13 Common Travel Scams—And How to Avoid Them

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PaulMichaelHughes/iStock via Getty Images / PaulMichaelHughes/iStock via Getty Images

While the vast majority of travelers return home without incident, there’s no denying we make easy targets. Excited, disoriented, and unaware of local customs, petty scams play you for a fool. If you don’t want to buy in, leave the paranoia and neurosis at home, but pack a little common sense.

1. The Store Scam

Common in Southeast Asia, Turkey, and India, a friendly local starts up a conversation, inevitably leading to an invitation to visit a relative’s store for a great deal. Alternatively, your guide, tuk-tuk, or taxi driver insists you’ll find incredible deals if you just stop at a store on the way. It’s all run on kickbacks, where everyone wins—except you. Usually, they get a commission for bringing people to look; in the worst case scenario, a vendor won't let you leave until you buy something.

2. The Deal Scam

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Although you’d never fall for it at home, many travelers get duped into buying rings, watches, gemstones, and jewelry overseas. Everything seems legitimate—the stores, certificates of authenticity—until you get home and discover your “deal” is worth half of what you paid for it. So use common sense when confronted with a deal that seems too good to be true. It isn't.

3. The Change Scam

Always carry a range of bills, the smaller the better. It’s a quick and easy scam for vendors or stores to claim they have no change. The weirder the currency, the more likely you’ll just let them keep the bills. Fine when you’re just losing pennies, but watch out for $12 to be rounded off to $20.

4. The Practice English Scam

A local approaches you on the street and tells you he wants to practice his English. Seems innocent enough, and it is … until the conversation shifts to a sob story about poverty, a family member’s operation, the need to buy text books for school—all bogus, and an attempt to get money from you, so just keep walking. Unfortunately, this scam hurts genuine locals who really do want to connect.

5. The Taxi Scam

Taxi drivers can be ruthless. You have no idea where you are, or where you’re going, and unless you’re writing down names and licenses (if there is one), there are no repercussions. Three blocks can easily turn into an hour-long ride. In foreign countries, try and settle on a price first to get some idea of the cost, and only use official looking cabs. In North America, make sure the meter is turned on, and matches the rate displayed.

6. The Distraction Scam

At a busy attraction or on a bustling street, somebody spills water/ketchup/mustard on you. Apologetically, they start cleaning it up, but in the momentary confusion, they or their accomplice has fleeced you. If you get splooged, keep walking until you can stop in a less crowded space, and be extra aware of your personal belongings.

7. The Fake Tickets Scam

Foreigners are targeted at train or bus stations, particularly in India. An official approaches, asks if you want to bypass the heavy line-up. Together you visit an office nearby, and buy your official-looking ticket there. Problem is, the office and ticket are fake. Revisit the office, it will be locked, and paid-off security will shrug. Your best bet is to stay in line, no matter how tempting it might be to attempt a shortcut.

8. The Runner Scam

If a stranger asks if they can use your cell phone, listen to your instinct. Mom with a stroller could use a hand, but the single guy wearing runners might just disappear with your phone.

9. The Friendship Bracelet Scam

Walking around a historic old town, a local gives you a trinket, or ties a piece of wool around your wrist. It’s a gift, a friendship bracelet to say: “thank you for visiting.” Walk away, and you’ll quickly be pestered for a small donation. Too small, and the pestering will continue aggressively. If someone gives you anything, expect to pay for it.

10. The Spot Bribe / Fake Cop Scam

Depending where you are, the cops might or might not be real. Either way, if they’re hitting you up for some random on-the-spot fine, tell them you’ll only pay it at the police station. They might get aggressive, but insist. It’s the quickest way to make them move on to an easier target.

11. The Peanuts Snack Scam

Much like the Friendship Bracelet, only with food. Little scraps of paper with peanuts or snacks are placed on your patio table. If you touch them, you’ve just bought it. The guy will either gather them later, or watch them blow away in the wind as the cost of doing business. Popular on Rio’s Copacabana.

12. The Dropped Ring Scam

You're walking along a Parisian street when a local approaches you with a gold ring that they say they found on the ground. Is it yours? No? Well, it's far too big for the local, so you should have it. As soon as it's in your hand, the local will insist on some compensation, since they found it and it's real gold, after all. (It isn't real gold.) If anyone approaches you with a ring, say no thanks and walk away.

13. The “Let Me Take Your Picture” Scam

Visiting the Taj Mahal? A well-dressed, well-spoken local tourist offers to take your picture with the world wonder in the background. Very kind, until you ask for your camera back, and he asks for his rupees for services rendered.

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