It can be sad to check your trust at the ticketing counter, but not everyone has good intentions; stealing from tourists can be very lucrative. To avoid getting scammed or pickpocketed, take a healthy dose of pragmatism, keep your eyes open, and consider that if something seems too good to be true that it probably is. Keep in mind that thieves don’t always fit the stereotype. If you can identify the risk or threat, then they’re doing it wrong. Some threats may even be in uniform. It’s not our intention to frighten you, but we do want to help you to remove the travel blinders…we have experienced theft and scams first-hand.
Gold ring: You walk by someone (a woman and child in my case) who picks up a gold ring and approaches you to ask if you dropped it. A key part of the scam is that they show you a mark on the ring that proves that it’s “real” gold. Any variation of this scam has the person asking you for money since they are so freely offering you this valuable ring. Also, they may be working with others who pick your pocket while you’re distracted.
Charities, petitions, and beggars: Avoid people approaching who are collecting money, asking you to sign something, or who are begging for seemingly good causes. Vacation may not be the time to donate, even if it is a legitimate cause. If you feel compelled, research the issue or charity online first. Be wary of sad tales and cards handed to you describing situations.
Joggers: Hold onto your belonging if you get jostled or knocked off of your feet by a jogger, exerciser, or just generally. They may try and help you up and collect anything you dropped, while picking pockets; they may even take off running with an item.
Anyone asking for directions: If they have a backstory or some other agenda along with needing directions, beware.
Overly flirtatious new friend: Be careful when invited out with an eager new friend to a specific club or bar. You may find that you’re paying for an inflated bar tab before you are allowed to leave. Watch your drinks and your wallet.
Drug deals: Avoid buying anything illegal; research this before you travel. The seller may be working with a “police officer” who extorts money from you while you’re attempting the deal.
“Helpers:” If you are surrounded by a group offering to help carry luggage, nicely decline. They work in groups to surround and distract you, picking pockets while others help carry your bags. Helpful people will also tell you to conceal wallets or phones, and then yoink them once they watch you do so. Also, decline help in using ATMs, train station ticket vending machines, or in finding your seat on a train.
A spill or accident: If someone spills something on your clothes or shoes and offers to help you clean it up, secure your belongings and leave the area to clean it up yourself.
Police: Police scams, corruption, and extortion, especially on the road, can be complicated and very serious. We’ll cover the more dangerous situations in later blog posts. But beware of thieves in uniform, in high-traffic tourist areas, who stop you to check for “counterfeit” money or other credentials. Do not hand over your wallet to anyone.
Inspectors: Don’t let anyone into your hotel room or rental. Call the front desk or make the “inspectors” aware that you’re checking their credentials. A similar issue is a call from the hotel asking to confirm your credit card information; don’t do this over the phone.
Unsecured wifi: We’re all at the mercy of free wifi abroad, but use your instincts and try to use a VPN if you can.
ATM scams: Beware of possible card skimmers and broken ATMs. Sometimes there is nothing you can do though. Research ATMs compatible with your bank, and use secured ATMs inside bank premises where possible.
Transactions: Know how to count change when using a different currency than your own. Beware of paying with large bills, extra slow counting from vendors, distractions while making interactions, a cashier dropping your cash or coins, or those secretly taking cell phone photos of your credit card while pretending to use their phone for something else.
Any “scene:” Assume any commotion or crowd is a set-up for pickpockets. Secure your belongings before offering help.
Teenage or youth gangs: Very common and good at distraction tactics and pickpocketing.
Strippers or other public demonstrations: This is one of the stranger scams I’ve heard of, but avoid a woman stripping on the street and the crowd that’s stopped to watch her. Avoid any crowd without securing your belongings first.
Games and Tricks
Magic tricks, gambling, etc.: These are as old as time and are almost always scams (e.g., the shell game, card games, etc.). Avoid them altogether unless you’re in a casino for the purpose of gambling.
String trick: Common at the Sacre Coeur chapel in Montmartre (Paris). A man will show you a “magic trick” which involves tying a piece of string around a finger, arm, wrist, etc. While you are occupied and they have your arm, their partner will pick your pocket.
Food and Drink
Prix fixe: Always be sure of what you are ordering at a restaurant, as well as the price.
Bar bills: Don’t give up your credit card or start a tab without knowing prices first.
“Water:” Highly discounted water from street vendors can be untrustworthy and/or come from recycled (aka “trash”) bottles and tap water fills. While there’s nothing wrong with tap water, the prospect of a used bottle can be risky. If possible, buy your water from a market or fill your own reusable bottle.
“Friendship” bracelet: A salesperson may create a bracelet on your arm, likely forcing you to pay for it since you can’t easily remove it; this can also be a distraction tactic for their pickpocket partner.
Giving or receiving favors: This mostly applies to shopkeepers or someone else who stands to make a profit from you.
Free or discount anything: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Don’t accept most things for “free” and don’t let anyone put anything on your body before you’ve agreed to it. Be wary of any kind of tickets bought from an individual or less-than-official source.
Switches and souvenir scams: Don’t fall for “designer” items or let your newly purchased item leave your sight while the shopkeeper “packs” it up for you.
Major Tourist Attractions
A broken camera or cell phone: A distraction tactic at popular tourist attractions. They may ask for your help taking a picture and, while having you figure out how to operate their device (or if they drop and “break” a device) their partner may be picking pockets.
Attraction is “closed for lunch:” If a local or “guide” approaches you near an attraction and gives you this information, it’s likely untrue. They’ll divert you to a shop or restaurant where you can pass the time by spending money. Find the ticket counter yourself or, even better, be sure of the hours before you arrive.
Taxi overcharge: Watch out for broken meters, fast meters, negotiations, or other excuses. Know the standard taxi fare as well as the best route (by downloading the map) before you go. Drivers may also tell you that your hotel or attraction is closed and suggest another location; insist on going anyway or get out of the vehicle.
Rented bike, scooter, or car scam: After a day on a rented vehicle, an owner can demand payment or repairs because of “damage.” Take photos of the vehicle before you use it, while the owner is watching. Use your own lock if applicable and keep it out of sight when possible.
Have you ever run into any of these scams, or know of any we’ve missed? We’d love to hear about your experiences! And don’t forget to consider travel insurance to help recover any big losses.