How You Can Prevent Getting Scammed When Traveling Abroad

Consumerist asked me how to deal with a scam where you’re asked to sign a charge slip for substantially more than the value of your drinks in a bar.

They highlighted the case of a traveler approached in a threatening manner in a bar and pressured to sign a credit card bill for $2000 on a ~ $20 bar tab. The traveler wrote on the charge slip that they were signing under duress, they disputed the charge, and the card company wasn’t a help.

My advice is never to put yourself in harm’s way. If they threaten to call the police, let them, although if they do it suggests the police are in on the scam. In the end, sign the slip.

  • Your credit card company’s charge back process will be helpful here if you handle things promptly. Don’t wait until your return to the US to deal with it.

  • But you want documentation. A police report will help. They won’t get your money back but contemporaneous paperwork will substantiate your dispute.

  • Your hotel can be helpful here, they can call the police for you and it will be harder to participate in the scam with hotel management who are locals and there on a continuing basis. Plus the hotel may have good relations with local police.

  • Even your hotel documenting the situation would be helpful.

Of course it’s best to avoid the situation in the first place, research where you’re going and don’t be responsive to touts — or to locals, especially of the opposite sex (or same sex if that’s your preference).

Here’s what I told Consumerist:

We asked travel expert Gary Leff what travelers should do if the damage is already done. Leff confirmed that the best thing to do is to get proof from someone in-country that you authorized the charge only under duress.

Leff’s suggestion? Go straight back to your hotel and ask them for assistance contacting local authorities and filing a police report. “If you’re staying in a hotel,” Leff explained, “you’re their guest.” Helping you is their professional obligation. And in many cities, for a western-style hotel, it will also probably not be the first time they’ve seen a tourist taken advantage of.

Even if the police they put you in touch with aren’t immediately helpful, by going through your hotel to reach the police you’ll be creating paper trails, Leff said. Get copies of any of those papers, and you’ll have the documentation you need to substantiate your assertions.

Depending on the kind of extortion being run, Leff added, the people charging your card may also offer — or threaten — to call the police. Leff suggested that if they do so, that you may want, in a non-confrontational way, to let them. You will probably still be paying the bill (or at least part of it) when the police do come, but records of the incident will then exist.

…Leff told us that unfortunately, there are some scams routinely perpetuated on travelers, and that one should do one’s homework before one goes. In parts of China, for example, “tea house” scammers routinely chat up western tourists, invite them to observe a tea ceremony, and then somehow present a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars at the end, out of the blue.

If strangers seem incredibly happy to talk to you, Leff advises, remember that you are probably “not as interesting or as attractive as you think you are,” and be wary of the places you are invited to go and the things you are invited to do.

Three years 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.

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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Comments

  1. Thanks, Gary. Interesting that the original poster’s claimed the company didn’t help her with the chargeback. I’ve never had this happen to me, but given my dealings with card companies on chargebacks, I’d imagine they would have been more helpful here.

  2. I can see that the credit card company might think you really did run up a bill, then suffered from buyer’s remorse, and tried to get out of it. Better to avoid the situation in the first place. It happened to me in Shanghai. A very attractive girl on the metro started a conversation with me then shared her umbrella outside on a rainy day, claiming she was practicing her English. She invited me for tea, but the “tea house” looked really sketchy – no sign on the outside, a bare entry room with a sign “Welcome” in English, leading to a hidden room. Seeing a familiar crowded place nearby, I told her, “On second thought, I’m in the mood for McDonald’s. Care to join me?” She was exasperated anyone would want McDonald’s in Shanghai, and I managed to ditch her that way. Didn’t really eat there, but at a nice Chinese place a couple of blocks away.

    I know I miss out on some fascinating experiences because of it, but I’m always suspicious of people who approach me with no evident legitimate reason wanting to do something together.

  3. Interesting. @Gene’s comment is kinda what I would consider doing if it were me. For all intents and purposes it has been de facto stolen at that time. But I’d never get into that situation. The single biggest thing to stay out of trouble when abroad is to stay out of clubs/bars/discos unless you have good evidence from trusted sources that it’s a legit place…even then, better safe than sorry.

  4. Why write anything? If the police aren’t in on the scam, why not just up and leave? Much as your attempted extorters might not like it, retreat is not escalation.

    Sure, you might legitimately owe them $20 or so, but if all they’ll accept is $500, that’s their loss.

  5. “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.

    in some countries ( like turkey or thailand) this will increase the odds of the driver waiting for you when you emerge from the hotel later.

  6. Don’t trust good looking women that you don’t know that are very friendly from the start. They are not to be trusted. Use your past experience to wonder why is my current experience so out of the normal range.

  7. I ran in to the tea house scam in china and they were extremely skilled. In the end it cost me like $67 and an hour of my time. I refused to buy additional tea and they ended up giving me some tea. While I suspected it was a scam at the time in the end it was only $67 and the ceremony and conversation was enjoyable. Of course, I had another couple groups of people try to run the same scam on me during the same trip. I also ran into the two women wanting to go and get a drink at a bar they know scam, which I knew right away. Finally I ran into cab drivers refusing to turn on their meters, although this happened directly outside the train station. He wanted a flat rate with a markup like ten or more times what it should of cost. It was pouring rain and the guy pulled off right away and I had to start banging on the glass to make him stop before he got me into an area I did not know. It is for this reason I never put my bags in the trunk in foreign countries I am new too and keep my stuff with me so I can jump out. I ended up taking the subway to the hotel and walking around in a downpour for 20-30 minutes looking for the hotel. Part of it was my fault in that there are official taxi lines, although the signs were confusing and nobody in the booths spoke any english to direct me the proper way. I strongly disagree with the advice that you should just agree to pay the flat fee and then try to sort it out at the hotel. Maybe the hotel is helpful. Maybe they are not and you get stuck paying an insane amount. Maybe the police get called and if you don’t speak the language maybe you get accused of not paying your bill and things don’t go well for the foreigner. Just get out of the cab and find another or find alternative transportation. All of the above problems and scams occurred in Shanghai. I visited several cities in China and did not have any problems anywhere else, but Shanghai was just none\ stop. In bangkok outside a major tourist destination (at closing time) in the taxi line I had three cabs in a row refuse to use the meter. They wanted an insane amount of money for the cab ride to the hotel. I walked two blocks and took a local ferry and paid like $1-$2 to get to hotel where the taxis wanted like $40 or something.

  8. @bill, I had a similar experience in Hong Kong 2 weeks ago. I took a taxi from the airport line and when the traffic in Kowloon got heavy and the driver, who spoke NO English, could not find my hotel, he dumped me and my (substantial ) luggage out on the street. I kept insisting this was nowhere near the hotel, because I knew the Hyatt had at least 23 floors and there were no tall buildings anywhere around. He just pointed up the block and took my money and left. After an exhausting hour+ wandering around (and vainly trying to ask all the “copy watch?” touts for directions) I finally dragged my 2 suitcases and sweaty, middle-aged body into the hotel. This was 26 hours after I left my house.
    The Hyatt was lovely, and took the card with the cabbie’s info and reported him. I will follow up and do the same, though my impression of China was that the authorities really don’t care.
    Lastly, I am really struggling with the moral of this, and these other, stories. So many people told me they thought I was “so brave” for going to Asia alone. There were a few other dicey moments and scams (mostly in HK, and one in Bali, but none in Singapore ), and I hate having to do so much research and always be on guard, but the alternative is not to travel or do so only with tour groups (gross). And, overall, I don’t regret going. I had a great time and saw some wonderful things. I survived, and didn’t lose much money. But, there was a lot I didn’t do out of fear, and I resent that. What a world.

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