The World’s Greatest Travel Scams & How To Avoid Them

First Written for FreeB&B, July 2017

So-called ‘Travel Scams’ have been a favourite conversation amongst travelers for as long as we can remember. From budget-conscious backpackers, to cash-rich tourists, everyone seems to have their own story of how they were once duped out of their hard-earned cash whilst exploring foreign lands. And I’m not simply talking about paying too much for that stuffed elephant toy in Thailand last summer. Oh no. Overcharging tourists is par for the course in most major tourist destinations and, in my opinion, does not in itself constitute a ‘scam’. There are professionals out there who make a living from duping unsuspecting travelers. That said, there are certain things you can do to keep yourself closer to your cash, and not end your trip feeling you’ve been milked of all your cash…

“Tuk-Tuk, Sir?”

One notable exception to my thoughts on overcharging, however, are taxis. These guys often work together to target vulnerable tourists who look lost or may be new in town which, in my mind, puts them firmly in the ‘scam’ category. Stories of visitors being charged more than 10 times the ‘local’ fare are by no means uncommon, and it can make arriving at a new destination both expensive and stressful. Whilst it may be almost impossible to know the ‘right price’ of that souvenir on the market, there are things you can do to protect yourself from the taxi-vultures that blight many of the world’s great cities:

  1. Research, research, research! How far is it to your destination? Who are the main taxi companies in town? How do you recognise one and flag it down? Be careful though – unlicensed drivers are known to impersonate reputable companies!
  2. If your taxi is equipped with a meter, which the driver is using, then great! Just be aware that it may have been tampered with and run much faster than is should…
  3. Use your smartphone to book a car through a trusted app. Uber and Grab can be found all over the world, whilst local providers such as Mai Linh in Vietnam and Kangaroo Cabs in Sri Lanka can all be hailed from your smartphone.
  4. Talk to a local! Find out which taxis are safest and best value for money, and don’t be afraid to ask what a fair price should be to your destination – You’ll be amazed how helpful people can be to the lost


The Scooter Scam

So, you’ve just stepped off the ferry on that paradise island. It’s 35 degrees, the skies are blue and the mood is high. And standing there is your new best friend, with a fleet of scooters available to hire for you to explore the island freestyle, and his prices are simply too good to refuse. He takes you to his shop and you hand over a modest amount of cash in return for your very own two-wheels. Paperwork? Don’t worry my friend, I trust you! Deposit? No! Just leave me your passport for security and you’ll get it back when you return the bike…

And then the inevitable happens. You bring your wheels back after a great couple of days and your best friend suddenly isn’t so friendly, and he’s spotted some ‘new damage’ on your bike. It’s going to cost you several hundred dollars to repair, and you won’t be seeing your passport until you cough up the cash. Checkmate.

  1. Never, never, never leave your passport as a deposit. For anything. Ever.
  2. Only hire equipment from large, reputable companies or better yet, hotels and backpacker’s hostels. These guys can’t risk the bad reputation and a usually more interested in making an honest income from their guests.
  3. Check any paperwork carefully before you sign it. If possible, take photographs of the bike before you leave the store that can be used as evidence should things turn ugly later.

Gem Stones Anyone?

There’s no denying that there are some incredible jewels being dug up around the world on a daily basis, and that it may well be cheaper to buy these at source than back at home. To go with them is often a sharply dressed and incredibly charming local who is all too keen to cut you the deal of a lifetime, and even post the gems home to you after you’ve left the country. Amazing, huh?

The golden rule with this one is that if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is! Unless you’re an expert in your field, it’s definitely worth getting trusted, independent confirmation that what you’re buying is the real deal. And then make sure that it is exactly those stones that end up in your possession – no quick switches. And as far as getting the gems posted home goes? Forget it.


“Sorry Miss – No Change!”

One of the quickest ways to part a tourist with their cash is the good-old ‘no change’ trick. You’ve finally settled on a fair price for the goods in question, handed over that crisp bill and – OOPS – the poor old vendor finds himself short on change. Is it ok to round up? Chances are you’re not completely familiar with the currency and, in the heat of the moment, you may well agree, unaware of exactly how much you’re handing over.

Remember: the price agreed is the price agreed. You are not bound to buy the goods, and if you’re not happy that you’re going to get the right change simply return the goods and walk away with your cash. It’s amazing how fast some of these guys then find change! Better yet, get your larger bills changed in a bank so that you have convenient sized bills at the ready.


“Your Hotel is Closed Today!”

Or was damaged in a fire. Or is possibly even run by the Mafia. “But luckily, my brother-in-law has a place nearby.” This doesn’t apply only to hotels, but also bars and restaurants etc too. Many taxi drivers supplement their incomes by delivering tourists to venues from which they receive an often-hefty commission. Which you will undoubtedly end up paying, one way or another.

Do your research, make sure you know where you want to go and stick to your guns. I’ve had some incredibly convincing and persistent drivers try to talk me out of my original destination in favour of their cousin’s café. But be confident, firm and polite and they will eventually give in and take you where you want to go. If you ever feel unsafe, simply insist that the driver stops the car and get out. There’s plenty more taxis in the sea…


Documents, Please…  

Another ‘old-school’ favourite that cashes in on tourists in a strange environment – The Fake Official scam. Up to you walks a guy in an official looking uniform who flashes (very quickly) some form of ID before asking to see your documents. You oblige obediently and, before you know it, you’ve been charged with  some obscure offence which requires the payment of a cash fine, on the spot. You don’t speak the language, fear a run in with local authorities and pay up quickly. Worse yet, Mr Policeman takes your documents away for inspection, never to be seen again.

For this one, polite confidence is required. Check the uniform, check and double check the ID and engage passing locals where necessary. Genuine officers will never mind proving their identity, and rarely demand on the spot cash fines!


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