There are common scams that occur in many places that the traveller should be
aware of. These are designed to get your money or business from you under false
pretences. They fall into three categories: overcharging you, deceiving you or
coercing you into paying for a service you don’t want, and outright theft.
Prevention is based on knowledge: researching your destination will both alert
you in advance to scams in the area and let you know what the usual prices and
truly good sights are, so you will be less reliant on the approaches of helpful
individuals when you’re vulnerable.
At the same time, if you do get stung, don’t be too hard on yourself: you were
dealing with people who knew the location a lot better than you and with people
who were out to deceive you. In some cases you were dealing with hardened criminals.
If you think what happened to you was illegal and the police are trustworthy,
report it, otherwise you’ll have to chalk it up to experience.
These scams are based upon the idea of offering you help or advice that is actually
deceptive, trusting that you will rely on the scammer’s "local knowledge".
They usually involve giving advice that results in you paying for something you
otherwise wouldn’t or going somewhere you don’t want to go. Some scams in which
a helpful local offers to cut you a good deal can be outright fraudulent – convincing
you to buy fake gems for example – but many simply get you to pay for something
that you wouldn’t pay for if you knew the area better.
One of the biggest traps of these kinds of scams is the desire to be polite to
people who are polite and friendly to you; and the scammers know this. While you
shouldn’t become a hard-nosed nasty person, you should receive unsolicited offers
of help with polite caution, and when you are reasonably certain that you’re being
scammed, there’s no need to be polite in fending it off: feel free to walk away,
yell at the person or yell for help.
Another trap is the "too good to be true" offers: they are almost certainly
Your driver or guide will tell you that the place you’re heading to is gone, or
if you’ve booked, that it’s no good or too expensive and that he knows somewhere
better. While this may be true, it’s likely that the ‘better’ place is giving
him a commission for referrals. You could either insist on going to your planned
destination or get him to agree that if you don’t like his recommendation then
he will take you to your original destination. The latter will often work if his
commission only depends on getting you to the door, but it’s hard to tell what
the deal is. If you’re worried, just insist on your original destination.
You may arrive at a major tourist destination only to find a very helpful local
near the entrance explaining that there’s a riot/holiday/official visit at the
place you want to go and it is closed. The local will then offer to take you to
a lesser known but infinitely more beautiful sight or to a nice shop. Generally
the destination is in fact open for business: refuse the offer and go and have
a look. Even on the rare occasions when they are telling the truth they may not
be as helpful as they seem, so it would be better to pursue your own backup plan.
These scams are based on your ignorance of the area and rely on getting you to
pay well over the market rate for goods or services. Some will rely on a helpful
local steering you to the goods, but others will simply involve quoting a high
price to you. In some countries this is institutionalised: foreigners have to
pay more even for genuine sights.
Getting a general sense of accommodation price ranges and the like is the best
way to prevent being overcharged. In some places it’s assumed that you’ll bargain
down overcharged prices, in others you will just have to walk away or pay up for
goods although you should still challenge the amount in the case of a service
if it is clearly overpriced.
The scenic taxi ride
Since you don’t know the area, taxi drivers can take advantage of you by taking
a long route to your hotel and getting a large metered fare. The best prevention
is knowledge: it’s hard to learn a new city well enough to know a good route before
you arrive for the first time, but it might be a good idea to ask your hotel roughly
what the taxi fare should be when you book or to arrange a pickup with them if
they offer the service.
These scams rely on trapping you in a bad situation and forcing you to pay money
to get out of it. They’re best prevented by avoiding the situation; once you’re
in it you may well have no option but to pay whatever it takes to get out of it
safely. Many of these scams are bordering on illegal.
You are offered a "free tour" of a shop or factory way out of town.
Your driver may then suggest that you’ll need to buy something if you want a ride
back. The best prevention is avoidance, as if you’re stuck out there you might
well be compelled to do as he ‘suggests’. Don’t accept any kind of lift or offer
of a tour without having a basic idea of where you’re going and whether you will
be able to get back if your driver deserts you.
You are met in the street by people who say they are art students. They speak
English well and invite you to visit their school. Then they will try to get you
to buy one of their works for an excessive price. This scam is practiced in China, particularly in Beijing and Xian.
These scams are outright theft: they involve putting you in a position where someone
can take your money by force.
Credit card skimming
In this scam, you use your card to pay in a bar or restaurant. However, while
your card is out of your sight, it is swiped not only in the machine that sends
the information to your bank for approval, but in a second machine which copies
the card’s identifying information from the magnetic strip. The copy of the card,
or the number, are then used by the third party to buy goods. Often this is an
"inside" job: employees of the outlet are either using the information
themselves or being paid to acquire it.
The best way to prevent this scam is to keep your card in your sight at all times.
Unfortunately the typical restaurant custom is to let the restaurant staff take
your card away and bring you back a receipt to sign: insisting on observing them
while they handle your card may make you unpopular.
Otherwise, you can limit the damage done by credit card skimming by keeping receipts
when you use your card and checking them against your credit card statement. Make
sure the amounts match up and make sure there are no additional purchases you
didn’t make. Report any discrepancies to your credit card company: the liability
rests with them not with you, as long as you report fraudulent transactions as
soon as possible.
The Maradona is a scam that is very common in Romania, especially in the capital
Bucharest. Someone will approach you and attempt to engage you in a conversation
(in English), typically – although not always – about something vaguely illicit.
Seconds later, two men will appear in plain clothes but flashing legitimate-looking
police badges. They will accuse you and your "new acquaintance" of some
illegal activity (usually ‘currency swapping’, a totally ridiculous charge in
a country where legitimate currency exchanges are more common than streetlights),
and demand to see your wallet and/or passport.
Do not hand them these things! Keep your documents and belongings in your pocket
and out of sight…
Walk away, or yell, or tell them outright that you do not believe that they are
the police, or suggest that you all walk to the lobby of a nearby hotel (or police
station) because you are not comfortable taking out your wallet or papers in the
street, or whatever. These con men thrive because the police fail to enforce laws
against non-violent crime and because some foreigners are easily gulled. They
will not physically attack you: the treatment of violent offenders is severe –
these men are professionals, and they would never be foolish enough to chance
a physical attack.
Distraction thefts take a variety of forms. Generally the thieves work in groups:
one will distract you and the other will rob you while you’re distracted. Sometimes
a single thief will rely on a ready-made distraction like a busker or a departure
board. Sometimes the distraction can be pleasant, such as having an attractive
accomplice talk to you, but sometimes it’s very nasty, such as throwing rotten
eggs or faeces over you and robbing you while you panic or clean yourself up.
It’s best to be aware of what’s going on around you in any public place and to
be a little suspicious of strangers who appear to be trying to single you out.
If you are the victim of a minor assault, suspect that it’s the prelude to a robbery
attempt and if you feel safe enough, try and get in a position where you can look
after your belongings. Unfortunately you may need to refuse the help of concerned
onlookers; it’s common to have an accomplice pose as a concerned onlooker.