World's Worst Travel Scams
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.
The Newspaper Attack
The Scam: A group of gypsy children surrounds you, waving newspapers in your face. The papers are merely to confuse you and block your view as the youths reach into your pocket and grab your bag—or anything else they can get their hands on.
Advice: Firmly brush past them and move away quickly—and shout for help if you need it.
The Scam: As has been reported in the press recently, this crime involves a traveler who is arrested for handling merchandise in the airport duty-free shop. Once in custody, the victim is introduced to a middleman who says he can gain the traveler’s freedom—for a fee. The police, in on the deal, split the payment.
Advice: Don’t touch items in duty-free shops unless you intend to buy them.
The Hot Dog Trick
The Scam: The perp “accidentally” squirts mustard on you while eating a hot dog (it’s really a tube of mustard in a bun). Full of apologies, he clumsily tries to help clean up the mess while an accomplice walks off with your carry-ons.
Advice: Always place your bags between your legs in a public setting, whether you’re sitting or standing.
The Brass Ring
The Scam: A passerby finds a gold ring on the sidewalk near you and agrees to sell it to you for a ridiculously low sum. You soon discover that the buy of a lifetime is made of brass.
Advice: There are no lost gold rings on the streets of Paris or anywhere else. Just say non.
The Bracelet Scheme
The Scam: “Someone, usually quite charming, comes up to you offering directions or sightseeing advice. Suddenly, the person ties a woven bracelet around your wrist in a double knot, then demands payment. If you refuse, he screams that you’re stealing the bracelet,” says Karen Schaler, author of Travel Therapy. Victims are often so unnerved that they end up paying the handful of euros.
Advice: Beware of overly friendly people who approach you on the street offering courtesies you neither want nor need.
The Lube Job
Where: East Africa
The Scam: You drive into a small town, and a helpful bystander points out that your wheel bearing is hemorrhaging oil. “In fact,” says Lonely Planet Publications cofounder Tony Wheeler, “the bystander has just sloshed a cup of oil onto your wheel, and tells you there’s a garage around the corner that’ll fix your problem.” The garage owner is in on the con, charges an inflated rate, and splits the take with the bystander.
Advice: Be wary of someone who points out a problem you didn’t know you had, then offers to help you get it fixed.
The Fake Art Show
The Scam: Young and convincing “art students” befriend you on the street and persuade you to visit their school’s gallery, where you find yourself getting a high-pressure sales pitch to buy overpriced, third-rate work being passed off as art.
Advice: Steer clear of anyone in China inviting you to an art show.
The Rip-off Joint
The Scam: Two male travelers in an unfamiliar city meet two pretty young women who invite them to a private room in a bar. When the bill comes, it is hugely inflated. The bartender demands cash (no credit cards, of course), and the doormen tell the travelers to pay up and leave.
Advice: Beware complete strangers who offer to take you to a bar or nightclub.
The Tumbling Woman
Where: London but could happen anywhere.
The Scam: “If there’s a commotion, assume it’s a fake to distract the victim of a pickpocketing or purse snatching,” says travel guru Rick Steves of Ricksteves.com. “For example, someone, usually an elderly looking woman, ‘falls’ down an escalator in the London Underground.”
Advice: “Step back,” says Steves, “and watch your valuables.”
The Gypsy Baby Toss
Where: Italy, Eastern Europe
The Scam: Here’s a variation of the Newspaper Attack, as told by Peter Greenberg, travel editor of CBS News: the victim—usually a single female traveler—is approached by a gypsy woman carrying a baby in a blanket, who tosses the child into the arms of the victim. Cohorts grab the victim’s purse, wallet, camera, and anything else they can snatch amid the confusion. After the crooks run away, the victim discovers that the “baby” is nothing more than a doll.
Advice: Avoid gypsies and beggars on the street, and move away if they try to approach you.
The Bus 64 Sting
The Scam: Bus 64 passes many of Rome’s most famous historic sights, so it’s hugely popular with tourists—and pickpockets. Working in teams of three or four, the thieves go after wallets, cameras, and other small valuables, usually by causing a disturbance that takes your attention off your belongings.
Advice: Always secure your property and keep it close, especially when traveling on crowded buses and trains.
The Snatch and Follow-up Steal
The Scam: As travelers with suitcases wait for a cab, a man rides by on a bicycle, slices the strap of a seemingly random woman’s purse, and rides off with it. As the sympathetic travelers drop their bags to give chase, an accomplice swoops in and attempts to make off with the abandoned booty.
Advice: Hide your valuables—money, passport, and credit cards—in your inner pockets, in a money belt, or anyplace else where they are difficult to grab.
The Missing Cash
The Scam: A pedestrian bumps against you and drops something. “If you pick it up and attempt to return it, you’ll find you’ve got a bagful of banknotes and a bagful of trouble,” says Tony Wheeler. “That’s when the careless cash-dropper accuses you of removing some of the money.” Of course, the bad guy turns out to be willing to forget the whole incident in exchange for a fistful of rubles.
Advice: Don’t be afraid to call someone a crook, loudly, and walk away. Often the last thing they want is for the police to become involved, because the police know about most of these scams already.
The Taxi Driver Trick
The Scam: You’re paying a fare with a 50-lira note. The driver drops it on the floor and switches it to a 5-lira bill, which looks very similar. He then argues with you that you’ve shortchanged him.
Advice: If this happens to you, call the police by dialing 0090155 from your U.S. cell phone or 155 from a Turkish phone. The police know this old trick, and the driver stands to lose his license.
The Fake Palace Guides
The Scam: Official-looking guides approach travelers in the streets surrounding Bangkok’s Grand Palace, away from the main entrance. They’ll tell you, convincingly, that the palace is closed to visitors that morning, but that they’d be happy to take you on a “private tour.”
Advice: Ignore them, and check for yourself at the main gate. “In many countries,” says Anthony Dennis, editor of Travel + Leisure Australia, “it’s usually best to arrange for a certified guide through your hotel.”
The Security-Checkpoint Scam
The Scam: Before you walk through the metal detector at airport security, a person from behind cuts ahead of you. As he tries to walk through the metal scanner, the alarm rings and the line comes to a halt; it turns out he has “forgotten” to remove his keys and loose change. “Meantime,” says Peter Greenberg, “his accomplice has gone through ahead of you and is picking up all your stuff from the conveyor belt and leaving with it.”
Advice: Avoid placing your tray of valuables on the X-ray machine conveyor belt until you are ready to walk through the metal detector, and keep an eye on your belongings as they come out the other side.