top travel scams and how to recognize them

If you are afraid to visit a foreign country because of travel scams, afraid of shady deals and confused if it really is Buddha day today (hint: no it is not) this post might help you fight that fear. Or at least make you smile when you recognize you have almost felled for some of them. Before my top travel scams, I want to tell you about a few things which will help you more easily recognize the common patterns.

plane landing
Arriving in a foreign country can be daunting enough, but it can be downright scary if you think too much about possible travel scams.

One important thing to understand is that, sooner or later, you will be involved in one of these travel scams. Hopefully you will recognize it for what it is and not fall victim to it. That gut feeling that something is not right? That is your brain subconsciously  telling you that yes, something is not right.

The second thing is that all the countries in the world work mostly the same way. People have work to do, have places to go to and things they are in a hurry to get to. Are you asked back home if you want to buy precious stones at a very special price? As a once in a lifetime opportunity. By a complete stranger. Twice in the same day? I can hear your “no”. So why is it different somewhere else? Do people regularly ask to practice their English/French/whatever with you? And maybe go for a cup of coffee? Again, probably “no”.

The third thing is uncomfortable for a lot of people. I want this post to be useful, so I will not sugar-coat it. Most travel scams work on two human weaknesses: greed and gullibility. And sometimes they work together (against you). It may sound insulting, but the truth is no one is immune.

So, let’s start on the top travel scams. Please use this list as a pattern recognition tool instead of an exhaustive list. If you search the web you will find countless travel scams, I am sure. Lonely Planet has a dedicated guide to travel scams in Thailand (and for other locations too, of course. And scammers who do not innovate are bound to be out of work after you read this helpful post 🙂

A small disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible if you fall to the sixth or eleventh scam. But if you do, please share your story so others can learn. Please keep in mind that I have visited just a few countries, so my experience is limited.

“today is big Buddha day, so the museum is closed”.

blue taxi tuk-tuk
Whenever a certain attraction is closed, there is someone nearby ready to take you on a tour of the city. Usually this involves several shops.

Closed form a certain time, or for non-nationals, and definitely to you. The scenario runs like this: a well-dressed, fluent English speaker, comes to you and informs you that the attraction you want to visit is closed. However, he offers to take you (usually free of charge) to another temple or museum. The best thing to do is to politely say that you want to check for yourself. If you feel uncomfortable calling him a liar (maybe he does speak the truth – National Day, new Year’s Eve and so on) you can tell him that you still want to take some pictures. Pictures with the entrance. What happens if you go along for the ride? You will miss the main attraction and probably have to endure some hard selling from one or several handicraft stores. Someone told me that it is actually quite entertaining to go along for the ride, but probably you do not have the time to play like this. I would say the level of risk in this travel scam is pretty low – as at most you will make some purchases at an inflated price.

travel scams involving changing money

typical Indian market
Most money-changers can be easily found in markets. Usually they will find you first.

This can run several ways, but usually it starts when someone asks if you want to change money. The exchange rate will be better than at the exchange office (which is still better than at the hotel). The red flag should be if the rate is way better that at other changers. The travel scam can hurt you in several ways: you receive less money, you are told that you gave them less money, you are slipped torn or old or wrong bills. The worst travel scam in money exchange involves the police which accuses you of buying or using counterfeited money. The last one I have only read about, so probably if you change money in public places and small amounts of foreign currency it should not be a problem. Sometimes you really have to change money like this, so here are a few tips: do not hand in all the money from start. Count and double-count everything. Try to bring a friend. And of course, try to change small amounts.

buying high value merchandise at a very low price

Precious gemstones, haute couture suits, an iPhone or just a rain jacket can be the object of an often used travel scam. The item is  fake, no big surprise. However, it can be a high quality fake. Buying a fake rain jacket can be a smart buy, but buying cheap glass “rubies” is not. Do not underestimate the power of a high pressure sale and the power of human greed. My rule of thumb is to think hard if I need the item (as in is it useful to me – the gemstones aren’t) and if I would be upset if I lost the money. I have bought several fakes, and knowing that I needed the items and considering that I used them extensively I can consider them “good buys”.

alternative accommodations, restaurants and travel agencies

can you really recognize the original place?
It is not easy to recognize a fake restaurant or hotel, but looking for the exact address or special features presented by the guidebook helps.

I actually consider two different travel scams as one – so you get info for two scams for the price of one! One scam involves a taxi driver that tells you the hotel or guest house you want to visit is closed or it burned down. And that he can take you to an alternative one. If it is cheaper or more central, you can see it and maybe stay with the new one. But it is an uphill battle, as you are trying to negotiate through a scam. The second scam is more elaborate and actually involves a place that has the same name and same branding as the original one. When a hostel or guest house gets reviewed by Lonely Planet or Rough Guide it becomes famous. Other businesses want to emulate the success but without the effort. Guess to what hostel the late night taxi will take you? Yes, the fake one – this is the travel scam. The best way to not fall victim to this one is to get as many details – have the address written down, look for architectural details, special features of the real place. It is hard for a fake hostel to build a swimming pool, or open also across from that famous cathedral.

someone approaches you and under the guise of practising their English starts talking with you

ultimate socializers
Sometimes you can feel you are at the zoo – “What’s your name? Where are you from? How long do you stay here? First time here? Where are you staying?”

Do analyse this situation case-by-case, as not all are travel scams. I met people who were genuinely trying to have a nice conversation. It can become a truly memorable experience. I had several lovely evenings talking with random people. However, there are also the rotten apples. In the travel scam situation the discussion very quickly moves to an invitation to an uncle’s shop, or to a small nearby restaurant. The shop invitation can be irritating, and because of your new friend it can be harder to resist the sales pitch. Take this as an interesting experience and just move on.

I actually included this travel scam for a different reason: the worst scenario involves a bar or restaurant that changes the prices right before you leave. Do not underestimate this case because it is the first scenario that can lead to bodily harm – when the check arrives with an eye-watering total of a few hundred dollars several things happen: the few customers leave, one or two bouncers appear and a modified menu appears on the table. I have not been in this situation, so I will not try to give advice. The gut feeling can really save you (before you enter that bar).

If you found this article useful, or entertaining, I can think of a few more travel scams. Some I have seen, others I just heard about. Would you find more stories like this interesting?

You can find more examples on  Imperatortravel’s short guide to scams in South-East Asia or on Vagabondish 5 most common transport scams.

What do you think about this post?