You’re taking a few snapshots under Barcelona ’s Parc de la Ciutadella fountain grotto. Suddenly, you feel a drip on the back of your leg. When you turn around, you notice that your calves and backpack are covered with a thick yellowish liquid. As quickly as it happened, a man behind you conveniently pulls out a stack of tissue and starts to dab around your bag and legs. But you know better. This is the classic “Mustard Scam” – one of the common travel scams. You grab his stack of tissues, thank him for his help, and tell him to stay away from you.

Travelers beware – travel scams like this are an annoying part of travel and can happen to anybody. Unfortunately, they happen a lot and it’s helpful to know when they’re happening to you. Here is a list of some of the most common travel scams we know about. Don’t become a victim.

Pickpockets

Pickpockets can definitely ruin a trip. You are on a crowded train or bus, or you walk down a beautiful street when someone bumps into you. Later, you reach for your wallet, phone, or camera and it’s gone!

It’s very easy to let your guard down, but it’s so important to remain aware of your surroundings. Pay extra attention while traveling in busy tourist spots, – tightly crowded gatherings, street performances, and more. These are prime locations for pickpockets to hang out. Never put your wallet in your back pocket. Ladies – never dangle your purse on your shoulder. I always put a thick rubber band around my wallet and put it in my front pocket. The rubber band creates friction in your pocket that alerts you when someone is trying to grab it.

Travel scams - wallet with rubber band
Put a thick rubber band around your wallet. It’s easier to feel when someone tries to grab it.

And never take a stack of credit cards and bank cards with you. Carry the minimum you need, including cash, and leave everything else behind in a safe place. Never carry your passport. Keep a photocopy or a picture of it on your phone. In many places, that’s sufficient for ID. Check local customs to be sure.

“Distraction” Travel Scams

When you’re on the road, you should always be on the lookout for behaviors that are just not normal. Someone throws you something that looks like a baby in a blanket. Frantically, you try to catch it. It is not a baby, obviously, but the person is having a good laugh at you for falling for it. A confused tourist approaches you with a big folded map and asks for directions. Someone spills a drink or messy condiments on your shirt. All of these situations should raise your guard as precursors to travel scams.

All of these travel scams have the same premise: create a distraction, get your guard down, and pluck your valuables from you while you’re distracted. Simply put, you need to recognize these scams. Don’t let anyone touch you or get too close. If they do, immediately check your valuables and remain observant.

In Porta Portese Market in Rome , a small girl grabbed my arm and started to examine it. I shook off her grip and instantly checked my front pocket for my wallet. It was gone. I turned around and ran after the girl. Fortunately, I caught her and sure enough, she had my wallet in her hand.

Travel scams - condiment packets
Condiments like mustard can be used in travel scams
Bag snatchers

You set your purse, camera, or a bag by your side. Suddenly, someone running by, or someone on a bike or in a vehicle, snatches it and gets away quickly.

Stay vigilant and don’t get distracted. Avoid setting your valuables on random chairs, a table, or on the ground. If you’re sitting in a café or restaurant, loop the strap of your handbag on your chair. Waiting on a train or bus? Lean against a wall where nobody can go behind you. Place your bag in front of you, or make sure the bag is attached to you in some way.

When he was in Brussels, Michael laid his camera bag on the floor in front of him as he leaned up against an advertising sign. It was only by chance that he happened to look down and see a hand appear from under the sign. If he didn’t see it, he would have lost $2500 worth of camera equipment and his computer.

travel scams - Woman looking in empty purseDon’t look in your purse only to find it empty!

Sales travel scams

Have you ever had someone come up to you and try to tie a flower or “friendship bracelet” around your wrist? You’re not so sure what to do – especially when it’s a child who demands money for the bracelet that’s now on your wrist. Even worse, she’ll sometimes create a scene, adding more for you to hand her money. There are many variations of this, like a branch of rosemary for good luck, roses for your wife/girlfriend, a hat on your head. Don’t fall for these travel scams. If someone tries to grab you, touch you, or put anything on you firmly pull yourself away and say “No, thanks!”

Now, these aren’t always travel scams. Some charitable or religious groups actually raise money this way. They’re pretty easy to distinguish though. If someone gets angry or frustrated with you, or asks for the gift back when you refuse to give money, that’s likely a scam.

No Meter Taxi
Taxi in a large Asian city
Always use the meter in a taxi

After taking a taxi to your destination, driver demands a high payment for the service.

This is one of the travel scams that is easy to avoid. Before even getting into the taxi, ask the driver to use the meter. If there is a meter and the driver doesn’t want to use it, that’s your cue that this driver might not be very honest and you might consider finding another taxi. If you have no choice, then it is important to agree on a price before you even get in the car. I typically ask locals what the price should be. Even better, ask at a tourist booth, the information counter at the airport, your hotel receptionist, or a random store keeper. This will give you a good idea about the price range. If the city has a carpooling service, such as Über or Lyft, that’s a better option because the price is pretty much set anyway.

Travel scams - Rickshaw ride Vietnam
Michael on a rickshaw ride in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Agree on the price first
“Your Hotel/Tourist Attraction is Closed”

These travel scams are usually associated with riding a taxi or a tuk-tuk. On the way to your hotel, a temple, museum, or some other attraction, the taxi driver informs you that the place is closed. He offers to take you to a similar destination instead. This is a common tactic used by drivers who get kickbacks if you visit certain places they have relationships with. Don’t trust this! Insist on going to the destination you want to go to. If it’s closed, fine. More likely, it’ll be open for business.

I always have place of interests “starred” on Google Maps and keep it open while I navigate a new city. That way, I always know whether I am going to the right place in the most direct way possible. It helps if the driver knows this, by the way!

Travel scams - Closed attraction sign
A closed tourist attraction in Tokyo. See it yourself instead of trusting your driver!
The Pretty Woman/Man

Travel scams can also play on your vanity! You’re at a bar and a very attractive woman seems to be very interested in you. She strikes up a conversation and you feel the connection. She asks you to join her in another bar for a nightcap and you can’t believe your luck! You follow her to a “cool” place and maybe even meet some of her friends. The next thing you know, she’s gone. And all you have left of your memorable evening with her is the bill for everything!

Drink on a bar
If someone buys you a drink, think before you accept

Use common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, most likely it is.

“Petition” Travel Scams

Unfortunately, you don’t speak the local language, but a someone charming approaches you with a clipboard. It could be a cute kid, a “deaf” person, maybe even a charity “official” with a petition supporting something worthy. On the clipboard, there are a bunch of signatures. Without hesitation, you add your signature onto the next line and the person then asks for the money. You likely just signed something committing you (at least emotionally) to a donation of some sort. Of course, you’re not legally obligated to give anything, but the person may use the fact that you signed to guilt you into it. Don’t fall for it. In fact, don’t ever sign anything when someone randomly approaches you on the street.

And hey! You’re in France. Maybe your first clue should be, “People speak French here. Why is this petition in English?” Hmmmmm. See the problem here?

The Found Ring

Someone picks up something from the ground, looks around, and asks you whether this gold ring belongs to you. Upon closer inspection, he certifies that it is a gold ring – and offers you a great price to buy it from him. But is it real?

Walk away. Don’t even touch the ring. Just say no. First of all, the ring is polished brass – not gold. Second, travel scams like this play on your innate desire not to be rude to people. When someone talks to you, you want to talk to them.  Here’s what will happen if you take part in this. You’ll buy the ring for cheap. Then, about 5 minutes later, someone different will come up to you and demand “their” ring back. If someone “finds” a ring and starts talking to you, just move on.

Travel scams like this are especially common in Paris . In fact, it happened to Michael a few times and he saw it happen to others a few more times. He never fell for it, and always warned others about it. Even though he didn’t understand the intent of the scam till he came home, he knew it was a scam anyway.

The Wrong Change
Travel scams - Vietnamese Dong
Vietnamese Dongs. There’s a lot of numbers on the money!

This is really tough to avoid, especially if you are not familiar with the local currency. This is of particular concern in countries where the currency is so devalued, you can give a vendor one bill and get back a dozen in return. You buy merchandise and the seller short changes you.

The only solution to travel scams like this is to get familiar with the currency in the place you’re visiting. Sometimes those big numbers on the money are really mind-boggling, but do your best to pay attention and get the proper amount of money back. A lot of times, the amount of short-changing is negligible, but this is about principle. You just shouldn’t allow people to scam you. Ever.

Rental Travel Scams

You return your bike, motorcycle, or car rental and the owner notices that a new dent has magically appeared on it. He demands money to cover the damage.

When you rent any form of transportation, you should always document any scratches or dents on the vehicle, both on the form they provide and with your camera. That way, if there are questions, you’ll be able to provide proof about what you started with. Be sure your pictures are dated so that the owner can’t say you took them later. Send them to yourself in an email, for example.

Always be sure to have your own lock for a bike you rent. Malicious renters often have a second set of keys so that they can steal your bike from a bicycle rack. If you have your own lock, you can avoid this. Park your bike out of a plain sight, so that people can’t easily track you. One of the best ways to avoid travel scams like these are to only rent from reputable places.

Travel scams - Motorcycle Vietnam
Renting a motorcycle in Vietnam. Check and document the condition before taking off!
The Tea Invite

An invitation for tea is often viewed as a legitimate gesture of hospitality in many cultures, especially in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Shop keepers may invite you for a “free” cup of tea. At the end, you are pressured to purchase overpriced merchandise from their shops to compensate the “hospitality.”

If this happens to you, use common sense. Although there are locals who genuinely want to invite you for a tea (and many times, you should take them up on it!), shop keepers in the local bazaar most likely are not one of them. After all, why would they spend time giving you free stuff when they have to sell their merchandise? Just politely say “no, thank you” and walk away.

Fake Police/Drug Deal Gone Bad

travel scams - fake police officersAt a party, someone tries to sell you an illegal drug. After you agree and hand over payment, a “police officer” flashes a badge. Busted! Freaking out – you agree to pay a fine or bribe to get you away from the situation.

The best way to avoid travel scams like this is to avoid illegal drugs in a foreign land. And if you do partake, be absolutely certain of the person you’re buying from. A reminder: in many countries, drugs are a highly illegal. They can even get you the death penalty in places like Singapore , Indonesia and Malaysia. Be very careful in any of these places.

Another one of these travel scams occurs when a police officer demands that you hand over your wallet and passport. Never hand him your wallet, and only carry a copy of your passport. Insist on going back to your hotel to get your passport from the front desk. Your hotel clerk will be able to help you and recognize if this is a scam or legit.

“New Friends” at the Hostel
Travel scams - Hostel Room Cartagena Colombia
A hostel in Cartagena, Colombia. Do you really trust your new hostel friends?

You settle down in an 8-bed hostel dorm in your bucket list destination. It is comfortable and homey, and you meet great travelers from all around the world who soon enough to become your new friends. But are they really? Or will they go through your stuff as soon as you leave the room?

Almost all travelers are great people, so this is very rare. But I’ve heard stories of valuables getting stolen from a secured hostel room, and it actually happened to me once. In Cartagena, Colombia, someone went through my day pack while I was in the shower and took a small amount of cash from the front pocket. I never found out who it was.

Always bring your own lock and use the provided locker. Traveling in group? Consider of paying a little extra to get your group its own room. I might sound very skeptical, but keep in mind that your new friends are actually strangers to you. Don’t create unnecessary temptation by leaving your valuables unattended, including in your own dorm room.

These are just a few of the common travel scams and annoyances that we can think of. What travel scams have you experienced on your own journeys?


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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.


3 thoughts on “Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them

  1. The big map scam happened to my mom and aunt once in Spain. A couple approached them and asked for help finding a location on a map. After helping the couple my aunt checked her bag to find that her wallet was gone.

    1. Someone tried the ring scam on me in Paris. And I saw it happen to two other people. It seemed too stupid to be real, so I just ignored it. Turns out, a lot of people fall for it.

  2. There is also the coins scam which even happens state side. The idea is that you’re leaving a busy exit point say a train/subway station. Someone throws down some coins to make enough noise. You either stop and bend down thinking you dropped coins taking out your card/ticket and pick pockets go to work while you’re distracted. Others try to help someone pick them up and they go to work.

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