that they should leave you alone.
Help the poor
Help the poor, aka food scam is something which is common in the northern parts of India, especially Rajasthan and New Delhi. A poor woman will approach you with either flowers or Henna and will not ask for money. However as soon as you accept their gift they will either invite you to their home to have food with them or help them by buying food for their family. In the first scenario, if you end up going to their food; you will be taken to a made-up place with really bad food which will actually make you ill and send you off to the hospital which will benefit the local chemist(drug store) or a local doctor and looking at their condition you will feel like giving them some money. The house, the food, clothes and their living condition is all made up and they actually live very nicely with the money they make scamming people.
In the second scenario if you think of buying them food, they will either take you to a strange restaurant and order the most expensive dishes or they will take you to a grocery store and buy them most expensive items for which they will expect you to pay and since you have agreed somewhat you will end up paying at least a few thousand rupees. This food is actually never consumed and makes its way back to the same shop with some kickback money received from the shopkeeper. Either way, these people do not need your help, if they wanted to find work or live a life of respect, they have a choice which they are not willing to make, as scamming people is much easier for them.
Just been robbed
This scam involves persons approaching you and asking you if you know where the police station is. They will seem frightened and shaken and inform you that they have just been robbed of the money he needed to get back home which is very likely to be in a different city or even country. Again, they will get emotional and say the police perhaps won't be of much assistance and they will turn to you for help. Although they only expect you to happily hand over a small amount, the more people they con the more money they make themselves. This scam also takes the form of refugees escaping a war-torn country.
Poipet (on the border between Thailand and Cambodia) is a classic example of the border crossing scam. "Helpful" people will charge you for doing a useless service (like filling out your application form); "friendly" people will charge you twice the normal fee for obtaining a visa (which you can do yourself), crooks will tell you that you must change money at their horrible exchange rates (they will also tell you that there are no ATMs anywhere in the country), and tuk-tuk drivers will charge you some idiotic amount for taking you 100 metres.
The cure is simple: read up on any border crossing before you cross it, know the charges in advance, and don't believe or pay anyone not in uniform. Even then, try to ask another person in uniform to see if you get the same story.
"Official" asks for souvenir
After an official or someone dressed as one assists you at a transit station such as an airport or train station, that person will ask you for money from your home country as a souvenir. If you pull out less than what they want, they will use an overly friendly yet insistent manner to demand a higher amount, generally in notes. In some countries giving money to an official can be misconstrued as a bribe and can get you in deep water. It's best to limit conversation as much as possible and when asked for money, to feign ignorance or lack of cash. This has occurred in China and Vietnam.
Gifts from beggars
A beggar stops you on the street and gives you a "present", like tying a "lucky charm" around your wrist. Alternatively, they "find" something like a ring on the street and give it you. After a few moments of chit-chat, they start demanding money and follow you until you give them money.
Avoiding this scam is easy enough: remember what your mother told you when you were in kindergarten, and don't accept "free" gifts from strangers. This scam is particularly common in Egypt, and is becoming increasingly frequent in tourist areas of San Francisco.
Another similar scam involves overly pushy people who pose as collecting money for charity. This is particularly common in developed countries. Usually an old woman will approach you, tie a small flower to your shirt and expect you to "donate" money. They never say the specific charity, they often say "for the children." Inquiring about the specifics of their "charity" may help scare them off. Typically, if they have no name badges or even a charity name, it's probably not a real charity.
Before entering a situation where you might get hassled, set rules with yourself for how and when you will spend money, stick to the rules, and let other people know.
Money Drop / Found Wallet scam
Kiev’s most notorious confidence trick, used exclusively against foreigners, is the old wallet drop scam. One variation of the hustle works like this: An individual notices a wallet or transparent bag full of money in plain view. In my case it was a wad of USD dropped on the snow in front of me. It is then scooped up by a passerby, who asks the targeted victim to split the money. During the conversation, a second person appears, claiming to have lost his money. The “discovered” money is counted and soon the hapless victim finds himself accused of theft and asked to produce his wallet, which is emptied of its contents. There are different variations of the wallet drop scam but all of them involve two individuals working together. For example, in another variation the second person poses as a police officer, and threatens the victim with arrest if he doesn’t hand over their wallet for inspection to answer for the “missing” money. Fortunately these scams are easy to avoid. If you see cash on the ground, ignore it and say "nyet" to anyone who approaches you.
Dirty shoes/clothes scam
A shoecleaner says your shoes need cleaning, and he points out that there is dirt on your shoes. When you take a look, there really is feces or any other kind of dirt on your shoe (a lot usually). He offers to get them clean again for a very high price. What you most probably did not recognize is that a few meters before that cleaner a helper has thrown that very dirt onto your shoes. This scam can also be combined with pickpocketing and has been observed in Cairo, Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam and Delhi. It's not always shoes. The same trick is done with someone warning you about something dirty on the back of your trousers or another place that is quite hard to see and involves you making a weird turn. There might or might not really be anything dirty on your clothes. While you are twisting to see what they mean, an accomplice pickpockets you.
Begging for medicine to sick family members
This scam is practiced in parts of Africa, where it's well known that tourists travel with their own medicine such as penicillin or anti-malarial drugs. Beggars will approach on the street, telling a sad tale about their little daughter or son who is dying with malaria or some other disease. They will then ask you if they can have your medicine to save them. The sobbing story makes it difficult to refuse the request and they may accuse you of everything from racism to willingly letting an innocent child die. As soon as they receive your medications they will run away, presumably to save their daughter but in reality they will run to the local pharmacy to sell your medications. Expensive drugs such as Malarone may fetch up to $10 US per tablet.
This scam places a lot of emotional stress on the victims, but remember that if a child really was sick, it's highly unlikely that the father would be running around in the streets begging tourists for medicine. The child would have been brought to the local dispensary, and, if there really was a scarcity in drugs, you would probably be approached in quite a different manner. Also, remember that giving up hard-to replace prescription drugs might put yourself at risk if you were to contract any illness yourself. The cure is to not get soft-hearted so simply ignore the person and walk away.
While you change the tire (punctured by criminals), a motorcyclist arrives, offering to "help" you. As you speak with him, another thief steals your purse, wallet, camera, or anything expensive to hand (this can happen within seconds). If you need to remove luggage from your trunk to get at the spare tire, put it inside the car. Also, close and lock all doors. Don't speak to anybody around and be extremely cautious.
You are pulled over by a vehicle that appears to be a police car, often unmarked. The supposed officer says you are about to receive a large fine and points on your license, but you can avoid this by paying a much smaller fee up front in cash. This is not a tactic used by law enforcement agencies anywhere. Legitimate police officers care that the law is obeyed, not about the money they will receive. Police will either issue a real ticket that must be paid directly by mail or in person to the department, a warning in which no money needs to be paid at all, or they will let you go completely free. If you are in doubt, you have the right to request for another officer to come to the scene.
Be aware that it is quite easy to impersonate a police officer. Police vehicles are typically models that are also sold to civilians, and many of these models have not been redesigned in many years, so older ones can be purchased cheaply. Rotating lights like those found on the dashboards of unmarked police vehicles can be purchased easily in electronics or hobby shops, and police uniforms and badges can be purchased from uniform stores. Though a real officer knows the difference, a naive civilian does not.
These scams are based on your ignorance of the area and rely on getting you to pay well over the market rate for goods or services. Some will rely on a helpful local steering you to the goods, but others will simply involve quoting a high price to you. In some countries this is institutionalised: foreigners have to pay more even for genuine sights.
Getting a general sense of accommodation price ranges and the like is the best way to prevent being overcharged. In some places, it's assumed that you'll bargain down overcharged prices, in others, you will just have to walk away or pay up for goods although you should still challenge the amount in the case of a service if it is clearly overpriced.
Rental car claims of damage
When you rent a car, you are rushed through the process of checking for prior damage, including scratches. You are often rushed through this process, and the agent may not be so happy about you taking your time to do it. The vehicle already has plenty of scratches or dents, so it is impossible for your eyes to catch all of them.
When you return the vehicle, you are hit with a rude awakening. The agency is accusing you of having caused damage to the vehicle, and is now holding you responsible. The agency has pointed out to you damage to a part of the vehicle it is difficult to notice, and it was probably there before. But they will not tell you that. You are charged hundreds, even thousands of dollars for it onto your credit card on the spot. They have probably charged this to multiple customers, even though the money is needed only once to repair it, and the amount they charge greatly exceeds the actual repair cost. In fact, they most likely will never repair it and will sell or trade the vehicle once their time with it is up.
Legitimate tolls use existing structures. But in some rural areas, primitive makeshift gates are set up on little traveled roads frequented by tourists, and money is demanded in exchange for passage. The appearance is given that it could be a "toll" or park entrance fee.
If you make a payment that requires change, they will refuse it and demand that you pay the exact amount. If you are not very attentive however, they will "forget" to return your initial payment. It may seem strange not to notice this, but in a fast moving and confusing setting, it happens more easily than you think, especially if you are somewhat tired or intoxicated. Incidents like this do also happen in decent looking establishments, such as shopping malls and airport stores. A telltale sign of impending trouble is that the cashier will suddenly lose the ability to speak or understand a single word of English. If you still have all your money in hand, the best course of action is to abandon your goods and walk away.
In another variation, a seller will insist that he does not have change for the item you purchased and that you should accept goods (often of low-quality) in place of your change. If you ask to "cancel" the sale and get your money back, the seller may become quite pushy in insisting that you take the goods or try to make you feel guilty because he needs the money for his family or business is not going well. If paying with large bills, it is best to ask if the seller has change before handing over your money. Also if this happens with a taxi or tuk-tuk, tell the driver you have to exchange the bill first (at the hotel, restaurant, market, etc whatever wastes time) before paying. Quite often, suddenly they´ll have change available out of nowhere.
Yet another variation involves ticket windows at tourist sites. Ticket sellers will take your money, take a long time stamping your tickets and talking to colleagues, taking your ID as security for audio guides, etc., and simply "forget" to give you your change. They may give you some brief information, smile, and say "okay!" to distract you and send you on your way. Once you leave the window you have no chance of getting your change, so be sure to ask for it and not be distracted by their "helpful information".
While you're waiting in a public place such as a restaurant or bus stop, a friendly well-spoken local approaches you to engage in conversation. After some chit-chat, the individual then shares with you that he is a money collector and asks if you would like to see his collection. The individual produces from his pocket a small collection of coins or notes, and explains with great feigned interest the country of origin of each. Mixed into the conversation will be questions about the type of money that you use in your home country and a seeming desire to know more. The intended outcome is that the unwitting tourist will show the pocket change they have with them from home and, if sufficiently fooled by the conversation, offer that the local person can keep it for their collection. After the conversation, the 'collector' will exchange the money for local currency.
The 'coin collector' scammers typically target Euro or Japanese tourists as their coins have high value, so the 'note collectors' are more common. Feel free to make fun of a 'money collector' claiming to never see a US dollar before.
On the other hand, some of those scammers have interesting, odd or historic banknotes in their money collections. In this case offer to trade if you're a collector yourself - for $1 or similar amount you can get a few rare notes which you might value way above $1.
Commission shops, restaurants and hotels
All over the world, but especially Asia, are shops that will give your driver or tour guide a commission to bring in tourists. Often, these shops sell low-quality goods at exorbitant prices and claim to be cottage industries or child-labor free. They hurt the quality products because the items are made in a factory and force tours to waste more time at these shops than at an actual site. It is heavily recommended to avoid buying anything from them, especially if you have been directed by someone. Alternatively, decide what you want and to come back without a driver and demand at least 30% off the price (roughly the amount the driver gets).
One way to benefit from these shops is by sightseeing independently instead of with a tour group. You can request for the driver to take you to one, thereby lowering your fare, or as a way of offering him a tip if he is especially helpful. They always have very clean, western bathrooms, which can be hard to come by otherwise.
Same applies to hotels and restaurants. Once a driver brought you into the hotel or restaurant, and received his fare, he should leave. If he hangs around you, tries to enter the place with you, or even gets in first, the place would have to pay him a commission if you buy anything, eat or stay there. This will be true even if you chose the place yourself, and in some cases (like arriving in a horse cart at a hotel in Bagan) even if you already had a reservation there. Of course the commission would be paid out of your pocket. In this case it is better to leave. To prevent this situation, ask to be driven to a different place (next to the one you need), so once the driver gets into this place and leaves, you can walk away to your original destination commission-free.
Note that a commission is not a "spare change" - 25% is common, and at some shops the driver would get 2/3 of the amount you paid for the souvenirs, while the shop owner would only get 1/3.
Currency exchange rate scams
Many vendors will take advantage of the fact a foreign visitor is unfamiliar with the exchange rate between the currency of their home country and the one where they are visiting. This could lead to overcharging, sometimes by quite a large amount, as the vendor can make the rules as they wish.
In some countries such as Vietnam, the vendor would be happy to discuss a reasonable price in US dollars or Euros, but will demand payment in the local currency. Then they will then convert the agreed price into the local currency using their own conversion rate, which would be invariantly worse than a market rate. When negotiate prices in the currency other than local, always make sure the vendor would accept the payment in that currency, as otherwise you need to negotiate both the cost and the exchange rate.
In some countries such as Venezuela there are two exchange rates - the official exchange rate (typically very poor), and the tourist/black market exchange rate. In those countries always make sure you both agree on which rate you would be using.
Especially in Prague downtown, there are many exchange offices which, on the first view, show a big sign "0% commission" to suggest you that you get a fair rate there. If you come closer, you will see that this applies only to sale exchange transactions (e.g. CZK into EUR). In small letters, badly legible, commission of around 9% applies if you buy Czech koruna.
If you are persuaded to buy souvenirs or other items from people selling on the street, look at the change you are given from the sale before putting it in your wallet: it may be in a different currency of similar appearance. For example, in China, a street-vendor may hand you a 50 ruble note in change instead of 50 yuan; the former is worth one-sixths as much as the latter. Also be careful that the notes you receive are not ripped or damaged as these may not be accepted elsewhere.
Changing local to home currency
This is formally known as Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)
Although seen as a scam by many seasoned travelers, it is actually a legitimate transaction. Certain merchants may offer to convert your credit card purchase from local currency into your home currency. This is seen as "helping" the traveler who may be confused with the local currency and to get a currency that they understand. The home currency displayed is actually done at a very poor exchange rate. If agreed, the customer will end up paying 3-4 percent over the actual price of the item. The difference between the actual price of the item versus the inflated price is often split with the merchant and its bank. Not to be confused with merchants charging a credit card fee while maintaining in local currency. Some merchants force DCC on foreign travelers, and provide no alternate pricing in local currency, to maximize revenue. To add insult to injury, some merchant receipts may include statements that you accepted home currency even when there was no alternate choice. Your credit card may also charge you a foreign transaction fee, which means you may end up paying well over 7 percent for that one item.
Never accept DCC; either decline the DCC and have transaction redone in local currency, pay in cash, or have the transaction void and walk away. This may be more difficult in restaurants, hotels, airlines, or car rentals.
DCC also exists in certain ATMs; depending on the bank who owns it. The menu display will often ask you if you want to be charged in home currency. Declining the offer may result in either receiving the requested cash in the local currency, or the machine may simply end the transaction and eject your card. That is, DCC is the only option available.
Some merchants claim that if you have an USA-issued credit card, by having the transaction handled in US dollars you would avoid paying the foreign transaction fee. This is no longer true since 2009; if your issuer imposes foreign transaction fees, they are typically imposed on any foreign transaction, even the one using in US dollars.
Precious metal items such as gold bracelets are sold as 'dollars per gram' in some countries. Comparing the price between shops and then against the current gold price makes the practice appear open and transparent, so much so that you may rely on the seller to do the calculation. It won't be till later, if at all, that you will realize that the price you were charged is much more than the calculated price.
First site overcharging
Impulse buyers beware. Often, a souvenir is sold in multiple locations. But the vendor who is likely to be seen first by the tourists will sell the same item others carry for a lot more, hoping that those who see it will believe it is the only place where they can obtain that item and will buy it there. The same item can be found for substantially less elsewhere.
Pay toilet scams
In places where pay toilet exists, the scammer positions him/herself in a location enroute to the restrooms. This gives the appearance that this is the person you are supposed to pay for the service. Then, after paying and passing this person, the victim is unexpectedly met by the true attendant who must be paid, a turnstile where coins must be fed, or else there is no fee to use the toilet at all.
When suspicious, ask the taxi to drop you off at your (or any) hotel lobby. Security at most hotels can intervene if you are being overcharged.
Scenic taxi rides
Since you don't know the area, taxi drivers can take advantage of you by taking a long route to your hotel and getting a large metered fare. The best prevention is knowledge: it's hard to learn a new city well enough to know a good route before you arrive for the first time. ALWAYS ask your hotel roughly what the taxi fare should be when you book or to arrange a pickup with them if they offer the service. Often you can negotiate a fixed price with a taxi before you get in and ask what the range of fare to your hotel will be. Good taxi drivers are on the route to your hotel every day and can give you a very accurate price before you or your luggage get into a cab.
Taxis not using the meter
In cities where the taxis have fare meters, drivers will often try to drive off with tourists without turning the meter on. When you arrive they'll try and charge fares from the merely expensive (2 or 3 times the usual fare) to fares of hundreds of US dollars, depending on how ambitious they are. If you're in an area known for this scam and you know where you're going and want them to use the meter (rather than arrange a fixed fare), ask them to turn the meter on just before you get in. If they say that it is broken or similar, walk away and try another taxi. They will often concede: a metered fare is better than no fare.
However, an ambitious traveler can actually work this scam in their favor, as in certain countries where meters are required (China) the passenger cannot be forced to pay for an "informal" (that is, unmetered) taxi ride. A tourist is therefore free to walk away after the ride without paying anything at all: once you step out of his vehicle, the driver will have no proof of transaction to show the police. This tactic is, however, not recommended for use by the weak of heart but can save you money as a last resort.
Using the wrong metered rate
A related scam is using the wrong metered rate: setting it to a more expensive late-night setting during the day. You need location-specific information to prevent this one. Typical rip-off scenario involves a device known as "turbine". By pressing specially installed button (usually on the left of the steering wheel, or next to the clutch pedal) the driver starts the "turbine" and fools the meter to charge much faster then the usual speed. The change in the charging speed is obvious, so dishonest drivers talk and show around a lot, to make their passengers keep an eye off the taxi meter. The best way to prevent the driver from starting the turbine is to keep an eye on the meter at all times.
Luggage held hostage
Watch your luggage as it is loaded! Get into the cab after your luggage is loaded and out before it is out of the trunk. If you put your luggage in the trunk, they might refuse to give you your luggage back unless you pay a much higher price the actual fare. Remember to always write down or remember the taxi number or driver's number in case of problems and keep your luggage in your hand at all times if possible. Often, just writing down the taxi number will make them back down if they are keeping your luggage hostage, but be careful that they are not armed or are trying to rob you by other means than just driving away with your luggage.
If the driver asks you to pay before getting your luggage out of trunk, tell him your wallet is in the luggage.
"Per Person" Taxi Charge
Taxi, tuk-tuk, or autorickshaw drivers will agree on a price. When you arrive at your destination, they may or may not tell you that the vehicle is a share vehicle, and they will tell you that the price quoted is per person. The scam depends on you believing them, but you can almost always just give them the agreed-upon fare and walk away. Just make sure that you have the correct change before departing as in many places drivers are known to come up with any excuse it takes to charge you extra.
Gem and other resale scams
You are taken to a jewelry shop and offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase gemstones or jewels at special discount prices. Another customer in the shop, well-dressed and perhaps from the same country as you, tells how he made incredible profits last year by reselling the gems and is now back for more but to hurry as the sale ends today and you have to pay cash.
Of course, once you get back home and try to sell your booty, it turns out to be low-grade and worth only a fraction of what you paid for it. This scam is particularly prevalent in Bangkok, but variations on the theme with other products that can supposedly be resold for vast profits are common elsewhere too. Another variation involves you exporting the gems for a supposed 'commission' in exchange for the scammer taking a photocopy of your ID cards and/or credit cards, which can of course be used to make a tidy profit in identity theft cottage industries.
Counterfeit / pirated items
In many Western countries bringing in counterfeited items (i.e. fake Rolexes) is illegal, and at least they would be confiscated by your Customs, with a chance to be heavily fined.
A notable exception is the USA, where the law allows you to bring ONE counterfeited item of each kind (meaning one fake Rolex and one fake Adidas is ok, but two fake Rolexes are not). Note that you must declare those items to the Customs.
Cruise ship art auctions
Passengers are lured to auctions of supposedly investment-grade, collector art. Free champagne flows like water. The auctions may or may not be conducted by licensed auctioneers and may not adhere to standard auction practices. Since the sales take place at sea, making claims under consumer protection laws is difficult. Buyers may have little recourse if the art is misrepresented. Furthermore, in traditional auctions a bidder buys merchandise which is for sale right-here, right-now. Cruise ship auctions sell the art on display, but the winning bidder actually receives a different (but supposedly equivalent) piece which is shipped from the auction company's warehouse. Many art buyers at cruise ship auctions have later found that their shipboard masterpieces were worth only a fraction of the purchase price.
Be aware that giclee works are only a high quality form of ink jet printing, and only buy art that you really like.
Buying expensive antiques anywhere is risky. Even experts can sometimes be deceived by fakes, and a naive buyer is at great risk of being overcharged nearly anywhere. An additional complication arises in the many countries which, quite understandably, have various restrictions on export of relics of their culture. Egypt and India, for example, have strict rules on export of antiquities and China requires a license for antiques. In Peru it is forbidden to export relics and to buy a relic requires a license of the Ministry of Culture, always check in the official tourist information office (iperu).
Check the laws in any country you visit before buying antiques. Otherwise, you might have your purchases confiscated at the border and be hit with a hefty fine as well. In some countries, licensed dealers can provide paperwork that allows export for some items, but bogus documents are sometimes provided. Try to deal with someone respectable and traceable.
In some countries, the whole thing becomes a scam. Instead of preserving the confiscated "heritage" items, corrupt border police may sell them right back to the tourist shops so that the shops then sell them to another unsuspecting traveler.
Word for word
You make a purchase from a business for a certain amount of merchandise for an agreed upon price. You first pay the cash. But before the merchandise is actually delivered into your hands, the owner lies and claims you paid less money, and therefore you will not receive the full amount unless you pay more cash. It is obvious to you what just happened, and the owner knows in his heart what he is doing. But there are no other witnesses, so it is your word against his.
This is common at food stands, where the merchant receives the cash before the food is delivered into your hands, so you are now at his mercy.
These scams rely on trapping you in a bad situation and forcing you to pay money to get out of it. They're best prevented by avoiding the situation; once you're in it, you may well have no option but to pay whatever it takes to get out of it safely. Many of these scams are bordering on illegal.
You are offered a "free tour" of a shop or factory way out of town. Your driver may then suggest that you'll need to buy something if you want a ride back. The best prevention is avoidance as if you're stuck out there you might well be compelled to do as he 'suggests'. Don't accept any kind of lift or offer of a tour without having a basic idea of where you're going and how you will be able to get back if your driver deserts you. Of course, if you are strong and assertive from the beginning in dealing with any suspicious characters, you can limit your chances of being involved in this kind of sting. However, always bear in mind that the perpetrator may be carrying a knife or willing to assault you if the situation arises.
See also: Chinese Tea Scam
You're approached by an attractive, well-dressed, local gentleman or woman, who suggests going for a drink in a favorite nightspot. When you arrive, the joint is nearly deserted, but as soon as you sit down some scantily clad girls plop down next to you and order a few bottles of champagne. Your "friend" disappears, the bill runs into hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and heavies block the door and flex their muscles until you pay up.
This is particularly common in Europe's larger cities, including London, Athens, Istanbul and Budapest. The best defense is not to end up in this situation: avoid going to bars with people you just met, pick the bar yourself, or at least back out immediately if they want to go somewhere that is not packed with locals. In Istanbul this scam is also common with places packed with locals, where they scam the tourists, but not the locals, as it is a difficult and time consuming process to get the police to do anything. It is best to pay by credit card, so have one ready so that if you do end up in this situation, you can pay by credit card to get out and then cancel your card and dispute the bill immediately. The police are unlikely to be of much assistance, but filing a report may make it easier to get the charges canceled.
A variety of this scam is extortionate tea ceremonies in Beijing and other cities in China. You will be approached by women who speak very good English, spend 30 minutes in conversation with you and invite you to have tea with them. The tea house they take you to will be empty, and you will end up in a situation of having to pay a huge amount of money for a few cups of tea. This is incredibly easy to fall into, as the scammers are often willing to spend considerable time "chatting you up" before suggesting going for tea. The best way to avoid this would be to not engage in conversation in the first place. Failing that, refuse to go with them to have tea, or if you find yourself having been fooled as far into going to the tea house with them, insist on leaving as soon as you can (e.g. fake receiving an urgent phone call from your friend), and ask for the bill (as each different variety of tea you drink will doubtless add up to the final cost).
This is a common practice in Havana as well where a well-dressed, academic-looking couple drag you into a bar, promising to give you hints about what to do at night, where the best bars are and so on. Suddenly the cheap drinks they ordered for the whole group are slightly expensive.
Unlisted cover charges
A fast-talking man (or attractive woman) standing outside a strip club will offer you free entry, complimentary drinks and/or lap dances to get you inside the club. They'll often speak very fluent English, be able to pick your accent, and be very convincing. Of course, they are good to their word with the free drinks and dances, but what they won't tell you (and what you won't know until you try to leave) is that there's a "membership fee" or "exit fee" of at least €100. There'll also be security waiting at the door for nonpayers.
A variant of this is practiced in Bangkok, where touts with laminated menus offer sex shows and cheap beer. The beer may indeed be cheap, but they'll add a stiff surcharge for the show. Another rip-off, though less dangerous scam happens in Sydney, where bouncers will haggle with you to enter a strip club. Once inside, you will be pressured to buy (overpriced) drinks from the bar and the place will be deserted. Similarly in Brazil, expect to pay an extra 'artistic couvert' if live music is playing. No-one will warn you of this because it's considered normal there. Ask how much it is before you get seated.
A bar or restaurant gives you a menu with reasonable prices and takes it away with your order. Later they present a bill with much higher prices. If you argue, they produce a menu with those higher prices on it. This scam is known in bars in China among other places. The best way to avoid this is to stay out of sleazy tourist bars.
You could also try hanging on to your menu or paying when your drinks or food are delivered, preferably with the right change. Watch out for asking for a menu in English, as the prices on the menu are sometimes higher than the menu in the native language, although because of the difficulty of navigating a Mandarin menu and the likelihood that the price even with the foreigner surcharge is still pretty low, non-Mandarin-readers may want to write this off as a translation fee.
A variation of this scam is ordering off the menu, where your waiter will offer you a "special" that is not shown on the menu. The meal will not be very special but will come with a price considerably higher than anything else on the menu.
Passport as security for debt or rental
You rent equipment like a jet ski or motorbike. You are asked to give your passport as a security guarantee. After returning the rented goods, the owner claims you damaged them and will ask for exaggerated prices to compensate or claim to have "lost" your passport (later the police or lost property office want a substantial "donation" for its return). If you do not agree, they threaten to keep your passport. This scam is used in almost all tourist resorts in Thailand and is very effective. You can counter that by threatening to go to police and claim they stole your passport, and then obtain a new passport from your Embassy. Note that the passport by itself has no value to the scammers, so they may back up and agree for a lesser amount.
Never hand over your passport as a security or guarantee in any circumstances. Pay cash (and get a receipt), give them a paper copy, or hand over something comparatively worthless, like your library card or US passport card (which is only good for entering US by sea/land). You can also try going elsewhere (often the threat will be enough).
Overpriced street vendors
You decide on a whim to buy a piece of one of the massive cakes covered in nuts and fruits that are a fairly common sight in the tourist-laden parts of cities in China. You ask the price, and the man tending to the cake tells you it depends on how much you want. You show him how much. Immediately, he slices the cake, weighs it out, and gives you an extremely high price. He tells you that since he already sliced the cake, you have to buy it.
In Bulgarian seaside resorts, ice cream street vendors have very low prices shown on the counter but what they don't tell you is that the price is per 100 grams and when you ask for one flavor or another they just put as much ice cream in the cone as possible and charge you a fortune. And since the ice cream is already in the cone you will have to pay, so they say.
The best thing to do in this or any similar situation is probably to leave your purchase and just walk away. If they hassle you, threaten to call the police. Like the art school scam, this ruse depends on using your guilt to coerce you out of your money.
EDIT: While this seems scummy, it is actually a legit way of selling items in some places. For those that are unfamiliar with the system, you can always request for specific amount such as "hand me $5 worth of cake" or "$2 worth of ice cream". While they will still confirm the final amount with weight, it won't normally go too far off (+ - 10%).
Rigged gambling games
This comes in many forms, from the three-card monte cup shufflers of Europe's city streets to dodgy gambling dens in the backstreets of South-East Asia. In most cases, the target is alone. The conman strikes up a conversation and then claims to have family in the target's home country. After some "friendly" conversation, the target is then invited to a card game or other some type of gambling: just for "fun" of course. The target is taken somewhere far from the tourist area. After doing a few "practice" games, then they start to play for real. Of course, the game is totally rigged. After losing, the target will find his "friend" not so friendly anymore, and then a massive amount of money will be demanded (often totaling in the thousands of dollars). Violence might be used to settle the debts.
Do not gamble for money with strangers or outside of licensed and well-regarded gambling venues.
Free hair salon treatment
Most commonly in Asian countries, a good-looking hair dresser would stand outside the salon and pass out coupons for a "free" shampoo hair wash and "free" head massage. Even if you decline, they will continue to be persistent. As soon as they succeed in seating you down in a salon chair and start wetting your hair, they'll explain how damaged your hair is and which specific products will help. The prices are absurdly set and often 2 to 3 times more expensive than elsewhere for a similar salon treatment. It will be much more difficult to refuse then after they've stroked up a friendly conversation and compliments. The best way to avoid this is simply tell them you've just had a haircut and are not interested. Another option is to claim you have no money with you, carefully write down the recommended products and check if they're open tomorrow as you intend to come back after checking with your doctor that you're not allergic to this product.
These scams are outright theft: they involve putting you in a position where someone can take your money by force.
Friendly locals wanting to go out for a drink
While walking down the street you may be approached by attractive friendly locals wanting to go out for a beer or a drink, usually in an overpriced bar. Then they tell you the drink costs way more than it actually does. Most of the times, threatening bouncers will force you to pay, and even accompany you to the nearest ATM. Even worse, they might just wait for you to become inebriated and take your money. Another version of this scam: a local guy comes up to you all smiling and says: "Hey, where are you from?" Then, what a coincidence, that happens to be the country they will be studying in next year on an exchange program! Can they invite you for a coffee so that they can ask you questions about your country and get to know it better? If you go to a cafe with them you find yourself suddenly surrounded by a whole group of threatening looking guys who ask that you hand over your wallet and phone. Common in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. See also the section above.
If you need to use an ATM, especially in tourist heavy areas, exercise caution. When possible, use ATMs inside bank branches, which are usually bristling with security. There are three basic scam types:
In all cases, the best thing to do is to check your statements frequently and regularly change your PIN while traveling. In the case of using an unfamiliar ATM, hover nearby and watch to see if any other customers have their cards taken by the machine.
A pre-paid debit card is a sensible precaution - the worst that can happen is that you lose the funds deposited, as thieves and fraudsters have no way of accessing your bank account or identity details.
Pickpockets are thieves who steal items (often wallets or passports but sometimes other valuables) from people's clothing and bags as they walk in a public place. For in-depth information on how to protect yourself from pickpockets, see Pickpockets.
Credit card skimming
In this scam, you use your card to pay in a bar or restaurant. However, while your card is out of your sight, it is swiped not only in the machine that sends the information to your bank for approval but also a second machine that records the card's identifying information from the magnetic strip. The copy of the card, or the number, are then used by the third party to buy goods. Often, this is an inside job: employees of the outlet are using the information themselves or being paid to acquire it.
The best way to prevent this scam is to keep your card in your sight at all times. Unfortunately, the typical restaurant custom is to let the restaurant staff take your card away and bring you back a receipt to sign: insisting on observing them while they handle your card may make you unpopular.
Otherwise, you can limit the damage done by credit card skimming by keeping receipts when you use your card and checking them against your credit card statement. Make sure the amounts match up and make sure there are no additional purchases you didn't make. Report any discrepancies to your credit card company: the liability rests with them, not you, as long as you report fraudulent transactions as soon as possible.
Someone will approach you and attempt to engage you in a conversation (in English), usually about something vaguely illicit. Seconds later, two men will appear in plain clothes but flashing legitimate-looking police badges. They will accuse you and your "new acquaintance" of some illegal activity (usually 'currency swapping'), and demand to see your wallet and/or passport.
Do not hand them these things! Keep your documents and belongings in your pocket and out of sight.
Walk away, or yell, or tell them outright that you do not believe that they are the police or suggest that you all walk to the lobby of a nearby hotel (or police station) because you are not comfortable taking out your wallet or papers in the street. These conmen thrive because the police fail to enforce laws against nonviolent crime and some foreigners are easily fooled. They will not physically attack you: the treatment of violent offenders is severe (these men are professionals, and they would never be foolish enough to chance a physical attack). Do not threaten or try to fight them.
People will approach you on the street and tell you that their car just ran out of fuel or is broken down and is only a few blocks away. They'll usually first ask for money for gas. If you don't believe them or try to walk away, they may beg you to come with them to the car to see that they are telling the truth. They may offer you some kind of security such as their jewelery and be well-dressed and plausible seeming.
Do not give people money in these and similar scenarios. Do not follow them to where they claim their car is. If you suspect they are really in trouble, you could report their predicament to police.
Red light bag snatch
While stopped at traffic lights, thieves open the car doors and take what they can. This is particularly prevalent in places like Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia and South Africa. Keep car doors locked both night and day. More rarely, the criminals will employ a hammering tool to break the glass, particularly with lone women drivers.
Distraction thefts take a variety of forms. Generally the thieves work in groups: one or more will distract you and the other will rob you while you're distracted. Examples of distractions include:
It's best to be aware of what's going on around you in any public place and to be suspicious of strangers who appear to be trying to single you out. If you are the victim of a minor assault, suspect that it's the prelude to a robbery attempt and if you feel safe enough, try to get in a position where you can look after your belongings. Unfortunately, you may need to refuse the help of concerned onlookers; it's common to have an accomplice pose as a concerned onlooker.
A common scam in South America, especially Argentina is someone will throw paint, mayonaise or some other substance on you. A concerned onlooker will rush over to help you clean up. They will tell you to take off your backpack so that they can clean you, or it, more properly at which time an accomplish rushes by and grabs it from your hands or wherever you have put it... keep your shoulder straps on and clean it when you return to the hostel/hotel.
You are walking down the street alone and all of a sudden you see many people attacking one person (sometimes an old man or a woman). When you want to help, people will make photos of you and will blackmail you afterwards to go to the police. Now you find out that the attacked person, the attackers and the photographer are a group. They will blackmail you for big amounts of money, because if they go to the police, you most likely need to leave the country (for example in China).
Avoid this scam by following this piece of common sense: It is never wise to engage in fights. If you witness a fight, your best bet is to either walk away or alert the police if they're trustworthy. NEVER get involved yourself. Laying your hand on a local may result in deportation in some countries.
Sexually-attractive people are a fine distraction, and conspicuously available ones even more so. However, sampling the local streetwalkers puts you at risk of crime. Prostitutes can be used as bait for a variety of scams:
Even if you do not allow them to lead you anywhere, streetwalkers can be dangerous. A person who brings one to his hotel is quite likely to miss his watch or wallet in the morning. In some areas, such as Mainland China, prostitution is illegal and hotel staff have the local police arrive at your room door not long after checking in with one.
If you are willing to take the health and legal risks of hiring a prostitute, go to a massage shop, sauna or whatever the local euphemism is. These establishments are significantly safer than the street workers.
Some hotels and motels, especially those that are not part of a chain, may be unscrupulous. There are even some cases of individually owned franchises of large companies engaging in these unscrupulous practices. Most hotels are honest, and you will not encounter these problems. These are the minority, but the customer should be watchful, and should be aware of what signs to look out for.
It is not uncommon for a guest to check into a hotel when they are tired after many hours of travel, or to check out when they are in a hurry to catch a plane or get to another destination. At these times, a customer is unlikely to argue and therefore more likely to be suggestible or to cave. Guests in the middle of a stay are also unlikely to argue about being cheated due to fear of retaliation from management.
It is the norm to receive amenities already in the room at the quoted rate, regardless of whether or not they are used. But some facilities have been known to charge customers additional fees for use of certain amenities, such as a refrigerator, microwave oven, coffeemaker, iron, hair dryer or safe by surprise. Some will charge if it has been used; others will charge even if it has not been used. In any case, this is a way to nickel-and-dime the customer. This should be clearly advertised before the reservation has been made.
Claims of damage
At check-in, you are required to provide a credit card, and you sign a contract that you can be held accountable for any damages. You do not think anything of this. It seems like routine procedure anywhere. But long after you check out, you find your card has been heftily billed by the hotel. You contact your credit card company to dispute this, but the hotel responds by sending the credit card company a picture of supposed damage, and a supposed bill from a contractor to repair it. This could easily be fictitiously produced with today's printers, but the credit card company accepts this as valid evidence, and sides with the hotel. You are stuck to pony up the charges, plus any interest that may have accrued during the dispute period.
In this case you should file an unauthorized charge claim to your credit card company. It is important to claim it as "unauthorized charge" as those give you additional protection under law in some countries, notably in the US. Note that the photos could only prove that some damage happened somewhere. They do not prove the damage happened in your room (as most rooms in the same hotel look the same), nor that the damage was caused by you.
Disposal of possessions
You return to your motel for the final night of your stay, only to find the key will not work. You go to the office, and you've been informed you paid for one less night. You are also told the management cleaned out the room and disposed of your possessions you left behind. Management, in reality, has kept your possessions and is planning to sell those which are valuable, all while you are angry and helpless.
You have paid for a lengthy stay at a hotel, but before you have stayed many of those nights, management informs you that you are evicted for some minor offense that you did not know was wrong, did not expect to be enforced, or did not commit at all. But management is adamant and insists you must leave or you are trespassing. Management refuses to refund the remainder of your stay. It is their trick to obtain money from you without rendering services. Perhaps you may contact law enforcement about being refused the refund, but they cannot help. A remedy can be to pay one night at a time unless you know you're staying in a reputable hotel or if booked as part of a packaged deal from a reputable company.
Fake booking site
Online booking sites have become a common method of reserving hotels these days. Commonly known sites include hotels.com, Expedia, and CheapTickets, just to name a few.
But other lesser known sites will advertise the very same hotels, and upon making the reservation, will give you everything that appears normal, including a confirmation number, and will take your money. But upon arrival, the facility will tell you they do not have a reservation made by you, and they do not do business with such a company. Your reservation will not be honored, and your money is lost (not really, if you paid with a credit card, you just claim fraud).
To prevent this, only book through the sites of reputable booking companies. Common red flags are that you have never heard of the company before and prices lower than reputable booking companies for the same property that are too good to be true. If in doubt, you can call the facility in advance and ask if they do business with such a booking site. Checking with a hotel is also a good idea if you got a ridiculously low price even on a trusty booking site - booking errors do happen, and your reservation might not be honored in this case.
Higher rates in fine print
A lodging establishment will advertise a low rate in large print. But most will not qualify for this rate. It may, for example, be a senior rate available only to people who are over a certain age, or may be reserved for repeat guests or other who belong to some elite group defined by the establishment. The real rate you are required to pay is only found in fine print after digging deep into the literature. Nevertheless, travelers who just need a place to stay will cave.
You book at hotel at the low price you find online are in a travel guide. Upon your arrival, you are told that room is not available, you and must pay more for a higher priced room if you wish to stay. You are left with the choice of paying for that higher priced room, or else finding another place to stay, which may be difficult if you are in an unfamiliar place.
While this may happen at a legitimate hotel as well, the legitimate hotel will always give you a free upgrade in this case if a room is available at all, and will help finding a similar accommodation if they are overbooked.
You check into a low quality hotel and find you are unhappy with the conditions, as anyone would be. You promptly return to the office, asking for a refund. But the management refuses you the refund, and gives you the option either to stay there and tough it out, or to leave and lose your money.
It is worth noting that this is considered standard practice, rather than a scam, in a number of countries, particularly with regards to walk-in (no reservation) guests. You should always ask to see the room before deciding whether or not to stay at a hotel etc. You are also more likely to end up with a nicer room if you check first.
Water not safe to drink
Many hotels in foreign countries often toured by westerners will leave signs in the rooms stating the water is not safe for drinking, and that drinking water must be purchased from the front desk or a minibar, often for sky high prices. In many of these countries, water is perfectly safe for consumption by visitors, and the hotel will tell you this in order to sell you bottled water. In some cases, they will give you the water bottles, implying they are free, but then add it on as a hidden charge later. To know whether or not the tap water is safe to drink somewhere, do your own independent research, and don't rely on the hotel to provide you with this info. Also the nearby stores will sell bottled water cheaper than the front desk almost everywhere in the world.
Lost in translation
This goes for walk-ins, not things that were booked in advance. Some hotels and campsites tell you a price per room (or per tent) before your stay. Though Spanish or French are your second language you are fluent enough to understand all these things. Then when you want to leave and want to pay the bill, suddenly they say, no, that was the price *per person*, not for the room! Or: that was the tent price per day, not per week! You must have misunderstood my French / Spanish! The only way to prevent this is to get the price in writing.
Philippines is having problems with auxiliary people who open luggage and implant bullets, a scam called tanim-bala. Those bullets then are found by airport staff who then demand bribes to be let passengers go so they don't get detained and miss their plane, and are allowed to fly onward to their destination.