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.