World's Worst Travel Scams
Outsmart the con artists when you travel—and avoid getting ripped off.
I’ve been swindled out of 15 bucks in a currency-exchange con at a Canadian coffee shop,
mugged by a “friendly” local in New York, and suckered into
visiting a “student art show” in Beijing (the students weren’t
really students, and the art was souvenir quality at best). As I’ve found out the hard way,
tourists make tempting targets for tricksters all over the world.
Some rackets are linked to specific cities, but others could happen anywhere. “Being
concerned about crime is a healthy attitude to have when you’re traveling,” says Fred
Lash, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department.
While the State Department hasn’t issued any recent warnings about an increase in such activity, Lash notes
that BlackBerries and cell phones have helped con artists communicate better and more easily target
vulnerable travelers. “You could lose everything in the blink of an eye,” he says.
“There are money-changing scams, taxi scams, passport scams, you name it. And you don’t
get a second chance.”
Statistics are hard to come by. In many cases, reported rip-offs aren’t distinguished as
tourist crimes. Also, the amount of money involved is often less than $100, so victims may be
reluctant to report the incidents, whether from embarrassment or because they feel that filing a
police report isn’t worth the effort.
But tales of such scams are routinely exchanged among travelers. And if you think those victims
are limited to people who don’t travel much, think again.
Tony Wheeler, an inveterate traveler and founder of Lonely Planet Publications, has himself been
a victim, but warns not to let cynicism and fear color your travels. “I have had things
stolen and been fleeced in an interesting assortment of ways over the years,” he says.
“But equally, I’ve often encountered wonderful honesty and helpfulness.”
Still, some of these crimes are blunt and violent, like smash-and-grabs, in which the bad guys
literally smash your car window at a stoplight, grab your purse or daypack, and run away. Others
are ingenious skills of prestidigitation, such as the scam in which a Turkish taxi driver deftly
replaces the 50-lira note you just handed him for a similar-looking 5-lira note, then complains
that you are trying to cheat him!
What can you do to protect yourself? For one thing, beware of strangers who approach you on the
street, even at the expense of seeming rude. Keep your wits—and your valuables—about
you. Use your radar; if a situation feels wrong, it probably is. Some of the tricks people will try
to use on you are as old as dirt; others are as new as the latest iPhone app. But when it comes to
defensive tourism, there’s one trick every traveler should have in his own toolkit: always
use common sense—and a money belt.