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

May 23, 2021

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

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

According to AARP, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 35,000 reports of travel scams in 2019, with $105 million in reported losses for consumers. Yet a survey conducted by AARP that same year found that fewer than 40% of travelers (and only 25% of travelers aged 50 and older) are worried about travel scams when booking trips.

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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Common travel scams

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.

Timeshares 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 against this type of fraud, but they can still happen. These types of 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 being allotted a certain amount of time at the property each year (usually one week).

Oftentimes, timeshare sellers will host presentations with the promise of a free hotel stay or gift for those who attend. But 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 (BBB) 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 resell 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). And 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.

Taxi scams

Another common scam happens when you take a taxi or another car service in an unfamiliar destination Rates are often determined by the distance of the drive, and your driver may take a much longer 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, make sure to 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

And make sure you always take licensed cabs or taxis, or use a reputable ride-hailing app.

“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.

Doing your research on the currency will help you be more familiar with it while you travel. And make sure you quickly 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. Oftentimes, 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. And 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.

“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 on whether something is closed or not.

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

“Free items” 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.

But be cautious any time 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.

Bora Bora black pearls
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)

Card game scams

These scams draw you in with the promise of an easy way to win some money. Usually, you’ll be approached to play a game. You’ll win a few hands, which will tempt you to start putting more money on the table (or borrowing more from the dealer).

But the games are rigged. The longer you play, the more you lose — leaving you swindled out of your cash.

If you do have a hankering to gamble or play cards, do so at a casino or other official venue rather than on the street or other unofficial place.

Credit card skimming scams

No matter who you are or where you go, there is 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. But that doesn’t mean credit card fraud isn’t a major headache.

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 make sure to 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.

The best way to catch credit card fraud early is to pay close attention to your statements. When I travel, I make sure to log into 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 

Keeping your money safe when you travel

Avoiding pickpockets

Pickpocketing is common in plenty of tourist destinations — particularly in some parts of Europe. While you can get pickpocketed at home or abroad, tourists are common targets.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help avoid being pickpocketed while you’re out and about:

  • Leave important documents and valuables in your hotel room. Only take with you what you’ll need for the day, and leave everything else secured in your room.
  • Use a crossbody bag or money belt. The more secure your bag is to your person, the less likely someone will be able to grab it and go.
  • Never leave your bag unattended. This includes leaving your bag on the back of your chair at a restaurant or on the floor next to your feet.
  • Avoid crowds. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds make it easier for thieves to pickpocket unnoticed since people are bumping into each other frequently. Crowds aren’t always avoidable, but steer clear when you can.

Securing your credit cards

Credit card skimmers can use Near Field Communication (NFC) and radio-frequent identification (RFID) 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.

Woman withdrawing money from ATM
(Photo by Astrakan Images/Getty Images)

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. But that doesn’t make it impossible.

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.

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

Protect your personal information

It’s not just your money or credit card details that someone might be interested in stealing while you travel. Here are tips to protect your personal information while you are away from home, too.

Be wary of public Wi-Fi networks

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.

But public Wi-Fi hotspots are almost always lax on security, which means someone can steal personal information while you use the network. If you do use a public network at a coffee shop, airport or other public space, be wary of logging into any sensitive sites like your bank or medical profiles.

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

Consider a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) 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 who might want to snoop through your personal information hit a dead end. I personally use a VPN anytime I’m not on my personal network at home or on my work network at the office.

A VPN is 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 make sure you 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.

Enable a PIN or passwords on your devices

If you have a smartphone or other device, make sure it is 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. But you may not think about the importance of a strong password on your personal laptop or tablet.

Making sure all of your devices have a password or PIN set up so that if the worst case happens and they get stolen, someone will have a much harder time breaking into it.

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

Use the hotel safe

I’ll be honest — this is a tip I didn’t follow myself until recently. But a friend had her wallet stolen from a hostel while she stepped out for a quick phone call, and I’ve been overcautious ever since.

When you go out, you don’t need to take everything with you. Leave travel documents, passports, valuables such as your laptop or tablet and any money you aren’t taking out with you in the hotel safes or hostel lockers.

This will limit the dangers of getting pickpocketed and help prevent your most valuable items from being taken if someone does break into your hotel or hostel room.

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, and hopefully, this guide has outlined how to spot some of the most common dangers.

Featured image by fabio camandona/Getty Images 

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

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