Travel scams and tips: The art of outwitting a con artist

The kids crowded around me, pleading for food and money, and holding sheets of cardboard scrawled with messages in every language that they jabbed into my ribs.

"Ok, ok," I yelled above the melee in a back street in Rome, scouring the sea of cardboard for the welcome note in English. "Back off, and I'll see what I can do."

But by then, of course, it was far too late to help. They'd already, expertly, helped themselves. They'd undone my bum bag, taken out everything of value and also gone through my pockets under cover of that carefully constructed cardboard skirt.

Dissecting the incident later, I realised I should have just trusted my instincts. If something doesn't feel right, then it probably isn't. I should have acted immediately, shouted or screamed and got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

The difficulty is that, for most of us, such behaviour doesn't come naturally. When we're travelling overseas, we're at pains to be polite, to be curious about unfamiliar customs or conduct, and not to ascribe to malice – to misquote Hanlon's razor – that which could be adequately explained by being peculiarly foreign.

But while that's all very admirable, it's trumped every time by the first of travel's hard and fast rules: self-preservation.

So the best way of outwitting conmen I've found, over years of being duped and dudded, is to believe in yourself and your own judgment, even as others are assaulting it.

I was once on a bus in Rio when two men came on and started shouting that I'd stolen the bag on my lap from them. My immediate response was confusion and my first reflex action, in normal circumstances, would have been to show them the bag and patiently explain to them how long I'd owned it and that they must be mistaken.

Instead, I trusted my instincts and curled up in a ball over it. As they tried to wrest it out of my grip, eventually, other passengers came to my aid.

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There are, of course, thousands of different, and quite often ingenious, cons you can fall victim to, but this strategy of having faith in yourself, while not failsafe, does help.

When a beggar handed me her baby in a street in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, I resisted holding it dumbly – presumably so co-conspirators could fleece me while my attention was drawn – and lay the child carefully on the ground and walked away. When a passer-by pressed a packet in my hand of what could have been cannabis in post-Schapelle Bali, I didn't even wait to check. I dropped it as if it was scalding me before mock police could come and demand a bribe.

Of course, there are always expert conmen around, and travellers who are too relaxed, tired or confused – or all three – who'll provide good pickings.

Then, if you are ripped off, the important lesson is to forgive yourself, assume the thief needed your possessions more than you, get your credit cards or cash replaced, fill in a police report for an insurance claim, move on and never let it blight the rest of your trip.

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