“I want to go travelling, but I’m afraid of getting robbed or scammed in another country.”
Travelling the world is an amazing adventure, but the truth is that there is an element of risk involved. Although most people you meet will be pleasant, no matter where you go there is always a chance that someone there will be dishonest in an attempt to rip you off, steal from you or dupe you in some way.
When you are a traveler in another country you are at a disadvantage because you will be a little bit bewildered, overwhelmed and unsure of how things work. It is this confusion that makes you more vulnerable to unscrupulous people who will try to take advantage of you. Travel scammers know this and their scams are designed to capitalise on it.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid travelling and all of the wonderful experiences it has to offer. Not everyone is out to screw you over and most travel scams can be easily foiled with a little knowledge and common sense. The key is simply to be as prepared, informed and aware as possible so that you can avoid getting scammed.
Tips to Avoid Travel Scams
Here are 10 tips that will help you stay one step ahead of the scammers:
1. Research the Common Scams So You Are Aware of Them
One of the most effective things that you can do to avoid getting scammed is to simply be aware of the scam in the first place. If you know how a common scam works, alarm bells will start ringing as soon as the scammer starts to lay the groundwork.
Before you go on your trip, head to Google and type in “Common Scams in (Your Destination)” and take the time to do some reading. You might find that there are scams that are specific to a certain area, such as a popular tourist attraction, or scams that are widespread around a certain region.
For example, an American backpacker we met in Buenos Aires was duped by the Bird Poo Scam – a common one in South America. The scammer will sneak up behind you and squirt some white goo that looks like bird poo on your shoulder. Then, a friendly and helpful seeming person will stop you and alert you to the stain, giving you tissues to clean yourself with. You will be distracted with trying to wipe off the goo and while you are not looking, a pickpocket will quickly nab your belongings.
This is exactly what happened to our American friend. She even took her bag off of her shoulder to get a better look at the stain, allowing the thief to grab it and run. She lost her phone, camera and wallet and she arrived back at the hostel in tears.
This scam works on people who aren’t aware of it and who assume that the “helpful stranger” is really alerting them to bird poo on their shirt. However, once you know this and a stranger approaches you with this line, you will be immediately on your guard. You won’t stop and give them a chance to pick your pocket, you’ll thank them and keep on walking briskly until you are in a safe place to clean up the stain.
2. Beware of “Helpful” People who Approach you First
In many of the common scams the con begins with someone approaching you first. They might be offering you travel advice or inviting you somewhere, but in this situation you should be very wary. Why are they approaching you and what do they have to gain by offering you this seemingly “helpful” advice?
Lee and I have found again and again that the people who approach us in this way are almost always trying to scam us or sell us something. For example, in this story that Lee wrote about arriving in Delhi, India a helpful stranger gives us the wrong directions in an attempt to get us to visit a travel agency he was likely affiliated with. We ignored his advice and walked the right way to our hotel instead.
Of course, this isn’t the case in every situation and some people are genuinely friendly and just want to help. Just know to be slightly wary and use your judgement on those who approach you out of the blue.
3. Know The Details Yourself
You can avoid a lot of scams and hassles by having some prior knowledge about what you are doing, so that scammers can’t try to tell you something that isn’t true. If you are buying something, get an idea of what it should cost beforehand.
Know the opening times, the rules and whether or not there are any “taxes” or “fees” you need to pay. If a taxi driver in Bangkok tries to tell you that the Grand Palace is closed and suggests that he take you somewhere else instead, you can say, “No thanks buddy, the Grand Palace is open every day.”
If you are travelling somewhere, find out the distance and what to expect along the way. Get a local SIM card for your phone and use Google Maps to figure out where you are. When we arrived at the border between Thailand and Cambodia, a horde of tuk tuk drivers swarmed us as we got off the bus and tried to tell us that the border office was too far away to walk. They insisted we needed to take a tuk tuk to get there.
However, Lee had the map already open on his phone and we could see that it was less than a 10 minute walk away. Ignoring the persistent pleas of the tuk tuk drivers, we easily made the walk down the road to the border and saved ourselves an overpriced ride.
If you have a smartphone with a SIM card you can use it to quickly research anything that sounds dodgy. If someone gets impatient while you are Googling something to double check it, that could be a sign that they are being dishonest with you.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
If something seems strange and just doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to question it. Sometimes just by questioning something you can let the scammer know that you are on to what they are doing. Even if it turns out not to be a scam, asking questions can help you be more aware of what is going on.
When we were in Kandy, Sri Lanka I was paying for our hotel stay. I looked at the bill and saw an extra 10% “luxury tax” added at the bottom. I had never heard of this before and I hadn’t seen it on any other hotel bills. Also, we hadn’t been told about it before we booked. I wasn’t sure, so I just politely asked what it was.
As soon as I asked, the hotel receptionist looked embarrassed, apologized and quickly erased it off the bill. It was strange, but I just thanked him and paid the lower total. If I hadn’t asked, I would have paid more for no reason.
5. Add Up the Total Yourself and Count Up Your Change
Another important tip is to pay attention when you are making purchases and add up the total of what you are paying. A great example of this is when I tried to buy some water and a few snacks at a roadside stand in India.
I placed my items on the counter and the shopkeeper said, “130 rupees.” I was about to hand over the money, but then I thought. “Wait a minute…”
“How much are these crisps?” I asked.
“20 rupees each.”
And this bottle of water?
“20 rupees also.”
I added everything up in my head. “So, the total is actually 80.”
He just rolled his eyes, waggled his head and shrugged. The difference of 50 rupees was a very small amount, but there’s no need to pay more money because someone thinks they can dupe you when you aren’t paying attention. The same goes for counting up your change when you are buying something – it’s not uncommon to get shortchanged and those small amounts can really add up and eat into your travel budget.
6. Don’t Give Money to Child Beggars
In many destinations around the world such as South and Central America and Southeast Asia you might be approached by young, dishevelled children with bare feet and dirty clothes, trying to sell you little trinkets or ask you for money.
In that situation it’s so hard to say no. How can you say no to a poor little child? However, giving the child money in this situation will actually cause them harm rather than help them.
In these situations there is almost always an adult behind the scenes who knows that cute little grimy children make people feel sympathetic enough to give more money. The children should really be in school rather than making sad puppy dog eyes at tourists.
Any money you give them will keep them on the streets instead of helping them get an education and will go directly to the adult – who may be abusing them or keeping them away from their families. When these kids don’t get an education, it dooms them to continue the cycle of poverty.
You can still help these children in a more effective way. Take a look at this list of charities that are set up to assist impoverished children and their families in many developing countries. Helping these kids to go to school and get jobs will set them up for a better future.
7. Be Wary of Distractions
Scammers, thieves and pickpockets will often create a dramatic distraction to capture your attention so that they can more easily rob you. For example, a fist fight might break out right in front of you, or a group of children might surround you begging you for money, or an elderly woman might fall over.
It’s hard to tell if these situations are real or just a ruse to draw your attention away, but when you know that this is a technique that is used you will be more vigilant when things like this happen. If something out of the ordinary happens right in front of you, be alert and aware to what is going on.
Here are a few examples of common types of distraction scams:
- A charity worker with a clipboard approaches you and asks you to sign a petition. While you are reading the documents on the clipboard, their accomplice is picking your pocket. This can also be done with a map under the ruse of asking for directions.
- The bird poo scam, as explained above.
- A group of people or young children crowd into an already busy metro or subway car. They crowd around you and distract you, steal your wallet and then jump off right before the doors close.
- The scammers stand right at the top of a busy escalator, creating a backup of people trying to get off. Someone behind you swipes your wallet and hands it off to someone on the opposite escalator, making it nearly impossible to chase them.
- Someone drops something, like a handful of papers, in front of you. As you stoop to help them pick it up, someone else steals from you. This doesn’t mean you should never help someone, just be aware of your belongings as you do.
8.Scammers Prey on Greed
If you find yourself offered something free or a bargain that is just too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Many scammers will take advantage of your basic tendency to be greedy in order to fool you. Many of the scams start by offering you a cheap deal or something free, hoping that you will be seduced.
A great example of this is the famous Gem Scam in Bangkok. You will be told that you can buy high quality real gems at a discounted price and then sell them again in your home country for much more. Your eyes start to light up at the thought of being able to make a profit and your greed starts to influence your rational thinking.
Later you find out that the gems are fake and not worth what you paid for them. Don’t let greed make you get carried away so that you forget to look at things critically.
9. They Also Prey on Guilt
People who are trying to scam you will also use emotional manipulation and guilt to try to coerce you into doing what they want you to do. Adults using sad and grimy looking children to do their begging as explained in point #6 is a good example.
Another example happened to us upon arriving via bus to Ajmer, India. When we disembarked we were met by the driver of a hotel pick up service we had arranged in advance to take us to our guesthouse in Pushkar (a 25 minute drive away). There were two French girls who were also going to Pushkar, so we asked our driver if we could share our car with them.
One of the tuk tuk drivers was really not pleased by this. He insisted that if we hadn’t offered to share our ride with the French girls they would have needed to take his tuk tuk, so he felt like we were stealing a fare from him. It should have been their choice whether or not to hire him, but he was acting like he was entitled to their business.
He started getting angry and guilt tripping them, making them feel like they were being rude and unfair by not taking his tuk tuk. It was pretty awful, but it was working. He became more and more argumentative and the sweet and friendly French girls were becoming stressed and confused – they were not sure what to do.
Lee took a serious tone and let the pushy tuk tuk driver know that the French girls were coming with us and that was the end of that. He pointed out that even if they weren’t going with us, they certainly wouldn’t want to go with him because of how pushy and rude he was being. We all got in the car and left.
Scammers will try to guilt trip you to make you feel like you have done something wrong when you don’t do what they want. Don’t buy into it- just walk away.
10. Trust Your Gut
Last but definitely not least, one of the most important things to remember when you are travelling is to listen to your instincts and trust your gut. You’ll notice that there will be alarm bells that go off in your head when something someone is telling you just doesn’t make sense or sounds too good to be true. Listen to those alarm bells and approach each situation with a little bit of healthy skepticism.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to or trust anyone you meet on your travels! Being open to meeting new people and making friends is important and the interactions you have with others will be some of your most memorable travel experiences. The key is to be informed beforehand, take the things people tell you with a grain of salt and use your intuition in each situation.