Travel Scams

When on vacation, you’re (hopefully) in a good mood and open to new experiences and interactions with locals. Scammers know this. In fact, they’re counting on you trusting advice from locals and not wanting to offend or make a scene in order to snare you in a scam that leaves your wallet lighter—or gone altogether.

One of the best sources for information on the specific scams most prevalent in a city or country is a travel guidebook. However, there are some that are so common that some variation of them can be found in most destinations around the world. Some only aim to divest you of money under social pressures or by deception, while others are a distraction for pickpocket accomplices.

Here’s what you need to look out for.

The taxi overcharge

This one never gets old…for unscrupulous taxi drivers. Variations of this scam include:

  • Telling you the meter is broken and over charging you
  • The meter goes higher and faster than it should
  • The cabbie tries to negotiate a rate with you instead of sticking to the posted or the standard rate
  • Driving the longest route to your destination
  • Telling you your accommodation address is incorrect and driving you elsewhere (for a hefty fee and then charging you again to bring you back to the city center)

Thankfully, with the aid of smart phones and online maps, it’s pretty easy to avoid these scams. It’s always best to know roughly how much each trip should cost as well as the most direct way to get there—you can even follow along on a map app. If you won’t have cell service in the country, you can download the map to your phone ahead of time. This allows you to challenge the cabbie if they over quote you or try to drive the long way. Never be embarrassed to refuse to pay anything but the posted rates, and it’s perfectly OK to refuse a cab and find another or tell them to pull over and get out.

Another resource is your hostel or hotel staff—they will know reputable companies and can even order the taxi for you.

Your accommodation is “closed”

This is also taxi-related: your driver tells you your accommodation is closed for some reason and they try to take you somewhere else—usually a hotel or hostel run by a friend who’s in on the scam. If this happens to you, insist they take you to the address you’ve provided; they will usually give up on the rouse if you confidently stick to your plan. If you feel unsafe or they refuse to drive you to the location, immediately request they let you out and then hail another cab.

Giving or putting anything on you for “free”

This scam is most common in European cities and even New York. A seemingly harmless and friendly person will ask you a simple question, like the time, and then quickly put a bracelet on your wrist, or shove a flower or sprig of rosemary into your hand. Now they will ask for money or a “donation” for their gift. They are counting on you feeling obligated to following social reciprocation and pay them, even though you never asked for the item and could just as easily give it back.

If you do refuse to pay, the scammer may cause a scene—crying, shouting at you—hoping you’ll give in rather than be publicly embarrassed.

The lessons here are to never allow anyone to put anything on your body (allowing someone to get that close is an invitation to pickpockets anyway) and to never accept anything for “free” or from someone you don’t know. If they do get something in your hands, simply give it back—with a firm “no thank you”—and walk away. They won’t chase after you.

A “found” gold ring

In this scam, a stranger says you dropped a gold ring, which they’ll show you. You say it’s not yours (or even if you say it is), they’ll try to impress you by showing a special mark or some other detail that “proves” it’s pure gold. And it just so happens they’ll sell it to you for a bargain price! Of course, it isn’t pure gold and anything you give them is pure profit.

Free Wi-Fi

Be suspicious of any free unlocked wi-fi signals. This is an easy way for savvy scammers to use tourists’ desires for free wi-fi connection to steal data. Don’t join any unsecured networks and, if you can, use a VPN when traveling abroad.

Fake International Driving Permits (IDPs)

Some countries require tourists to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) in addition to a valid driver’s license from their home country. For the U.S., there are only two associations that are legally authorized to issue IDPs—the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). Fraudulent companies—often advertising online—sell fake IDPs for hundreds of dollars, luring people in with ultra-fast turnaround times.

If you’re caught driving in a foreign country with a fake IDP, you could face legal problems.

With these tips in mind, you should be a more confident and savvier traveler. Trust your gut, your research, and your confirmed reservations. And it’s never wrong to tell someone “no” or that you need to do more research before committing to spending money on something.

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