There’re few things that shake your confidence more than realizing you’ve just been scammed, particularly if you’re in a new city, or a place where you don’t really speak the language. From avoiding fake tickets to some of Italy’s largest attractions and avoiding fake taxis to making sure the waiters don’t sneakily add fraudulent charges to your meal bills and making sure that the tours you book are legitimate, I’m going to give you my tips on how to avoid common travel scams, along with tips on what to do if you are scammed.
If you fall prey to a travel scam, know that it happens to thousands of travelers all over the world each day, and know that it’s also not your fault. Most times travel scams are harmless if not a bit frustrating, but sometimes they can be dangerous, so it’s best to be prepared and aware of what can go wrong. Most people in our world are wonderful, kind, and beautiful souls, but the few who are unscrupulous and seek to take advantage of others are the reason we should always be aware of our surroundings, do our due diligence before traveling or booking anything, and always trust our instincts.
Common Travel Scams to Be Aware of
Extra Tips & Ghost Bills
In Tulum, Mexico, at a restaurant located on the beach that I refused to write about on my blog due to their unscrupulous behavior, I overheard the wait staff whispering to each other in Spanish about getting extra tips, and I couldn’t catch much else. When we finished our meal, the waiter tried to convince us to pay after verbally telling us the total of our bill, and refused to bring us a menu so we could confirm the prices, and he also wouldn’t bring us an itemized bill. I asked to speak to the head waiter, in Spanish, and he finally brought out a bill with a 100% tip attached, that he claimed was “standard practice”. The problem with that is that I not only never agreed to tip him so much, but that I had heard him asking other less aware diners for tips on top of this inflated amount, which means he was trying to milk diners who may not have understood the conversion rate between pesos and USD. This is the only place in Mexico we had this problem, but I’ve heard of this happening elsewhere around the world too, so always ask for an itemized bill.
A problem around the world are fake taxis, where random people buy taxi signage online, without being affiliated with legitimate taxi or ride share services, and try to pick up tired, distressed, inebriated, distracted, or unaware travelers. Once they have the unwitting passenger in their vehicle, they drive them to an isolated ATM and demand (sometimes with a weapon) they withdraw large amounts of cash or they will be injured or abandoned in the middle of a dangerous area, often at night. Always be sure to research what legitimate taxi and ride share signage looks like at your destination, and read my advice on ride share safety, here.
In Rome, on our way to Vatican City, the lines were massive to get in, as we were visiting around a Catholic holiday. People were trying to sell tickets claiming the they would allow buyers to skip the queues and go straight into the Vatican, for about triple the price of normal tickets. I was shocked by how many people were buying these fraudulent tickets, because there is no such ticket option at the Vatican. Those who fell for this scam, not only lost their place in line and wasted money, they were likely embarrassed to know they’d been had. Know where to purchase legitimate tickets (and know what they look like), and remember that if a travel deal looks too good to be true, it likely is.
Picture this: You’re sitting in a beautiful café in your favorite European city, and a handsome man (or woman) asks if he (or she) can join you for a coffee. You agree happily, wondering if this is the start of a whirlwind romance you’ve always dreamt about. He sets his newspaper down on your table, and you’re lost in his beautiful smile. He chats excitedly with you for a few moments, asking about your plans in the city and then tells you he needs to go have a cigarette and that he will be right back. He takes his newspaper with him. You wait a few moments, excited about your new friend, only to eventually realize that your purse that was on the table in front of you a few minutes ago, with your passport, money, ID, and cell phone inside are missing!
This is one of the most common café scams, where a person sits down, puts their newspaper or something similar on top of your valuables, distracts you, and absconds with the goods, never to be seen again.
Always keep copies of your passport, ID, and travel documents in your email, a copy at home, a copy in your hotel safe, and anywhere else you feel confident leaving them so you are never stranded. Never carry much cash on you, and keep an eye (or a hand) on your valuables at all times. Keep valuables near you, and use a wristlet or similar bag to keep a hold on your wallet, purses, or backpacks so they can’t easily be moved without you noticing.
This scam can happen in taxis, at restaurants, in airports, on trains or in train stations, bars, and even at check-in at hotels, so be aware of what’s happening around you.
Fake/Corrupt Police or Security
Being pulled over in a foreign country, or even a new city closer to home, is every driver’s worst nightmare. In some places, cops will attempt to extort you by demanding cash on the spot, and if you don’t comply, they claim they will give you a hefty ticket that may make it hard for you to leave the country. Don’t believe their lies, and always ask for the ticket. Say something like “Okay, I’ll take the ticket please”. Chances are you’ll call their bluff and they’ll leave you alone, but give them any amount of cash and they may demand more of your valuables as well.
If someone claiming to be a police officer asks you to hand over your ID or passport, never give it to them. If you are somewhere well lit and believe it may actually be a police officer, show it to them, but never hand it over.
When we were in Bologna, Italy at the train station on our way to Venice, and more recently at Walt Disney World, I caught someone reaching into my husband’s bags and pockets. The first person tried to argue with me and called me a liar all while keeping his hand in my husband’s backpack (there was nothing in the pocket he had reached into), until an older Italian lady came up and yelled at the would-be thief in Italian, and told me to be careful in train stations and on trains because pickpockets were everywhere.
At Walt Disney World, I noticed this woman kept getting really close to my husband when we were standing in line, and she was completely disregarding the social distancing lines on the floor. At first I thought she was trying to grab his butt or something creepy. I told her to take a step away from my husband, and she did, but only for a moment. I looked back a moment later and saw she was reaching for his wallet! I told her to get away from us, and I reported her to security. Evidently, she had 3 people’s wallets in her bag when they searched her, so we weren’t the only ones she had targeted.
Always keep your valuables safely stowed in interior pockets that can’t be easily reached, or better yet leave anything you don’t absolutely need in a safe in a bank or at home. When traveling, store your cash and other valuables in a pouch you can conceal under your clothing, like this one or this one. Trust your gut, if someone is too close to you, remove yourself from that situation and report them if possible, to prevent other people from being targeted.
Research Your Destination
Google “(Destination) travel scams” and read everything you can find. We learned about fake taxis ahead of our visit to Mexico City and knew to only take the hot pink taxis, or use Ubers in town. Doing research before you travel means you will know what to expect and what to watch out for, so you can be empowered and prepared to take care of yourself and anyone you are traveling with. it’s really true when people say “knowledge is power”!
What To Do If You Are Scammed
Get Somewhere Safe & Gather Evidence
First and foremost, make sure that you are in a safe place before doing anything else, and if you aren’t, get somewhere safe like a bank, a store, your hotel, a police station, or a hospital. If you fell for a common scam involving money, chances are you are perfectly fine, physically at least. Once you realize you were taken advantage of and you are safe, like back in your hotel room, gather all evidence that you were scammed if possible. Contact your credit card company and ask for a charge back to recoup the fraudulently stolen funds, assuming you paid with a card. If you paid with cash, there may not be much you can do.
File an Incident Report
In some places, contacting the police may not be an option, and in other places, the police may be aware of these scams and either don’t care to stop them, or they may be in on them themselves in which case they of course won’t help you. If you think you are somewhere where the police may be helpful and you can safely do so, file a police report if possible, particularly if someone was injured, which hopefully never happens.
Don’t Confront the Scammer
It’s unwise to confront the scammers yourself, especially if you are alone, as scammers may be a part of larger organized crime syndicates, or they may simply be desperate people willing to scam unwitting travelers or worse. If you are safe and unharmed, you may simply want to consider it a loss, learn from what happened, and upon your return home, warn everyone you can about what happened via social media, leaving reviews when possible, and telling friend and family. It’s difficult to take advantage of people who wise to the ways of scam artists.
Read more of my Safer Travel Series, here.