Common Travel Scams to Watch Out For

Travel Tips
Embrace the locals, ask them for help, enjoy their culture, but always be wary.
Embrace the locals, ask them for help, enjoy their culture, but always be wary. fickr
Particularly as budget travelers, you are visiting poorer countries. Countries where the local people can benefit greatly by getting a few extra dollars off of the rich foreigners. You're in an environment that you're not familiar with and you may want to rely on the kindness of strangers which unfortunately makes you more of a target for people trying to run a scam on you.

Meeting and hanging out with locals can be one of the true joys of traveling and getting to know a different culture! Don't fret yourself out of having those experiences. Just always keep it in the back of your mind that people's intentions might not always be the best. And also know that you will usually get ripped off at least once in any given country. ;)

Knowing a few of the common ways you might be taken advantage of can help keep your money in your own pocket and also avoid the usual negativity and possible argument that goes hand in hand with this sort of thing. I have experienced every one of these first hand (well, the last one was both my now-ex-husband and my current boyfriend, not me).

Offering to help with your bag

At airports, boat docks, anywhere that tourists might be moving around with their luggage, there will be people offering to help you carry your bag. Most of the time it's not an offer; they just grab your bag and start walking with it. Be polite (in case they are honestly just trying to help) but firm that you do not want them to take your bag and even grab it back from them if you have to. They will insist on money afterward.

I was in such a bad situation where some guys were holding my bag over the edge of the boat threatening to throw it in the water if I didn't pay them.
Always carry your own bag.
Always carry your own bag.

Walking with you to practice English

There are many legitimate students out there looking for a fluent English speaker to practice their skills with. But there are also those who will use that as an opening to walk with you, then maybe show you the way to wherever you are going (a waterfall, temple, whatever), then ask for money for being your guide.

I usually agree that they can walk with me, but I tell them up front that I don't have any money for a guide. Most of the time they politely bow out. Sometimes they say it's no problem, walk with you, and still ask for money at the end but at least if you make it clear up front you can get them to back off.

Gem scam in Bangkok

After so many years, this successful tactic is still being practiced. I first encountered it in 2000! In short, when you walk up to a popular attraction, someone polite and in uniform will let you know that it's closed for some sort of holiday or another. Eventually they will let you know of special tuk-tuks that will take you on a tour to some temples around the city (possibly even government-sponsored for a free trip). They do take you to some Buddha statues and temples, but they also take you to jewelry shops where they try to get you to buy rather expensive jewelry that you can resell at home for a profit I'm sure you can guess that the jewelry is not something you can sell for a profit.
The age-old Bangkok gem scam is still going strong. 
The age-old Bangkok gem scam is still going strong. fickr
Even knowing about it already, I actually fell for the gem scam once! It was no big deal other than that fact that I missed seeing the Emerald Buddha (that was my "closed" attraction). I got to see a few smaller temples that the tuk-tuk took me to and there was no way I was going to buy any jewelry. No harm no foul. Just a bit of a hit on the ego.

Taxi price

Always agree on a taxi price before getting into the car. If you don't do this, the driver will undoubtedly ask for an exorbitant amount of money once you are at your destination. Refusing to pay ends up in a heated and sometimes shouting argument and leaves not only a bad vibe, but a big dent in your budget.

Even metered taxis don't always run the meter. First of all, it's best to know (from a guidebook or by asking someone) what the general price should be. Then either agree that they will run the meter, or agree on a set price.

For public buses and shared vans, try to know the correct fare. Then you simply hand them the correct amount (or as close as you have) as if you ride that route every day. Done with confidence, they will give you the correct change and you'll feel like an accomplished traveler.

Getting sprayed with mustard

There are usually two people in on it together. One person will spill something on you (for me it was having mustard sprayed all over me!) and the other one will try to help clean it up. While they are wiping up with mess with a napkin or whatever, they will be pick-pocketing you at the same time. Nice, huh?
Yep, I had mustard squirted all over my shirt!
Yep, I had mustard squirted all over my shirt!

Purse grab

This is the only one I have not fallen victim to (knock on wood). Always keep one hand on your purse while walking around. Purse snatchers will razor-blade your strap and run away with your purse.

In Bali, it's common for thieves on motorbikes to grab purses/bags/phones off of other people riding a motorbike, even if it causes you to fall! Yikes. Keep your bag at your feet or in the seat.

Counterfeit bills from border money changers

Get your money from ATMs, official money changers, or banks. With black market money changers, you risk incorrect conversion rates and possibly receiving counterfeit bills. We were down to our last $40 or so for the last couple of days of a trip once (for 3 of us), got some counterfeit bills and had to live off of bread rolls and water for 2 days since there was almost no real money left. :(
Black market money-changers are not worth the risk. fickr
Black market money-changers are not worth the risk. fickr

Women approaching single men

There are a million ways that local ladies might take advantage of male visitors, getting them to part with some cash. Where it becomes a scam is when they do things like like asking you to dance, then trying to charge you for it afterward. Seriously, be wary of the intentions of the women you meet on the road. It's the oldest way to make money.


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