Tourist traps and scams


Around the world in travel scams - how to avoid them and what to do if you fall victim to one.

Don't let a rip-off ruin your holiday


We've all heard tales of pickpockets swiping wallets or taxi drivers speeding off with a car full of luggage, but some holiday horror stories are even more extraordinary. Unsuspecting travellers run the risk of a ruined trip, or worse, if they fall victim to clever scam artists who make a living off targetting tourists. We look at some of the sneakiest swindles around the world, how to avoid them and what to do if you get caught up in one.

Airport scams

Some travellers don't even get to experience culture shock before they're hit with the shock of being fleeced just moments after landing in a new country.

Men in uniform

"As we arrived at Denpasar airport in Bali, two uniformed men met us at the baggage claim area. They picked up our bags, said 'customs' and motioned for us to follow them. We followed them obediently (and nervously) to the airport exit where the pair promptly dropped our bags and stuck out their hands for a tip. They were porters, not customs officers. We were so confused – and unfamiliar with Indonesian currency – we tipped them about $5 each just to carry our bags a few metres!" Megan and Scott (names changed)

Unscrupulous money changers

Many currencies have large denominations and it's easy to lose count of all those zeros, especially when you've only just stepped off the plane.

The scanner scam

Somebody cuts in front of you in the queue for the airport security scanner – they set the metal detector off, holding you up. Meanwhile their friend at the other end makes off with your valuables!

Luggage over the limit

Airport staff have been known to tamper with scales in order to pocket the excess baggage charges, so it pays to know how much your bags weigh.

What's in your bag?

It goes without saying that you should always pack your own bag and never carry luggage for anyone else, but beware the origins of brand new bags, too – illegal drugs have been found in suitcases won as prizes in online competitions.

Plan ahead

"Certain airports are notorious for scams, touts and even organised crime," says Angus Mackenzie, Acting Head of Consular and Crisis Management for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). "The easiest targets for scammers are travellers who look confused. So when you're planning your trip, work out a few key things like how you're going to get from the airport to your accommodation, how much that should cost and how you're going to pay."

Taxi scams

You don't have to travel the world to get taken for a ride by a dodgy cabbie, but taxi drivers in some countries could do far worse than drive you the long way home from the pub.

'I know a better place'

You tell your driver which hotel you want to go to, but he takes you to a completely different one (which is probably owned by his cousin). He might say your hotel has closed down or is fully booked, or he might just surprise you by dropping you in the wrong spot and leaving you to figure it out for yourself!

The scenic route

Your driver takes you the longest possible way to your destination, ensuring he pockets the largest possible fare. Most of us have experienced this in Australia, too!

The bill swap

You give the driver a fifty, but look again and he's holding a five and insisting you've underpaid.

The bag swipe

Your bags are inside the cab, you're outside the cab, and the next thing you know the driver is speeding off with everything you own.

'That's not what I said!'

"Taking a cab to see Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the cabby said it'd be 14 rial on the way up and when he dropped us off afterwards he insisted he had said 40. That's what we get for not knowing Portuguese I guess. Similarly, a pedicab driver in Hanoi tried to tell us, after the ride, that the fee he had quoted was per passenger, not per ride." Tami

Taxi tips

  • Fair fare? If you're fresh off the plane and have no idea how many rupees it should cost you to get from Delhi Airport to the Taj Mahal, do your research first using a website like TaxiFareFinder.com or WorldTaximeter.com. Guide books, airport websites and hotel staff can also give you an idea of what to pay.
  • A meter matters. In a perfect world, every taxi would have a working meter tallying the correct and legal fare, but a perfect world wouldn't be a very interesting place to travel, would it? If you can't find a taxi with a meter, negotiate the fare first. If you can't agree on a fare, or suspect you might be about to get fleeced, then…
  • When in doubt, get out. If your driver tries to inflate the fare, just leave a reasonable amount on the seat and walk away. It's a good idea to have plenty of small notes and coins on hand for this reason, and because even the honest drivers might not be able to give you change.

"It's usually best to book a taxi from inside the airport or from your hotel," says Mackenzie. "In some countries, jumping in an unofficial taxi on the street might not just leave you facing an inflated fare, you could be putting your safety at risk."

An offer of a lift

"I arrived early in the morning at the West Gate of Beijing's Forbidden City to find it was still closed. Some men nearby offered to drive me to the East Gate, which they said was open, for three yuan (50 Australian cents). Half an hour later I found myself in the backstreets having a screaming argument with the men who were now demanding I pay them 300 yuan ($50). I was terrified and furious, but luckily I was able to walk away without giving them any money or getting hurt. It took me hours to walk back to my hotel." Rebecca

Credit card and ATM scams

Losing your credit card or unwittingly sharing your bank details can add thousands of dollars to your holiday expenses and can quickly turn your trip into a nightmare.

"As I trekked blissfully unaware through the volcanoes of Guatemala, my bank account was drained in a series of withdrawals. It seems the ATM, or something affixed to it, in the graceful main plaza of Antigua had skimmed or cloned my card. Luckily my bank refunded the money in the end." Catherine  

"Always check the travel advice for your destination at smartraveller.gov.au – it will tell you the countries where card skimming or duplication are major problems," says Mackenzie. "Try as much as possible to keep your credit card in sight when making payments, and monitor your account activity online if you can."

Watch your money

The Commonwealth Bank recommends the following steps to avoid fraud while travelling overseas:

  • Make sure your details are up-to-date before you leave so your bank can contact you at the first sign of suspicious activity.
  • Avoid using public computers as hackers sometimes install malware to record personal details. If you must, you should ensure no one can see the screen, don't leave the computer unattended, delete your browsing history, don't save login details and ensure you log out when finished.
  • Carry several different forms of money (cash and cards) to cover all eventualities.

The Mayan dollar

Travellers to Mexico's Mayan ruins may be delighted at first by the low prices of some souvenirs, but once they've agreed to buy that bargain pyramid paperweight for just five dollars, they learn the price is actually five Mayan dollars – which equates to whatever exchange rate the vendor wishes, since there's no such thing as a Mayan dollar.

Travellers can easily be misled by real currencies as well. If somebody quotes you "fifty", for example, always ask them, "fifty what?" You might be thinking 50 Mexican pesos while they might be asking for 50 US dollars – more than ten times as much.

Pickpockets

"Three men had a racket going on our train in Paris. One held open the doors to 'help' passengers on board, which was much appreciated by us with our bulky suitcases. Meanwhile the other two moved through the crowded carriage, dropping a big bunch of keys on the ground to serve as a distraction. It all happened in a couple of minutes, and after they'd left the train, murmurs of anger rumbled from some of the passengers. I just had to make a check – yes my wallet was gone." John

Catch the baby!

You're wandering the streets of Rome (or any other city) when suddenly a woman throws her baby at you, or worse – drops the baby on the ground! As you fumble to help, and quickly realise the baby is only a doll, the woman's actual family members deftly help themselves to the contents of your pockets.

It may sound far-fetched, but commotions like these create the perfect distraction for pickpockets. Watch out for skirmishes in crowds, people bumping into you, and even helpful strangers appearing from nowhere with a towel when a bird inexplicably poops on your head (and your wallet inexplicably vanishes).

Avoid pickpockets

  • Don't keep your wallet in your back pocket – it probably won't stay there for long.
  • If you have to carry valuables and cash with you, keep them securely inside your bag and casually keep your hand over the zipper when you're in a crowd.
  • Remember that expensive watches, jewellery and cameras are tempting targets for thieves – so are passports, which can be worth thousands of dollars.

Your passport is your most valuable document – you can't go far without it! Never give your passport as a form of deposit or ID, as scammers are aware of just how valuable they are. Hotel receptions will usually just ask for it to make a copy, but you should always get it back.  

Other scams

Fake police

"Police officers in Bangkok tried to fine us 10,000 baht ($350) for littering. They said they'd seen us drop cigarette butts on the ground – but although I had a pack in my hand, we hadn't smoked a cigarette in over an hour. We told them we didn't have that kind of money on us so they offered to escort us to the ATM. I got straight on the phone to the Australian embassy and pretty soon they lost interest in us and started hassling other tourists. We were later told that very often it really is actual police, off duty. They walk and talk and act like real cops, so that makes it even more difficult to know." Sam and Rachel

Police – even the real ones – can prey on tourists who aren't familiar with local laws. Dodgy cops in some countries have been known to issue tourists with an on-the-spot fine if they aren't carrying their passport , or to "search" wallets for counterfeit cash.

Is this your ring?

A passer-by asks if you've lost a ring. You tell them you haven't, but they give you the ring anyway and tell you it's your lucky day. As soon as you've accepted their gift, they demand payment. In a similar ruse, a friendly stranger might tie a bracelet around your wrist. If you refuse to pay for it, they'll (very loudly) call you a thief.

"If in doubt, the 'don't talk to strangers' rule applies," says Mackenzie. "The best way to avoid getting scammed by people on the street is to not engage in the conversation and walk away. And if a shop or market attendant offers you an item or product to hold, don't accept it if you don't have any intention of buying it."

The inflated bill

You're in a country where the food and drink is cheap, so you're not too concerned that the cafe doesn't have a price list … until the bill arrives. If you look like a tourist, you run the risk of getting charged "tourist prices", so make sure you know what you're in for before you order.

Lost deposit

You return your rental car, motorbike or jet ski, and the owner spies some "damage" and decides to keep your deposit. Worse yet, the vehicle is "stolen" and you're charged for a full replacement. Cases like these can be hard to argue, so try to avoid them all together by choosing a reputable hire company recommended by your hotel or travel agent. Take photos of the vehicle and point out any damage to staff before you set out.

A monkey's got my thongs!

"We were taken to Uluwatu Temple (Indonesia) and warned by our driver to be mindful of the monkeys. They are trained to steal your thongs, flip flops, glasses, cameras etc. As we trekked to see the most beautiful sunset in majestic Bali, we noticed the monkeys getting closer. Without any warning one monkey snatched my seven-year-old's thong off his foot as he went to walk and then another pinched the other one. A lady asked if we wanted to buy some peanuts to get the thongs back. We had been warned about this scam. I explained it was too late to retrieve the shoes since the monkey had started to eat them." Lis (posted on Tripadvisor)

Believe it or not, some people really do make money persuading thieving monkeys to give tourists back their belongings. It makes for such a great travel story, you might not even want to avoid it – though you may want to update your rabies shots!

Make a plan

"Know before you go," says Mackenzie. "Be aware of the risks and what they might mean for your health, your bank account and the impact on your friends and family … This might mean scheduling flights so that you arrive during daylight hours, booking hotels at the right end of town or getting your currency sorted before you leave Australia so that you're not trying to change money as soon as you arrive."

Check smartraveller.gov.au for up-to-date advice on scams and security risks in the country you're travelling to. Ask your travel agent for advice, and read the latest information on travel forums such as Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet.

And remember to buy travel insurance.

Happy travels

It's important to have your wits about you when travelling overseas, but it's also important to strike a balance between caution and paranoia. Most people aren't out to get you so don't be overly suspicious of everyone you meet. And don't forget to enjoy your holiday!


Leave a comment

Display comments