Common Tourist Scams and How to Avoid Them

Walking along the Seine last weekend I was approached multiple times — in just a few minutes — with the same attempted scam.

A guy walks up, ‘notices’ a ring on the ground. Calls for your attention. If you let it play out, he asks you if it’s yours. When you say no he plays up how great it is, how it’s his lucky day, but that he’s in need of cash quickly and can’t get to a jeweler. He’ll grudgingly sell this very expensive piece to you for just 50 euros. Of course it’s worth almost nothing. But people are greedy and get taken. The scam must work, since scammers are out around Paris doing this all day, every day.

The first two who tried it on me weren’t very good. The best would come up from behind and grab your attention, it’s possible that you dropped it then. These were approaching me from in front, the rings were in front of me, it’s not even plausible they ‘thought’ the ring might have been mine. One I even saw placing the ring on the ground in the first place.

But if you haven’t had this scam pulled on you in awhile, it’s possible to be thrown off guard. But having heard of it, it won’t trick you when it happens to you.

That’s the Paris ring scam but there are many more. I’ve been fortunate that last month in Malaysia was the first time anyone tried to pick my pocket. And it was in a temple, no less! I’ve gone pretty well unaccosted even along Las Ramblas in Barcelona. But I try to keep aware, and I’ve heard stories of so many scams that I at least hope they’ll resonate and be conjured when they’re tried on me.

Another famous one is the Chinese tea ceremony, this one is common in Shanghai and in Beijing. A young girl, or occasionally young guy, will approach you and try to connect. Perhaps you’ve come out of a store, they’ll mention they had just been inside. They notice you’re American and they’ve been studying English. They’d love to practice English with you! And in exchange they’d love to show you around the city.

Maybe you’re on guard a bit, especially if you go into some shops together, you think they might be trying to get you to buy things (they get a commission). But they’ll spend time building trust, and when you’re enjoying your time together they’ll suggest a tea ceremony. It’s usually short, just a few minutes, but enjoyable enough. The scam is you’ll be presented with a bill for hundreds of dollars.

If you’ve found yourself in this position — it’s easy to want to be friendly with locals, I tend not to be trusting of people but also realize that if I never engage people along my travels I’ll lose out on many experiences so I can imagine forcing myself to fall for something like this — then the correct approach is to throw down an appropriate amount of money and leave.

Your companion will feign ignorance and shock at the price. You might ask for the police, although depending on where you are the police could well be in on the scam (although they may just suggest settling for a smaller amount rather than trying to enforce the price).

I suppose paying by credit card is another option, even sign it ‘under duress’ but that may not be necessary considering how frequently this scam is run, how much-discussed it is online, you may win a dispute of the charges when you return home. In many ways I like this approach even better because the most important thing when in the midst of a scam is not to get hurt, not to be too confrontational, to end it and move on.

But avoiding scams in the first place is all about being aware and not being overly trusting. When you’re seated in a restaurant by a window, when a guy taps on the glass to get your attention and motions at his wrist as though to ask you the time, he might not actually need you to tell him the time. Just shrug, and be aware of everything going on around you, because he might just be trying to distract you while his partner is inside the restaurant taking your bags.

The one scam I always have a hard time avoiding is ‘this attraction is closed, but we can show you another one’ that’s so common in Thailand. Someone dressed in a uniform says you can’t visit the temple or site you’ve come to see, it’s closed ‘for a special religious holiday and only open to Thais today’ or ‘because of the Prince’s birthday’. Of course, he can help. He can direct you to another similar site that’s open, and his friend in a tuk tuk will take you there — cheap. Usually they’re just trying to get you into the tuk tuk so you can be taken to expensive gem shops in hopes of commission.

These touts are an annoyance, one of the reasons I sometimes like tour guides in new cities where I’m truly unfamiliar isn’t just for the efficiency of getting around but in some ways you’re hiring your own tout to keep away the rest of the touts, it can just lead to less stress and greater enjoyment.

WikiTravel has an extensive discussion of more common scams. Lucky was almost taken in by the shoe shine scam and the tuk tuk scam.

My own rough advice, though I hardly consider myself an expert in the area but rather just someone who does this a lot.

  • Don’t carry all your important papers with you. If you must carry your passport, consider carrying just a color photocopy (and always keep a copy ‘in the cloud’ such as by emailing it to yourself at a gmail account). If you must carry your real passport, leave a color copy behind.

  • Split up your money. Don’t carry it all with you. Don’t carry all of your credit cards with you. And the money you’re carrying, keep it in different places. Some of it may be in a wallet, other money in a pocket, so if it’s taken it’s not all taken. And so that you can claim to have less with you than you have, scammers might settle for what they can get from you quickly.

  • If I’m in a dangerous place I want to be there with a local that I trust. I also do have hiding places for money, a belt where a disguised interior can hold cash. But mostly it’s just about being alert, not going places especially alone and at night that your mother would warn against, and not attracting too much attention to yourself.

Now let’s be careful out there!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Many people are having trouble figuring out why there are no tricksters in Japan? In Europe you have gypsies and many North African immigrants who pull most of the scams for a living. Neither of these two groups has made it to Japan yet. There is no grinding poverty or homelessness in Japan unlike in many other third world Asian countries. In the absence of any depravity, they don’t have any home grown ‘ring finders’. My visits to Japan have been the most pleasant ones. An additional feature of Japan is that there are no loud mouths talking on the cell phones in the subway cars. There is a self imposed code of silence, broken very infrequently with whispers into the phone, not protracted loud conversations.

  2. We also encountered the gold ring scam in Paris last Nov. Having read about it, I just told my spouse not to touch the ring or respond and just walk away.

  3. I fell for a scam in the metro in Paris. My credit card wouldn’t work at the automated ticket kiosk. So I went to stand in a long line for the staffed ticket booth. A guy came up and offered to sell me his ticket for a couple Euro discount. The ticket was real, but it was only valid local, not to the airport where I was headed. The ticket checkers gave me a 50 Euro fine when they checked my ticket. My explanation of the scam did not matter.

  4. Surprised there’s no mention of the Budapest Drinky Girls near/on Vací Ut: “I met you here last night. Do you remember me?” Um, no, I don’t. Walk away. They will take you to some pub where you will have a few drinks then be presented with an astounding bill in the hundreds of Euros by Lazslo the bodybuilder who will ensure you pay. In cash. Sounds like the Chinese tea party thing.

  5. So what scams are practiced in the US on tourists visiting us from abroad? There must be some, but I seem to be unaware of them…

  6. I was in Nashville on business and had a cab driver take me completely out of the way. I didn’t realize it until we were so far off the route that it made sense to just keep going. Called the cab company the next day and told them the route he had taken, and they refunded the entire thing. All’s well that ends well I suppose.

    Now I’m paranoid whenever I’m in a cab in any city, always watching on google maps.

  7. Bucharest. Fake police. I was walking down the street and an unmarked car pulled up with two shabby looking guys inside. They asked me a question in Romanian; I told them I didn’t understand. Then one of the guys switches to English and says “Police. Come.” and he motions me to the car. I said “no” and kept walking.

  8. Wow. Well, I can certainly concur with others here re: Japan. Just traveled there by myself for a couple weeks in October and was stunned by folks’ kindness and by the safe feeling I had. I dread the day that that ever changes :\

    And, in comparison, it sadly makes me less apt to want to visit other places that tend to have more scamming going on :(. Maybe the answer is to just avoid big cities / common tourist spots (outside of Japan).

    Actually, I should note that I also felt very safe and welcomed in Taiwan. :)

  9. Las Vegas: Long Haul taxi drivers around the strip. Right down there information posted, then threaten to call the taxi authority, problem solved.

    Bangkok: Royal Palace closed scam, had my guard up after leaving the river boat walking down crowded sidewalks, but I could see where others would fall for it.

  10. Safest and friendliest place, without a doubt, Japan. If you just even look kind of confused, someone will come over to assist you. Most surprisingly dishonest scam was in Copenhagen when the cabbie claimed there was a train strike and tried to get us to take the cab all the way to the airport rather than the trains station…

  11. I had some scams attempted.
    1. Madrid @ flea market: tried to burn me with cigarette: gave him an elbow nudge where it hurt him!
    2. Rio: Pickpocket tries to steal wallet with $5 meal money in 1997. Grabbed my wallet in my front pants pocket–would not let go and all of over 300 lbs (at the time) fell on top of him. Then my companion tackles him to the ground. Didn’t get my meal $.
    3. Paris: various scams like above. Unsuccessful.
    4. Rome: Pickpocket & other scams. Unsuccessful.
    5. Lisbon & Rome: Excess food items placed on table. Got me for a few extra (<$5) in Lisbon, unsuccessful in Rome.
    6. Thailand: Various tut tut scams. Unsuccessful. Did OK with Taxis. Even found tricks to save $ like going to departures and save the taxi fees. Very inexpensive vacation in Thailand thanks to fellow FTers.

    Like the above comments, very honest in Japan. Also no problems in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.

  12. Thanks for the good post. It’s always important to keeps our wits about us…

    However, I’m kind of sad about all of the paranoia &/or hysteria…Yes, I’ve been “victimized” by the ring scam in Paris…as soon as she held it up we responded with a firm Non! I’ve had people try to sell me fake metro tix. I just said No! I don’t carry anything of value in my pack. I expect most commotions to be diversions for thieves…think of it as theatre…I don’t know…

    I don’t let it stop me from talking to locals. I’ve had rich interactions with folks, from Lombok to Liguria. I’m sure I’ll be scammed @ some point. As long as I’m not physically injured, I’ll take it with a grain of salt, as part of the experience. I’m sure the good moments far mitigate the “bad.”

    Happy Travels!

  13. Yep, Budapest has their version of the tea party scam, we avoided it, but that was years ago. Japan is just wonderful in every way, i love how the bicycles on the street are left unchained.

  14. On my trip to Paris 4 years ago, while taking photos at the Louvre, , this shady african guy came up to me, put a string on my finger and said: make a wish, and started weaving. I immediately told him, I will not pay you anything, and if you have a problem, those policemen will take care of you as I just had a word with them (pointing at 3 police officers around the corner who were looking over this direction). I’ve never seen a rat run away so fast. Funny actually.

  15. most city folk would just shoo them away, suspecting a con. usually, it’s the rubes from hicksville that get suckered. hey, don’t shoot the messenger, it’s the durn truth, tell you what.

  16. At Sacré Coeur, I was approached with a variation on the rig scam (gold chain). The perp spoke English, I responded in Italian, and he and several friends nearly chased after me as I walked off repeating “no” to his increasingly frustrated and angry attempts to get me to participate. I was shocked as I’ve generaly found one “no” sufficient to dissuade scammers. I am 6’2″, a lifelong martial artist and look the part, so I’m rarely picked as a mark, but this situation had me thinking I might be in for some real trouble. Luckily, I recalled seeing a police car parked down the hill, so I went that way and my pursuers quickly vanished. I don’t like to fight (outside the dojo, anyhow), and didn’t like the odds or the possibility of finding myself under arrest in a foreign land.

  17. One scam that’s very popular here in NYC is the broken glasses scam. The scammer gets bumped into (by you) on the street by moving into your path, drops his glasses, then asks you to pay for them when they appear broken. Had this tried on me downtown by a guy who followed me into a store to ask for the money. Told him “tough sh&t, be more careful with your stuff” and he left to find easier pickings. I was wearing a backpack so I imagine he did not realize I was a local.

  18. Wife and I were in Moscow train station to take the Red Arrow to St Petersburg. We were kind of lost and a man approached us with excellent english, offering help. He showed us our way and offered to buy us some coffee as we still had 40 minutes until departure.

    After taking the coffee (I insisted to pay, and paid our part) and talking to this nice “gentlemen” he offered to exchange some rubles. We did not need, and I had only USD30 on wallet, and decided as a token of appreciation to exchange USD30 to RUB150. Sure enought the next day I found out trying to pay for a museum entrance that the RUB150 was fake money that is easily sold on streets.

    Taxi drivers are bad almost everywhere. When I lived in Lisbon, two busienss people who had a meeting with me, arrived from London, they took a cab who took them through 2 big bridges and the bill was EUR70. Is like asking in JFK that you want to go to Battery Park and the taxi taking you to CT and back. In Lisbon take the taxi at departures, avoid at all costs the crooks at arrivals.

  19. Thank you Gary for a very informative post. And thank you to the commentators for sharing their experiences.

    My story takes place in Italy a few years ago when I was walking along the Tiber River. Full disclosure: I am fluent in Italian and well familiar with the streets of Rome. So along comes an automobile that is pacing along side of me until he drives ahead and stops. An Italian gentleman holding a tourist maps on his steering wheel asks me in English where Vatican City was. The Vatican was 1 KM west of us and any Italian, tourist or otherwise, would have known that. So immediately my BS meter went off and I told him to make a quick right and he was right there. He then proceeded to tell me that he was a fashion buyer from Milan visiting Rome and asked if I was enjoying Rome, asked if I was from the U.S., etc… I said yes, and bid him goodbye. His last pitch was that he had designer clothing in his trunk and wondered whether I was interested in buying couture at a substantial discount.

    It is at this point that I began speaking Italian and told him politely in Italian that I don’t buy clothing from the trunk of a car. I also stated that I was surprised that an Italian fashion buyer wouldn’t frequent Rome and would not know where the Vatican was. He said a few nice pleasantries about how well I spoke Italian, what I was doing in Italy, etc…at this point I noticed a Roman dialect so I asked him if he was from Rome because of his dialect.

    He bid me farewell, wished me a nice trip, and drove away…

  20. Taking taxis from the departure area is something I had never thought about. Thank you folks for letting me know about that trick in Bangkok and Lisbon and everywhere else to avoid the extra charges and not to have to deal with crooks.

  21. I paid my Gypsy dues a decade ago with the ‘making change’ trick in Germany (can’t remember which city). Teen approaches with open hand full of coins, says that they need smaller change for the phone. As I open my hand full of coins, she puts a few in and takes a few, and I realized the exchange rate wasn’t in my favor (I think she moonlights at Travelex).

    Lost about 2 Euros, best and quickest tuition I’d spent in a while.

  22. Re: Japan, while overall a pleasure, there are a few blocks around Roppongi or Shinjuku where the touts bother every single foreign guy walking around, trying to get them into a strip club. The touts are easily identifiable from a block away, literally. Those that have been know what I’m talking about. It is a pain in the ass when you just want to walk around and explore, but one easy tactic is to keep walking. The touts don’t want to stray too far from the area they’re working. I once strung along a tout for a few blocks, using up maybe half an hour of his time, while continuing to explore the neighborhood. He just gave up. Totally ignoring them can sometimes be entertaining too, as they start to hoot and holler a bit, trying to get you to react. Of course you are surrounded by people, so they won’t do anything physical.

  23. another sneaky method pick pockets use is to post “danger, pick pockets in the area” signs, and just sit back and wait for persons to check to see their wallet is in place, and thus the criminals know where too “pick”

  24. Had the “Palace is closed” scam done to me in Bangkok several years ago. they were pretty aggressive and I did not want to be too confrontational. Since I had time I went on the tuk tuk ride and saw some interesting temples, cooled off in the stores without buying anything, and eventually made it into the palace. I tried to overpay the tuk tuk driver to get him to skip the jewelry/clothing stores to no avail. He has to come back with the gas coupons. This year I was ready for the scam and leading some friends in. We were going to march on through, but a large tour group was entering at the same time, so we just mingled in with them.

    As for pickpockets, I have not had any encounters, but I am always careful to keep lots of space between me and others.

  25. Great warnings. A single man in our tour group got hit by two lovely ladies in Beiging for the tea ceremony. I also have a money belt but on a trip to Paris, one in our group basically got felt up but a gang of 3 guys who jumped on the metro, felt his chest, his waist and even his ankle for hidden money. They jumped off immediately at next stop and timed it perfectly. But, they didnt check his shoes….

  26. Appreciate the link to WikiTravel, surprised to find no discussion of the Kiev money drop so I have added it.

  27. @Robert Hanson: Thanks for explaining the “credit card not working” scam, which I had happen twice in Athens at the same restaurant (a VERY prominent one, near the Acropolis). Fortunately, I had enough cash in the neck pouch I always wear instead of any wallet, plus more if needed in a leather money belt.

    I had the ring scam attempted on me three times in a single day in Paris–once at the Eiffel Tower (by a young child, probably around 6 yrs old), once by a woman in her 20’s, and once by a man in his 50’s. The 3rd time, I said (in French) “It rains gold rings all over Paris! It’s the third time today!” and he skulked away in embarrassment!

  28. @Yango — the bracelet scam guys harassed us more than usual this past week at Montmartre/sacre couer. We walked up a bit and watched for a few minutes.

    The best was when they all got together just as dark was really setting in. It looked like a “staff sales meeting” in any US retail company. Maybe dividing the territory or giving out the evening ‘strategy’ or ‘goals’?

  29. also, in china, watch out for everybody (kids to senior citizens), including (or especially) anyone from the police or the dirty politicians. a commoner will only rip you off, but those people will F you royally.

  30. In Japan, the only people who will try to directly rip you off are the foreigners (mostly black touts) in tokyo around the red light district and of course the politicians (but you will most likely not have any dealings with them)

  31. Few months ago I visited Thailand. In a supermarket a black person approached with his a lady and started to talk in English and wanted to know where she can get pretty dresses for women. I knew the way so I pin pointed the direction as well as the name of the shop. During discussion the lady told that this is the first time she and her husband are abroad and she has never seen 100 US$ note. I was not suspicious, so I showed 100 dollar bill. When I reached my hotel I noticed that all 100 dollar bills were taken from my wallet. Only some local Thailand currency was left. PLEASE DO NOT SHOW MONEY TO ANY STRANGER. THIS IS A NEW KIND OF SCAM.

  32. We were in Rome last year. I left my purse in a restaurant near where we were staying; went back the next day and it was returned to me. Not everywhere is a scam! Just wanted to add a little positive to all the warnings.
    But thanks for the warnings too.

  33. Shanghai, China –
    I was fooled by the Shanghai tea shop scam 2 days ago. I even asked them to tell me the price before the tea ceremony started but of course this figure five-folded when the bill came and they gave a crap explanation. I didn’t know my rights so I just paid to get out of there. I’m very angry about it and that I let my guard down but I got off relatively lightly compared to what others have reported online (650RMB – 1000RMB+). I’m hoping the police can help me get it back as my bank say they cannot cancel the payment (even though I paid under duress). Basically avoid anyone in Beijing and Shanghai who is friendly and speaks English. Not worth it.

    Paris – I have been there twice and to all the touristy areas. Had no trouble and saw no scams.

  34. Re: Peter Fraens, #69- Though not fluent in Italian, I consider myself a seasoned traveler. My husband and I just (4/30/14) experienced the same scam but before we knew it, we were scammed. Tourist map, designer representative (Versace), wanted directions to French Embassy, needed gas and was out of money, “I love the US. Blah, blah, blah.” “How tall are you? I represent models (shows photo album – quickly). Husband reaches in pocket and pulls a 10€note to give “the unfortunate fellow” along with other € notes. Scammer takes a twenty and a fifty € right out of his hand, motions toward a petrol station where he will supposedly reimburse us (how?). Off he drove, leaving us stunned, embarrassed, stupid, and scammed. He was dressed in jacket and tie, had very badly stained teeth, kept shaking our hands and pulling us closer to the car. I wanted to tell two Carabinieri a half a block away, but the husband thought it would be futile.

  35. I was in Tanzania, and was told to always agree on the price for a tuk-tuk ride before getting on. One early morning while walking to the bus terminal in Dar es Salaam to take a bus to Moshi, there was a tuk-tuk that went by. I tried to flag it, before realizing it was occupied. It then turned back, and the man riding inside who was well dressed asked where I wanted to go. After learning that, he told me he could ‘give me a ride’. I naively stepped on, and was later told that the ride would be a few times more than what I’d bargain for. I didn’t argue because 1) the tuk tuk was moving, 2) I was in a confined space. Lesson learnt.

  36. Driving my French registered rental car in Barcelona, stopped at traffic lights, I hear a rush of air followed by a tap on the window. Rider on motor cycle motions to rear near side tyre – its flat. I drive to side of the road, and investigate. Tyre has a hole in the side wall, could be a defective tyre, I think at the time. Motor cycle rider follows me and says in French, which i do not understand, something about the tyre. I start to get jack and tools from trunk, he motions that my wife should get out of the car so its easier to jack it up, seems reasonable. My 6yrs old grandson is already “helping” me. It takes 30 minutes to change the wheel, meanwhile I thank motorcyclist, who has been in my sight all the time, and he rides off. When we get back into the car. my wife finds her handbag is missing together with iPhone, and some credit cards. Back at the hotel, I’m told its a common scam, rider punctures tyre, feigns assistance, while his accomplice sneaks into car and grabs what he can. Lucky, iPhone is insured, and instantly remotely erasable, credit cards are cancelled before any illegal use. Passport is in hotel safe. Main loss is quality leather bag and Avis excess for damaged tyre.

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