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Don’t Be a Victim – 10 Common Tourist Scams and How to Avoid Them

Travelling to new places and experiencing new things is something that I would recommend to anyone, but as with many things in life, there are also sometimes downsides to travel.

The danger of the world outside your own backyard has mostly been over-hyped by media in the west. However whenever you travel to a country where the majority of residents have less money than you, the chances of them trying to part you with that money will always be higher

Normally this is not something to be overly concerned about – most travellers are way more likely to lose money due to being overcharged in a shop than a violent crime. But it’s always good to be prepared and being aware of some of the more common scams before you travel is important, wherever you plan to go.

1. The taxi scam

Photo credit: noodlepie (flickr)

Photo credit: noodlepie (flickr)

Most countries have some variation of a taxi scam which takes advantage of jetlagged and confused tourists stumbling off the plane and into a new environment before they’ve had chance to realise what’s happening.

9 times out of 10 this scam is fairly harmless and will just result in you being overcharged for your taxi rides – transport touts will try tour guide you away from official taxi ranks and into their own unmetered cars where they can charge you what they like.

Another common strategy in some countries is to take you to a different hotel then you requested – either by telling you that the one you want to stay at is closed or no good, or by taking you to a hotel with the same name and insisting it is the right one.

By far the worse place I’ve visited for this is Vietnam, where 3 different taxi drivers each took me to the wrong hotel on the 3 occasions I landed in the country. Luckily I was prepared for this after the first time and insisted on being taken to the right hotel before paying up.

A couple of girls I met were not so lucky and ended up being scammed out of several hundred dollars as they were confused by the currency.

Preparation is your main form of defence against this scam – research in advance how much your taxi should cost and make sure you know the address of your hotel. Always use official taxi ranks where available and in some cases it’s worth asking for a pick up from your hotel, even if it costs more.

2. The closed attraction scam

Photo credit: Chris Campbell (flickr)

Photo credit: Chris Campbell (flickr)

This is another very common scam in many countries. On trying to take a taxi to a popular tourist attraction, the driver will tell you that it is closed for a public holiday and offer to take you to an alternative destination. Usually this destination will be a souvenir shop where they can get commission for bringing you there.

The best way to avoid this situation is simply to turn down offers of transport if the driver doesn’t want to take you there. There are always more taxis.

Sometimes this also happens near the entrance of tourist attractions, particularly if they are not very busy or the actual entrance isn’t very clear. Always check for yourself.

3. The money changing scam

Photo credit: Amalthya (flickr)

Photo credit: Amalthya (flickr)

Money changing scams are as old as tourism itself and are one of the easiest ways for unscrupulous locals to get hold of your money. Scams range from rigged calculators to slight-of-hand counting and usually take advantage of your unfamiliarity with the money to confuse you.

Where possible, order currency from your own country before you leave or only change money at reputable exchange counters. Never change money in the street or at a place recommended by someone on the street.

4. The free gift scam

Photo credit: VasenkaPhotography (flickr)

Photo credit: VasenkaPhotography (flickr)

In this scam, vendors selling trinkets and souvenirs outside a popular attraction will attempt to give you a bracelet, fruit, or other small ‘gift’ on your way into the attraction, telling you it is free and often insisting quite forcefully that you take it. If you do take the item, they will accost you on your way out of the attraction and demand a (high) payment for the item, often calling threats or abuse even if you give it back. Be wary of any ‘free’ gifts!

5. The temple scam

Photo credit: Clearwaters photo (flickr)

Photo credit: Clearwaters photo (flickr)

This is a pretty common scam here in Bali and while it’s pretty harmless, I don’t like people being tricked by it so I think it’s important to be aware! Here in Bali, anyone entering a temple must wear a sarong and sash. In other temples and religious sites across Asia and the world there are similar requirements – usually the shoulders and legs must be covered.

Around any temple in bail will be a gaggle of women trying to get you to buy sarongs and insisting you can’t enter the temple without a sarong. True, BUT when you get to the entrance of the temple, you will be given a sarong to rent either free of charge or for a nominal payment or donation. This is true of all the big temples that tourists visit.

Feel free to buy a sarong (or scarf or whatever in other countries) if you would like one as a souvenir and the price is reasonable, but be aware that you do not have to! Or to save being accosted by pushy salespeople, wear temple-appropriate clothing before you arrive.

6. The broken down car scam

photo credit: mattvn (flickr)

photo credit: mattvn (flickr)

This is one to be aware of if you hire a car or motorbike while travelling. You’re driving along the road and see a car broken down on the side of the road and the driver (usually a young woman) trying to flag down help. You stop and help to change the flat tire or find that the car miraculously starts when you try it. The driver thanks you graciously and drives away. You return to your vehicle to find that your wallet and bag has been taken by an accomplice while you were helping the apparently vulnerable driver. Never leave your belongings unattended and be particularly on-guard in countries where violent crime and car-jackings are a problem

7. The friendly local scam

Photo credit: spdl_n1 (flickr)

Photo credit: spdl_n1 (flickr)

You’re wandering round exploring the city when a friendly local starts a conversation with you. After chatting for a while, he invites you to visit his family or to visit a secret spot that not many tourists know about. Of course after arriving at his family home/shop/secret attraction, you’ll be accosted for ‘donations’, coerced into buying overpriced items or worse. The easiest way to avoid this is never to go anywhere with a stranger – advice we learn as children but sometimes forget in the thrill of travelling.

8. The pretty girl scam

Photo credit: Tonto Polanski

Photo credit: Tonto Polanski

This takes various forms but usually starts off as a pretty girl chatting to you in a bar. Under the influence of a few drinks and unused to such attention in their own company, many men fall prey to the charms of the friendly local. This scam can end up in a variety of different ways, from an extortionate bar tab to taking the girl back to your room and discovering she’s actually a prostitute.

A French tourist in Bali actually did just this a few months ago and the women turned out to be a convicted criminal who kidnapped his 2-year-old son in the middle of the night (of course what he was thinking inviting a random woman back to his hotel when he had a small child to look after is another matter entirely). Be warned!

9. The enthusiastic children scam

Photo credit: Dey (flickr)

Photo credit: Dey (flickr)

A scam to be aware of in any country where child beggars are common. You’ll be accosted by a group of children insisting that you take their photo, give them sweets or some other apparently innocent request. 5 minutes later when they’ve all gone, you realise that in the confusion, one of them has stolen your wallet. Pickpocketing is easier to fall prey to than you realise so always keep your valuables in a secure place (I once had a watch stolen right off my wrist from an illusionist at a corporate event!)

10. The fake (or real!) police scam

Photo credit: MohammadHasan

Photo credit: MohammadHasan

You’ll be stopped by a couple of official-looking men who demand to inspect your passport or show details of where you’re staying. They’ll immediately point out some problem and say you must go to court, or you can leave now if you pay an on-the-spot fine. Of course if you insist on going to court or to the police station, you’ll probably find that they drop the charge as quickly as they accuse you of it.

There is a variation of this scam in many countries with real police, most commonly happening to tourists driving vehicles who are stopped and asked to show documentation. The same strategy applies, although in many cases it is easier just to pay the ‘fine’ and get on with your day. Bribery and corruption is just a way of life in many countries.

Be aware but not alarmed

However frightening these scams may sound, they are easily avoided and in most cases, the biggest risk is simply of losing some spare change from your wallet. Very rarely will you actually be in physical danger. The best way to protect yourself is to stay informed and use your common sense. Remember that in general, people are mostly good and unless you’re visiting a war zone or an area ruled by drug gangs, you’ll probably be just as safe on your travels as you are at home.

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