Home / Travel Tips / How to Avoid 99.9% of Travel Scams

How to Avoid 99.9% of Travel Scams

I meet a lot of people, online and in the real world, who are going on their very first backpacking trip ever. They are filled with excitement and anticipation, a sense that they are about to do something that will push them outside of their comfort zone and change their life. However, they are also filled with a bit of nervousness and apprehension – and I don’t blame them.

Going travelling for the first time can be nerve wracking and intimidating. Adults and the media (especially in North America) tell us that the big world out there is full of dangers. We hear stories of travellers being kidnapped, pickpocketed and mugged and we fear that these things will happen to us. This fear of danger can lead people to be so afraid of other countries that they don’t travel, or they keep their travels contained to “safe” destinations with self-contained resorts. This is a shame, because the world is an immense and amazing place and it is a lot safer than you might think.

I was scared the first time I went travelling, but I have learned a lot in the last 5 years of wandering the globe. Now, when I give advice about travel safety to first time travellers there is one very important point that I emphasise – and it’s something that you can do to keep yourself safe in every country in the world.

My Travel Safety Tip – It’s Really Simple

Here’s my advice:

Before you go somewhere, navigate your web browser to Google and type in “Common tourist scams in (Insert Destination Here).” Read the results.

SEA26

That’s it. I don’t think you need to wear your backpack on your front or wear a money belt in most places (that just singles you out as a tourist), I think you just need to be informed as to what to watch out for – especially what is specific to your destination. Combine that knowledge with a little self-awareness and common sense and you will be fine.

For example, a common scam here in Buenos Aires is for someone to squirt a liquid that looks like bird poo on your back or shoulder when you aren’t paying attention. The helpful stranger will then alert you to the stain and while you are distracted looking over your shoulder at your soiled clothing, they will sneakily snatch your wallet.

If you had not researched this in advance you would probably fall for it. “Ah, what a helpful local person! Oh dear, that’s quite a stain. Whoops, where did my wallet go?” However, if you know this information it is a lot harder for the scammer to trick you. If someone tells you that you have bird crap on your shoulder, you will say “thanks for the tip” and keep on walking, keeping your hands in your pockets. Your knowledge protects you – scammers prey on ignorance.

A Great Example by Some Gullible Young Canadians

One of my best examples of this is a group of five young Canadians who I met while I was in Kandy, Sri Lanka. They were around 20-21 years old and were studying abroad in Singapore. How these fresh-faced travellers were still alive was astounding to me – they were sweet but so incredibly naive.

I think they belonged here... (Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, Turkey)
I think they belonged here… (Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, Turkey)

We started to chat over breakfast and my conversation with one of them went like this:

Me: So what are you guys up to today?

Her: We are going on a tour!

Me: Ah cool, what tour is it?

Her: Well, it’s not really an official tour. We met this guy at the bar last night and he is starting up a new tour agency. He offered to give us a really great deal and he and his buddy are going to pick us up in his van and drive us around to like, some temples and stuff.

Me: What?

Her: Yeah, it’s going to be super fun!

Me: Did he give you a business card? Do they have any reviews or a website?

Her: No, but they are just starting out so…

Me: Wait… so a random guy approached you late last night in a bar. He claims to have a tour agency but has no official website or reviews. He is going to pick you up in a van and “drive you around”?

Her: Well… when you say it like that it sounds a little sketchy…

Me: Yeah, no shit.

So I asked her whether or not she had Googled “Common scams in Sri Lanka.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her, so I did a quick search on my laptop. Within seconds I was reading out loud to her from this page.

“Many scams involve gaining your trust, then getting you into a tuktuk to visit some temple/“elephant festival”/handicraft shop or other attraction. Having driven you around for a while, you will be dumped in some remote and seedy part of town at which point the tuktuk driver will demand a wildly inflated fare for the ride.”

“It says tuktuk,” I said, “but I’m sure scammers do this with vans too.” Her eyes widened. She finally realised what she had agreed to and how sketchy it really sounded. Then, her “tour guide” called her to let her know that he would be a little late. She asked why and he eventually confessed that it was because he had to pick up his “business partner”… from jail!

After a panicked consultation with her friends, they decided to cancel the trip.

Now, of course there is always a chance that this Sri Lankan guy was legitimately starting up a tour agency and had been honest in his offerings. However, because he went about it in such a dodgy way I don’t regret discouraging those travellers from going with him. If he is really going to be a tour operator, he needs to establish a little more professionalism and accountability in his business.

Like this very credible and respectable business on Kao San Road, Bangkok
Like this very credible and respectable business on Kao San Road, Bangkok

The bottom line is that there are people who will scam, mug, rob and take advantage of tourists all over the world. That’s not a reason not to travel, it’s only a reason why you should study up beforehand so you don’t fall for it.

Knowledge is the Best Weapon Against Travel Scams

When it comes to travel safety, the very best thing you can do is to be informed. Read about your destination and know what to look out for. Find out typical scams and which areas of the city are best to avoid after dark. Ask people who have actually been there. Research, research, research.

So many people are fooled by tourist scams because they assume that “it’s just the way things are done here.” If you can arm yourself with the knowledge to know better and a dash of common sense, you will be vastly reduce your chances of being taken advantage of.
Have you ever been scammed, or narrowly avoided a scam on your travels? Let us know your stories in the comments! 

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

4 comments

  1. This is the perfect advice. So, so often I’ll find myself confronted with a scam I (thankfully) had read about while researching my trip. It’s so simple to avoid!

  2. Hi Kelly,

    I recently came from Beijing, China and I came across few dodgy people who try to be friendly with you and ask to go for coffee together.

    I travel solo so always exercise caution, and do research before I go to particular country and in this case it was helpful. So what happened is, I was wandering at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, one couple came to me and said hello and opened conversation as below

    Them: Where are you from?
    Me: India
    Them: Nice country.. We are from Shanghai
    Me: Good. Nice city
    and they asked me what is my plan and how long I have been in Beijing etc.. and all of sudden they asked me if I want to go for tea with them or for dinner as it was 7 in the evening. I politely refused and walked away but to my shock same thing happened when I was visiting Palace Museum near by and this time a woman was trying to be friendly, she was taking same approach as the couple I met before and that triggered suspicion in mind that this is a kind of scam. I told this to owner of Indian Restaurant and what I heard was shocking.

    Recently one of the victim to this trick lost $ 100 on a single drinks. What this people do is take you to the place which is far from public, claiming the place is very popular and authentic and order few drinks and tells bill will be shared, when you go to the place it will be only you in small room with this people. As soon as you grab the sit they close the door (so no escape..) and guy come with menu which has ridiculous price for soft drink or alcoholic drink so even if you decide to take cheapest one, at the bill you see will wide open yours eyes. Even after sharing(the people who offered to have drink together will pretend to pay their share by card) you will be paying RMB 300 to 400.

    So be aware of this kind of fraud it is very common in China and could be perilous in some cases

    • Hi Jatin,

      Thanks for sharing this valuable information about this scam in China, it is much appreciated. It’s a shame that people take advantage of travellers in this way, but if we are aware of it we can avoid it. This comment will be really helpful for our readers!

      Thanks,
      Kelly

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