Common Travel Scams to Avoid
Last updated on 03/27/2023
Travelers are often seen as an easy target by thieves, pickpockets, and scam artists. Travel fraud is a real threat. We might like to think that only naive, trusting tourists can get duped. But as scam artists get craftier, even seasoned travelers can fall for a trick.
Tourist scams happen all over the world. A healthy sense of caution can go a long way, but you can't always predict when things will go awry. It's important to know what kind of cons exist so you can safely navigate situations as they arise. We've outlined some common tourist scams and how to avoid them.
Navigating a new destination can be tricky; keep your wits about you when you're on the road.
One of the most common travel scams is the "bump and grab," and frequently happens in train, bus, and metro stations. Tourists can easily get distracted and overwhelmed by the number of people in these bustling transportation hubs. In this scam, a thief or a group of thieves will “accidentally” bump into a tourist. While you are distracted, the scammer is picking your pocket.
When on trains, thieves often stay near the train door timing their next move. Just as the door is set to shut, they swipe purses and other belongings and make a quick getaway while the train leaves the station.
Travelers should never keep their wallet or anything valuable in their front or back pockets. Opting for something like a discreet money belt or a zippered cross-body bag will provide additional security. It is also best practice to not have all of your valuables and essential documents in one place. That way if you do fall victim to a pickpocket, you will still have copies of travel documents to get you home, and the cash to make that journey comfortable.
One of the most enjoyable ways to get around touristy areas in Southeast Asian Countries like Thailand is to go for a ride in a tuk-tuk. Travelers are advised to be wary of tuk-tuk drivers offering free or inexpensive day tours. You might get the chance to view temples or landmarks, but along the trip, the driver will likely bring you to local shops that offer them a commission. Similar to the dreaded timeshare pitch, you will be subjected to a long-winded sales pitch by the shop owner on their goods and services.
While you may not lose out financially, you will be wasting your day stuck on the tuk-tuk driver’s route. You end up nowhere near the destination you may have been trying to visit. The only way back will be to appease your guide and sit along for the long tour of shops.
Before hailing a taxi, travelers should be aware of the many taxi driver scams they may encounter. Most frequent are the stories about cab drivers who claim the meter is broken and charge a wild rate or meters that run fast and rack up a huge fare. Drivers who hang around airports and hotels are known to overcharge, but it can happen anywhere.
Before getting into a taxi, ask the hotel staff what you should expect to pay for a ride. When getting into the car, ask the driver to turn on the meter first thing to avoid being overcharged. Make sure to only ride in authorized cabs and stay vigilant for red flags that indicate it may be an unlicensed cab trying to dupe tourists.
Also, be wary if your driver tries to tell you that your hotel is overbooked or closed. The driver will then try to take you to a different, more expensive option, where they make a nice commission for dropping you off. This also poses personal safety concerns, as you wind up in a different part of town than you expected. Do not let the driver bring you to the alternate location and insist on going to your original destination.
Fortunately, smartphones and the internet enable travelers to make smarter decisions regarding transportation. Something as simple as pulling up the directions on your phone and guiding your taxi driver can help ensure you keep your trip on track. If you are visiting a location with poor cell reception, preload the maps to your destinations before you leave your hotel for the day.
Motorcycle or Jet Ski Rentals
Travelers opting to rent a vehicle should be cautious. It is common for shop keepers to hold your passport as collateral while you are out on your excursion. When you return the motorcycle or jet ski at the end of the day, the owner claims that you caused damage to the equipment and will need to pay for repair charges. Travelers anxious to get their passport back may pay the fee.
Make sure to do a thorough inspection of the vehicle before you jet off. If possible, let the shop keeper know you’re taking pictures or a video of existing damage, and try to include them in the footage. This will hopefully prevent a your-word-against-theirs argument later.
Meeting the Locals
One of the most rewarding parts of travel is all of the new connections you make, but be cautious of ulterior motives if you notice any of the following red flags.
Male travelers may find themselves approached by amiable, flirty, locals out at bars or restaurants. They may insist on showing you the best spots around town. Travelers make a quick friend over the course of several rounds of drinks or a multi-course meal. When it’s time to settle the tab, the new local friend is nowhere to be found. Or, worse, an overly trusting tourist may be drugged and wake up to find they have been robbed.
If someone you just met is offering to show you around or is being unusually forward with you, consider it a red flag. If you do wish to grab a drink with a new friend, go to a location of your choosing, and do not drink to a point where your bar tab will shock you.
Travelers may be minding their own business, and suddenly they find themselves splattered by a drink or condiment. A friendly stranger will profusely apologize and insist on trying to clean up the mess. While dabbing the stain, the thief can swipe the wallet of the disoriented tourist.
Accidents happen, but travelers should assume that any commotion like this is designed to be a distraction. Don’t let anyone in your personal space and find a restroom to clean yourself up.
Police Officer Impersonators
The fake police officer scam is prevalent in many large cities. Tourists often don’t know the customs and are willing to comply with thieves in uniform. The phony officers may explain that there has been a problem with counterfeit bills circulating in the area, or try to ticket you for a made-up infraction. The officers will then insist that you hand over your passport and wallet.
Never give anyone your personal belongings. Request to see proper identification, and insist on handling this matter at the local police station.
Being Smart with Technology
Technology makes travel easier, but travelers should be careful not to put their information and devices at risk.
As travelers, we are dependent upon our mobile devices for almost everything – communication, information, entertainment - the list goes on. But our devices rely on a power source and travelers are often scrambling to plug in whenever the dreaded low battery is indicated. But don’t plug into that public charging station just yet – "juice jacking" is a new concern for travelers to be aware of.
Juice jacking occurs when a criminal tampers with a USB charging port, or the cable attached to it, so that it installs malware on a device that is plugged into it. This malware may lock the device or send data, passwords, or even a full backup of the phone directly to the scammer.
As of 2019, only a few cases have been reported, all occurring on the east coast. However, the technology has been proven and juice jacking may become a bigger problem in the future.
To be on the safe side, it is recommended to plug directly into an AC power outlet instead of a charging station, and to take your cables with you. External batteries are also great alternatives, and also allow the user to roam free rather than be tethered to the power station while their phone charges.
RFID Information Theft
When traveling, passports and credit cards are incredibly valuable tools. To make life easier, some cards are enabled with RFID (radio frequency identification) chips that allow information to be read wirelessly by emitting radio signals for fast identification. There’s a fear that hackers can access and steal this data wirelessly. In the last few years, an entire RFID-blocking industry has sprung up to make wallets and other products that block hackers from "skimming" the data, and it survives partly on confusion.
While it is true that anyone with a card reader can gather this information, the chances of it actually happening are slim. The act would require sophisticated equipment and techniques. As of 2019, there were zero reported cases of RFID crimes.
To protect yourself from identification theft, it is best to practice good password management and monitor credit reports. If travelers want to go the extra mile to protect themselves from RFID crimes, they can purchase one of the various RFID protectors available on the market.
Having cash on hand is a preference of many travelers, and oftentimes that cash comes from an automated teller machine, or ATM. However, there is sometimes risk involved to using these convenient machines, as thieves have ways of stealing ATM card details.
ATM skimmers are small devices which criminals place inside the ATM machine slot. This device records the card information when the physical card is inserted into the machine. The PIN of the card is also needed, so there is often a camera hidden to record the PIN, or a PIN pad overlay, which is placed on top of the normal pad, recording the entered code.
Luckily, there are multiple ways for travelers to protect themselves from this type of theft. Upon arriving at the ATM, it is advised to examine the card reader, the keypad, and the privacy shield. Skimmers are often snapped into place or attached with an adhesive, so the device should be noticeable. Also, the card should go into the slot smoothly – if the card is entered into the slot and doesn’t go in easily, an external device may be installed. Lastly, when a PIN is entered, travelers should take care to cover the code with their free hand as they punch in the numbers. This will block the PIN from any camera installed, trying to record the number.
It is not an exact science, but savvy travelers may be able to protect themselves from this kind of theft by paying attention to anything that seems out of the ordinary and taking special care to shield their information when using an ATM.
Having access to public Wi-Fi is usually a relief to travelers looking to get online. However, this free service can sometimes provide golden opportunities for criminals. Public places make a great cover for hackers who can easily set up malicious hotspots and steal personal data.
Poor router configuration and lack of a strong password can make public Wi-Fi hotspots vulnerable. Hackers can work unnoticed using basic, user-friendly software which is available legally, such are Wireshark and Aircrack-ng. It is a quick process to see confidential information sent from a device connected to an unsecure Wi-Fi, including passwords and credit card details. Worst of all, the victim of the crime often will not notice that their gadget has been hijacked.
According to Daniel Markuson, a Digital Privacy Expert at NordVPN, there are a few common types of attacks that can be launched on insecure public Wi-Fi networks. These include:
- Man-in-the-middle attacks: Hacker intercepts and modifies the transmission between a device and a website/service. Then, the information on the device is no longer private.
- Evil twin attack: Cybercriminal creates a fake Wi-Fi hotspot. When a device connects to this fake access point, all communication falls into the hands of the hacker.
- Malware injections: When a device is connected to an unsecured network, malicious code can slip into the device, infect it, break down the system, and give criminals access to the confidential files.
- Snooping and Sniffing: Cybercriminals use special software to see all data passing through the network and access to the victim’s online activity. This includes browsing history, login details, and sensitive information from online accounts.
Awareness of these common types of attacks is the first step in keeping your information safe. Other ways to stay safe include confirming the name of a Wi-Fi network with a staff members to ensure it is legit, avoiding visits to website requiring personal information, setting up two-factor authentication for private account logins, enabling a firewall, using a VPN, and remembering to turn off the Wi-Fi function when you're not using it. The best way to keep information secure is to completely avoid public Wi-Fi and using mobile data instead.
Sometimes, a great deal really is too good to be true.
Free Friendship Bracelet
Particularly common in major marketplaces and touristy areas across Europe, vendors target tourists (particularly women) to strike up a conversation or even aggressively ask for help with a demonstration. The vendor then proceeds to quickly braid a friendship bracelet on you, hand you a sprig of rosemary, or adorn you with necklaces. Before you have a chance to remove and give back the item, the vendor will loudly demand a hefty premium for the item. Polite tourists often want to avoid causing a scene and feel obliged to pay.
Don’t let anyone put anything on you. This will not only help avoid the hassle of dealing with a pushy vendor, but this interaction may be a set up for theft. If you are preoccupied with the vendor, their accomplice has time to swipe any easily accessible valuables.
This scheme starts with someone stoping you with a ring, asking if you have just dropped the item. After further examination, they notice that the ring is valuable and offers to sell it to you for a low price. You can resell the item later for way more than you got it for, a seemingly win-win deal. When you finally appraise the jewelry, it is proven to be a fake!
Similarly to the bracelet scam, tourists are advised to keep your head down and keep on walking if you suspect that something isn't right.
For those wary of identity theft or having their credit cards compromised, paying with cash may seem like a safe option. But even cash payments will have their challenges. Be careful breaking large bills on small tabs, especially in countries where all of the currency looks similar. It is common for scam artists to sneak in some lesser value bills.
If you do need to use a large bill, make sure you say out loud how much you have paid, so it is clear you are expecting change back. Even if your cashier says the correct amount of change, they may be trying to pull a fast one on you. Travelers should familiarize themselves with the currency used at their destination, and always count their change.
Travel Voucher Fraud
While travel vouchers are a great option for travelers whose plans were unexpectedly canceled, this new normal is also proving to be a popular option for scammers and criminals to take advantage of.
Exercising skepticism is one of the most powerful tools travelers have for the protection of their vouchers. Anything that seems unusual, unprofessional, or too good to be true probably is, and when in doubt always contact your travel supplier directly.
Use caution when sharing sensitive voucher information and take care not to share it with an unverified source. If you need to contact your travel supplier with a question or request regarding your voucher, be sure you know who you are calling. Scammers have been reported to create fake online sites or listings for a travel supplier, guiding customers to contact this fake phone number or email address directly. If a victim provides their private voucher and contact information, the criminal can steal the information they have collected verbally and drain the voucher of its value.
If purchasing a new voucher, travelers are again advised to remain vigilant - pay attention to the details of the wording, research the reputation of the company selling it, and read the fine print. Grammatical errors are a red flag in official documents like a voucher. If purchasing online, the mere presence of a logo does not mean that the business is an authorized reseller of travel products and should always be verified before purchasing.
Beware of any deals that seem too good to be true. One reported scam involves criminals purchasing vouchers using stolen credit cards and quickly reselling them. Once the travel supplier catches on and cancels the transaction, the victim who purchased the voucher is left with a worthless paper. Using a credit card, as opposed to a debit card, is a great way to protect yourself from this as credit cards often offer enhanced security and fraud protection.
Travel Insurance Scams
Most travel insurance scams occur when booking flights and cruises or when reserving hotel rooms. Shoppers are pressured into checking a box to buy a low-cost insurance plan to protect their trip. Travelers assume that they paid for trip protection benefits but often get little to no coverage for common travel issues.
Our best advice: don’t check the box. Each trip is unique and comparing plans to find the coverage that best suits your itinerary is crucial.
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