10 Travel Scams to Watch Out For

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Written by: Sarah Jane Robinson

With so many new sights and sensations to experience on the road it’s easy to take your eye off the ball and leave yourself open to being scammed. Even the most seasoned traveller has stories of being ripped off and it’s obvious that newbies may be singled out as easy targets for crime when arriving in a new city exhausted and disorientated after a long journey.

Don’t let yourself be that person.

Here’s a list of common scams to watch out for while on your travels.

Beware of taxis

Cabs can be a danger for a host of reasons, the most basic is being overcharged for a journey and the most serious can lead to express kidnappings where your bank account is cleared out and refusal can lead to the ultimate price, death.

Not to petrify you, but always make sure that the taxi you take is registered. When arriving at an airport or railway station in some countries it’s possible to find pre-paid cabs that are registered. This means there are official records of your driver and the journey you take. Using these official taxis also ensures that you will pay a fair price and arrive at your destination on time.

Intrepid traveller Helen Simmons has a nightmare story of being conned in Lima, Peru.

“My travel guide advised to check currencies when bartering a taxi price so when the driver quoted a price of 25, I confirmed that he meant Sols [Peruvian currency]. This was the price in the book but it said that you’d need to barter hard for it. I assumed he was taking pity on the early morning arrival and giving me the right price.

So we set off and about halfway he handed me a piece of paper with the amount on and it said 25 dollars. I argued with him in my broken Spanish that we had agreed Sols. He wouldn’t have it and was adamant that he had just meant that I could pay in Sols.

“We were halfway down a motorway and I had visions of being left at the side of a major road without a taxi. Also, because I was so tired I decided that maybe I just hadn’t understood the Spanish properly at the airport I relented and agreed to pay 25 Dollars.

“However, I only had Sols on me and asked him how much it would be in the local currency. He said as there were 10 Sols to the Dollar it would be 250 Sols. I remember thinking that it was a bit steep compared to the 25 Sols I originally thought I’d be paying but by this point I just wanted a bed so paid it. It was only later that I found out that the exact exchange rate was 3 Sols to the USD and that I had paid this taxi driver over $80 for a journey that should have been $8”.

Negotiate a price before you get in and if possible keep your bags in the car with you.  There have been tales of drivers in some countries holding bags to ransom in arguments over fares.

Watch out for touts

The touts meet you as soon as you get off the bus/train/plane – possibly one of the most annoying things about arriving in a new city. Often they work in tandem with taxi drivers. One of the most common scams they run is to tell you that the hotel you’ve booked is full so you have to go their uncle/cousin/brother’s place. Be careful, the hotel is, in fact, paying commission to these guys so never take their word for it.

As someone who has travelled a lot, I felt pretty sure I knew the ku when I arrived in New Delhi last year. Fresh off the plane and straight into the grasp of a waiting tout who was masquerading as a taxi driver (I was jetlagged and looking forward to a bed, so hardly even noticed that he didn’t have a cab). Next thing you know, my boyfriend and I were in the back of the car with the tout and driver up front being told that the whole of the backpacker’s district was closed due to some festival or other. To cut a long story short we ended up in Agra via a ‘tourist office’ and a five hour drive, £150 lighter.

Moral of the story: it’s always a good idea to book a place to stay for the first night before you leave. And don’t trust touts/dodgy tourist offices.

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted

Thieves and con artists obviously use distractions to their advantage. This can mean anything from nicking your wallet or cutting your handbag straps while you gaze up at the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, to them actually causing a divergence.  Beware of people spilling stuff on you or pointing out that you’ve got crap on your shoes. They or their mates have just put it there and guess what; it’s going to cost you for them to clear it up, whether you know it or not.

Also beware of leaving your belongings on luggage rails inside a bus before it sets off. I did this once and got distracted by an ice cream vendor who had popped on, and then off again. Taking my bag with him!

Watch the police

You’d think you’d be safe with the police, no? But beware as all may not be as it seems. Those bobbies asking to rifle through your bags may not be real or worse, they could be corrupt.

There’ve been reports of fake police asking to see passports and then refusing to give them back until a fee has been paid, checking rooms and stealing items and making people pay again on trains.

Authentic coppers may be no better at times. I have heard stories of tourists having small amounts of drugs miraculously appear in their bags and having to pay a baksheesh or fine.

Keep an eye on what you eat and drink

Beware the friendly local who offers food, drink or cigarettes on public transport or anywhere else for that matter. There is probably an ulterior motive to their kindness. Many a weary traveller has woken up woozy after some hours to find all of their worldly goods gone.

Be especially careful in South America as scopolamine or ‘the devils breath’ grows wild in Colombia. This drug has the power to render the imbiber zombie-like and so complacent that they are literally at the mercy of those who slip it to them. Honestly, people have helped thieves to clear out their own apartments whilst under the affects. It’s not known as the world’s scariest drug for no reason.

Don’t fall for attractive strangers

This scam operates everywhere from London to Beijing and usually involves a couple of gorgeous girls who seem very friendly and suggest going somewhere for a drink.

You go to a local spot recommended by them and buy a round of drinks. Next thing you know, they’re gone and you’re left with a huge bill and a burly bouncer blocking your exit. This is known as a clip joint scam but can also happen in innocuous looking tea shops.

Or local guides

There’s nothing more annoying than being accosted by ‘local guides’ when you are visiting sights. Sometimes the guides are qualified and you can learn from them but more often than not they are chancers.

Do not trust them if they ask you to pay for admittance or refuse to leave you alone until you pay a charge. Just do your best to ignore them and they will get the message eventually. I found a good way to stop them from haranguing me was to speak Spanish, or at least pretend to.

Beware those fellow tourists

Be careful if someone passes you a mobile or camera and asks you to take a picture. If the camera doesn’t work it is probably already broken.

Make sure that the person takes hold of it properly when you hand it back as there have been reports of travellers being asked to cough up for equipment they’ve apparently dropped.

Avoid ear cleaners

This one is specific to India, especially Goa and Delhi. Watch out for guys trying to stick long metal rods in your ears. They pull it out and there’s a huge ball of wax on the end, guaranteed it won’t be all yours. This practice is not only unhygienic but can also be dangerous, leading to perforated ear drums. There are those, however who swear by this treatment but I’d stay well clear if I were you.

Careful when hiring motorbikes

Hiring a motorbike can be a great way to get around and see more of a country. But avoid giving your passport as security as many travellers have been scammed with agencies claiming damage to the bikes. In this case they refuse to hand back your documents until damage has been paid  for. Take photos of the bike when you first inspect it so that you have a record of its condition. Also, carry a spare lock  to make sure that it can’t be ‘stolen’ by the agents you hired it from. Always use a reputable company and ask other tourists where they have rented their bikes from.

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