Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them

common travel scams

We’ve all been there. Someone comes up to you when you arrive in a new city and wants to take you to “where the locals go,” shopping at “a friend’s store” where they receive a kickback or an overpriced tour. Scams are everywhere and the best way to avoid them is to look up which scams are common in your destination before you go. I’ve listed a few common travel scams, where they are most prevalent and advice from those who have experienced it firsthand. Watch out for scam hotspots like the Louvre, the Spanish Steps and Las Ramblas, which are high traffic areas ideal for pickpockets.

Free Goods Scams

The Rose– A man comes up to you and hands you a rose, telling you you’re beautiful. You thank him and then he asks you for money to pay for the rose. My sister fell for this scam at the Spanish Steps in Rome.

  • Common in: Europe

The Bracelet– I experienced this one firsthand outside of the Louvre. A man came up to me and started to tie a “friendship bracelet” around my wrist and then demanded money for it. I knew it was a scam and refused to pay up, but others in my group gave him money. I kept the bracelet.

  • Common in: Europe

The Shoe Shine– A boy approaches you offering to clean or fix your shoes and when you’re ready to walk away, he screams that you haven’t paid him.

Local Experiences Scams

The Tea Ceremony– Two Chinese teenagers approach you about going to a traditional tea ceremony. They scam you into buying the overpriced ceremony for both of them and you in addition to gifts for their families. Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps experienced this scam in Shanghai and ended up seeking revenge.

  • Common in: Asia

Gems and Carpets– These scams usually take place in busy market areas. A local vendor convinces you that these carpets are worth their price or that the gems are authentic but usually neither are true.

  • Common In: Asia, Europe, Middle East

Closed Attractions– You’re wandering around a city and ask a local how to get to a major attraction. They tell you that it is closed today, but don’t worry, they will take you on a tour of the city to other attractions, usually ending at a gem or carpet shop where you will be obligated to buy something.

  • Common In: Asia

Volunteer Programs– You think you’re doing the right thing by spending a portion of your trip volunteering. But is this volunteer opportunity what you think it is? Connie of ConnVoyage has volunteered all over the world, but when she got to Nepal, she was told there were no students or classes due to a “financial crisis.”

  • Common In: Worldwide

Transportation Scams

Tuk Tuks and Taxis– You tell the driver you want to go to a specific site and instead they take you to their aunt/cousin/friend’s souvenir, dress, gem, carpet store to buy. They’ll tell you they get a special tourist tax credit for the tour and it will only cost you a small amount. Dani and Jess of Globetrotter Girls fell prey to this scam immediately upon arriving in Bangkok.

  • Common In: Asia, South America

The Border Crossing– Whenever you cross a border by land in many countries, you will be told that you need an additional visa or have to pay a bribe or something of the like. Adam of Travels of Adam was told he needed a more expensive visa at the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Pete and Dalene of Hecktic Travels experienced similar drama at the Peru-Ecuador border.

  • Common In: Africa, Asia, South America

Fake Tickets– When you approach a travel agency about booking an overnight bus or train, they can tell you that you’ll need to pay a higher rate and pay for your visa in advance. They could even sell you tickets that are completely counterfeit. Talk a few agencies before settling on a price, as one could be ripping you off.

  • Common In: Asia, South America

Distraction Scams

The Photo OpKristin experienced this scam on Porto’s waterfront. As she was snapping some photos, one man was distracting her with an odd conversation while the other tried to steal her camera.

  • Common In: Worldwide

The Mustard– There are many distraction scenarios, but typically someone tells you that you have a stain, bird poop, or mustard on your shirt and offers you a napkin to wipe it off. While you are doing this, you take off your backpack and another person grabs it.

  • Common In: Worldwide

The Clipboard– Someone approaches you about signing a petition and while you are signing the clipboard, another person pickpockets you.

  • Common In: Europe

Beautiful Women– Matthew of Expert Vagabond was approached in a cafe by a group of prostitutes in Panama, who made off with his MacBook Pro. Even though his backpack was at his feet, they were still able to distract him. This is when a Pacsafe Slingsafe would come in handy!

  • Common In: Worldwide

What to Do If You’ve Been Scammed

1. Assess the damage. Did they take your wallet or camera? Where is your passport? Did you waste money on a scam? Or is your ego just bruised?

2. Call the local police. Report the crime, even if nothing will come of it. If nothing else, you need to report it so that your travel insurance can deal with it. If your passport was stolen, contact the closest embassy to get it replaced.

3. File a claim with your travel insurance company. It may take some time for you to get reimbursed, but at least it will be taken care of.

4. Don’t beat yourself up. Even if you thought in the back of your head that it was a scam, it happens to the best of us.

For More Information

Have you ever fallen for a travel scams?

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Lauren Meshkin says

    My mom and I were traveling in Paris a few years back and were outside the Galeries Lafayette. I guess there were some ladies near us or walking towards us with their infamous Clipboards. A local French woman pulled us aside saying to watch out for them. Then as she was walking passed she yelled at those ladies on our behalf. I guess they had done it to one of her friends earlier that week. And who says the French aren’t friendly? 🙂

  2. Tracey - Life Changing Year says

    Oh I secretly love hearing about travel scams! As long as they are harmless of course. In our travels last year we encountered a few of these but we think less than we might have if we hadn’t been a family of 5 walking around together. We had the tuk tuk guys try to take us shopping but 5 loud voices soon convinced them they’d get nothing out of us. We were told in Egypt that the city of Cairo was closed as it was prayer time as well as that the museum was closed and we should go to a local store! Didn’t fall for that one. In Prague a guy limped up like the Hunchback Of Notre Dame and jingled some coins and indicated that we should hand some over. We feigned ignorance and after 10 minutes he straightened up, abused us in English and strode off! WIN!! Our kids were swindled in Vietnam when we let them go out one day on their own – they had their shoes “fixed” and had to pay up. Plus we got scammed by ladies in the street taking our photos with their rice paddy hats on. In France a guy tried to steal our iPhone in a McDonalds but our teenage daughter remembered the scam from the internet just in time – their hands actually touched as she picked up my phone! And we did get dragged into an alley to go ‘shopping’ one night in Egypt. There were only 2 of us and we let our guard down. Once we knew we were trapped we agreed with each other that we would brightly choose the cheapest thing and get out of there. Which we did. They had barracaded the door when we went to leave with our purchases but they couldn’t really say anything as we had happily bought some ‘hand-painted papyrus’! Those two pictures now have pride of place in our lounge room and every time I look at them I’m reminded of our awesome adventures travelling! So glad we were scammed into buying them!

  3. Kelsey says

    Really good to read about this sort of thing. I dodged a bullet on the “Photo Op” scam in Munich once. I was taking pictures and the man asked for money because he’d lost all his money on his trip. After I said no, he asked to see my camera in case I’d taken a picture of him. I was almost immediately aware of the shadiness of this man, and held fast to everything I had with my hands and said I was meeting family up the road when he asked which hotel I was at. I was lucky not to have anything stolen or worse!
    Funny enough, it was an American trying to pull one over me!

  4. Raymond @ Man On The Lam says

    That fake visa scam is notorious going overland from Thailand to Cambodia — the easiest way around it is to get the visa online beforehand and just print it out. It’s 5 bucks more, but in the long run it can save you quite a bit.

    Thanks for the shout-out by the way! 🙂

  5. Jen says

    Another very common one happened to my (now ex-) boyfriend when we were in Tunisia. A guy walked up to us, probably having noticed we were speaking Dutch, and told us he still had euros left from his last trip to Europe and asking if we wanted to take them off his hands in exchange for the local currency. I caught on it was a scam pretty quickly, and tried to urge my boyfriend into ignoring the man and moving on. He was however a fairly inexperienced traveller, and way too kind for his own good, so he tried to humor the man. However as soon as he checked his wallet and told the man he didn’t have enough dinars, the guy started fumbling with his wallet, at which point I snarled at him to back off and jerked my boyfriend’s arm to get him to walk on. A few minutes later, he checked his wallet again, and sure enough, they guy had run off with twenty euros. It’s a price to pay for a lesson learned.

  6. Laryssa says

    I’ve heard a lot about the wallet scam in Eastern Europe, though haven’t encountered it. Someone drops a wallet, you pick it up to give to them, they’re gracious at first and then say they’re missing money. A “neutral” third person gets involved…somehow trying to convince you to pay some of the money lost.

    Another one– a distraction scam– while you’re sitting down, or somewhere where your guard might be down– two little old ladies approach you, claiming to be lost (in this case, they had an Argentine accent, and it happened in Buenos Aires–suspicious!). While you’re helping them with the map, a kid/someone swoops in and grabs your bag/purse.

  7. Joanna says

    In Nepal I had a mother ask me to buy her baby milk. I never give money to beggars but I thought milk for the baby .. that’s ok right ?? Well, I should’ve read the guidebook first because it says this is very common In Nepal. The mother asks for milk then takes you to a nearby store. The store overcharges you, then the woman takes the milk back to the store and gets her cut of the profit.

  8. Marsha says

    Yes I’ve experienced a few of these in Europe. It’s a good thing I’m fairly paranoid about strangers approaching me; never fell for any of them even when I hadn’t heard about the specifics beforehand. Caution is a good thing!

  9. Brooke says

    From Facebook by Devon Littlefield: “Fortune tellers in Spain (Granada specifically)- groups of women holding small flowers come up to you and physically grab your wrist and perform a reading they expect you to pay for and work together to try and pick your pockets, definitely felt attacked as they won’t let go of you! Only time I have ever been caught in one of the many scams in Europe.

    Had a friend’s phone stolen off the table INSIDE the delirium cafe in Brussels, after someone offered us some papers (this one was very tricky)

    And as always your pickpockets, in Barcelona called out a nicely dressed woman on the train from the airport as she would drape her jacket over one arm and over the luggage and personal items of passengers.”

  10. Jordan says

    We actually had the “free goods” one pulled on us in New Orleans of all places. I was walking through the French Quarter with my Mom, her boyfriend, and my younger brother. A woman was saying that she was giving away free hats so we all took one. Then she hit us with, “Oh, there’s a mandatory $10 donation.” So we thought ok, ten dollars for 4 hats, that’s not bad but we did question her to make sure that was right. She said, “No, $10 per hat.” All of my family handed their hats back, I kept mine and when my mom’s boyfriend tried to just give her a $5 donation she insisted that it was a MANDATORY $10 donation. Well a donation can’t be mandatory but my Mom’s boyfriend gave in and we got away as quick as we could. Saw the same hat in a store for $20 so we actually got a deal, but still. It was ridiculous.

  11. Tzipora says

    I’ve read all the comments about being scammed. What I get from all this is to mind your own business and when you see someone approaching, walk away and say nothing. It’s shard to get scammed if you are in your own little world ignoring all else. I never pull out my phone or camera in public unless it is strapped to my wrist and then I’m always aware of who is around me. I lived in the inner-city of Washington, DC for 30 years and learned very quickly to mind my own business. Unless I knew you, if you approached me on the street you are automatic suspect and everything you are trying to say is a lie. My husband used to tell me to ask myself one question: “Of all the people in the area, why are they approaching you?” He said a man should never approach a woman asking her for anything–ever. Especially if there are men in the area. He is asking you because he sees “sucker” written on your forehead. He taught me to never stop, keep moving, don’t make eye contact, and walk with intentionality. Always walk like you know where you are going and you have something to do and the most important word is–NO! Saying it loudly and with force makes people stop if they are touching you, trying to put bracelets on your arm, get your luggage for you, etc. No, period and keep moving. After all, you are not on the streets in any country to make friends. You are there to enjoy your vacation. You have friends. You have family. You make friends when you plan to live someplace awhile and then you slowly get to know the locals and they you. On vacation? There are not friends.

  12. Samantha says

    Oh yessss! After researching and reading for months about tourist scams overseas…
    I GOT DONE!
    After having a bad experience on a Eiffel Tower tour, hubby and i were walking back to our accom with our 12 year old daughter when a man approaching me, stopped, bent down and picked up a gold ring. He stopped me and asked me if it was mine? As I was telling him how lucky he was to find it, my husband still had his wits about him and told him to keep walking and gave me “the glare” to let me know that I’d almost fallen for a scam that I’d been warning the rest of the family about for months! Haha.
    It was one of a few that were “tried out” on us over the weeks we were in Europe.

    Happy Travels!

  13. Sandy says

    Turkey – not a big scam, but annoying. Instead of change back, street merchants insist on giving you more merchandise instead. Lesson learned; carry small bills so you can pay as close to the exact amount as possible.

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