12 Tourist Scams – Staying Safe In Your Travels

12 Tourist Scams – Staying Safe In Your Travels

12 Tourist Scams – Staying Safe In Your Travels

It’s been such a long time since many of us have travelled, it’s almost as if we’re immersing ourselves in the activity for the first time. As with all things in life, if we’re out of practice it’s important to refresh our memories and knowledge to make sure things run smoothly.

When it comes to travelling, this means being aware of scams. Scams abound no matter where you’re travelling – and some travel scams even coincide with other types of scamming (as those who have seen the Tinder Swindler may know). In fact, people often have a false sense of security when they travel to places they assume to be safe. Rand Rescue takes a look at some scams mentioned by travellers the world over on online forums, in articles or even mentioned in travel alerts by travel agents and local governments.

You won a voucher!

This one is pretty common, even in South Africa. The way this scam works is that you get a call saying you or someone you know completed a survey a while back, and that you’ve won a travel voucher based on this survey. In order to collect your voucher, however, you have to collect your prize at their offices and bring your significant other along. The reason for bringing your spouse with changes, but generally it’s something along the lines of a previous winner’s husband collecting the voucher without informing his wife and having taken his mistress on holiday.

They state that there is no catch – you have thousands of locations to choose from and can go away for two to three days with your family. All they want is that you give a review of your travels after. Before finishing off the call, the agent swiftly asks you to confirm that your combined household income is above a certain amount, and they mention that you will meet with their manager and state the meeting will be a maximum of 45 minutes or so. The company usually sends notifications from various cell phone numbers and call from different numbers, none of which are linked to any business.

What should alert you to this scam:

 – Legislation around how competitions may be conducted state clearly that the terms and conditions of the competition should be available and persons should be informed how they entered. These companies simply mention vague surveys and never actually send you any terms and conditions.
 – The agents mention their company name only briefly and allude to them being a travel agency, but if you do get a hold of the company name somehow, you will see that they are not a travel agency.
 – Competitions cannot require that one’s partner is required to accompany you since this implies that your partner also entered, which they clearly didn’t do.
45 minutes to receive a travel voucher is a rather odd stipulation, which we’ll explain below.
 – Legitimate organisations will provide contact details for their business and not merely phone and message you from private numbers.
 – Your household income shouldn’t be a determining factor in whether or not you’ve won a competition – unless there are stipulations in the rules that you need to spend money.
 – If you do happen to find the company, their websites are usually incredibly vague or even require login to view any information. There are no terms and conditions for competitions on their sites.

 Some of these companies do run surveys and mention that these are competitions, but most don’t – they generally gain details via referrals. Most of them are multi level marketing or travel clubs, hence the 45 minutes for a meeting as you will be required to watch a presentation.

While they do give you vouchers for accommodation, most of the venues have specifications such as that visitors are required to buy breakfast and dinner or pay for game drives or other services. In general they want you to pay an amount (anything from R5000 to R35 000 or a monthly investment over a certain period) which will give you massive free travel and other returns over a period of two years or so. They generally don’t honour the legislative cool-off period – once people realise that they’ve been ‘scammed’ they cannot stop the debit orders and these companies automatically renew the contract with annual increases without the user’s input.

Roman mothers

This one doesn’t necessarily only happen in Rome, though the region is pretty famous for it.

It uses our innate empathy as well as distraction to rob tourists of their belongings. While walking through the streets (especially around the Colosseum, Pantheon or Vatican), a ‘mother’ who appears to be holding a baby walks up to you and suddenly tosses their ‘baby’ at you. It’s a common instinct to want to catch the baby, which generally turns out to be a doll. The thief uses this distraction to pick-pocket you or simply snatch up the belongings you dropped in order to catch their babies. Beware of these “mothers” in Rome. It is entirely possible that in your visit to the many tourist attractions of Rome (The Colosseum, The Pantheon, The Vatican) a woman might stuff their baby into your arms, and sometimes even throw them at you! The baby will most likely be a doll, but by the time you have realised this you will have already been robbed (1).

Paying peanuts

Everyone wants to buy something for peanuts, but no one wants to buy peanuts when they never intended to.

A scam which is quite common in Brazil and other parts of Latin America is the peanut scam. Tourists will be made well aware of the fact that the local economy relies on peanut trade (whether actual peanuts or candies like paçoca).

Scammers will pour their peanut produce on visitors’ tables and charge them for each peanut or peanut product which was touched or eaten. This is particularly prominent in Rio de Janeiro. Similar scams occur the world over.

Shoe shiner

Shoe shining, a trade that has mostly disappeared in westernised countries, is a proud tradition in Istanbul.

This bygone trade in Turkey has both seen shoe-shiners lose local trade and encouraged them to woo western travellers into supporting their purported trades.

The scam starts with the shoe shiner dropping his brush when passing some tourists. The tourist might then pick it up and give it back to them, for which the shoe shiner thanks them and offers them a shine for their troubles. The shoe shiner applies his trade, engages the tourists in stories of their lives to seek sympathy – and will often have ‘wives’ or ‘children’ engage with them during shoe shining to claim some sort of travesty, trauma or need.

The tourist would then be roped into their narrative and feel obliged to offer financial compensation which are sometimes quite exorbitant. 

String Men of Sacré-Coeur

This scam is linked to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris and is a particularly jarring event.

These ‘string men’ literally ensnare tourists by selling multi-coloured string bracelets and holding onto their victims until they receive payment.

The ‘string men’ often offer ‘friendship bracelets’, much in the same way vendors at robots in SA give you something for free, and then demand payment for the freebie.

People are often so shocked and fearful that they pay the scammer just to get out of the situation.

The poverty con

This con is particularly aimed at tourists who are more affluent than the local communities they visit. It was a common scam aimed at US tourists when the nation lifted travel restrictions to Cuba, but can be found in most impoverished regions of the world.

As noted by Scambusters, US tourists to Havana would be overwhelmed by poor people begging for money or food. Once the tourist commits to buying them food from local stores, the beggar would be incredibly thankful and accept whatever the tourist buys them.

Once the tourist leaves, the person would return the goods to the shopkeeper and the parties would split the money since the beggars and vendors are working together.

Beggars would usually ask for something which is non-spoilable – such as infant formula or a particular item in a local shop which locals may not generally buy. This makes it far easier to return the goods and make pocket-money on the fly.

While this is a scam it should be noted that most people who resort to this type of scam are legitimately more poor than other locals. While funds are split between beggars and vendors, this type of scam is not aimed at extorting tourists for large sums, so the key is to be aware of it, and to make a moral decision. One needn’t always feel extorted or abused by such scams – while you may have not bought an actual baby their formula, there is a very good chance that the person who commits to such a scam has a family to support. It remains illegal, but it’s not something which will rid you of your livelihood.

Fake travel agents

No.1 of Forbes’ top travel scams relates to fake travel agents.

Organising travel can be a gruelling process and us plebs often don’t have the resources to book our travel on our own without the help of professionals. While most travel agents can sort this out for us quite easily, it’s crucial to research the agency before engaging with them.

Fake travel agents book transport, accommodation, visas and other services on your behalf. Everything seems legit…until you reach the hotel, airline or other location and realise your travel has been cancelled.

This scam is usually well orchestrated: the person who ‘books’ your travel will book things legitimately and provide your itinerary, but they will use services which allow for cancellations or changes (sometimes without telling you). They will time their cancellations in such a way that you only realise your service/travel has been cancelled after arriving at a certain leg of your journey. When you provide your booking reference, the booking will have been legitimately cancelled and refunded to the booking agent, and since you’re not the person who organised it you’ll have no recourses available since nothing was done under your name and credit card, and no confirmation will have ever been sent directly to you from the service provider.

If travel agents book things on your behalf, be sure to engage with all the travel providers in your itinerary so all parties are aware of who the client is and that payment was made by you as the primary client.

Asian motorbikes

Southeast Asian countries have motorbike hires for tourists to explore the city or countryside. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course – and most services are legitimate.

Since these services are often offered by individuals there is no small print such as you’ll find when hiring a car. The owners of these bikes will often charge you for repairs for supposed damages you have caused to the bikes – bikes which are obviously rigged to fail before use, or damaged by scammers upon return.

A fellow English speaker! We’re saved!

French police have identified a scam that targets foreign English speakers in French cities.

Given how few people in France speak English in the normal course of the day, tourists who speak English are often overly sympathetic to other English speakers. This holds particularly true for persons who are genuinely monolingual English speakers, as they often feel discriminated against in France (i.e. mostly US and British citizens) and feel empathy for others who are also ‘treated unfairly’.

The scam follows a general narrative:

 – a purported English tourist begs you for help since locals don’t understand them and don’t want to accommodate them
 – they need to get back home, but due to communication issues or purported bias they’ve not managed this
 – time is running out for them to get home (either a tragedy back home, or due to passport/visa deadlines)
 – they usually have a valid reason linked to the story for not having access to funds such as: credit cards being stolen/cancelled, phones being stolen which prohibits online banking or local lovers abandoning them
 – given the urgency they ask for others to intervene immediately which doesn’t give you a chance to make a logical choice – either you are heartless or you are helpful

You’re a mule!

This scam is scarier than most other scams since it can truly land you in hot water.

Countries like Nigeria and the Philippines are particularly famous for this scam. A tourist will be stopped at a border, airport or other location and searched for illicit goods which would suddenly be found on their person or in their luggage. Individuals would either plant such contraband on tourists or simply present it themselves during the search.

Tourists are then threatened with legal action and jail if they don’t comply. They are given an opportunity to bribe officials at some point. The problem, of course, is that one could often get out of the situation by complying with the bribery, but there is also the chance that the bribery itself could be used as a bigger incentive to accuse you of actual criminal activity. Officials are also often involved in such scams and could legitimately create a scenario for incarceration or persecution if one doesn’t comply.

Tips to avoid the mule trap:

 – Never agree to carry any packages for anyone unless you are 100% sure what it contains and whether the contents are allowed
 – If you have to carry any packages for anyone, document it in various forms – take video footage, photographs and have the person sign forms which verify that they are the official sender and what the goods contain (and that it is legal)
 – When travelling through high-risk areas for such scams, document your entire journey from start to finish. Share your travels on social media, via email and with your embassy
 – Always inform your loved ones, colleagues or others of your estimated time of arrival and the route/itinerary so they will know if something is wrong
 – Save (on your phone/devices) and print out the legislation and legal rights allowed in a particular high-risk area so you can produce these when purported officials want to detain you
 – Research lawyers or other individuals who have intervened in such cases in the area and have their info on hand – while you may not always be able to contact them after the fact, it would be good to consult with them beforehand, and officials are also usually weary of such people when you mention them
 – No matter how you are treated, never be disrespectful, biased or use derogatory terms when addressing the people who detain or accuse you
 – If you are travelling through a particularly high-risk area, it is good to get a drug and/or other medical screening from a prominent travel doctor who can vouch for you having not taken any substances before your journey
 – Have a printout of your inventory and itinerary with dates and times of people you have engaged with along the way – while those who want to scam you won’t necessarily pay this much mind, they will be weary of accusing you of activities if you can list specific names, locations and interactions of various people since these people could rightfully take them on
 – If you’re vacationing in a certain spot for a while (more than a few days), be wary of people who try to befriend you and want to introduce you to various different people in various locations. This is a tough one, since we want to immerse ourselves in travel experiences, but treat strangers the same way you would friends and family on a normal day – don’t be overly friendly and accommodating simply because you’re in an unfamiliar location.
 – If you’re travelling to a high-risk area, avoid taking any food or drink from people you don’t trust in the days leading up to your travels or stop-overs.
 – If you’ll be in a high-risk area for a while, befriend some businesses and locals before disembarking to gauge their views and to have local support while you’re there.
 – Research who, what and where international human rights organisations are in the regions you’re travelling to.
 – Your devices will often be confiscated during such events – set up automated security/SOS alerts which will send after a certain timeframe if your devices don’t respond and/or acquire other smart/alert devices such as watches or luggage tags which will alert your loved ones or a security company after a certain period.
 – Don’t post any derogatory statements about a particular culture or country before you need to travel through the area. This could be used against you.
 – Don’t take any medication from a doctor who isn’t aware of regional laws – something as silly as Advil could get you arrested.

Street games

A common tactic seen in major cities in Europe is the use of street games as a way to make money.

People might play games like three-card Monte or hiding a ball in one of three cups and have tourists bet on these games. It doesn’t differ that much from other gambling scams, but they are far easier to rig and far more capable of engaging tourists on the streets.

Scammers will hustle the tourist by letting them win a few rounds to boost their confidence. Once the tourist is confident, they will place bigger bets in a game which has already been rigged against them.

These scams are often paired with pickpocketing –  the dealer will have accomplices steal onlookers or participants’ valuables while they are engrossed.

Fake doctors

This scam is found in India, in particular. The gist of the scam is to offer tourists medical services without having actual medical expertise.

Tourists in India often get sick during their visits (the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’) and seek out medication for their ailments. These fake doctors often prescribe fake and potentially harmful medication. These medications may not be entirely inefficient (many ayurvedic medications do have immune-boosting properties or help with certain ailments), but quite noteworthy – unlike herbal medications which are vetted and approved by formal medical bodies, some of these contain a rudimentary mix of natural materials (leaves, roots, barks, rocks, dusts, etc.) which could actually exacerbate the individual’s condition since it could hamper organs’ ability to function properly.

Some herbs are quite effective but so strong that they are contraindicated for persons with certain diseases, comorbidities or when taken with other medication, such as St John’s Wort, n-acetyl cysteine, activated charcoal, Vitamin A, and so forth.

Safe travels!

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