Today we’re going to learn about travel scams
Yes, we have been scammed on our travels. Several times.
There was the time Cam got robbed by a Thai prostitute in Bangkok (true story), the time we caught a pickpocket red-handed at the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the time an intimidating taxi driver scammed us in Romania, and the multiple times we’ve been scammed at border crossings in Guatemala, Peru, India and Cambodia.
Thieves live everywhere, and they love distracted tourists. You’re just as likely to get scammed in Paris and New York as you are in Delhi and Bangkok, so it’s important to stay alert and learn about some of the common scams that are out there.
In an effort to educate you about some sneaky scams targeted at tourists, we turn to fellow travel bloggers and asked them to share their personal stories and experiences.
1. The Litter Scam
Matt from Landlopers shares his experience falling victim to the infamous “litter scam” in Bangkok. I had a good chuckle when I read Matt’s story because the exact same thing happened to me in 2004! Proof that some scams are timeless.
It was my first time in Bangkok and I was still under the spell of the noise, the smells and the crush of humanity. The trip was also my first time to a developing country and I was nervous at times, but not that evening when my cigarette butt missed the can on the way into the SkyTrain station.
Almost immediately, a man in a camouflage uniform tugged at my arm and asked for me to join his colleague at a card table set up behind a nearby pillar. I was terrified.
I had no idea who these men were. Judging by the camo, I thought for sure they were police or military. I listened dumbstruck as they told me that I had littered and had to pay a large 4,000 baht ($130) fine. To make me feel better he showed me all of the other tickets he’d issued, but I noticed they were all to foreigners.
Then he looked at my watch and told me how much he liked it. He said he wanted to trade his knock-off Omega for mine and after that we’d be friends and no ticket would be necessary. My watch cost $50 so I agreed to give it up, all the time wondering if this was a sting to catch me trying to bribe a government official.
It was a horrible situation and I was truly scared out of my mind.
We traded and I promptly left, returning to my hotel where I burst into tears. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just fallen prey to the Bangkok litter scam.
The men in question were not police or military, they were Bangkok Metropolitan Administration officials and while they issued me a ticket, I technically could have refused to pay it. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and, even if I had, I wasn’t exactly in the position to argue.
To protect yourself against this, don’t litter or throw cigarette butts on the ground. Should you get caught, try confronting them with the truth and see what happens. More than anything, don’t let this sour your impression of Bangkok. It truly is a great city and a few bad people shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for anyone.
Cam here – when this scam happened to me at the train station in Bangkok, I didn’t have my personal belongings with me because I left them with Nicole and our travel companions. I had been robbed the night before (read the funny story here) so I did not have a wallet, ID or money.
I told the intimidating men dressed in military clothing that I was broke and could not pay. They were very confused and kept pointing at the scripted card with cartoon characters. They quickly got upset and forcefully made the universal hand sign for “pay me money”. I smiled, apologized and slowly started walking away.
I was terrified that I was going to get arrested (because I too thought they were police or military) but I didn’t know what else to do. Thankfully, they didn’t follow me. Lesson learned – don’t throw a cigarette butt on the ground in Bangkok!
2. The Distraction
Matt from Expert Vagabond shares his experience in Panama, where his laptop was stolen. The best part about his story is the outcome of self-described Operation Gringo Revenge (read his story here, it’s a good one!).
I actually haven’t encountered many problems with scams even after almost 3 years of constant long-term travel. But there have been a few. Like taxi drivers claiming the meter is broken. Or “friendly” locals who just happen to casually recommend a shop I should buy my souvenirs from.
But my worst experience was when my laptop computer was stolen by hookers in Panama.
A group of women entered the Cuban bar/cafe I was in, quickly sitting next to me and a friend. They were provocatively dressed, and made it very clear what they wanted. We were amused. But my mistake was brushing them off and ignoring them completely.
Even with my daypack strapped to the legs of my chair, they somehow managed to unzip it and make off with my $2500 MacBook Pro without us noticing. It’s sometimes easy to forget how good thieves can be!
3. The Distraction… part 2
Christy from Ordinary Traveler shares her friend’s encounter with a trio of scam artists in South America.
I, fortunately, have not been the victim of any elaborate travel scams, but I have had money stolen because I let my guard down while sleeping on a train.
I do have friends who have been victims of travel scams though, and this particular one caused our friend an extra two-week stay in South America because he had his passport, camera and money stolen.
The scam involved three people. An older woman on the street informed our friend that he had something on his shirt and offered him a tissue to wipe it off.
He took off his backpack in order to reach the back of his shirt. When he turned around, he saw a man running away with his bag. He had only taken his eyes off of his bag for a few seconds, which was all it took. He couldn’t catch up with the man in time to retrieve his belongings.
I wrote about this scam and a few others (including the story where I had money stolen on a train in Europe) in this article - tips for keeping your valuables safe.
Cam here – we learned of a similar scam when we were in Banos, Ecuador. Similarly, the scam starts when someone sprays ketchup or mustard on you when you are not paying attention. Then, a sweet elderly person comes to help you, cursing the young kids that sprayed you.
But, while the friendly person helps clean you, an accomplice grabs your bag or wallet and runs down a sketchy alleyway with your stuff. It happened to one of the people staying at our hostel.
Coincidentally, we visited Banos during Carnival, which brought thousands of people to the small city. Everyone was spraying water guns and silly string at each other. I kept thinking people were trying to scam me and got into karate pose every time I was sprayed.
Looking back, my paranoia was quite comical.
4. The Fake Tickets Scam
Sam from Nomadic Samuel shares his experience sniffing out a scam in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Recently, I wanted to take an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The first travel agency I visited informed me that ALL seats on trains departing on that particular day were full; however, a tourist bus – with just 5 seats available – was leaving in the evening at a discounted price of 750 Baht.
My instincts told me something was fishy about all of this.
Instead of feeling pressured into purchasing the bus ticket, I decided to shop around at a few more travel agents. Not only was I able to find a train ticket to Bangkok, but I actually got the exact type of seats I wanted (lower sleeper birth) at regular price.
Just for fun, I checked the price of overnight buses. The average price of an overnight bus at these other – more reputable – travel agencies was only 400 Baht. Thus, the first travel agent not only lied to me about the trains being full; she went as far as trying to rip me off by quoting a bus ticket that was nearly double the regular price!
In order to avoid such a scam, here are a few tips to consider.
(1) Compare prices at several travel agents before making a decision. Shopping around ensures you’re getting a common price.
(2) Research the cost of something online or ask fellow travelers. Often the best information for prices of tours or transportation can be found on travel blogs or by word of mouth.
(3) Don’t feel forced into making a quick decision based on scarcity. If something smells fishy, such as an agent saying only 5 seats are available, trust your instincts. For example, Chiang Mai is a huge tourist hub with a plethora of transportation options to Bangkok. There is no way, by booking several days in advance, that ALL bus tickets and/or train tickets would be sold out.
Overall, if you do your research, shop around, ask others and trust your instincts, chances of you getting ripped off or scammed are minimal.
5. The Gem Scam followed by Fake Tickets Scam
Dani and I had just landed in Bangkok, and it was our first time in the city, and in Asia. We were jet-lagged, bewildered and pleasantly surprised by how nice everyone seemed to be that first morning.
What we didn’t know until after is that from the first hour out on the street that day, we had jumped head first into an intricate string of common Bangkok scams, the first few of which were harmless, but the second bit of which ended up costing us a good amount of money and causing a ton of stress.
First, there was the friendly man who told us of the temples and put us into a tuk-tuk, that was ‘conveniently’ just pulling up. The tuk-tuk took us around to a few temples, telling us that the whole day tour we were on was absolutely free, because of a government tax credit he would get if he took us also to a tailor, a jewelry shop and a tourist agency along the way.
We understood that this was all part of being on the annoying tourist trail, but it was worth it to see these gorgeous Thai temples, we thought. Until we were taken to one ‘off the beaten path’ where a man got to talking to us in such a friendly way that when he told us about a ‘real’ travel agency where the ‘locals’ go, we had the tuk-tuk driver take us there to book our onward travels.
We thought we were being smart, savvy, independent travelers for some reason, even though we would normally never book flights or bus tickets through a travel agency at all.
After hours of whizzing around this new city, we arrived to the travel agency on a tiny Thai back street, and run by an American man from San Francisco. For some reason, this felt like a relief, as everything was feeling very foreign, but alarm bells didn’t ring that we had been told it was a ‘local’ place.
From him we purchased plane tickets and bus tickets. The plane tickets were completely fake, which we only realized when the bus never came that we had purchased the tickets for either.
We attempted dozens of phone calls and were handed from person to person over the phone until eventually the numbers didn’t work and we realized that we were scammed out of quite a bit of cash. We have since been back to Bangkok and were never even approached by any of these scammers, as though that halo of innocence was now erased from above our newly-arrived heads.
Cam here – when we visited Thailand in 2004 we were also manipulated into taking a cheap tuk tuk city tour in exchange for visiting gem and tailor shops. So did our friend Raymond from Man on the Lam, read his story here.
There wasn’t much info on the Internet back then and social media didn’t exist, so we relied on our trusty guide books for info (which was limited and outdated). Fast forward 10 years, a quick Internet search reveals hundreds of similar stories. It’s funny how many people have been tricked by these scammers, considering they use the exact same lines and strategies.
We didn’t get scammed into buying fake gems or crappy suits (we were on a backpackers budget, so even $5 gems was too much) but we did waste a lot of time visiting sketchy retail stores instead of seeing the sights. That said, the tour was dirt cheap and it made for an interesting travel experience. Oh Bangkok, you’re so silly.
6. Fooled by Kindness
Caz and Craig from yTravel Blog share their unfortunate experience in China, where they paid the price for letting their guard down.
We had just arrived in Guangzou, China from Hong Kong. We needed to travel from there to Yangshao, but could not work out how to get there.
We stood in front of the timetable for 20 minutes, staring blankly as the characters ticked over. We couldn’t read a single word. No one around us spoke English. It’s the only time in my travels that I’ve been at a complete loss as to what to do.
That must have shown on our face—the unsuspecting, tourists in need!
A very kind young man swooped in to rescue us. He spoke perfect English. He organized the tickets for the trains, told us the times and where to go and said he could take us shopping while we waited for our train to leave that evening.
Aren’t people just so nice?
He took us shopping, found us great deals and then somehow managed to convince our stupid selves that he could get us a student pass, which would make travel in China sooooo much cheaper (like it wasn’t already).
We were fooled—by this stage we were seasoned travelers and had never been conned before. I don’t know what we were thinking. I mean, we shared a meal with his family and children and everyone was so lovely.
Needless to say he took the money and ran. Oh well. Chalk it up as a lesson learned.
7. The Border Crossing Scam
Pete and Dalene from Hecktic Travels prove that not all travel scams end badly. Sketchy scam artists at the Peru-Ecuador border crossing tried to extort money from them but these fiesty Canucks stood their ground and walked away with money in pocket and heads held high.
We knew better. We had heard all the warnings, talked to others who had done it, and read in Lonely Planet that the border crossing from Peru to Ecuador was the “sketchiest in South America”.
We knew that there would be a group of men trying to convince us that we needed to go with them, that we needed to pay them for a special “Ecuadorian visa.” We knew it was a scam.
So, how they ended up with our passports in their hands, and how they led us into a tiny room just before the real customs office, we’re not sure. We looked at each other unbelievably, we had somehow been smooth talked into handing them over, and stood listening to the four men around us explaining that we each had to pay $10 for a visa
They were demanding and abrupt, and they had our passports in hand. I reached for them and the man pulled them away.
Finally, we had had enough.
Pete, towering over the shorter men by at least a foot (and looking particularly badass after a recent buzzcut) just started yelling: “NO PAGAMOS NADA!” We are paying nothing!
He repeated the statement over and over, and when he finally raised his voice loud enough that heads were turning from other parts of the office, they relented.
Quite quickly, they handed our passports back over and scurried out of the room.
8. The Border Crossing Scam… continued
Crossing through borders in Mexico and Central America can be challenging when avoiding scams, often border agents will insist there is an exit tax of $2-5 which is not true.
However, the border scam between Chetumal, Mexico and Belize is so organized and long standing that it has almost become a legitimate exit tax of $20 that even bus drivers will tell passengers to get ready to pay.
When I passed through this border my Spanish was not good enough to refuse so I simply paid. Later on through Central America I refused some of the exit taxes, in some cases they let me pass through and other cases they just waited until I paid – they weren’t going anywhere for the day.
It’s annoying and fortunately it’s not true for all of Latin America.
9. The Taxi Driver Scam
Cailin O’Neil from Travel Yourself shares here frustrating experience with a Jordanian taxi driver in the city of Amman. What is it about taxi drivers?
My first day in Amman, I took a taxi from my hotel to Rainbow Street. When we arrived I only then realized the taxi driver hadn’t turned his meter on.
I didn’t feel like we had gone that far but when I asked him “How much?” the driver said “Whatever you feel like”.
I gave him $5 US only to have him tell me $5 more. I was a bit surprised because he had just said to pay what “I” wanted. I gave him another $5 and shrugged it off.
Later that day I took a taxi back to my hotel from the same distance. This time with the meter running. It came to $2! I tried to give this taxi driver $3 and he refused to take more than $2.
At that I point I realized the first guy scammed me big time. It wasn’t a big loss but still made me angry.
Cam here – we’ve been ripped off by taxi drivers all around the world, with the most notable being in Eastern Europe. In Bucharest, taxi drivers have rates posted on the side of the vehicle in an attempt to reduce the widespread overcharging.
Even with this knowledge, we jumped in a taxi and told him our destination. We knew the cost of the trip because we had done it numerous times before. Within 3 blocks the meter had jumped to over $20 CDN – the entire 5 km trip should cost $10.
We yelled at the driver and told him to pull over. He nodded at us with an angry face and pointed at the large roundabout that we had to cross before he could pull over. The cheeky bugger did a full rotation around the roundabout, which was completely unnecessary. That extra loop around the intersection cost us an extra $10!!
The real problem – this guy was a giant and he looked mean. We paid the money, cursed his behaviour and left with $30 less in our wallet – and we only traveled about 1 kilometre!
10. The Expensive Lunch Scam
Michael Hodson from Go See Write paid the price for an unwanted feast in the streets of Cairo. Although his meal was delicious and the experience was harmless, there’s nothing more annoying than knowing you’re being ripped off and still feeling obligated to pay the hefty toll. Read his full story here.
We had just finished a good, filling meal. The cost was 2 Egyptian pounds total. That’s less than fifty cents.
We got up and wandered around Cairo some more, walking by another guy cooking some falafel. We were pretty stuffed, but the guy got Dave to stop and try a free sample of the falafel. He loved it. I tried it. It was the best I’ve ever had.
The guy asked if we wanted to get some. Absolutely. I tried to order a half dozen of the falafel balls. And then everything went downhill.
The guy waved us off and essentially said, don’t worry. I will bring you food. He set up a table specially for us, right across from his little shop, in the alley. He then proceeded to bring out a feast of food — considering we’d eaten, there was no way at all we were going to be able to finish it.
The major problem was that we never asked how much it was.
Maybe we were still thinking about the two pound meal. Maybe the heat had gotten to the both of us. Maybe we were just on one of those traveler’s highs, because people had been so friendly the last couple days. Maybe we were smitten by the falafel.
I don’t know, but you never, never, ever get anything without asking the cost. We should have known better.
I have written about crime and safety in travel — this was entirely different — just a flat out scam, more like the Zanzibar ferry scam experience. I had heard about Cairo scams before… I should have known better.
In the end, we ate about a third of the food, somehow. He wanted 110 Egyptian pounds for it. More than the dinner we had in a nice place the night before. We got him down to 90, which was at least triple what a moderately reasonable price would have been, paid it and walked away pissed off at ourselves.
11. The Shoe Shine Scam
When we visited the magnificent Amber Fort near Jaipur we witnessed a crafty Indian boy at work. We were sitting in the shade under a tree, about 20 meters away from ‘the incident’.
The pint-sized hustler spit out one-liners at passing tourists. “Excuse me please. Mister. You’re feet are very dirty. I can make them beautiful again”. Nobody stopped. Most of the tourists wore sandals and flip flops, hardly the target market for a shoe shiner.
But then he found a live one. The German tourist clearly had trouble understanding the shouting boy, so he stopped to listen to his obnoxious demands. The boy jumped into action and within 10 seconds the German tourist was at his mercy.
Then he it happened. We witnessed it with our very own eyes. The sneaky boy pulled out a small pocket knife and cut the German tourist’s laces when he wasn’t looking!
“Your shoes are broken mister. I can fix for you. 10 more rupees. Let me fix your shoes so they are beautiful again mister”. The man knew something was up. He stood up and cursed at the boy.
The boy’s demeanor instantly changed from friendly servant to angry tax man. “Give me my money. You owe me 10 rupees!”
He yelled and threw his arms in the air, clearly trying to cause a scene. The disciplined German tourist didn’t take the bait. He laughed it off and walked away. Albeit, with one less shoe lace.
12. The “Your Hotel is Closed” Scam
Sticking with India, when we arrived in Mumbai after a 20-hour train ride from Udaipur, all we wanted to do was find our hotel and go to sleep.
Our friend told us about a common scam in India that goes something like this – you get in taxi, driver asks “where are you going”, you reply with the hotel name, driver looks shocked and says “but sir, that hotel is closed. There was a fire… or construction”… or it’s “full”, then driver offers to take you to a different hotel, driver gets a commission from hotel owner. You get the idea.
There are a number of variations, but the idea is to get the tourist to a different hotel and earn a commission.
When we got into the rusty black and yellow taxi at the Mumbai train station our driver asked where we wanted to go. We had decided on a budget hotel in the Colaba area. “No sir, that hotel is under construction right now,” said the driver. Oh boy, here we go.
Right out of the gates, I get defensive and tell him we are not interested in his game. “Take us there anyways”, I demanded. There were lots of hotels in the area, so we could always walk around and find an alternative.
We laughed at the situation. “Who does this guy think he is?”
Well, we didn’t end up getting scammed because the hotel WAS under construction. Ooops. That’ll teach us! We felt bad. The driver was legit. He wasn’t lying. But this scam does happen all the time. So consider yourself warned.
13. The Lost Ring Scam
This one is a Parisian classic. We almost forgot about this one until Mark posted about his experience on our Facebook page. We have actually been exposed to this scam twice, on two separate trips to Paris.
The first time it happened was near the Louvre Museum. We noticed a woman wandering around, acting somewhat suspicious. I remember making a comment about her behaviour to Nicole.
As we walked past her, she said something to us. We couldn’t understand what she said but stopped and turned around anyways. As we did, she reached to the ground and picked something up.
She handed the object to us. It was a gold ring. It looked like a man’s wedding ring.
She said we dropped the ring and pointed to me. “It’s not mine”, I said. Her English was bad. She shrugged her shoulders and handed it to me anyways. “You keep,” she said.
Then she made the sign for ‘give me money’. She wanted a “reward” for finding our lost ring. Yea, right.
Then, in broken English, she asked for money. “You keep. Give me little money. For helping.”
The other time this happened, the scam artist said she found a ring on the ground but didn’t know what to do with it. She wanted us to buy the ring from her for only a few Euros. “Maybe you want this ring? It’s real gold. You can sell it or keep it?” Wait a sec, how do you know it’s real gold if you just found it on the ground?
So, if someone approaches you with a shiny object and says “look what I found”, run the other way.
14. The Expensive Bar Tab Scam
This scam is mostly geared towards men, because they are easily manipulated by sexy ladies with hungry eyes. It hasn’t happened to us, primarily because we always travel together and this one is geared towards the solo traveler.
Here’s what happens.
Man has a random encounter with a friendly woman (guys – this is your first warning sign). After some pleasantries, woman wants to grab a drink. Man obliges, thinking he’s just found a stroke of good luck. Remember what mom said, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is…”
One drink turns into two. Woman says, “let’s head over to this bar, it’s so much fun”. Man agrees. Could this night get any better?!
Drinks start flowing. One after the other. Then, the bill comes. Man looks at bill, man almost has heart attack. Man says, “I’m not paying THAT bill, surely there’s a mistake.” No mistake. You’ve just been bamboozled!
Big, mean bouncer approaches the table. “Do we have a problem?”
Your turn! Have you been scammed? Do you know someone who has been scammed?
Share your experience in the comments section below. If you’ve read or written about a travel scam, leave a link below, we’d love to read about it.