Don’t get scammed on vacation

You didn’t fall for the “free trip” scam and you wisely avoided those too-good-to-be-true offers. However, don’t let your guard down just yet. There are many scams awaiting you at your destination. Here are some of the latest tricks you’ll want to avoid:

Can you spot the fakes?

When it comes to petty crime, tourists are easy targets because they’re unfamiliar with their surroundings and aren’t aware of culture norms or “how things are done” at their destination. It’s easy to dupe an unsuspecting tourist who can’t tell the difference between a fake and “the real deal”.

Counterfeit cops. You’re in a foreign country and an official-looking person asks to see your documentation, your currency, credit cards and other valuables. As soon as you dig them out, the thief grabs them and runs. Fake cops have also been known pull over cars for a “search” (translation: robbery or carjacking).

False friends. Sometimes these counterfeit cops have help from someone who is sent to earn your trust. The U.S. State Department warns of a scheme in Bolivia where a “tourist” befriends other travellers to win their trust. The counterfeit police then intercept the group and find contraband on the “tourist” — which is the perfect excuse to take everyone to the “police station” and collect all of their documents, credit cards and bank cards.

Alternatively, these new friends might suggest a trip to a local attraction via taxi — but instead, the destination is a safe house and the activity is a robbery.

Phony cabs and limos. You arrive at your destination and there are many helpful services offering you a ride to your hotel. The best case scenario: an unscrupulous driver will take the “the long way” or grossly overcharge you. If you’re not so lucky, you could be robbed, assaulted or kidnapped.

Phony travel guides. You might see through the “helpful local” who offers to show you around for a fee, but Scambusters warns that con artists posing as official guides are harder to spot. They’ll take your money, ask you to wait at a certain spot and then disappear with your cash.

Fake parking lot attendants. Parking in your home town can be tricky enough — but at least you know the rules. Abroad, criminals posing as parking lot attendants are banking on you not knowing the rules. They’ll hand you a ticket with an inflated fee which you must pay on the spot. Chances are you’re parked illegally or you’ll still have to pay the real fee to the real parking attendant. (Scambusters warns this scam is currently spreading through major European cities.)

Fake cola. Beware when buying beverages at a roadside stand or café. The bottle label and cap may be from your favourite soft drink, but the contents are questionable and are likely made by street gangs under less than sanitary conditions. Scambusters notes that this trick is common in the Indian subcontinent.


Good services gone bad

Some scams are a little harder to spot because they’re perpetuated by people you think you can trust like travel service providers and company representatives. They’re counting on you to be tired and in a hurry so you won’t ask too many questions or cause a fuss.

Rental car rip-off. You return your car safe and sound, but suddenly it won’t work for the attendant. The company will then blame you and force you to pay for repairs — and they may hold your luggage until you pay up.

Downgrading the hotel. You arrive at your hotel only to find out it’s overbooked, but you’re being offered alternative accommodations at another property. However, your new room definitely isn’t worth the price you paid — and your original hotel is pocketing the difference. (For more information, see Avoid the latest hotel scam.)

Paper ticket fees. While e-tickets are becoming the norm for air travel, you can still pay to have a printed ticket mailed to you. However, experts warn that some travel agents are charging four to five times the usual fee for this service. It’s time to comparison shop those fees as well as the fares.

Cash transfers. Believe it or not, it’s possible to use an ATM in some countries (like South Africa) to transfer money to other people using a “CashSend” service. While Scambusters notes that this is a legitimate service, it warns that crooks can set up the service to transfer the cash to them instead. In fact, they might stand behind you in line and tell you that hitting the “CashSend” button will speed up your cash withdrawal.

Old favourites

Many old scams are making a comeback or taking a new form. Watch out for these tricks:

“Tourist prices”. It’s well-known that many establishments charge tourists more than locals, but they often have help getting customers through the door. Beware of helpful taxi drivers or locals who recommend a place as they’re likely earning a commission. And a warning to single men: beware of pretty girls asking you to buy them drinks — the bill will be much higher than you expect.

In some countries, pricing scams are so well-known that local embassies post lists of clubs and restaurants tourists should avoid.

Phishing scams. Sure, it would be nice to get some cash back from the taxes you paid on items while you were abroad. However, beware of any emails pretending to be from your country’s customs service, especially if they ask you for banking information in order to help you get your money back.

Distract and grab. Reach for your wallet if you find mustard splattered on your shirt or if a bird does its business on your shoulder. While you’re distracted cleaning up, someone else is running off with your wallet. Alternatively, someone may drop money or another valuable item to get your attention.

Drink spiked or tainted food. Smart women know not to accept drinks from strangers and to keep a close eye on their beverages. However, abroad both men and women can become victims of drugs slipped into their drinks before they’re robbed.

Tips to avoid getting taken:

Know before you go. Find out as much as you can about how things are done at your destination (like paying for parking or booking a tour) and what criminal tactics you should watch out for. Can you tell a real police officer from a bogus one? Do you know what fees you’ll have to pay and to whom? Check out guide books, travel websites and government travel advice to get the scoop. (See Is it safe to go? for tips and resources.)

Don’t get greedy. A lot of scams prey on people’s desires for cash and goods — like dropped money, offers of “valuable” goods at discount prices, opportunities to transport goods for cash or other business scams. Some of these crimes can even land you in jail.

Keep your wits about you. Enjoy the scenery, but be aware and alert to your surroundings too. Also, drink in moderation — criminals will be looking for intoxicated tourists whose judgment and reaction times are impaired.

Go incognito. Tourists are often targets because they’re perceived as wealthy, so trying to blend in is recommended. Two big no-nos: obvious displays of wealth (like fancy jewellery and designer labels) and obvious signs that you’re a tourist (like you’re paying more attention to the map than your surroundings.)

Give yourself plenty of time. How can you avoid unscrupulous agents and companies? Remember, they’re counting on you to be in a hurry so allow yourself extra time to read the policies, ask questions and request to talk to a manager if needed. Don’t leave checking in or returning the car until the last minute, and try not to appear rushed, tired or frustrated even if that’s how you’re feeling.

Get used to the local currency. Be smart with your money by knowing not just the conversion rates but also the look and feel of the money you’re handling. Some experts even recommend saying the bill denominations out loud as you hand over the cash.

Practice safe money handling. There are a number of steps you can take to protect your valuables from pickpockets, like not carrying your cash and passport together or carrying a “dummy” wallet. In some countries, it may not be safe to use your credit cards at all. (For more tips, see Credit card fraud and money safety abroad.)

Keep important numbers handy — namely your travel agent, your embassy and the local police or tourist police. Call the appropriate authorities on the spot if you have to (or threaten to call).

Avoid harm. Both the police and governments warns that you should never put yourself at risk of physical harm. If you’re threatened with violence or think a criminal could become violent, don’t resist. You can replace your cash and documents.

If you’re caught, report the incident to the police and to your embassy. You may not see any resolution or return of your property, but you will be helping to warn other travellers. This information ends up in government travel advice and on embassy websites.

So should you be paranoid? No, but do be cautious. Most travellers don’t experience serious problems, but being informed can help you reduce the risk of a crime disrupting your vacation.

Sources:, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, US Department of State Consular Information Sheets, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada Travel Reports

Photo © Mr_Jamsey

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