Common Scams To Watch Out For When Traveling

BY Beth Williams

Tourists have been the targets of scam for as long as anyone can remember. What’s interesting is that many of these scams used over 100 years ago are still as popular today – they are just updated a little bit to fit today’s times. Here is a list of the most common travel scams that you should be aware of before traveling overseas.

 Travel Scam – Unofficial “Moneychangers”

Changing money is an activity that should be confined to banks and licensed establishments, or ATMs, which will dispense cash in local currency. Avoid money changers who approach you on the street or in terminals promising you a better rate; these guys are skilled at counting out money and then palming some of it back as you conclude the exchange.

Finally, if you must transact business with these people, do it at a table or other surface where the money can be counted out into visible piles. Be prepared for them to balk at this suggestion.

ATM Stuck Money Scam

ATM stuck money scams have been hitting parts of Europe and South American for the last five years of so and the scams works so well, it has branched all around the world. The ATM scam works so well that many scammers call them “watering holes” because of their attraction of unsuspecting tourists who keep falling for the scam time and time again.

There are a few scams that take place at ATM machines. The first involves a sticky or plastic slip being stuck in the money dispensing slot before your arrival. This prevents the cash from dispensing from the ATM machine.  The slot blocking device is very cleverly hidden in the cash dispensing slot and unless you really look at it, you would not know the money was blocked. The scammers are close by and watch you walk away in frustration, only to remove the device and take the cash backed up in the slot.

Another version of this scam involves the same type of sticky or plastic slip, but this time being stuck in the ATM’s card reader before your arrival. This will ensure that your card gets stuck in the slot. In many cases, a local will assist you in your troubles, attempting to witness your fingers glide across your pin number. If he finds you especially gullible, the thief may also casually ask you for your pin. Obviously, do not ever tell anyone your pin.

A third variation on this scam involves a fake customer service number being stuck on the ATM. After your card gets stuck, you phone the fake number for assistance, and they ask for your pin. Later, they take all of your money and you feel especially stupid and vulnerable while you wait for a money transfer in a depressing office.

The best way to avoid ATM scams is to only patronize machines inside banks or other structures. Also, if you see a little plastic sleeve hanging out of the card slot, pull that sleeve out of there and stamp it on the ground while glancing menacingly at the environs around you. The sticky fingered peasants will know to leave you alone.

Shortchanging Money Scam

city-731394_640One of the most common travel scam you can fall to is the shortchanging scam, because it takes advantage of foreigners’ inferior knowledge of the language, abetted by lack of familiarity with the local currency. It works on every level, from cheating young high school or college students to senior travelers.

Many crooks like to take advantage of your unfamiliarity with the currency of the country you’re visiting. One common scam is called the “slow count.” In busy tourist areas, some cashiers will count out your change very slowly, with confusing pauses, in the hopes you’ll just take what they’re holding out to you and leave. Usually the amount in their hand is way less than what you should have received. Take your time and count your change carefully before walking away from the cash register.

When you do receive change, inspect it before leaving the premises. In Italy, for example, the old 500-lira coins look a lot like their 2-euro coins. The difference? The 500-lira coins are worthless. Also, try to avoid paying for anything with a large bill. Some cab drivers or cashiers will insist that you mistakenly gave them a one when you’ve actually handed them much more. How do you avoid falling victim? Learn what the currency in the city you’re visiting looks like. Count your change carefully. Exchange money at authorized centers only. Pay with small bills.

Drop and Swap Money Scam

Another traveler scam that happens around the world when visiting another country. The scammers take advantage of first time visitors who may not have had to to get the hang of the foreign currency. For instance, you take a taxi, and when you arrive at your destination, you pay the fare with a 50-lira note. Without your noticing, the driver switches your payment with a 5-lira note, which, unfortunately for you, looks quite similar. He accuses you of shortchanging him, and since you’re not totally sure he’s wrong, you give him another 50-lira note.

Always be a confident traveler. Familiarize yourself with the currency before you go, and pay attention when you pay for services. If you think you’re getting duped, threaten to call the police. Local law enforcement officers know about this trick, and the driver probably won’t want to lose his license.

The Bus Ticket Switchcity-cars-people-street-large

A bit more sophisticated than the wrong change con is the bus ticket switch: you pay for a round-trip ticket but are given a one-way ticket. The first way to avoid this is to get to the station in plenty of time so you’re not rushing to buy a ticket and running to catch a departing bus. Secondly, as above, get into the habit of counting your change slowly and out loud after this (and every) transaction.  If you are victimized, don’t be shy about approaching the police, especially if the country has a Tourism Police Force.  Just be aware that following through could cut into your travel time.

Train Window Distraction

You board a train and the day. You store your luggage in the luggage storage compartment, or even the area over your seat.  You are sitting in your seat with the train still at the platform, waiting for the train to depart. Across from you, on the opposite side of the train, someone who looks official taps on the window and motions for you. You leave your seat and go to the window. The person outside, may even motion for you to come outside the train and may even use a ruse like he is pointing to a bag. As you approach the window, or worse, de-board the train, his or her partner in crime quietly makes off with your stowed luggage or bags.

The best way to avoid this distraction heist is to never let your bags out of your sight on trains, and keep your most valuable possessions as close to you as possible. Ignore those outside of the train as well. If a conductor needs to communicate with you, then he/she will most certainly come to your seat.

The “Friendly” Local or Good Samaritan Scam restaurant-people-feet-legs-large

A good Samaritan is a person who goes out of his or her way to assist a fellow human being. When you’re traveling in an unfamiliar country, you might hope for a good Samaritan to help you find your way. Unfortunately, however, some “good Samaritans” are actually con artists looking to rip off unsuspecting travelers. Be slightly wary of friendly people who offer to be your guide. This is a tricky situation, because some of your best travel experiences can be spending time with local people. If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc.

If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc. If they offer to take you somewhere in a taxi, use your best judgment in deciding how far it is and if it is worth your time and money to go there (and back). If they’re genuine, you can always beg off and say you’ll meet them there the next day.

One of the best ways to prepare for these eventualities is to carry small souvenirs of your home city or country that you can dispense as little thank-you gifts to all sorts of people who show you kindnesses.

Travelers should also keep their scam radar up with people offer to “help” you use an ATM. Many times, these scammers hang out at these locations in an attempt to get your PIN code. Or, some thieves set a “trap” in the ATM that will cause it to eat your card. Ensure there is nothing sticking out of the card slot at any ATM before you use it. There could be a mechanism to steal your card.

Others versions of the “friendly” local scam will hang around at train stations and ask travelers if they need assistance purchasing a ticket — then take your money and run. You should also be wary of people at train stations who offer to show you to your seat. When you get there, they will demand payment.

Again, other variations include older woman who approach you and offer you a sprig of rosemary, as a sign of friendship. Then she’ll grab your hand, read your fortune and demand payment.

How do you avoid falling victim? Don’t make eye contact or accept anything that’s handed to you. Purchase any tickets yourself. If you need assistance, utilize the concierge at a hotel. Never let anyone help you out at an ATM, and never give anyone your PIN.

Bracelet Maker or String Scam?

While not really a scam, but certainly a nuisance that many travelers complain about once they have fallen for it. Locals hang out near tourist locations and approach you – they even walk right along with you in case you keep walking. Next thing you know, the guy starts tying a “friendship” string bracelet around your wrist. If you’re too tired, hot, or distracted to chase them away, they’ll try to charge you €20 or so for the bracelet—you can’t just hand the thing back, though, because it’s tied tightly onto your wrist. Tear it off, walk away, but don’t get violent (he’s probably not alone), and if he won’t leave you, call for the police.

Newspaper Attack Scam

A popular scam in Europe where children surround visitors and waive newspapers in their face to confuse and block the travelers while one of the the other children or adult with the children trys to pickpocket you or grab your bag. If approached by any thing like this, wave them away, shouting loudly if needed to get them to move away.


Watch out when taking taxis. If there is a meter, insist on using it. If not, or if it is “broken,” negotiate an agreed fare in advance. It is inevitable that once in a while you will fall victim to an unscrupulous driver who takes the long way or pulls something else.

Border crossings call for extra caution: buses are preferable to taking taxis; some taxi drivers have been known to rip foreigners off by taking them to fake checkpoints, or to lie about border crossing hours of operation in order to snag an extra fare late in the day.

Fake Police Officers

Unfortunately the fake police officer scam has been around for a long time and if you have never heard of it, chances are you may fall victim to it. The whole premise of the fake police officer scam is that scammers pose as police region that your are visiting in an effort to take your money. The scammers typically look for tourists who look like they are not familiar with region, and then prey on the tourists inability to distinguish the appropriate regional police uniform or badge worn by the local police.

In many of these fake police officer scams, the tourist is “tested” before the fake police officer approaches you. Typically a third party, a man or women approaches you and tries to speak to you in language of the country you are visiting as a way to check to see how savvy you might be. Then the fake policeman arrives, and proceeds he may say something like you were just seen “conversing with a known drug dealer.” Here, your desire to avoid being arrested in a foreign country on drugs charges might override your normal sense when it comes to handing over that wallet.

There are many deviations of this type of fake police scam, but essentially, most times the fake officer or officers approach you and demand some sort of assistance. Either the officer is looking for counterfeit money, or needs to check your ID, or something that involves handing your wallet to him.

Typically, the fake police scam takes place in locations where international tourists are known to visit.  The scammers know it very easy to pretend that that are police.  The fake police officer will then rifle through your wallet, giving it back to you with an “all clear.” He’ll be long gone by the time you realize some of your money is missing.

Another form of fake police extortion happens frequently at train stations. The fake police officers approach you and ask for your train pass. They proceed to to you in a discouraged manner that you purchased the wrong pass for the route that you just completed. They ask for your to pay an impromptu fine on the spot, hoping you will pay. Never pay police officers on the spot, as this is typically a strong idea of a scam.

How do you avoid falling victim? Don’t voluntarily hand your wallet or passport over to anyone, ever. Know what the area’s law enforcement uniform looks like. Ask a train employee to help with the situation, or find someone else to help you interpret what’s going in. All ways be very wary if someone if plain clothes approaches you.

Pigeon Poop Bandits

The Pigeon Poop Scam has been around for years, and is used on travelers world wide. The scam involves someone who walks up behind you and squirts a packet of mayonnaise or something similar on your back. The scammer or their accomplice taps you and says that a bird just “pooped” on your back and points to the mess. Either the “poop” pointer or someone else related to the scammers approach you with some tissues and attempt to assist you with the mess. Ignore this person. He will get you to focus on the situation while his partners steal from you. Also, do not take your backpack or purse off your shoulder.

To avoid being suckered into this scam, always be aware of your surroundings. If a foreign substance somehow makes it onto your shirt or bag, chances are someone is about to rob you. Keep walking and look for a police officer. Do not stop and chat, and especially, do not take any bag off your shoulder.

bench-sea-sunny-man-largeThe Double-Steal Scam

Popular in Southern Europe, tte scam involves a man on a bicycle who grab’s a seemingly random traveler’s bag and ride off with it. As the sympathetic bystander drops their bags to give chase, an accomplice attempt to make off with the abandoned valuables.

How to avoid getting scammed while traveling

Practice vigilance over your money

Just about everyone knows by now that travelers’ checks are a thing of the past; with ATMs in every country now, the new money is plastic. I am in the habit of carrying three cards: two ATM cards (stored separately on my person, with precautions taken against pickpockets) and one credit card. (One does not need two bank accounts to have two ATM cards; you can get prepaid ones these days.)

While one traveler was furiously running around India trying to get a machine to cough up enough money to buy a bottle of water, a letter was sitting in his mailbox at home saying that the bank had frozen his account because it had detected “suspicious activity.”

Overkill, you say? Perhaps, but consider this: aside from the threat of one being stolen, a bank can temporarily suspend your credit card, “for your own protection.”  What had set off alarm bells at the bank? Sudden ATM withdrawals (many times your own) from different cities while traveling.