Planning your much-awaited overseas trip (about time!) and need to brush up on your scam-detecting skills? We’ve got you covered!
No matter where in the world you wish to travel, in these seemingly never-ending COVID times, you’re sure to come across a travel scam or seven.
Many are well-known (oh…is this your silver ring I just found on the floor? Groan!) yet you’d be amazed at the number of new and inventive scams that have emerged as of late.
It’s not surprising: most tourists all over the world seem to be walking around in a daze. “Am I actually here, now, enjoying TRAVELS?” they wonder, while simultaneously letting their guard down.
Prime prey for the deceitful.
But here’s the thing: if you worry too much about travel scams, you’ll seriously hamper the enjoyment of your trip. Conversely, if you are a little too carefree and adventurous, you might become an easy target for one.
The trick? Find that happy medium that’ll see you enjoy the trip of a lifetime while still keeping those scam-radar antennas up.
Knowledge is key!
Here are the 15 most common international travel scams and how you can avoid them with some simple travel safety tips.
1. The Staged Distraction
The "Staged Distraction" is one of the most common travel scams around, encountered in busy tourist areas all major international cities. Thieves work in teams to spot opportunities, easily distract tourists and then steal their belongings.
The pioneer of the pickpocket travel scam, the Staged Distraction has proven to have staying power because, in all honesty, it’s so darn effective that it’s even survived COVID.
One example of this scam is the "spill" or the "bird poo" clean-up. The way it works is simple; as you are walking down a busy street you feel something spill on your clothing from behind. Wouldn’t you know it? A kind stranger is there holding tissues and immediately offers to clean it up. While the two of you are busy wiping the god-knows-what off your jacket, an associate is swiping your wallet, phone, passport, or handbag. Anything that is exposed and easy to grab is fair game.
Refuse help in this situation and move onto the next safe place to clean up the spill. Also, pack your passport and other important documents in a way that keeps them safe from thieves
2. Street Ticket Sales
If someone offers to sell you discounted tickets for anything on the street, it could very well be a scam. From football games to concerts, parties and even transport tickets outside main train stations: scalpers and scammers with their fake tickets make quite the pretty penny at the expense of unsuspecting tourists.
The craftiest ticket scammers will give you what seems like a "realistic" deal, rather than something completely unbelievable. That's precisely how they draw you in. Most people know that if a deal is too good to be true it probably isn’t, so now they’ve learned to be only mildly enticing. Ten bucks off here and there and voila’, you’ve been scammed.
Make sure you always buy tickets from an official re-seller or ticket booth, this way you won't end up buying ones that don't work and losing your money.
3. The Fake Holiday Home Rental Scam
A consequence of the COVID pandemic is that more travellers are moving away from big hotels and homing their sights on vacation rentals. And why not? The market is over-supplied, prices are incredible and value-for-money options incredible.
Except, of course, if the home doesn’t actually exist.
Even tried-and-tested sites like Booking.com and Airbnb have been caught out, hosting fake profiles for properties that don’t exist. Holiday booking fraud is BIG business and countless travellers get caught out every year, all over the world.
Check every profile for red flags and, if you find just one, steer clear. What are these red flags? Clever ways to include email and phone numbers (a big no-no for Airbnb), a host that outright suggests dealing directly with them (outside known platforms), a property that simply looks too gorgeous and inexpensive, given where it is; and a listing with 0 (that would be zero) reviews.
Here's a useful article on WHICH detailing the most (and least) trusted holiday booking platforms of all.
4. Suspicious Beggars
From Delhi to London and all the amazing places in-between: many unscrupulous scammers exploit children or people with physical disabilities for their money-making schemes.
Using vulnerable people to tug at your heartstrings and entice you to fork out cash on the street is, unsurprisingly, an effective money-making endeavour.
This is doubly-dangerous because once they know which pocket you are keeping your money, accomplices will strike a little later. Perhaps, with the Staged Distraction scam.
The only effective way to avoid this scam is not to give to beggars, ever. There are actually many arguments as to why cash charity on the street can be detrimental, aside from the obvious scamming risk you run. Every major city the world over hosts plenty of honest charities where you can safely donate your time and/or money if you wish to help.
5. Shifty Rental Companies
Have you ever hired a car, scooter or bike when travelling?
This is a really common thing for active travellers to do, because it offers you a great way to get around and see the local sights without walking the whole time or spending loads on taxis. Unfortunately, it can also be a golden opportunity for thieves.
A prerequisite of most rental companies is to acquire some of your important information, such as passport details and down payments for lost or damaged goods. The dodgy ones will work alongside a bunch of scammers who will tail you, steal or damage your vehicle, and then split the insurance proceeds with the rental company.
6. The Free Bracelet Scam
Sometimes it’s a bracelet and, other times, an amulet. It’s hand-made and offered to you by a local ‘crafty’ dude just wanting to spread love and joy.
Once it’s secured on your wrist, neck, bag, or hand, they’ll demand a hefty sum for the gift. When you don’t pay, they’ll start screaming and cause a raucous scene.
Never allow anyone to place anything on you. Don’t accept free gifts. There’s no such thing in the world’s most touristed hot-spots!
7. Taxi Scams
Taxi scams have gotten more elaborate over the years. Once upon a time, all you had to deal with was an unnecessarily long drive that cost a little more.
Today, you might encounter the broken meter (it JUST broke, I swear!) that facilitates the charging of exorbitant amounts, being driven to the wrong hotel, incidentally owned by a friend (oh no, that hotel closed down, this is much nicer!) and credit card skimming devices.
Most Taxi drivers are safe and trustworthy, but there are many that aren't, you need to be cautious and aware of how they may try and rip you off.
Only use official Taxi companies with meters that work (and are turned on immediately) and, where available, use trusted car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Know your fare upfront!
Insider tip: Before you travel anywhere, research the destination to find out if taxi scams are popular there and what these entail. In South America, for example, taxi drivers scam tourists by giving change as if they’d been given a smaller denomination bill. Like, say, change for a $20 when you actually gave them $50. It’s hard to argue this if the bill has been pocketed already! Always use the smallest bills possible.
8. The Credit Card Skimming Scam
Skimming devices are ubiquitous, all over the world. They’re installed in ATMs in touristy spots, stalls, shops, and taxis. These work by copying your card’s details, which can then be downloaded and either used online or reprint a fake card.
Fewer people use ATMs nowadays, given tapping your card on a terminal is becoming prevalent everywhere. If you can, tap away. If not, only ever use an official bank’s ATM located inside a branch, during opening hours.
P.S: This is also a fail-safe tactic in case the machine eats your card for whatever reason. If the bank is open, you can immediately retrieve it by showing your passport.
9. Flirtatious Locals
This travel scam is mostly aimed at young men, especially if they’re wandering around solo.
Attractive locals (usually women) will spark up a conversation and eventually ask you out to dinner or for a drink. It depends on the scam they are trying to pull, but usually the night will go ahead as expected. You'll have some fun. But then at some point, the splendour in question will disappear and you'll later realise that your wallet, money or other valuables have gone missing.
In Prague, a common scam will involve you being invited to a local bar by an over-friendly fellow traveller. Half a dozen painfully overpriced beers later and you’ll be told by a hefty bouncer to pay the whole bill or else. We’re talking 400 Euros for six beers. Ouch.
Use your best judgment to avoid this travel scam by keeping a realistic perspective. If you think everything is above board, enjoy yourself and meet new people! But if it's a tad unusual for a Bella Hadid-lookalike to be hitting on you so hard, red flags ahoy. If you just aren’t sure, offer to meet for drinks at your hotel or a bar you know well, and see if she’ll turn up. If yes, time to showcase that newly-found confidence and, if not, enjoy the drink and count your lucky stars.
10. Group Photo Offers
When you're at a popular tourist destination with your partner or a group of friends, it's natural to want a photo together so that you can remember the experience.
As much as an out-stretched arm or a selfie stick can capture the surroundings, there is nothing like a wide angle shot taken by another person. Cue the cunning camera-thieves.
If someone offers to take a group photo for you out of the blue, think twice before handing over your smart phone or camera, because they might quickly disappear with it.
In a similar scenario, someone will ask you to take a photo of their group and will purposely drop the phone as they’re handing it to you. You’ll be blamed for the drop and now you’ve got a whole group demanding you pay compensation.
If you’re ever going to ask a stranger for a photo, make sure it’s someone you know you can outrun (looking at you, grandma!) Alternatively, ask someone who sees you and still hasn’t offered. Fellow tourists and group tour guides are usually a good bet. Use your common sense in deciding who’s genuine and who’s not.
11. Non-official Wi-Fi Hot Spots
Public Wi-Fi connections are becoming more and more common around the world, but they pose a potential risk for travellers.
Fraudsters and internet thieves will often set up free Wi-Fi hot spots in popular tourist destinations. Once you unknowingly log on and start to use the free internet, they will attempt to access your personal information, such as online passwords and bank details.
To protect yourself from this travel scam, stick to "official" Wi-Fi networks. Use different passwords across all of your important online logins so that a potential thief can't automatically access everything if they secure one password, and change them often while traveling. Never, and we mean ever, do any online banking while on a public network. Pay premium to do sensitive tasks like your banking.
12. Fake Police Officers
The fake police officer ploy is not as common as the other travel scams we've mentioned, but it is still something you should be aware of, because it is quite prevalent all over the world.
Thieves will dress up in what appears to be official police attire. An outfit that the average tourist wouldn't be able to differentiate from a real police officer. Then, they will have another one of their team try to put a tourist in a sticky situation by offering them illegal substances or other items. The fake Police officer will then step in, flash a badge and ask for your passport or some form of identification.
Whether checking for counterfeit bills in your wallet or wanting to run your passport through their database, fake police find 101 creative ways to get their grimy hands on your (very important) stuff.
This scam is a challenging one to deal with because most of us are hard-wired to trust police officers and would not want to disrespect one doing their job. But if you think something fishy is going on, don't hand over your passport. Use delaying tactics and ask clarifying questions to be absolutely sure they are who they say they are.
Is there a problem, officer? Let’s take it to the nearest police station! No genuine cop would ever deny you this. Never hand over your sensitive belongings to anyone. If there is an issue, deal with it at the nearest police station.
13. Identity Theft Scam
Contrary to what you might imagine, the most valuable thing you own is not a thing at all. It’s not that fancy phone or bling-bling designer jacket. It’s your personal identity.
Identity theft is a common travel scam and the practice has grown exponentially, and globally, in recent years. Identity theft happens not only over dodgy Wi-Fi connections but also through hotel computers, and internet cafés (yes, they still exist in many countries!) on the train, and in packed buses.
Nowadays, stealing all your personal info is just too easy.
We’ve written a whole blog post on protecting yourself from identity theft, which includes things like halting your mail from being delivered while you’re abroad, changing pins and passwords regularly, and being mindful of your laptop use. The single best piece of advice? Invest in RFID-blocking wallets and backpacks before you leave.
14. Fake Credit Card Charges
Some dodgy businesses, shops, hostels and the likes try to process your charges twice, hoping you won’t notice.
The unauthorised credit card charge is still quite prevalent throughout the world!
Luckily, the surge of banking apps means it’s super easy to keep tabs on daily expenses when traveling. The trick though is to actually check, every day, for something untoward. Setting up transaction alerts is a must! Because timing is key. If you find a duplicate charge, contact your bank immediately so you can dispute the charge. It’s likely the merchants have other outstanding complaints so you should be covered.
15. The Fake Cup of Tea Invite Scam
From the torturously fake tea-ceremony scam in China to the ‘free tea in my uncle’s rug shop' in Morocco, the Fake Tea Scam is certainly doing the rounds.
It goes something like this: a friendly local strikes up conversation and invites you to either partake in a traditional tea ceremony or to simply enjoy a free cuppa somewhere close. In China, the tea ceremony scam involves being charged ludicrous fees for the privilege of watching them make tea while, in Morocco, you’ll be pressed into purchasing something at the uncle’s shop.
Either way, you’ll be stuck in a scamming bind.
This one is a particularly painful scam because both China’s traditional tea ceremonies and Morocco’s rug shops, are absolutely wonderful. The real deals, that is. How to tell? You’ll be the one researching and booking the experiences, not be lured to it by some friendly locals. Be in charge of what you book, research reviews and don’t fall for ‘friendly’ offers.
Our Ultimate Guide to Travel Safety is a comprehensive resource that provides you with practical tips and advice on how to stay safe while traveling. It covers everything from identifying common safety threats to taking effective safety precautions before and during your trip. By following the advice in this guide, you can greatly minimise the risks and ensure that you have a hassle-free and unforgettable travel experience. So, whether you're a seasoned traveler or planning your first trip abroad, our Ultimate Guide to Travel Safety is a must-read to help you stay safe and enjoy your journey to the fullest.
Have you ever been scammed while travelling? What steps do you take to avoid it happening?
First Published: 27th December, 2016
Updated: 9th June, 2022