8 Simple Ways to Avoid Getting Scammed When You Travel

Some people like chance encounters on the road, and are open to ‘strangers in a strange land’ but I tend to be skeptical. If someone approaches me, offering to help me or wanting to get to know me, I tend to be curt because I assume ill intentions at least until proven otherwise. No doubt I can be criticized for missing out on opportunities, but it’s a strategy that keeps me safe.

I grew up in New York in the 1980s (and late 1970s), when it was a very different place than it is now. I never carried a wallet in my back pocket until the 1990s, having left the state. I didn’t even know people ever did that. The only time anyone has ever tried to pickpocket me was in an Indian temple in PJ, outside Kuala Lumpur. I’ve never had issues on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, even.

Keeping your wallet – or anything – exposed in your back pocket while you walk around oblivious is just a really bad idea. Here’s a video from a Chengdu, China subway where a woman had her phone taken out of her pocket last month without even realizing it.

I don’t think I’m immune to scams, and offering advice on how to avoid them is like tempting fate, but growing up in Ed Koch’s New York makes me pretty cynical.

Four 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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  1. Here is my best cynical tip. Don’t travel.

    White Americans offer the best cocoon of safety and familiarity. Don’t leave your street, don’t talk to anyone that doesn’t look like you and don’t ever feel bad about sticking to McDonald’s and pizza for the rest of your life.

  2. Beware of fake Uber drivers !!!
    I was at EWR ( Newark airport)
    I called an Uber. The Uber never showed and the ride was cancelled
    I noticed an attractive young lady parked on the curb with an uber sign in her passenger side window
    We assumed she was uber. She got out of the car an opened the trunk. I told her no thanks we will carry our bag on out lap
    We all got back in the car. I told her I was going to call uber again so she could grab the ride. She asked me. Where are you going? I told her Newark penn station. She said it will be $25 and I could pay cash
    That was a rip off price!!! The real Uber was charging 7.50 or 6.60 with share a ride when I called 2 minutes ago
    I told her forget about it and we got out of the car with out bags ( that luckily we left in our laps)
    I was going to call another uber when the 62 bus pulled up so we paid 1.60 and got on the bus
    We actually felt safer on the bus and we still got there in like 10 min
    Be careful of these rip off cash ubers or gypsy cabs !!!!

  3. Gary, please moderate your commenters. At least credit has made me look at a commenters name before I read the comments now. He/she hasn’t said anything useful ever.

  4. I was in Navy boot camp with two guys from NYC . They spent part of a Saturday afternoon teaching me what to do and what never to do to stay out of trouble . Their teachings have served me very well all over the world for many years since .
    One thing I always advise people is to leave your Rolex or big diamond at home . Don’t flash money around and don’t look wealthy .
    The other thing I almost always say is that whatever happens just keep walking .Somebody wants money:keep walking ,wants to sell you something or take you somewhere :keep walking . You don’t have to say anything just walk away . A common ruse is to try to engage you in conversation . Of course a polite person will respond . The intention is to delay and keep you from escaping their nefarious influence . Just keep moving.
    I do spend time where I can not blame people for just trying to make a dime . As long as things stay friendly I will make a ‘contribution’
    Most of the world’s people have good hearts .

  5. 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.

    – I disagree with the above. What are you going to do if you get to the hotel and there is no employee there? Why even risk a confrontation in a foreign country especially one that could result in the police coming. You better know the laws and maybe even the language before agreeing to a price and then trying to renegotiate later on. I have run into the issue of cabs not using their meters many times, especially in Asia. I simply get out and find someone else. I will agree to flat fees if I have already consulted with the hotel and know how much the ride should cost in advance (I agree that using the hotel to obtain this type of pricing information is great). If the price quoted is reasonably close to that then I will agree.

    @Dalo I strongly agree with your advice. Being from NYC I can tell you that you should never stop when someone asks you for money. Many armed robberies have started when someone stupidly stops or even worse when someone does give people a dollar and they get to see where the person keeps the money and subsequently rob them. I’ll say I don’t have any cash (which is actually true most the time since I typically only carry credit cards) on me but I don’t slow down at all and keep moving. Don’t wear nice jewelry out in public is outstanding advice unless someone wants that diamond necklace ripped off their neck. Never go anywhere with anyone who approaches you on the street or buy from someone on the street (I still remember being in school and having a stupid friend who bought a camcorder on the street, the idiot gets back to his room and opens the box to find it stuffed with newspaper). NYC has changed quite a bit over the years, since it used to be you couldn’t even make eye contact with people without worrying about getting stabbed. That being said a lot of these scams such as a pretty girl inviting a guy out for a drink and then hitting them with a massive bar bill are extremely common in other countries. Came across it many times in China and it happens in eastern europe as well.

    I would also add that people should learn about the neighborhoods in cities they will be visiting. Some cities like Tokyo are very safe, but there are areas where its not like the rest of Japan and things can go bad real real fast. Other cities that are normally very safe have seedy sections around train stations that at night can get pretty sketchy.

  6. Bill we were in Washington DC staying at a chain hotel. We asked for a 5am wake up and a 530am taxi pick up. When we got into the “cab” we discovered there was no meter in the back of the car. The driver said it was a flat $20 to the airport. Once we got to the airport we did not see a police officer and had to pay. We did get his license plate and make and model of the car. When we returned home we filed a complaint with the police dept of the city the hotel was in. We also filed a complaint with our credit card company. The credit card company gave us a 100% credit on our card once they heard our story and that we filed a police report. The hotel chain was of no use and did nothing. We did note on TRIP Advisor of the FRAUD these hotel employees perpetrated.

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