What Are The Airport Scams To Be Wary Of?
Here at the Wise Traveller we like to keep our members one step ahead on the latest news as they trip safely and securely across the world.
Whether it’s business, pleasure or somewhere in between, the traveller is seen as the next potential victim to be fleeced by scammers, hustlers, thieves, opportunists and the occasional less than honest official.
The victim – you and your family - is here today, gone tomorrow (or in the hour). The hustler knows this and, when it’s too late, so does the victim. The traveller will be out of the game and gone, while the scammer simply waits in the knowledge that the next flight of tourists offers another batch of victims to be turned over. And don’t assume all scams are of the ‘illegal’ nature - many a scam and hustle occurs in seemingly legitimate environments and by seemingly legitimate individuals.
So we’ve decided to expose the scams, hustles and opportunism targeting the tourist in a bid to make you the traveller a better and wiser one with a complete guide to travel/tourist scams with the first in the series focused on Airport Scams.
You’d think airports would be safe from the clutching hands of hustlers, but in fact it’s just another playground from which to operate, lurk and work their fiendish airport scams. Here we take a look at the most common hustles to be aware of:
Foreign Exchange Bureau
You’d think exchanging money in an airport is a safe. Security around you and zero chance of being ripped off. Think again. These bureaus often offer desperate travellers poor exchange rates, resulting in less bang for their bucks or sky high commission rates that leave the traveller non-the-wiser and short-changed. In short, a version of legalized theft.
Wise Traveller suggests: Always check the exchange rates before you leave for a holiday and make sure you get a little currency for your destination before you leave home. Avoid the bureaus and lean toward the banks or well known money changers for decent rates and if you have a large amount to exchange don’t be afraid to ask for better rates or provide comparison rates.
With airlines looking to squeeze an extra dollar from every traveller, take it as given these days that airline check in staff are trained to be looking for a bit of extra money and charge you for every pound or kg for your over-weight luggage. There was even some instances of scales not being properly re-set and suddenly you are faced with an excess luggage fine you can ill-afford.
Wise Traveller suggests: Try to keep your luggage within weight and weigh it before you reach the airport. If you can plan ahead use an excess luggage company to send some of your belongings in advance. If you do need to pay excess luggage, ensure you get an official airline receipt – and you should rarely have to pay the check in person directly, this may be a clue to a scam.
Porters’ Help – At A Price
A common simple scam in many a situation is that of a Good Samaritan such as an airport worker offering to help tourists take their luggage to the exit point. You may think it’s a nice gesture on your first arrival into a country – only for that to turn bitter when the ‘porter’ demands a fee for the carrying and fetching. If you don’t pay up, you could find yourself surrounded by other ‘porters’ coming to the defence of their ‘friend’ and the perceived slight. Facing the inevitable delays, you’ll be pressured into paying the porter off – just to get your luggage back.
Wise Traveller suggests: Never let go of your baggage or out of your sight. And always be weary of trusting a helping hand that may well turn into a grasping one.
Souvenirs and Duty Free
Travellers are suckers for mementoes and too good to be true deals and gone are the days of great value duty free. One of the most common duty free ‘semi-legal’ scams, is that of allowable quantities. In some lesser controlled airports travellers commonly receive the wrong advice on how much they are entitled to import duty free for their destination leaving the very real potential a customs fine and major hassles upon arrival. Complaints about wrong advice are met by scepticism by most customs officials and Duty-free shop staff know this and care little as there is very little come back to them once the travellers have taken off.
Wise Traveller suggests: Check out what you are entitled to on duty-free and don’t be fooled into special bulk deals particularly around alcohol. Equally, airport souvenirs are generally over-priced and of lower quality, with vendors preying on the guilt of the traveller for not making an effort before, so do the souvenir-hunting away from the airport.
Phone Tricks Should Ring Alarms
Phone booths in airports attract scammers like bees to honey and allow local operators to charge premium call rates. Today most phone booths allow you to charge to your credit card and the bills can be eye-watering. Travellers may also fall foul of a local promotion to ‘rent’ a mobile phone for the duration of the holiday and hand it back - except they are unaware of the sky-high charges, add-ons, fees that are charged to your credit card. The hustlers are also not always at the destination end of your trip. Using your own mobile/cell phone on uncontrolled ‘international roaming’ can equally provide a feeling of being scammed well after you get home from your holiday or trip.
Wise Traveller suggests: Avoid phones in airports at all costs. If you need to make a call try making a call via Skype using secured Wi-Fi. If you do take your own mobile phone, plan ahead with a international roaming plan, consider buying a pre paid local sim card that works for the duration of your holiday or alternatively if you are travelling to a number of destinations get global roaming sim card from a reputable company. See also The Wise Traveller – 7 Ways To Reduce Your Roaming Costs Down.
Pickpockets and Thieves
Scourge of most airports are those that lurk and walk away with your luggage and unattended baggage. Or they may even swap your bag for a similar one. Unattended laptops are a thief’s paradise and when you need the toilet, you may well be caught cold and with your pants down at that! Unlocked cases can also offer a nimble-fingered baggage handler a feast of opportunities.
Wise Traveller suggests: Lock your baggage, keep your wallets and purses covered, keep hold of your valuable items or within sight at all times, and avoid being bumped as it could be a thief at work. Try to keep your personal space and avoid people leaning in or distracting you. Try and split up your cash and valuables (don't keep them all together).
Lapping up the Laptops
If you feel safe hugging your laptop, then you may be surprised that you could be vulnerable when you get two passengers working in tandem to nick your laptop right on point at the security gate. With one in front and one already cleared, seeing your laptop disappear on the conveyor belt may well be the last time you do see it. Equally, be wary of piggy-backing unsecured Wi Fi’s for laptops as you may well fall foul of a hacker looking to scoop up your ID info.
Wise Traveller suggests: Never let your laptop out of your sight and scream and holler if someone grabs it. For the ‘silent theft’ of ID using wi fi hot zones, opt for using the airport’s wi-fi or a secured zone, such as a café. Avoiding using unsecured networks or if you do keep it quick and don’t do anything where you are entering private information, passwords and never do credit card or banking transactions.
ATM'd Out Of A Holiday
A favourite for scammers is to ‘help’ a poor unfortunate arrival at the unfamiliar ATM machine in the airport. Little does the victim realise their bank details and pin numbers are being secretly siphoned off and then later being maxed out by the scammers. It is also becoming more common for ATM’s to be modified by scammers by placing a small reader on or near the credit card slot used to slide your card in. These simple little boxes will read you card and store the information allowing the scammers to replicate a credit card in minutes.
Wise Traveller suggests: Never accept help from anyone (even if they are well-dressed) and never give your pin numbers out. And if you scent trouble or think things aren’t right, cancel the transaction and report it immediately to airport or bank security. If the ATM looks tampered with or you are unsure of the ATM avoid using it. Try to arrange a little local currency prior to arriving so you can avoid the airport ATM’s altogether.
Additional Airport Scams (Or Unexpected Costs) To Be Wary Of:
Luggage Trolley Fees - some airports see fit to charge travellers for the use of luggage trolleys, in Australia for instance you can be stung for as much as US$4 for the use of a trolley for your luggage from the side walk to the counter (a 1 minute walk).
Airport Drinks - If you are unable to avail yourself of an airport lounge be aware that a beer or glass of wine may cost upwards of US$10-15 in most international airports. If you travel a few times a year but don't qualify for lounge privileges think about joining a lounge access club.
Visa Processing Fee - A much rarer occurrence these days is the 'immigration processing fee'. In smaller international airports you may be held up by an immigration officer asking questions about your Visa eligibility or the need to review the Visa requirements for your family, usually followed by a suggestion this review can be sped up with an immediate cash payment. Be sure to obtain your entry Visa prior to arrival.
Andy Probert is an experienced freelance business travel journalist and PR specialist.