How to avoid travel scams
How can you avoid travel scams and travel scammers? I have been travelling for almost 30 years and have been scammed (or almost scammed) numerous times. Thankfully it happens less often these days, but each time it is a reminder for me to be more alert. Wherever you are travelling to, there are some simple things you can do which will help you to avoid being scammed. However, whether you travel a little or a lot (but especially if you travel a lot), you will almost certainly be scammed at some point in your travels.
Even if you aren’t naive or gullible, and even if you are an experienced traveller, some scammers are so smooth that you won’t even know you’ve been scammed until much, much later. If you do get scammed, work out how it happened and chalk it up to experience. Getting fooled by a scammer is okay, it happens to the best of us. However, only a fool falls for the same scam twice.
If someone approaches you in a foreign city with an offer help, advice or a tour, be open to their suggestion but think carefully before you say yes. It could be genuine, but take a moment to decide whether it might not be too. Simply being aware that scammers are out there can help you to remain scam free. So will reading about these six common travel scams.
1. How to avoid a taxi scam
Taking tourists for a ride in more ways than one is a popular scam around the world. Either the taxi metre is ‘broken’ or rigged to go so fast that your fare rises by the second, rather than by the kilometre. Even if you have a transfer booked at a fixed rate, a scammer can try to escalate the agreed price due to traffic or other ‘fees’. All these scams have been tried on me more than once with the latter happening with a fixed rate transfer in Rome.
When we got to the airport, the fixed price had gone up due to ‘so much traffic’ (there was hardly any) and the driver’s ‘quick thinking’ to take ‘a better route’ so I could make my flight. Given he already knew my flight’s departure time was four hours away, there was no need to hurry. I gave him a meaningful look and said that as I wasn’t expecting the fare to go up, I only had the amount on me for the previously agreed price. He had the good grace to give me an apologetic grin and leave it at that.
The best way to avoid taxi scams is to research the price of the most common taxi fares at your destination and always use a legit taxi with a working meter. If the taxi doesn’t have a meter, don’t feel bad about walking away and looking for another car. Using a quality ride share company that has a good reputation and good feedback on customer review sites like TripAdvisor can be better than letting your hotel organise a car. I had mistakenly expected better from a 5 star hotel but I probably shouldn’t have. There are scammers everywhere, even at the top end of town.
2. Hotel credit card scams
When arriving at a hotel it’s normal for reception to swipe your credit card and take an amount as a security deposit. Where the scam happens is when you get a call in your room from ‘reception’ or the ‘hotel restaurant’ saying they need your credit card to fix a problem. This happened to me in Bali at a well-known hotel and I had a lucky escape as I didn’t realise at the time it was a scam. I had eaten at the hotel restaurant and received a call in my room about 15 minutes later.
I was told there was a problem with my credit card and someone would come and collect it to fix the error. Luckily for me, I was about to take a shower and didn’t want someone knocking on the door. I said I would drop by reception with the card instead. The person on the phone insisted that they would come straight away which, in hindsight, was a dead giveaway. How many staff are so willing – or even able – to provide such super fast service at a busy hotel?
Of course, when I went to reception, no one knew anything about it. This type of scam is usually slick with a hotel staff member or ex-hotel staff member wearing the correct uniform and having information about your name and room number. Don’t get caught like I almost did. Never give anyone your credit card so they can take it away (and almost certainly use it fraudulently). If you get a call like this it could be legitimate. However, you should always go to reception yourself to fix the problem.
3. Street scams and pickpockets
There are a lot of street scams, from the dropped ring scam where they offer you a ring that they say you dropped and say they want a reward, to the ‘please sign my petition scam’ which involves you signing a petition for a worthy cause while an accomplice picks your pocket. These types of scams involve distraction and quick hands to get to your wallet or purse. Always be vigilant whenever someone approaches you, especially in crowded places. One organised crime group of pickpockets fleeced many visitors to Paris who did not consider the ‘fellow tourists’ on top of the Eiffel Tower could be thieves.
Be especially vigilant at places like train stations and major attractions, and keep a look out for groups of kids or even adults who seem to be a bit too interested in you. They are probably scanning the crowd for their next mark, don’t let it be you. One friend got distracted while boarding the tube and a pickpocket grabbed her purse and ran out the door as it was closing. By the time she contacted the bank and police, one hour had passed and $5,000 dollars had been racked up on her card. Luckily, this was deemed to be fraud and she was covered by the credit card company.
4. Free wi-fi scam
With the growing need to be connected online, having the offer of free wi-fi somewhere like an airport or café is very tempting while travelling overseas. However, travellers should beware with free wi-fi because — as is often the case — nothing is really for free. Even many legit service providers offering free wi-fi will still get access to your information. Hopefully, they will only use it to send marketing emails which you can easily unsubscribe from and not on sell it to third parties. However, when it comes to free wi-fi, getting spammed is the least of your worries.
Many thieves set up bogus free wi-fi accounts with legitimate sounding names – such as Free Airport Wi-Fi Hub – then log on in the background and get access to all your online accounts and passwords instantly. Fortunately, there is an easy way to avoid this scam. Instead of avoiding free wi-fi, install a VPN which will encrypt your information and make it useless to hackers. Many VPN services are free to install and use. With a VPN, you can use free wi-fi services anywhere with confidence. Even if you mistakenly select a dodgy account, hackers won’t be able to access any of your information thanks to the VPN.
5. Traveller in distress scam
We saw this scam in action while waiting for a bus in the Greek islands. A well-dressed lady who spoke English approached ‘fellow tourists’ waiting for a bus. She seemed genuinely distressed and said a thief had just stolen her handbag and she needed money to catch the ferry off the island. To the unwary traveller this can seem legitimate — and in some cases, it might be — but don’t make the mistake of offering money (or at least not straight away). Instead, tell the distressed traveller you will help him/her call the police to report the crime.
If the traveller is genuinely in trouble, they will be grateful for your kind offer of assistance and almost certainly accept your offer of help to get in touch with the police. At the bus stop in Santorini, some people fussed around the woman and were about to reach for their wallets. However, another traveller did exactly what was suggested above and made an offer of genuine help loud enough for everyone to hear. I suspect he had seen the scam in action before. Instead of taking up his kind offer of assistance, the distressed lady suddenly had somewhere else she had to be and quickly disappeared.
6. How to avoid tour guide scams
This scam normally happens at tourist sites such as temples and involves a guide wearing a (fake) ‘official guide’ lanyard asking if you would like a tour. They will often say you can skip the line if you go with them, get in for less than the normal entry fee or something else to make their offer sound tempting. If you say ‘yes’ and go inside the tourist site, the guide will take you on a very quick (and usually not very good) tour. He or she will then demand an inflated amount for his or her guiding services. Often, tourists will simply pay as it is easier than arguing.
Also, be wary when you organise a private tour with an individual guide. I was quoted a great deal for a private tour to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China and reconfirmed the price twice with our guide on the day, making sure that it was for ‘all three of us’. However, when we handed over the money at the end of the tour, she said ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I thought you understood that the price for all three of you was per person’.
Perhaps it was a breakdown in communication but, when I think back to what was said when we were discussing the price, I don’t think so. In fact, I suspect she has done this many times before and will no doubt do it again. Hopefully by reading this, you won’t get caught by someone like her the same way we did.
Disclosure: Fortunately, the worst thing about getting scammed isn’t usually the money you’ve lost. Most of the time, it’s not much. It’s how dumb you feel for getting scammed in the first place.
Want some tips that save time, money and your sanity at the airport? Check out our suggestions for how to pass the time at an airport with kids, how to access airline lounges (even if you’re not a member), how to make the most of a stopover, and tips for flying a low cost airline.