Scams While Traveling: Avoiding the Avoidable
Updated: Nov 13, 2018
There is literally nothing worse than enjoying a vacation, exploring a city and falling in love with it only to find that you've been swindled by a smooth talker or taken advantage of by a thief. But I can tell you that after over 10 years of travel (including 5 trips to Europe), I've only been subject to a scam once (see example 8 below). With a heightened awareness and a solid education of the types of scams possible you too can arm yourself with your best defense - knowledge.
Below are some "Common Scams to Avoid" and some tips on "Avoiding Scams"
Common Scams to Avoid
This list is in no way exhaustive and scams tend to vary slightly depending on region. Working with me, I'll be sure to help you understand common scams that happen in the areas you're traveling to with some specific strategies to avoid these negative experiences while on vacation.
1. Pretty Bracelets
I've most commonly seen this one in Paris, ESPECIALLY outside of Sacre Coeur. As you head towards where you're going, you're stopped by someone asking if they can demonstrate to you their bracelet making. They then proceed to braid a yarn type bracelet on your wrist and tie it off in a way that you can't easily remove it making YOU feel obligated to pay. Tip - be hyper aware of your pockets. There are DOZENS of variations on this so all I can say is that even if they tell you the bracelet is free, walk away.
2. Find the Ball/Shell Game
Typically this is one you'll see along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, but it could be anywhere. And it's a classic. Someone places a ball under something and begins moving the 3 containers around and you have to guess where the ball is. And it seems so easy because a couple of people before you were able to win. But the thing is, those people who won are working in on the scheme to draw you in to put your money on the line in an attempt to gamble some winnings. Best to avoid. Tip - be hyper aware of your pockets.
While not a scam I've seen, I have heard about it. This is one where people pretend to be police and demand something. For example, they may demand to see your wallet to prove you're not carrying drug money. Or they demand to see your identification, or ask what hotel you're staying at. We're taught to trust authority figures like police, but when traveling, don't fall for it. If you're concerned, ensure you speak loud enough to be overheard, and state that if they would like to question you then you'll need to go to a police station. Never hand over your wallet to a stranger. And if you are a female traveler, treat your accommodation information like currency - don't give it away.
Unfortunately, some locations throughout the world have a less than ethical law enforcement system. This results in police requesting bribes. In some places and some situations, paying that bribe is unavoidable.
Not a "scam" technically, but a real issue when traveling abroad - which always floors me considering how trusting I am in my home city. But as soon as I'm in travel mode, I'm hyper vigilant of my possessions. I recommend only using bags with zippers, especially for purses. Don't keep wallets in pockets. I often try to keep my wallet inaccessible - in a secondary zippered pocket inside my backpack so that it's not easily reached. Thieves have been known to cut straps, slice open bags with a knife...anything to get in there if you're not paying attention. I also like to carry a sling style body bag as my day pack if I can - my backpack screams "tourist". But my sling style is always at my side with my arm protecting it, making it less accessible. And whatever you do, don't leave your bag exposed by hanging over the back of a chair or leaving it under a table!
5. The Spill/The Run In
You're minding your own business and someone accidentally spills on you. Or perhaps they bump into you. It's a distraction technique. I remember vividly being at a grocery store as a kid with my dad in B.C. on vacation when a woman came up to him. She was super friendly, randomly hugged him and it was only after that that we realized my dad was without his wallet. Distraction is a scammer's greatest tool.
6. Taxi and Tuk Tuk Meter Scam
Common all over the world, this scam preys on unsuspecting tourists. The driver knows you don't know where you are or how long to expect to get to your destination, and decides to take you a longer route. The best way to avoid this in a country whose language you speak is to answer "are you from around here" with "yes".
In some areas taxi's will even drive you to a remote area and demand large amounts of money to take you back. Or you'll want to go shopping and tell them where to go, but they take you someplace "better" and it's their friend's store where they earn commission on your purchases.
Another version is that the meter isn't running and the driver claims it is broken. Don't get in that cab!
Many cities have tried to combat these scams by listing the trusted companies on their tourism websites. Others have laws where only the yellow taxis are regulated. It also helps to call a taxi, or get a taxi at a taxi stand instead of flagging one down on the street.
In Mexico, I decided to abandon my friends who were at the resort beach for a trip into town. Using the hotel concierge, we called a trusted taxi to the front. Turns out he once lived in Montreal, so we had a great chat about Canada. On the drive, he asked if I'd like for him to come pick me up as well at the end of my shopping. So we agreed on a time and a place and I didn't have to worry about flagging down a random taxi in the middle of Mexico.
7. ATM Skimmers
If you need to take money out, try using an ATM that is at a bank or other reputable business and is clearly monitored. The risk will go down and the ATM less likely to be tampered with by thieves looking to steal your information.
8. Other Unsolicited Vendors
It was a beautiful day hanging out at a public beach in Jamaica when a gentleman came up to me to ask if I would like to purchase his wood carvings. I said no. He of course is trying to make a sale, so tells me he'll give me such and such a deal. When I said no again, he asked my name and I told him....which he immediately began carving into the wood! Damn it, I'd been had. While I was under no obligation to purchase I did, as a reminder to myself both of all the good that happened that day, and about how to avoid a situation like this in the future. And it paid off - not only did it give me an inside joke with one of my travel companions, I was able to avoid a similar fate in Mexico years later. That little statue sits on my mantle, ugly as all get up, but proudly displayed.
While it's tempting to pack your clothes that have logos and emblems on them, especially of your country (go patriotism!), wearing a shirt emblazoned with a massive Maple Leaf screams tourist. I like to pack logo-less items and try to avoid clothing that has my name or a business name on it (like my choir hoodie). If you're on tour with a group, identifiable clothing is usually required, so be extra aware of your surroundings when wearing it.
While you're at it, ditch the bling. Rings, earrings, necklaces, watches - anything that looks expensive, even if it's not. Leave it at home (but if you insist, pro tip - pack it in your carry on in case your checked bag goes missing). If you have an expensive wedding ring, I'd suggest leaving that at home too.
2. Getting Lost
Please please please, if you get lost and don't know where you're going, don't stand on a busy street corner and pull out your massive map of Paris. Just no. Not only are you signalling that you don't know where you are or what you're doing, but your focus is now on your map and not on your belongings. I recommend getting a solid picture in your mind of where you're going and making strategic map reviews as needed, such as while stopped for a meal. Perhaps before you leave one location you stop to review your map so you know your next three moves. Pop into a cafe for a break while you regroup.
Another trick I like to use with my maps is to strategically fold them so if I do get lost and I HAVE to stand on a corner and figure out where I am and where I'm going, I'm looking at a 3"x3" section and not an entirely unfolded map of the entire city of London. And of course, don't be afraid to pop into a business to ask for directions.
3. Public Transportation
Scams and pick pocketing runs rampant on the public transportation system through Europe, so keep your eyes on your bags. One reason I like to have a body sling style bag is that it is always at my side and never at my back. On transport, I can swing it in front of me and if I'm sitting, I can hold the bag in front of me. Pickpockets especially are looking for easy targets so the more you can show you're aware of your surroundings you make yourself a harder target.
4. Avoid Crowds
Try to avoid congested areas. If you have to move through one, say getting off the Metro, keep your bag close and don't be afraid to "be present" by keeping your head up and your eyes scanning.
5. Know your currency exchange
One common scam is to get short changed, especially in unique currencies. So know what your currency is worth and pay attention to how much you get back. Count it if you need to. And please don't be like the life-giving maternal travel partner of mine who shall remain nameless who has been known to hold out a hand of money and say "take what you need". Also be sure you're getting the correct coin as well. 1 Euro is not equivalent to 1 Turkish Lira, so make sure you're getting what you're supposed to.