Scams Every Traveller Should Be Aware Of
There’s a reason these 10 tourist scams are so popular around the world – because they work!
I did my fair share of scam research before travelling abroad long-term, and was amazed to see that many, if not most, of the scams I read about online were spot-on.
Even more amazing was the fact that other tourists had obviously not been as diligent as I was in their research, and were falling for these scams left and right.
Here’s the thing about travel scams – a lot of the time, they don’t just hurt you, the traveller. Milk baby scams and many hotel scams support truly damaging institutions that keep vulnerable locals prey to predatory scammers.
So if you think “What’s the big deal, I only lost a few Euros”, think again. You may very well be supporting a truly horrific racket that you’d never approve of if you knew all the gory details.
Here are our Top 10 tourist scams to watch out for no matter where in the world you’re travelling.
10. The Milk Scam
This one’s popular all over Asia. A young child or a mother holding a baby will approach you and say something along the lines of “I don’t want money, I just want milk.” You’ll then follow them into a store of their choice, where you’ll purchase said milk and hand it to them, thinking you’ve done your good deed for the day.
As soon as you’re gone, the child or mom will sell the milk straight back to the store for cash, which will then be handed off to the gentleman in charge of the scam (aka her ‘begging pimp’).
She doesn’t get any milk and hardly any money. The baby she is carrying is not hers, but has been ‘rented’ to her as a way to attract more tourists. Oh, and did I mention these babies are almost always drugged to stop them from crying all day?
When an 8-year Cambodian milk scammer made it her mission to target me in Siem Reap, I faithfully showed up every day with a small gift for her – a bunch of bananas, a straw hat, a fun necklace. At first she screamed and yelled in anger because I wouldn’t buy her milk, but later I saw her working the streets, flaunting the hat and necklace like a regular little girl.
9. The Closed Hotel Scam
A taxi driver agrees to take you to your hotel. When you arrive (if you do, in fact, arrive), he claims the hotel is under construction and offers to take you to a different, higher-priced hotel (with whom he is working for a commission).
In cases like this, I like to call the guy’s bluff and say something like “Oh really? Why don’t we call them right now?”, then proceed to call the front desk right in front of him while he squirms in discomfort.
If you booked your hotel online, and recently, your hotel is not suddenly “under construction.” Don’t believe taxi drivers! Ever!
8. The “Affiliate Marketer” Scam
This one happens a lot in Thailand and Vietnam. You’ll hire a taxi or a car service to take you somewhere specific, and just like in the closed hotel scam, you’ll end up somewhere else.
You’ll most likely be taken to some sort of tourist trap like a gem shop, clothing store, or museum. The driver gets a commission for the number of people he brings by the shop. In some cases he gets paid even if you don’t buy anything.
If this happens, you can stand your ground and refuse to get out of the car, give in and take a look around the shop, or get out of the car and find another cab.
I like to make it very clear from the second I get in the taxi that we are going to my destination, and only my destination.
7. The Accidental Menu Item Scam
I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me, especially in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
You go out to dinner, have a great time, and then the bill comes.
If you’re like many tourists, you might not even think to glance at the total or make sure the bill is correct.
If you’re on a budget, however, a careful glance at the bill may reveal a bunch of food items you never ordered have been added to your check. They might also try to charge you for a “large” size when you ordered small or medium.
I think this one is done by underpaid waiters and waitresses hoping to pocket the extra dough. Be firm about what you ordered and they’ll usually take off the offending items right away.
6. The Front Desk Scam
If you get a phone call in your hotel room asking for credit card information, don’t automatically assume it’s the front desk. Scammers have been known to call tourist hotel rooms trying to find out financial information and when you plan on leaving the room next.
As a safeguard, request that the hotel staff only communicate with you by leaving a note under your door. You can also hang up and call them back to ensure it’s the real staff who’s just called you.
5. The Long-Term Love Scam
Watch out for young, charismatic locals eager to wine and dine you (or eager to be wined and dined), especially when travelling in a country that is far poorer than yours.
Before you know it, you’ll have fallen in love only to find out your new soul mate has a spouse and a family of 7 to support, and wants you to be the one to support them.
4. The Seasonal Scam
Get intimately familiar with what is considered high season and low season whenever you travel abroad. Keep in mind that seasons fluctuate by country and even city.
Vendors, hotels, and taxi drivers will often use the seasonal excuse to charge high prices, whether it’s low season or high season.
I have been quoted high prices because of both reasons, i.e. “It’s high season so prices are higher everywhere,” or “It’s low season so we have to charge more because there are no customers.”
Don’t believe everything that you hear. It’s a good idea to try at least 3 different people/places before succumbing to the ol’ seasonal excuse.
3. The Flat-Out Lie Scam
Many scammers will flat out lie to you just to make a buck.
In my experience, the lies often come when you ask for help finding a particular store or service.
A currency exchange counter will tell you that all other counters in the airport are closed – except theirs.
A shop that sells SIM cards will tell you theirs is the only place you can buy a card that will fit your phone.
A hotel will tell you that you can’t stay there unless they take a photo of your credit card.
Take it all with a grain of salt and don’t believe anything until at least 3 other people (and the Internet) have confirmed it.
2. The Hotel Inspection Scam
This one is really tricky. A bunch of guys come to your room dressed like hotel staff and tell you they need to do a room inspection. One might have a clipboard and start asking you questions while the other steals your stuff (or eyeballs your valuables so they can steal them at a later date).
Don’t open your door to anyone, not even hotel staff, until you’ve called down to the front desk and confirmed these people are, in fact, working for your hotel.
1. The Lost Tourist Scam
It’s relatively easy to put your guard up around taxi drivers, hotel clerks, mysterious callers, and locals who approach you on the street.
But what would you do if a hapless looking guy or gal from your home country approached you, looking scared and lost, and asked for your help?
This is one of the oldest scams in the book because so many travellers immediately trust someone from home, especially when they’re travelling abroad.
Be especially cautious of your countrymen approaching you for ‘help.’ They’re most likely looking to pick your pockets or extort pity money from you for a fake emergency situation.
Keeping your guard up won’t ruin your travels; it will only make them better. In my most recent 13-month journey across Asia, I had nothing stolen and fell victim to no scams.
My #1 rule for staying safe? Never trust anyone who approaches you. Only trust someone when you approach them.
Oh, and never leave your valuables unattended in a hotel room with the following sign posted: “We are not responsible for your stolen valuables” (true story).
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Rebecca Anne Nguyen is a freelance writer and the Founder of TheHappyPassport.com, an inspiration site for solo female travellers.