How to Avoid the Most Elaborate Travel Scam I've Ever Seen
This article is part of the TPG Points & Miles Backpacker series.
When you're in search of an authentic local experience, it can be difficult to know when you've put too much trust in strangers. I found myself on the wrong side of this dilemma during a solo trip in Morocco. What started as a friendly conversation ballooned over the course of two days into a massive travel scam that was so deep and complex that, when it hit me, I had a very hard time accepting what had happened.
I was alone in a six seat, first class train cabin traveling from Tangier, Morocco to Fez. I had nothing lined up for Fez but planned to do research en route. Shortly after we pulled away, a man joined me in the cabin. His name was Sonny, and he lived in Fez but did business in Tangier. We chatted about Moroccan history and culture. After a couple hours of very friendly conversation, the topic shifted to food.
"My wife makes the best couscous," Sonny said. He paused for a second, took out his phone and made a call. After a brief conversation in Arabic, he hung up and smiled. "I'd like to invite you to my house for dinner tonight."
I thought, "Why not?" Backpackers rarely get home cooked meals. I accepted, and we kept chatting. Before I knew it, we had arrived in Fez, and Sonny offered to give me a ride into the city. I laughed, explaining that I didn't know where to have him drop me because I still hadn't booked anything. He thought for a second, then made another phone call.
"Why don't you come stay with me and my family? I'll show you how a Moroccan family lives," he said. This was all a bit surreal, but after four hours in a train cabin with Sonny, I felt like we were friends. "Why not?" I thought again.
At Sonny's home, we had tea with his wife and two kids. None of them spoke English, but we shared a lovely evening regardless. His wife's couscous really was the best I'd ever had, and she even did my laundry. His 7-year-old daughter was floored by my card tricks. Sonny said she thought I was a sorcerer.
At one point, his friend Alex stopped by. He had also just arrived in town. We talked travel and family, and by his stories, clothes and car, it was clear he had money. He was in the process of renovating a riad and was headed to the neighboring town of Sefrou the next day to shop for doors. He offered to bring me along, show me the town and stop at the waterfall along the way. I obviously had nothing else planned. Why not?
The Day Tour
The next morning, Alex picked me up in his Lexus and we headed to Sefrou. We stopped for a nice breakfast first, and Alex refused to let me pay. He seemed to be flaunting his wealth. We then toured Sefrou Falls, and had plenty of interesting conversations.
I asked Alex about his work, and he casually told me what he makes from each of his several ventures — the riad was just one. Another was flipping carpets from a local co-op. On that day, he explained, carpets were discounted 30%, and he would buy them and ship them to partners in the US where they'd sell at auction for up to four times the price. Between that, his other businesses, the riad investment and his family's properties, Alex was doing fine.
Back in Fez, Alex invited me to see his riad and the carpet co-op sale day. Why not?
We toured the riad, where a dozen people were working. With just a third of the renovations remaining, it was already extremely impressive. He invited me back to stay when it was complete.
Alex then began to describe how simple it would be for me to buy, package and ship a carpet to my home address in the US. He said, unsolicited, how easy it would be for me to flip carpets at auction. Of course, he'd be happy to help me with the process and could give me useful contacts.
The Carpet Co-Op
We talked about dinner plans with his American expat friends on our walk to the carpet co-op. I was curious to see the carpet frenzy, but when we walked in, something felt off. This was supposed to be a hectic sale day, and while Alex had an appointment to have the place exclusively, it didn't seem like they were busy otherwise.
Workers brought out carpets and laid them out in front of Alex. He was yelling terms with the manager, who was also directing the workers.
"What is the sale on these carpets?" Alex asked.
"70% off," the manager said.
"70% off?" Alex yelled back in disbelief. He moved next to me, shouting "Yes!" and "No!" as various carpets were laid out in front of him. "I've never seen a deal this good," he whispered to me. "I'm going to buy 20 carpets! We can make so much money!"
That's when I noticed they were laying carpets out in front of me as well. "Just yell 'yes' or 'no' and they'll take them away," Alex instructed.
The room started spinning. Are they trying to sell me carpets? Then the weight of that question began to solidify ... Are they trying to sell me carpets? The reality that this scam may have been two days in the making was starting to take hold. I asked for the bathroom to take a breath and assess.
Has this all been a scam to try to sell me carpets? Was Sonny in on it? Whose riad was that? Did Sonny's wife even make that couscous? Worst of all, was Sonny's daughter just pretending to be amazed at my card tricks?
I was panicked. Everything I owned was at Sonny's home. Was everyone going to simply disappear, leaving me lost in the medina, with no idea where my belongings were? I needed to get back to Sonny's — and back to my bags — immediately.
But I didn't want to confront anyone, or make it obvious I had caught on to the elaborate scam. I had been talking to Alex about something that had come up back home, so I said I needed to return to Sonny's to take care of it immediately. He said he'd be shopping for a bit longer, and his assistant would walk me to meet Sonny.
As we left the co-op, I still couldn't believe everything that had happened since yesterday in Tangier was a hoax. I needed evidence. We were a block away when I told the assistant to wait, and sprinted back to the co-op. When I got inside, the lights were off, the support staff was gone, and the manager was lounging on a bench, looking at his phone. He seemed startled to see me again. The parade of carpets had come to an abrupt end.
"Where's Alex?" I asked the manager. He pointed to a side room where Alex was, conveniently, praying. I returned to the assistant, and as we walked together I held his shirt. I wasn't going to let him disappear. I made him escort me all the way to the lot outside the medina where Sonny was waiting.
Sonny drove me back to his house, but he wasn't his normal, chipper self. I still didn't know the state of my belongings, so I secretly took a video in case I needed images of his face for a police report.
Back at his house, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I opened the bedroom door and saw my bags. I said I needed a nap, then closed the door and inspected everything. It was all still there. Still, I packed quickly. I told Sonny and his wife something had came up back home, and I had to go take care of it. The wife looked confused, but Sonny did not. I thanked them for everything, and got the hell out of there.
For a while afterward, I was distraught by how I became beguiled by this scam. I think I didn't catch on because I had no idea they were trying to sell me something. I was never going to buy carpets, which was a major miscalculation on their part. I'm not sure what about my worn clothes and tattered backpack signaled that I had thousands of dollars to blow on carpets.
Easily, the biggest mistake I made was trusting all of my belongings with a person I just met. I should have paid for the security of a hostel. If I had, I would have been able to walk out of the carpet "co-op" when I realized something was off and not looked back. I'd happily take up a friendly local on an offer for dinner again while taking common sense precautions, especially when traveling solo. But after this event I'll only keep my belongings in a trusted location.
Still, on paper, I actually came out ahead. A night of lodging, two meals, laundry and a day tour — all free. Though none of this was worth the panic and anxiety the ordeal cost me.
After I scurried into Fez's highest rated hostel with my tail between my legs, I wrote the story and sent it to one of my best travel friends, Aaron. Still shaken, I asked, "How did I fall for this?"
Aaron's reply comforted me. He said, "We've all had stories where that same situation ends up in three days of awesomeness and high-fives."
So how can you tell if a local wants to offer you a genuine, authentic experience — or if he or she is trying to lure you into a scam?
How to Spot a Scam
They Are a Little Too Friendly
Locals often want to show your their town and way of life, especially outside the big cities. But if people seem a little too generous, they may be trying to take advantage of you. This doesn't mean you have to leave, but make sure you have an easy out if things begin to go astray.
They Want Something From You
A scam often begins by building some level of trust or friendship which, apparently, can be two days in the making! But at some point, things will sour, and they will want something from you in return. Usually, the scammers are hoping the trust they've built will allow you to bypass your internal alarm system.
You Are Being Pressured
Scammers usually have one shot, whether it's selling a souvenir, a transfer ticket or a metric ton of carpets. They will often say you have to buy it now. This is a red flag. Walk away, and ask an employee at your hostel or hotel how much something should cost, or if the vendor is legit. You can also Google it. Every major scammer has scammed before, and a previous victim has probably written about it on the internet. If the price is fair, you can always return and purchase the souvenir, ticket or carpet later. And if you can't, there are a dozen other shops or vendors nearby that will sell you the exact same thing.
You Get a Guilt Trip
If you are hesitant to engage in whatever venture this new friend is offering, pay attention to their reaction. Someone who questions your judgement and pushes their trustworthiness should probably not be trusted.
Something Doesn't Feel Right
More than anything, trust your instincts. If you get a bad feeling, remove yourself from the situation. Don't worry about offending people. Your safety and well-being are much more important.
The Silver Lining
Even the most seasoned travelers can get tangled in a scam, and I let my guard down. Fortunately, I was able to leave Morocco with all my belongings untouched — and without an overpriced carpet.
Oh, and that "thing" I had to take care of back home that I used as an out with Sonny and Alex? This website I follow religiously called The Points Guy (you may have heard of it?) was having a contest, and I was picked as a finalist and had to return to the US. I won the contest, got picked up as a writer and eventually landed a pretty sweet gig.
Add in the awesome couscous, and things definitely could have been worse.
TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here. If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
All images courtesy of the author.