How to Protect Yourself From Tourist Scams

A work colleague was recently in Paris and he was charged 100 euros for a cab ride from Charles de Gaulle airport to his hotel downtown. He didn’t know — until I his return trip was much cheaper — that he had been scammed.

A year ago I wrote Common Tourist Scams and How to Avoid Them.

I detailed the Paris ring scam, where someone along the road ‘finds’ a ring and rushes to return it to you. Taking advantage of your greed, they separate you from your money in exchange for worthless ‘jewelry’. And the Chinese tea ceremony where a local wants to spend the day with you to ‘practice their English’ and shows you to a local tea place where you’ll experience local culture… and receive a bill many orders of magnitude higher than it should be.

There are pick pockets, and guides who wait near tourist attractions to pick up tourists by telling them what they’ve come to see is closed for the day (or only open to locals) but they’d be happy to show you other sites… by way of overpriced tourist shops who will give them a commission.

Some general principles for protecting yourself.

  • Pay with a credit card, not cash. You can dispute charges later if you’ve been scammed.
  • Split up your cash, keeping it in multiple places. You won’t be out everything if pick pocketed.
  • Keep multiple copies of your important documents. That will make it easier to recover if your passport or other important items are stolen.
  • Don’t be greedy. If you think you can take advantage of a local, they’re probably the ones taking advantage of you.
  • Your hotel is your best ally. If a cab driver isn’t using a meter, is quoting you an impossibly high price, and your destination is your hotel — don’t argue until your baggage is out of the vehicle, then enlist the hotel’s help. They know local rules and expectations and what rides should cost, and they’re likely on your side as their guest.
  • Hire a guide, even if you don’t need one. I think of it as paying one tout to keep away all the other touts.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings. If you’re in a crowd, you’re a pick pocket victim. If you’re more focused on the awe around you than the people around you, you’re a pick pocket victim. And know what countries, cities, and attractions are home to such things, but in general where tourists gather they’re targets.
  • Know what your purchases — whether souvenirs or transportation — should cost before you buy. Have some basis for comparison.

It’s better to be taken advantage of than to escalate a confrontation, losing a little money isn’t the end of the world for most. But staying aware will help you avoid making costly mistakes.

What scams have you seen.. or fallen victim to?


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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. best thing to do to be aware of current scams is just google the place you are going and use the word scam or ripoff in the search.

    try pattaya jet ski scam for fun

  2. Using a credit card is often not a good idea if suspicious. Many scams in mexico involve digitally altering the price after you sign the receipt, much better off paying cash which can’t be magically inflated later. Furthermore with a care, if you sign or otherwise authorize the charge, there is little to dispute. You really can only dispute things that you didn’t explicitly authorize to pay for. If you allow a merchant to charge you 10X the price, that’s not the merchant or the CC fault, although it may violate local laws.

    My favorite CC fraud case was renting a car from Hertz in Turkey. I declined CDW returned the car flawless but left the receipts in the glove compartment. I guess they assumed since I didn’t have a copy of the original, they would forge my signature on another with me accepting all charges. A new charge appeared on my CC with the difference after the return. I disputed and would have lost if they hadn’t spelled my name wackily wrong in way only a foreigner would do in the area to Print Your Name.

  3. Done the tea ceremony. We were presented with a bill for $200 but escaped for a mere $15. It was worth every penny, a great memory!

    Done the Thai jewelery sale scam. Got a free tour for our purchase and then returned everything the next day. Would do it again in a heartbeat.

  4. Longhauling at Las Vegas. Always tell the taxi driver “no tunnel” when you get in a taxi at the Las Vegas Airport.

  5. I was definitely approached with the “beautiful girl wanting to practice her English” in China scam. And she had an umbrella and I didn’t, and it was raining! We walked a bit then she invited me for tea, But the situation just didn’t look right to me, a nondescript storefront rather than a legitimate-looking business. I told her I was in the mood for McDonald’s (down the street) and would be glad to sit with her and practice English there. For some reason or other, she suddenly lost interest in language study…

  6. If you are a fan of Scam City, season 2 just started and Connor went to New Orleans. Sketchy stuff!

    The problem with using a credit card is that it is so hard to know which item is what on your statement, plus the receipts are typically in a foreign language, making them hard to remember what receipt belongs to another. Lastly, always charge your credit card in the local currency to avoid “unfavorable” exchange rates.

  7. I was recently in Paris and somebody on the street tried the gold ring scam. I walked away. In In Italy a few gypsies tried the baby scam. I walked to the other side of the street. Sunglasses and avoiding eye contact with the scammers can help. Try to use ATM machines inside bank lobbies when they are open for business. My card was scanned in Italy a few yrs ago. Women should not hang pocketbooks on the chairs in restaurants. Somebody can grab and run.

  8. When I am in other countries I wonder if foreign visitors from other countries are scammed in the US in similar fashion? We have scammers here in all major cities that will try to get anyone? By the way cabs in the UK and Japan (while pricey) are very honest, so no chance of longhauling. Never use a credit card in a vegas cab. They charge 3.00 to use a card. I did not know that until I used my card twice last yr. That is a rip off.

  9. @daves very funny story.
    @gene I would not have the guts to buy some jewely and try to return because you never know if they give you a hard time etc. Same thing with the tea ceremony because I haveno idea if they will try anything once they see you wont pay up.

  10. As long as you’re not out of pocket lots of money, I reckon experiencing a scam is part experiencing the world 🙂 – my experience:

    – Paris – walking down Champ Elysees with my wife and was approached by an asian woman who told us about a great deal near by where if you buy 2 well known branded bags, you will get one free. On top of that, all bags are X% discounted. She then said that she only had money for one and is happy to give us the free bag if we can help bag one. Nothing’s for free..we thank her for her kindness and left.

  11. @Grant – sometimes you aren’t given a choice. We were charged in dollars twice in Dublin without being given a choice. They later hand you a receipt (after you’ve signed the other one) that says something like, with my signature I agree to the transaction being processed in us dollars and a 3% conversion fee charged. I started saying, “please be sure the transaction is charged in Euros”, but then the non-scam artists had no idea what the heck I was talking about. It was really annoying, but the two charges were small, so it is the principal rather than the money.

  12. @Jamie: The receipt has the amount you’re paying on it. Only sign a receipt that’s denominated in local currency. Doesn’t matter what they do after that, you should only be responsible for the charge you signed for.

  13. Notre Dame and Montmartre in Paris are notorious for Gypsy scams/pickpockets. It’s actually entertainment watching the packs of young girls (and their male pimps/protectors) trying to get you to sign a “petition” they carry on clipboards (when a pair of young girls gets each side of you while you sign and have your vision below the clipboard blocked while they pickpocket you). The “lost gold ring” scam is fun when you see it happen in front of your eyes – you’d really have to be a rube to fall for that con.

    Also, the more sophisticated scammers return your wallet – so you don’t realize they’ve got all your info and that gives them more time to run up charges.

  14. Istanbul — looking for a taxi to the airport after a late-night dinner, several drivers offered to take me for 15 Lira, no meter. This is so much cheaper than the metered rate that there has to be something beyond avoiding taxes. I don’t know what the scam is, but it felt fishy so I passed. Only the 4th cab agreed to put a meter on, which came out at 55 Lira (I tried to follow the route and there may have been a small detour, not sure). I paid 60 in cash and the poor driver had no change … Oh well.

    Los Angeles — saw the shell game played on a Blue Line train. It was actually very entertaining, though I felt bad for the two marks, one of whom was pregnant and didn’t speak much English (though they were no tourists). I think the marks lost $40 between them. Surprisingly for L.A., even though the dealer clearly chose his targets, his Spanish appeared limited to “Veinte? Cuarenta? Cincuenta?”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shell_game

  15. @LarryInNYC – can vouch for Jamie’s experience in Dublin. You didn’t read what he said – they only hand you the dynamic currency conversion (scam) receipt AFTER you have signed the original receipt which is in LOCAL CURRENCY. You are not made aware of it until they have your signature and the transaction is fully run.

    My experience at a major property of a major global hotel chain in Dublin was exactly what Jamie described. Go to desk to check out, am presented standard guest folio with ALL charges in EUROS and no mention of charging in any other currency. Agree to charge in Euros, desk agent runs card on file (hotel branded card). Am presented a receipt in DOLLARS with dynamic currency conversion charge of 3.5% added. Moreover as is the case with many hotel transactions there was no signature required; the charge had already fully processed and gone through before the DCC was evident.

  16. @CW – yep, that’s pretty much it. For us it had happened at a restaurant and coffee shop. So, by the time we checked out of the hotel, I told the person right away to “be sure the transaction is processed in euros”.
    One of the times it was already on the receipt as having been converted to dollars before I signed it, but the waitress didn’t know how to fix it (said it was automatic), and it was after a late dinner with little kids, and lots of people waiting. So, it was one of those fights that wasn’t worth it at the time. Very frustrating.
    I suppose we should be complaining to the CC issuers about this. I’ve heard it from other people (on flyer talk, maybe), so it seems to be fairly common in Dublin.

  17. some travel agencies ( s.e. asia was my experience) tack a 3.5% charge on if you use a credit card.

    they are not allowed to do this as stated in the contract with the cc company they sign with.

    I disputed the charge with citibank, and they refunded the extra charge not questions asked other then my first dispute online.

  18. Thanks for bringing up this subject again Gary. We are traveling to Thailand next month and the only thing we have been focused on is the political situation there. Have to keep in mind scammers keep operating in good times and bad!

  19. I noticed someone eyeing my camera during a parade instead of watching the parade, in front of one of the police stand too. I got out of there asap

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