Traveler Beware: Avoiding Common Travel Scams

One of the best parts about adventure travel is relaxing, trying new things, and reveling in unfamiliar people and places. But getting conned isn’t part of the “local color” anyone really wants to experience.

Even the most experienced travelers can fall for a scam if they let themselves get distracted, rushed, or overtired. Many travel scams are a variation on one of several themes: money “errors”, pick pocketing or other diversion theft, and fraud targeted specifically at foreigners.

Money changing and counting “errors” are by far the most common scams that travelers fall for because so many of us just don’t bother with doing the math for ourselves.  Scambusters  says the two most common scams American travelers fall prey to are a slow count and bill identification “mistakes”.   Here’s how they work.

A taxi driver, vendor, or even a bank teller spots a foreign traveler who can’t tell one local bill from another, so they take a higher value note after identifying it as a low-value note. (The equivalent of taking a $100 bill and telling the customer it was a $10.) How to protect yourself: As soon as you get your local money from the bank or currency exchange, write down what each bill is, and what it looks like, especially if you don’t recognize the numerals. Don’t allow anyone else to identify your bills for you – do it yourself against your own notes or a photocopied page from a reference like, so there’s no question about the value of a local bill.

Tip: Some currencies (Jordan, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, and China, for examples) have familiar, western-style numerals on the BACK, but use local numbering systems on the front.

Cashiers in high tourist districts flourish on a scam known as the “slow count.” They count change (inaccurately) in between long confusing pauses, hoping you’ll just grab the (incorrect) stash and take off.  The solution: Pay attention to the count, and be patient when accepting change.

Pick pocketing and diversion theft scams are just that: thefts that happen when you allow yourself to be distracted. The only defense is to pay attention to your surroundings, especially when approached by strangers.

Fraud targeted specifically at foreigners can be the hardest to spot. For instance, near the end of an 18-month journey through Africa and Asia, a couple we know was getting onto a bus between two towns in Indonesia when a conductor (in uniform, with tickets) approached them and asked for the fare. They had expected to pay about 5,000 Rupiah for each ticket, so when the conductor said the fare was 7,000 Rupiah, they were surprised, but handed over the cash – and then went back to their conversation without noticing that the “conductor” immediately exited the bus without asking any of the locals to pay the fare. A few minutes later, the real conductor entered the bus and started collecting the fare – 5,000 Rupiah – from every passenger.

Travel scams happen, but they don’t have to happen to you. One good source of information is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, where international travelers swap stories.  Use the search function and type in “scams” for messages that deal specifically with travel scams.

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