You will get scammed. That's a fact. It's an inevitability. If you choose to travel the world, to go to far-flung and interesting places, then you will, at some point, get scammed. You will get tricked out of your money. It will happen.
There's no shame in it. I've been scammed on multiple occasions in various different countries. I've been tricked by cab drivers and swindled by "students". I've been taken for a ride by friendly people, and fooled by a few nasty ones.
When you travel, you're at a point of weakness. You're a stranger in a strange land. You don't know how this place works. You want to be polite and respectful. You don't want to cause a fuss. You might be jetlagged or hungover or just completely discombobulated by this whole experience. And that's when the scammers swoop.
If you love to travel, there's a very good chance you would have been done by a few of these classic tricks.
"That attraction is closed today"
The Grand Palace is not actually closed. Photo: Shutterstock
For some reason this seems to happen most often around the Grand Palace in Bangkok. You're walking towards the entrance when a friendly tuk-tuk driver pulls up and tells you the attraction is closed at the moment. Bummer. Fortunately, he can give you a tour of some of the sights that are open, and maybe even swing past a couple of shops. (The palace, of course, is open the whole time. The shops are run by his friends.)
"I just want to practise my English"
This isn't a scam as such, but rather the precursor to a scam. When you hear these words, alarm bells should go off. Sirens should wail. While I'm sure there are legitimate students out there who genuinely want to practise their English, the reality is that most of the ones you'll meet overseas will be using this line as a way to get friendly with you, and later persuade you to do something – buy jewellery, eat a really expensive meal – that you really shouldn't.
The scenic route
One of the classic taxi-driver scams. The meter is running and the cab is cruising. You don't know this city, you don't know the fastest way to get where you're going, so the driver takes you all over the place, does a full circuit of town, a grand tour of money-making victory, and earns a packet. Fortunately, this is easily dealt with these days. Just ensure you plot your journey on Google Maps before leaving your accommodation, and then tell the driver if he's going the wrong way.
The short change
All those zeroes can get confusing. Photo: Shutterstock
All currency looks the same when you're in a new country, particularly if the bills are all a similar colour, or they have a lot of zeroes on them. That makes it easy for cab drivers and shop assistants to hand you a stack of change which you will only discover much later is a fraction of what you should have received.
The meter trick
Another cab-driver classic. The meter doesn't work, they'll claim. You should just negotiate a price before you start driving. It will actually be cheaper for you, the driver says. Which, of course, it won't be. The other trick, which happens in Mumbai, where the taxi meters are ancient and a conversion needs to be done using a chart to find the right amount payable, is to miscalculate that amount, giving you an astronomical fare. I was once done by that one.
"That hotel is full"
Not to sound like I'm picking on cab drivers, but many of the standard scams travellers are likely to encounter do originate with them. This is another you'll hear, most probably in Asia. You throw your backpack in a cab or a tuk-tuk, let the driver know which hotel or hostel you're going to, and he turns to you with a concerned look: "I'm sorry, that hotel is closed." Or it's full. Or it burned down. Or it got hit by a comet. The idea being that they'll take you to a new hotel and take a cut from the payment. In this situation, just be firm.
The quick switch
You make a purchase in some far-flung location. It's something fairly pricey – designer clothes, or some electronic equipment. You pay the bill, grab your bag, and out you walk. It's only some time later that you check through the bag and find that what you purchased isn't, in fact, what you purchased. It's been switched out for something far cheaper or less impressive.
"It's free – for you"
Don't let anyone give you something for free. It might be a friendship bracelet that they're trying to tie onto your wrist, or a sprig of rosemary they're trying to lodge in your pocket, or any number of little trinkets that are a "gift for you". As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and as soon as you accept anything "free", you'll be hounded to hand over some cash.
The fake police
This seems to be a classic in Central America, where travellers are wary of doing the wrong thing, not wanting to end up anywhere near a local jail. Policemen will pull you aside and ask for your passport. They'll hassle you, accuse you of having drugs, or drinking illegally on the street, and then demand an on-the-spot fine to help you avoid going to Central American prison. Always ask for credentials – there's a good chance these guys are fake.
I came very close to falling for this one in India. A group of people will befriend you and spend time with you in their home city, showing you the sights, treating you to a meal or two. Then, finally, they'll mention that their cousin/uncle/friend has a jewellery store and could sell you a few pieces super-cheap that you can then resell back home and make a huge profit. Obviously, that's not a thing that's going to happen.
The currency trick
This one, unfortunately, did get me. I was on the Trans-Mongolian train, crossing the border from Russia into Mongolia, and some guy jumped on board and offered to exchange Russian roubles for Mongolian tugrik. He was giving a good rate too, something like four tugrik to the rouble. So I went for it. Of course, that isn't a good rate. That's 10 times less than the official exchange rate. I hadn't done any research, and I paid the price.
Hire cars and scooters
Be careful with your hire car if you're not renting from a large, well-known company. Be especially careful with scooter and motorbike rentals. The standard scam here is to wait until you've returned the vehicle, and then claim you've damaged it – look at that scratch there – and charge you a huge amount for the repairs. The solution is to take photos before you leave the shop.
The clothing spill
This is another classic in Europe, particularly in touristy cities like Rome. A stranger on the street accidentally spills something on you – an ice-cream, a drink – and they're hugely apologetic, offering to clean up the mess, wiping it off. While they're doing that, and you're distracted, someone else is picking your pockets.
The flirty woman
Men are idiots, unfortunately. They'll believe that an impossibly attractive local woman would want to chat them up at a bar, and join them for a drink. And of course she'd want to move on to another bar, one she has chosen. And of course she would find you hilarious and charming. And of course she would then disappear, leaving you with an astronomical bar bill and a couple of burly blokes pretty keen to ensure you pay it.
Have you been scammed while travelling? What happened? Did it cost you a lot of money? What are the classic scams you've seen?
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