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Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them

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Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr describes some ruses you’re likely to come across on your travels, and how to make sure you don’t fall for them.

A vacation can go downhill in a hurry when you find yourself the victim of fraud. Even if your trip goes smoothly, you may return rested and relaxed only to review your finances and realize you’ve been had. Today, I’ll cover some of the most common scams and fraud attempts that specifically target travelers. I’ll offer some tips to help you avoid becoming a victim in the first place, along with suggestions for what to do in the event that things do go wrong.

Common Scams

Some scams can make you feel dumb, but only cost you a few dollars. Others can be far more sinister. Let’s start by looking at what I’ll call the streetwalker scams; these are the ones you’ll likely encounter when walking between popular sites in a busy city.

1. The Found Ring – I figured I’d take my lumps up front and admit to the scam I fell victim to, albeit only for a couple Euros. Scammers will pick up a ring (that they dropped) right in front of you, and ask if it’s yours. They’ll then attempt to prove that it’s highly valuable and convince you to take it, asking for some money in exchange for the nice gift. They might also try and sell you the ring for a “good” price, though the ring is essentially worthless.

2. Finger Trap – Popular below the Eiffel Tower, street entertainers will create an elaborate design with a string and offer to show you a trick if you put your finger in the middle. A quick release of the design has your finger stuck in the string and the artist asking for money before they let you go.

3. The Helper – Whether you’re trying to buy a subway or bus ticket, or find the entrance to an attraction, there usually seems to be a plethora of “helpers” in large cities. They may seem quite bombastic in their duties, and often try to appear like official workers. It’s all well and good until your ticket is held hostage for a small ransom. My wife and I had a guy lift our suitcases onto a train in Rome without permission and refuse to let go until I paid him. The train was accelerating through 5 mph before he gave up and hopped off.

4. Street Games – If someone offers for you to play a game or puzzle, just say no.

There are all kinds of street scams occuring below the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
There are all kinds of street scams occurring below the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Next come the transportation scams. You can take every proper precaution, but still find yourself in a precarious position when it comes to taxis, trains, or buses.

5. Taxi/tuk tuk scams – There are as many taxi scams now as there are flavors of Skittles. Meter rigging, price swapping, taking you far out and demanding money to return you, circuitous routes, unlicensed drivers posing as a taxi, drivers who get a cut when taking you to a particular non-requested shop or restaurant — the list goes on. If your “taxi” looks different from all the others, find another one.

6. Stolen luggage – It sure seems convenient to not have to hold your heavy suitcase or backpack for that long bus or train ride, but consider who might be rummaging through it in the baggage compartment while you nap. Keep your luggage in sight at all times.

7. Bag Collectors – You’re in a hurry to get to the airport for your flight and may not remember your laptop bag or small suitcase in the back of the taxi. They drive off quickly before you can get it or remember that it’s even in the car.

8. Fake Ticket – The line for a train ticket is quite long, but this gentleman is selling tickets at the back of the line. Unfortunately, you’ll be denied boarding and be out some cash.

Last, there are shopping and credit card scams. Some good advice here is to not try and become an Oriental rug, precious stone, or electronics expert on the spot. You’ll most likely end up with cut-rate goods.

9. Keystroke Recorder/SkimmerExtremely simple programs can be installed on public computers or magnetic devices on ATM machines that record the keys you press for passwords, or your personal PIN code and card information. Once the card number and PIN is in a scammer’s possession, your cash is as good as gone. They can also log in to your banking accounts and wreak havoc.

10. Shocking Bar Tab – Gentlemen, the girl is just not that into you. She gets paid a commission on your drink sales, or is being forced to coerce drinks out of you. They will be $20 each, and you will have to pay. Girl or not, check the drink prices before you order, and don’t drink to the point where you won’t remember what receipt you sign.

11. Wrong Change – You may get metal slugs back mixed in with real coins, or the cashier will count the correct amount out loud while handing you the wrong amount.

12. Aggressive Touts – Other cultures are aware of many people’s discomfort with and aversion to confrontation. Aggressive sales people may stay on your hip for multiple blocks and pester you until you’re more than happy to part with a few dollars rather than deal with the person for another block.

In Rome I encountered plenty of "helpers." Most were helping before I had a chance to tell them no thanks. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
In Rome, I encountered plenty of “helpers.” Most were helping before I had a chance to tell them no thanks. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Avoid Becoming a Victim

Here are some tips to help you minimize your chances of being swindled. Rather than instruct you on how to avoid each scam individually, I think the most important thing to learn is the proper attitude.

Situational Awareness – Of all the skills I picked up in basic training when I went through Officer Candidate School for the Navy, this is the one I prize most. For 13 weeks I was taught to recognize who is around me, what they’re doing, anything that looks out of place, and how to take action to rectify the situation. Nothing can go further in protecting you and your companions than to develop what my wife now calls my own spider sense.

You don’t have to be motivated like I was by the most terrifying individuals that exist, Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant drill instructors. Practice before traveling by noticing who walks in the door at a restaurant, start taking notice of your fellow commuters, and see if you can recognize when someone is walking behind you down the sidewalk. When traveling, heighten this sense and always be aware of your surroundings.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch – Apply this commonsense economic principle to your travel and recognize that if something is too good to be true, then it’s probably false. If the price is too low, then the thing you’re buying (or hopefully not buying) is a fake. If an offer has too many perks for the price, it’s a scam.

Save Credit Card Receipts – TPG Reader Rahul wrote in with the following problem:

“I was at a bar in Roppongi (Tokyo), and used my Chase Sapphire to pay for a tab of around $40. I later realized that I had been charged $3,800! I raised a dispute, and when Chase asked the merchant for proof, the bar somehow produced a transaction receipt and even an invoice for that amount. Chase denied this as a fraud, since the card was swiped in person. I assume the merchant must have presented me with a bill showing a different amount than what it was swiped for. I wish I had kept the receipt with me; I’m not sure what case I have to dispute it now.”

Rahul also pointed out a current notice from the US Embassy in Tokyo in regards to this scam and other problems in the Roppongi area. Without the receipt, I’m not sure what recourse Rahul has with Chase, and I hope other readers can point him in the right direction in the comments. As a current resident of Tokyo, I’m sorry and deeply disappointed that this happened, and I hope this particular case doesn’t reflect poorly on Japan overall.

The lesson for all of us to learn from Rahul’s situation is to watch the merchant swipe your card for the amount charged, save your credit card receipts, and if anything seems out of place with the merchant’s credit card operations, pay with cash.

Do Your Research – In the age of technology there’s really no excuse to not have a basic understanding of the environment you’re entering. Check US State Department travel advisories, read destination message boards to learn from the misfortune of others and gain insight into common scams, and bring along contact information to have readily accessible in case something goes awry. I also highly recommend filling out the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) so our government can keep tabs on you in case disaster strikes.

Like most of Japan, the Roppongi area of Tokyo is considered very safe. You do have to be aware of bar scams and petty theft. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock,
Like most of Japan, the Roppongi area of Tokyo is considered very safe, but beware of bar scams and the rare petty theft. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock,

When Things Go Wrong

If you do find yourself the victim of a scam, don’t panic. Taking the right steps may help you remedy the situation, or at least prevent you from making things worse.

Remove Yourself from the Situation – Your safety and well-being are more important than money and electronics. If you realize your situation has taken a bad turn, look for the quickest exit point. Don’t argue, don’t be confrontational, just leave. Record as many mental details as possible, and write them down as soon as you’re safe (e.g.,  the location, description of people around you, exact order of events, etc.). Adrenaline can have funny effects on your mind. A short pencil is better than a long memory.

Have a Backup – This pertains more to preparation before the fact. When you leave home, have ID and money stored in two separate locations. That way if your bag, purse, or wallet is lost or stolen, you won’t be stuck in quicksand without a rope. I tend to keep my driver’s license, cash and a credit card with me, and my passport and more cash in the hotel room safe.

File a Police Report – Having official documentation can go a long way in helping resolve your case down the line. While the local police probably won’t put much effort into solving petty crime, documentation can be a golden asset for insurance or credit card filings. Many credit cards offer protection for certain losses and damages that occur while you travel, but you’ll need a police report to grease the skids.

Contact the Embassy – In my experience, all US Embassies post a 24-hour duty phone or emergency line on their webpage for Americans to utilize when things go wrong. Don’t hesitate to make use of their expertise in local law and their relationships to help your situation.

Cancel Your Credit Card – I take inventory of my wallet and try to check my online credit card statement before heading to bed each night. If anything is missing or something abnormal is on my statement, I call and cancel the card immediately.

Use Hotel Security – A hotel’s security manager should have the insight and connections to help you out if you’re victimized. They can contact local police and help guide you in the first hours after an incident. If nothing else, they can be a listening ear and help you calm down. Just know that not all hotel security managers are created equally. Some are much more helpful than others.

Bottom Line

Unfortunately, scammers are out there, but don’t let that discourage you from exploring the world (even its shadier parts). Sometimes it’s difficult to find a balance between excessive paranoia and the carefree travel mindset that allows you to simply enjoy your travels. You can’t foresee every circumstance, but I’ve found that being prepared and having a plan (in case things go wrong) help me strike the required balance. Being prepared becomes habit just like the ability to notice something that looks out of place.

What scams have you encountered on your travels, and what are your tips for avoiding them?

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