6 Travel Scams to Avoid
Even though travel can be liberating, expand one's horizons, and make the world a little less scary, it also has its downsides. One particular downside of exploring the world is the infamous travel scam. Both seasoned travelers and neophyte travelers alike have it happen. I myself have been the victim of different types of scams despite being relatively well-traveled.
I would strongly recommend reading "Around the World in 80 Scams" by Peter John. It is a lively, entertaining, and informative book that everyone should read to help become knowledgeable about the kinds of scams that are practiced throughout the world. You can also read my review of it. It is a book that I wish I had read before I started traveling.
In an effort to help a traveler fall into the same traps that myself and many others have, here are 6 common travel scams to avoid. Aside from #6, I have either personally been the target or seen it happen to others. Luckily, I never lost more than a few dollars, but it still frustrates and annoys me that I fell for some of these.
1) Money Switch
This can happen in many different ways, but this happened to me in Athens, Greece. I had just arrived in the country and was taking a taxi from the airport to my hotel near the Acropolis. The ride itself was fine with no problems. The driver and I did not say much to each other, but it was easy for him to tell that I was new to the country.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I gave the driver a 50 euro note. He briefly turned and pretended to look in the side pocket of the driver's side door. He then turned back to me and showed me a 10 euro note. He said that I gave him a 10, and that I owed more. Because I was tired from traveling, I didn't even question him although I was pretty sure I had given him a 50. However, without thinking or arguing, I handed over another 50. He took it and gave me some change. I then got my luggage and went into the hotel. Once I was at the front desk getting checked in, I realized I was missing a 50 euro note. I then realized what I had done and what had happened.
Needless to say, I was extremely angry not only at the taxi driver, but also angry at myself for letting something like that happen. The thought that kept going through my head was "How could I have been so stupid!"
Since that time, I've learned that whenever I take a taxi, I take a good long glance at the banknote I'm giving in case something is tried. Thankfully, I have not had anything like that happen to me since.
Another variation of this will be that someone (usually a taxi driver) will claim you've given him a fake bill when you actually have given a legitimate bill. This was a scam I had heard of being prevalent in Argentina among taxi drivers with foreigners. Thankfully, it did not happen to me, but I also made sure to take precautions prior to getting into a taxi.
How to Avoid: The best advice I can give would be to make sure you have a general idea of how much a taxi should cost and keep that amount or a little more on hand just in case. I would certainly not give a large bill if you can avoid it since the driver could easily claim not to have change or try a quick sleight of hand.
In the case of fake bills, I would pick the bills you plan to use to pay with and write down or photograph the serial numbers. That way you have proof of the bills you gave. Now, it is important to note that this will require probably a certain knowledge of a foreign language since you will need to communicate this effectively.
2) The String Scam/Bracelet Scam
I only ever witnessed this particular scam in Paris near the Sacre-Coeur in Montmarte, but I would not be surprised if it happens in other places as well.
Generally, a traveler will be approached by a single guy with companions close by. The person will try to impress you with some nonsense about a trick. Before you know it, the person has managed to tie a bracelet around your wrist. He will then proceed to hassle you for a payment for something you did not want or ask for. In order to intimidate a traveler, his companions will also converge on you to force a payment.
I was not a true victim of this scam, but I was definitely approached. While I was in Paris, I was heading up to the Sacre-Coeur in Montmarte when I was approached by a guy who came up saying he wanted to show me a trick. I told him I was not interested and kept on walking, but his companions and him became a bit more forceful and tried to grab one of my wrists. Things escalated fairly quickly, and the guy who had my wrist grabbed harder saying "be friendly!" Being aware that his companions were trying to surround me, I kept my free hand close to the pocket with my phone (my other pocket was empty). They eventually let me go when it became clear that I was not going for it.
How to Avoid: The best way to avoid this scam is to either completely ignore someone who approaches you with a string or bracelet in their hand. Another option is to go to the Sacre-Coeur using an alternate route. It is not as scenic, but you will avoid being hassled.
3) Fake Petitions
I've seen this scam practiced in a couple places, but I got approached when I was walking in the area around the Louvre in Paris.
A group of teenagers aged around 13-16 and a smaller number of younger children came up to me with one of them holding a clipboard. One of the girls in the group spoke English and asked me if I would be willing to sign a petition for some humanitarian cause. If I remember correctly, I believe it was about stopping human trafficking.
Before approaching me, I had seen them from a distance asking other people to sign this petition, and I noticed that none of them carried any identification about which group they were petitioning for. Therefore, I had a feeling there was an alternate purpose. When I got approached, the teenager tried talking to me while holding the clipboard close to my face. Knowing this is a common trick for the younger children to pick your pockets, I kept my hands close to the pockets.
As I looked at the clipboard with names and emails, I wondered how many of these were real or fake. The girl insisted I sign, so I gave a fake name and left the email address line blank. Once I signed, the girl then demanded I pay a donation of 10 euros because I signed. I steadfastly refused but did eventually give them some loose change I had that equaled maybe one or two euros. The group was not happy and started to swear at me, but I just told them to go away and kept walking.
How to Avoid: Ask for identification and information about the group they supposedly work for. While you are free to sign if you want, it would be a good idea to give a fake name and email address. If they demand payment, absolutely refuse. Just because you sign a petition does not mean you need to pay anything.
4) Unusually Friendly Local
One of the great joys of traveling is that you have the chance to meet people from all walks of life in different parts of the world. While I strongly believe that 98% of people in the world are genuinely good, there is a small minority that are not and will try to exploit that natural goodness.
When traveling, it is inevitable that you will meet locals. While most will be friendly and willing to help, it is necessary to be on guard at all times. As I have said before on Traveling with a View, "the wider the smile, the sharper the knife."
This happened to me when I was in Tunisia. During my first night in Tunis, I was taking some photos outside the hotel when a local asked me if I spoke English. I said yes, and he proceeded to try and strike up a conversation with me by asking some general questions. I kept my responses to a minimum since I had a feeling something was up. We kept talking and he suggested going for food and drinks. To this day, I still don't know what I was thinking, but without thinking too much about it, I agreed under the condition we stay near the hotel.
As we walked, I made note of the way we were going. We ended up at a crowded bar/restaurant adjacent to the hotel I was staying at, so I was not too worried since this was a heavily populated area. The local asked if I wanted to eat, but I declined. Instead, we had a couple drinks. I had one beer, and he had two. During this entire time, I kept an eye on things and made sure I could make a quick exit if needed since this guy seemed unusually friendly.
When it came time to pay, the guy remained completely silent and passed me the bill. I had to pay for everything. Thankfully, the total turned out to be equivalent to about $6. We then left upon arrival back at the hotel after a short walk, the guy told me was unemployed and asked if I would give him some money for food. I knew exactly what he was trying to do. He had been trying to get me drunk, so I would be more open to suggestion. I told him I paid for his two beers and that was enough. He didn't seem happy, but since we were right in front of the hotel on a busy street, he didn't do anything and left. I never saw him again.
In retrospect, I never should have gone with this guy. This was probably one of the stupidest decisions I've ever made while traveling. I did not know what I was thinking at the time. Thankfully, I only had to pay about $6. Later, I read of a couple of German tourists who had to pay a bill of almost $800 because they decided to go all out on the food and drinks.
How to Avoid: If someone approaches you and seems a little too friendly, be somewhat skeptical but not rude. I would definitely avoid going for drinks since something could be slipped in. In my case, I had a beer which was previously sealed and taken from a case.
5) Tannery Scam in Marrakech
This is a common scam in Marrakech, Morocco. This happened to me on Christmas Day in 2016. I was exploring the Medina of Marrakech, and anyone who has been there knows that place is a veritable maze with all of its twists and turns. It is extremely easy to lose your sense of direction in there. That happened to me.
While I was walking around in the Medina, a guy approached me and told me the tannery was having an auction and that he would guide me there. Considering how I got taken for a ride in Tunisia from an unusually friendly local a few days before, I declined and told him I was not interested. I kept walking, and a little while later, a teenager appeared from out of nowhere and told me he would guide me to the tannery. By this time, I had no idea where I was and reluctantly went along.
When we arrived at the tannery, I saw some other tourists like myself being led by "guides." Upon arrival at the entrance, the so-called "manager" gave me some mint flowers to mask the smell and led me around. He also said the "tour" was free, and I could pay what I wanted. Ultimately, he did not give a tour per say, but he did take me around the tannery to show me how the workers made leather, and he let me take photos of the area. Admittedly, that was moderately interesting, but I knew something was up.
After the tannery, he took me to a shop which was filled with other tourists. I knew exactly what was going on. This was a ploy to bring in business from tourists. I didn't buy anything, but I pretended to look around. While pretending to look around, I tried to figure out a way to get out. There was only one entrance, and I was forced to use it. Once I exited, the "manager" of the tannery approached me and told me "20 dirham, thank you." I was about to argue with him, but there were a group of shady looking Moroccans staring, and I felt it was best to give him the money.
Once I started walking away from that group, the teenager who led me there conveniently showed up and told me he would lead out of the medina. By this time, I knew exactly what was going to happen. While following him, I kept looking for some place where I could ditch him, but I knew he would know the area like the back of his hand. Upon arrival at the madrassa, he turned to me and said "20 dirham, thank you." I got into an argument with him, and it got to a point where I was getting ready to possibly become physical if needed, especially when he asked me if I wanted trouble. Eventually, I did have to give him money, but only half of what he wanted.
Later, I got approached twice more by different guys trying to guide me to the tanneries again. This time, the stories were there was a festival going on there, and the other was that the road I was going down was closed. In both cases, the "guides" were more than happy to show me the tannery of Marrakech.
How to Avoid: If approached by anyone saying the tannery is having an auction, the road you want to go down is closed, or there is a festival, don't believe them. These people work in groups and can navigate the Medina extremely easily, so they can locate you with no problem. The best option is to give a forceful "no" and walk away and refuse to give money. You can read more about the tannery scam on TripAdvisor. My story is similar to 700 other stories (as of April 2018).
6) Fake Salesman
This scam did not actually happen to me but my father. When I was first told about it, I thought it was strange, but after reading Peter John's book and doing more research, it was clear that the guy was attempting to scam my father.
According to the story, my father was at a store near the airport when a guy with an Italian accent pulled up and asked for directions to the airport. My father gave him the directions. The guy then told my father he was a salesman for Gucci or Versace or one of the other big Italian designers. He then tried to give my father some supposedly genuine jackets and articles of clothing for a modest and heavily-marked down price. Because he was already skeptical, especially after the guy openly asked for his credit card number, my father refused to take part in anything, and the guy drove off never to be seen again.
After hearing about that story and later reading about this scam, it was clear that the clothing items were most likely cheap knock-offs or made of very poor quality.
How to Avoid: If anyone approaches you, claims to work for a well-known fashion house, and offers you supposedly high-end items for ridiculously low prices or for free because he needs to get rid of them that should raise a red flag immediately. Few things in life are free, and no one in their right mind would just give a true high-end luxury item away for free or even for a very small price.
Overall, even though there are tens of dozens of travel scams with many different variations throughout the world, these are 6 common travel scams that every traveler should avoid by following common sense and having a healthy dose of skepticism when someone approaches you about something that might be a little too good to be true.