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10 common travel scams, and how to protect yourself when traveling

May 19, 2022
14 min read
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Editor's Note

This post has been updated with new information.

Travel can be a rewarding and relaxing experience — some of my favorite memories are from trips I’ve taken with friends or by myself.

However, scam artists are everywhere, and anyone can fall prey to a scheme — especially if you’re in an unfamiliar place. Also, some scams specifically target certain groups of people, such as women, older travelers or kids.

The Federal Trade Commission received nearly 54,000 reports of travel scams in 2021, with $95 million in total reported losses for consumers and a median loss of $1,112 per person.

Safety is important when planning travel, so we’ve compiled a list of common travel scams, how to spot them and ways to protect your wallet and personal information while you’re away from home.

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This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of all the types of scams you may encounter while traveling, but it will give you an idea of some of the most common travel scams and how to spot them.

Timeshare and vacation club scams

Timeshare scams are easily one of the most lucrative travel scams. The FTC and many state attorney general offices have cracked down hard on this type of fraud, but it can still happen. These scams can be broken down into two main types: timeshare presentation scams and timeshare resale scams.

A timeshare is a real estate property that is sold to multiple buyers with each allotted a certain amount of time at the property each year (usually one week).

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Oftentimes, timeshare sellers will host presentations with the promise of a free hotel stay or gift for those who attend. Do your research before you jump on what seems like a too-good-to-be-true deal.

Before attending a timeshare presentation, make sure you research the specific developer selling the timeshares. You can check out the Better Business Bureau website to look up complaints against the developer and get a better picture of other people’s experiences.

Related: I suffered through a timeshare sales presentation for a cheap vacation

Timeshare scams can happen on the backend of a deal, too.

Once you purchase a timeshare, it can be very difficult to resell your share. Unfortunately, this is where scammers often lurk. Someone may promise to sell your timeshare quickly and painlessly for an upfront fee. Once that fee is paid, they either disappear or claim that they were unsuccessful.

If you do decide to go with a resale company, make sure to look up relevant laws in the state or country where your timeshare is located (or reach out to a lawyer to help). Also, when you do meet with a company, don’t sign anything at the first meeting. Take any documents home and read through the fine print before you make a decision.

Multilevel marketing scams

Multilevel marketing scams, or MLMs, work similarly to pyramid schemes with a direct sales model that encourages existing members to recruit new members, while also paying into the parent company for special access. For travel, you're asked to pay a monthly price for credits you can apply to the cost of the cruise or a vacation. However, after you've paid every month, you still need to add more to cover your "upgraded" cruise fee. But wait, there's a way around this, says the company. Simply sign up some friends and family for the same plan and you'll get more credits. The more people you sign up, the better. And of course, the people you've brought on board with you can sign up more members, too. And yet, the cost of your dream vacation is still just out of reach, so you have to keep signing people up and paying monthly, and so on and so on.

You may have seen this model with vitamins, diet cookies, lawn fertilizer or other pay-to-play MLMs. Before you commit to one of these for cruises or travel, look carefully at what you'll be paying upfront before you bring on any other "investors." In most, if not all cases, you can get the same, if not better, value from booking directly with a cruise line or authorized travel agent.

Internet search scams

In a recent article, Travel Weekly identified "flyer beware" scams where an internet search for an airline customer service phone number results in second-party numbers. These phone numbers seem legitimate. However, instead of connecting you directly with the airline, they instead route you to unofficial call centers that don't reveal their affiliations. Then, they bill you not only for exorbitantly priced tickets but also for high charges -- often in the $500 range -- tacked onto the nonrefundable airline tickets.

To counter this scam, it's important to look closely at the listings when you search for an airline's customer service number online -- the first option that pops up isn't necessarily the official one. Copy and paste the number into the search bar to see its official registration. Also, click through the link to the website it's associated with, and then find the homepage. It should then be clear where you've landed.

Taxi scams

Once you arrive at your destination, there is a new bucket of deceits you need to be alert to, including the taxi scam. This common scheme happens when you take a taxi or another car service in an unfamiliar destination where rates are determined by the distance of the drive. Your driver may take a much longer, often circuitous route to get to your destination in order to maximize the cost of your fare.

(Photo by july7th/Getty Images)

The age of Google Maps makes it easier to thwart one of these scams, even in an area you’re not familiar with. Whenever possible, pull up the route on your smartphone’s map app to make sure your driver is actually taking you on the most direct route.

If you suspect you’re being led astray, ask for them to take the more direct route, then get a receipt and also take a picture of the registration number or the driver’s ID card so you can follow up with local authorities or your credit card company later if need be.

Related: How to avoid getting scammed by your taxi driver

In addition, always take licensed cabs or taxis, or use a reputable ride-hailing app (the latter is a good way to know the price in advance and have proof of your journey request).

'Incorrect change' scams

If you’re traveling to a place with an unfamiliar currency, someone may try to take advantage of this by giving you incorrect change or insisting you gave them a different bill than you did. This is especially common in places where cash is used more regularly and different bills look similar.

To protect yourself, research the currency at your destination before you travel so you're familiar with it when you arrive. Also, count your change before walking away to make sure you get the right amount.

Ticket scams

People will often try to sell tickets to attractions, buses, trains and more outside of venues and transportation stations. They’ll claim the tickets are discounted or offer them as a way to jump the line. However, these tickets can be fake or expired when you try to actually use them. Also, as technology has improved over the years, so have these fake tickets. They can look almost identical to the real thing.

The best way to avoid this is to always purchase any tickets — whether to a concert, a tourist attraction, a bus, a train or a ferry – from an official ticket booth or the official website. Or, work with your hotel concierge to secure admission to hard-to-access venues.

'Attraction closed' scams

You may come across someone claiming an attraction you want to visit, a show you want to see or even a train or ferry you have tickets for is closed. Then they’ll direct you somewhere else where you’ll be pressured to pay for tickets or buy something.

No matter what someone outside a venue or transportation station tells you, always get your information from the ticket booth or official website as to whether something is closed.

If you made a reservation or bought tickets for a certain time, it’s more than likely open. After all, why would an attraction sell you a ticket for something that’s closed or unavailable?

'Free item' scams

We’ve all heard the phrase “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

When you travel, you may be approached by someone with “free” merchandise. Maybe they offer you free food and drinks, or maybe they try to put a bracelet around your wrist. In major tourism areas, you may be asked if you want your picture taken in front of certain attractions or with dressed-up characters on the street.

Be cautious anytime anyone offers anything that is “free,” because you’ll often be required to pay for it after the fact. If someone approaches you and tries to put something on your body, refuse firmly and give anything they did put on you back to them immediately.

Souvenirs and other goods are rarely — if ever — free. Be aware of that when someone approaches to offer you a unique souvenir to take home. (Photo courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises/Ponant)

Credit card-skimming scams

No matter who you are or where you go, there's a chance someone could use a card skimmer to steal your credit card information.

Card skimming comes in many forms. Some scammers use a skimmer attached to an ATM or gas pump. Sometimes restaurant workers may skim your card when you pay the bill. You may even have your card skimmed with a handheld device.

Credit cards have come a long way over the years in terms of payment security, and pretty much every credit card out there will have fraud protection. That doesn’t mean credit card fraud isn’t still a major concern.

When you’re using your card at an ATM or at the pump, pay attention to the card reader. Does it stick out farther than normal? Is the card reader loose?

Some gas stations put a seal over the card reader panel so you know it hasn’t been tampered with, so check that as well. If anyone makes an excuse to be close to you (which is already a bit of a red flag because of COVID-19 and social distancing measures), they may be trying to steal your card details with a handheld wireless device.

Credit card skimmers can also use near-field communication and radio-frequency identification devices to steal your credit card information.

While it’s not nearly as common as people using skimmers on ATMs or other card readers, it can still happen. Contactless credit cards and EMV chip cards are not immune, either — cards still come with a magnetic stripe that RFID readers can grab information from and NFC devices can read your contactless card.

Of course, chip and contactless cards both have built-in safety nets that make it harder for scammers to actually use your credit card details once they have them. That doesn’t make it impossible, though.

The best thing you can do is monitor your accounts for suspicious activity and make sure you keep your wallet in a secure place (your back pocket does not qualify) while you travel. If you want to go all-out against contactless scanners, you can buy an RFID-blocking wallet, but there is debate in the payments security space over whether they are a worthwhile purchase.

When I travel, I make sure to log in to my bank apps (never on public Wi-Fi, though) once per day to make sure no unauthorized charges have popped up. If you do notice suspicious activity on your account, many issuers allow you to request a freeze on your account via the app or online.

Related: How to spot and report credit card fraud

(Photo by Astrakan Images/Getty Images)

Related: 15 TPG editor-approved passport holders to buy before your next trip

Public Wi-Fi network scams

Free Wi-Fi networks can be a godsend when you are traveling — especially if you don’t have a roaming data package for your phone.

However, public Wi-Fi hot spots are almost always lax on security. That means someone can steal personal information while you use the network, including bank and credit card account information if you log in while using them. If you do use a public network at a coffee shop, airport or other public space, be wary of logging in to any sensitive sites like your bank or medical profiles.

Related: How to secure your data when using public Wi-Fi

A virtual private network is a popular way to ensure your connection is secure no matter where you go. These work by routing your internet connection through a private server (owned by your VPN company) so that data transmitted comes from the VPN rather than your computer.

This hides your IP address and encrypts your data so that hackers and other entities that might want to snoop through your personal information hit a dead end. It's a great investment whether you travel all the time or just like to visit your local coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi. They generally cost less than $20 per month (and that’s at the expensive end of the spectrum).

Not all VPNs are created equal, so do your research on the best one for your needs. Can you find a VPN that costs less than $10 per year? Yes. Is that VPN worth it? Debatable.

In addition, if you have a smartphone or other device, make sure it's password protected. Most people likely have some sort of passcode set up on their phone — especially since the inception of fingerprint and facial IDs on smartphones. You may not think about the importance of a strong password on your personal laptop or tablet, though.

Set up a password or PIN on all your devices so if the worst case happens and they get stolen, someone will have a much harder time breaking into them.

Make sure you have a PIN or passcode enabled on all your devices when you travel. (Photo by FG Trade/Getty Images)

Bottom line

Travel scams are more common than you might think — tens of thousands of U.S. citizens alone report being scammed each year.

Scammers are smart, and many scams target specific groups of individuals who may be more vulnerable while traveling, such as women traveling alone, older travelers and kids.

Travel is meant to be a fun and rewarding experience, and getting scammed can put a real damper on any trip.

Knowing the kinds of scams that exist can help you protect yourself and your traveling companions while you are away from home. Hopefully, this guide has outlined how to spot some of the most common dangers.

Additional reporting by Melissa Klurman.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.