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.