How Do You Avoid Tourist Scams?

Yesterday I posted an interesting infographic that Just The Flight put together about 40 tourist scams to avoid this summer. The list is totally spot on, and I’ve certainly fallen for quite a few of them over the years.

Reader Drew left an interesting comment on the post:

So what is the best way some of you all protect yourself? Like do you ignore everyone who approaches you to ask you a question and blow them off?

Iā€™m sure there are some genuine people who are lost and need help, and I would love to help them but if there is no way to know if they are going to scam you, I would rather ignore them and move on.

Thoughts??

I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because I’ve fallen for lots of these scams over the years. Or more accurately, I should say that I didn’t mind playing along with any of the “low risk” scams, because it’s amusing to see how they operate. If I’m going to be out a few minutes of my time or a few dollars I don’t mind — it’s a small price to pay for some entertainment and education on how the scams work. Of course I’ll avoid the ones that are actually dangerous.

But if you want to avoid falling for scams altogether, what should you do? I’m not really sure there’s a good answer. Yes, you could just brush everyone off that approaches you and have your guard up — that would probably do the trick. But at the same time I think one of the great things about traveling is being able to be an ambassador of sorts for your country/culture.

For example, a few weeks ago I was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and I was kind of surprised that we were almost the only non-Chinese tourists. I’ve never in my life been photographed so much and had so many people come up to us and ask if they can take a picture with us. Similarly, at least a handful of people came up to us and said “excuse me, may I have a conversation with you?” And that’s just because they wanted to practice their English.

Forbidden-City

The point is that over our two hours in the Forbidden City, we must have been approached by well over a dozen people, without a single one attempting a scam. Now in theory it’s possible one of them was trying to scam us, but is it worth ignoring over a dozen people that genuinely just want to talk over the risk of someone trying to scam you?
I think that’s kind of the other side of the “ignore everyone and you’ll never get scammed” coin.

That’s why I’m usually happy to play along. The thing about global tourism scams is that there are the same dozen or so scams you’ll see everywhere (and most of them are on the chart I posted yesterday), so once you recognize them you can move right on. For example, if someone offers to shine my shoes or drops a ring in front of me or tells me a tourist attraction is closed but offers to give me a tour instead, I’ll keep going.

But if they just want to talk, I’ll gladly play along. Sometimes I realize within a sentence they’re trying to scam me, in which case I may still keep playing along just to see where they’re going with it. Or sometimes you very quickly realize they’re just so excited to speak to someone from a different part of the world.

How about you? What approach do you take to avoiding scams?

Comments

  1. 1 – If anything sounds too good to be true, it probably is (ie; that new friend who approached you and wants you to come to his house for dinner, or that incredibly attractive woman who wants to go to a club and party with you).

    2 – the more touristed a place is, the more likely it is you’re being scammed. Same goes for border crossings.

    3 – if you’re in a country where nearly nobody speaks English and someone approaches you with perfect English, odds are they’re scamming you.

  2. Short answer: common sense.

    Long answer: be simultaneously friendly and skeptical until you can determine whether you’re being scammed or not. Sometimes it’s easier than others.

    Oh, really, Yaowarat Road is closed this evening and you’ll happily call me a tuk-tuk? Hey, you just found that ring on the ground and will happily sell it to me? Hey, that’s kind of you to offer my wife that rosemary that you’re carrying around in bunches; how nice of you to do that out of the kindness of your heart. Hello, friendly hotel room inspectors, come on in like they do in all the other hotels I’ve stayed at.

    I did have a woman in Cusco approach me to ask how to improve her writing skills, but I had literally just given her all of my cash for the massage she gave me, so if it was a scam (though it didn’t feel like it was) I was aware of the fact that I had no valuables on my person. If you can’t avoid the scam, at least minimize the damage.

  3. @lucky you are too nice, we ignored a bunch of Thai kids calling out to us, we travel for our amusement not to amuse other people. That’s my view anyways, my life is too short to waste on such things, plus I have a temper I would rather not interact with people who would ruin my mood. So if I need directions: I usually don’t, I seldom walk anywhere, if I’m driving I usually have maps, if it is not on the maps I stop and ask at a gas station or something other times I am in a car service so no issues. I do not really take long strolls along busy streets which may be why I have avoided lots of irritation, I walk in parks beaches etc but no real interest in taking a stroll on some high street. Some may say I am missing out but thus far I’m very happy with the way I travel, trouble free. I tend to avoid crowded and busy places, save a few that you would have to go anyways, Empire State, liberty, Eiffel etc that sort if stuff. Other than that I step into my car I step out, no rift raft in between.

  4. One common scam that I found in Paris this year occurred even among businesses that looked reputable. They try to make change for a bill that’s smaller than you give them. So, one piece of advice I have is always to announce what you’re handing someone. Another thing that’s not really a scam but happens in touristy areas, is if you walk into a cafe, they will hustle you to a table and press you into getting drinks, only to learn they are like 7 euros each, or something. Always look at prices in the menu before ordering. We got scammed in Copenhagen, by a cab driver who tried to take us to the wrong Radisson to add a few bucks to the meter. Fortunately, they were close and it cost maybe an extra 40 DKK or so to learn a valuable lesson, but I generally try to use google maps to watch where we’re going. Making certain you’re understood when you take a metered cab is good.

    I was sort of amazed how rampant this stuff was — not just by petty street thieves, but by established tourist providers. I was in Tallinn and paid for a soda with a two euro coin, and was given change for a one euro coin. I could tell the way she did it, she did it often. Sort of hesitating to see whether the customer knew what they had given. I sort of just smiled and gave her a “I know what you’re trying to do” look. I kind of got the idea that there’s a bit of a cultural sensibility about this stuff in certain countries that it’s not even dishonest, it’s just a game.

  5. … or live in new york city. after a couple years here, you’ll be trained to assume everyone (who doesn’t look like a tourist themselves) approaching is a scam artist, and just bark a big NO in their face before they unhinge their snake jaw.

  6. I have had the same experience in China and the further in you go, the more it happens. I was visiting my friend, who was there teaching English, and she told me half of all Chinese have never met/seen in real life a non Chinese person. That was 10 years ago though. Also, I had long blond hair and a lot of ladies wanted to touch it (not my favorite idea). My personal space was invaded often, but I was never once scammed or even had an attempt made. But stopping for pictures with others all the time did get a bit much.

    Five years ago, I was in Kyoto at a temple and saw a bunch (about 10) gals all wearing gorgeous kimono. I was trying to nonchalantly follow them and take pictures when one of them stopped me and wanted to do a group picture with me. I said sure, if we can also do one with my camera. Win win for everyone!

  7. A guy posing as a “baggage handler” at a Moscow train station tried to steal our bags. He kept offering to carry the bags, and we kept politely saying no. And he persisted. I feel like in most scammy situations, the scammer will persist, but if it’s a legitimate situation (like a real baggage handler, or someone legitimately wanting to have their photograph taken with you, or somebody offering you a taxi), they’ll leave you alone the moment you say no.

  8. Being treated like a celebrity is one of the perks of traveling to China in my opinion. Many mainland Chinese, particularly those from the interior, are so isolated from the outside world that they may have never seen a white person before. And if you are taller than average or have red hair, you might as well be Tom Cruise. It would be a shame to blow them off and give the Chinese an unfavorable impression of Americans. We need all the help we can get with our global reputation.

  9. @ Lucky – And if you are having breakfast and someone asks to buy the shirt you are wearing? What kind of scam is that? šŸ™‚

  10. There were so few Americans who spectated at the Sochi Olympics that whenever my friends and I had the USA flag out, we’d be bombarded with Russians wanting to take photos with us! Definitely something I’m not used to but my friend and I didn’t mind.

    As far as avoiding scams, I almost always just speak a non-English language at them (I bet you speaking German would work in Asia.) I’ve found that to be the best way to avoid contact/communication with anyone trying to scam me.

  11. Lucky, in China it’s pretty common to have taxi drivers quote you a high fixed price, even though they’re supposed to use the meter. I had one driver laugh at me when I told him to turn the meter on. (But the official rates in China are so low I doubt that cabbies can support themselves without some “extras”.)

  12. A lot of scams start with asking where you are from,

    I always reply Rhodesia. several times the scammers say they have a brother/sister, uncle, ect. living there, and ask if I know them.

  13. Yeah, my 3 kids (all blond) had a line of people waiting to take pictures, hold, rub hair, in the forbidden city. We couldn’t even stop for a snack on the street or a crowd would form around us.

  14. Funny enough, I was at the Forbidden City in May and for the entire time I was there I had a total of TWO people come up to me. One was trying to sell souvenir photos and one was trying to sell a rickshaw ride. And both times I just told them “no, I don’t need it” in my most passable Mandarin approximation possible and they stopped immediately. Rickshaw dude was a bit persistent, but I just kept walking and he didn’t follow. I was on a tight schedule anyway. And I truly stand out like a sore thumb in China – not many guys running around China with a long, light-coloured ponytail. Taxis? Couldn’t get one to go where I wanted at all. Had more outright rejections than ripoffs. The couple that even bothered to offer quoted a pretty reasonable rate (or at least I only paid 10RMB more than my native-speaking friend) – but then again one of the first things to learn in a language is to count to pre-negotiate taxi rates.

    But, normally I just tell people, politely, that I don’t have any money/time/soup/cats/whatever in whatever language I think they don’t understand. Normally…. Polish. In Poland, French. Sometimes Mandarin, for fun. It doesn’t matter that I only know a handful of phrases in the latter and my French is horrifying. The point is it’s more than they know, and it gets the job done. And if they DO speak Polish…. well good on them, I guess they get to do their pitch.

    So yeah, the best way to deal with scammers is to confuse them.

  15. When I went to China I was also completely overwhelmed by curious Chinese people, I can totally relate to “feeling like a celebrity” over there. People asking to take pictures with you and stuff. It starts to feel weird when they actually line up, but they were harmless.

    On the other hand, I can relate to the other side of things, the local who approaches tourists.

    I live in Madrid,and I usually help tourists when I can (ie giving directions in the subway) because in Spain, English speakers are hard to find.
    The people I have helped, or given directions to, have never mistrusted me or felt I was going to scam them in any way, and I think I would not be at ease with anyone “barking” at me, NYC style, for trying to help. šŸ™
    Although seeing Spain’s record on the “40 scams” infograph I wouldn’t blame them! Too bad, but I think I will still try being an ambassador to my country.

  16. @Katie: your story reminds me of a friend of mine that many years ago went to China on a business trip and visited a small town where he was probably the first non Chinese that ever visited the place. Many people asked to take pictures with him. Many years later he goes back to the same location, now a bigger city. He goes to a restaurant and after a while he sees that many people working there are pointing to him and whispering in each others ears. They were clearly talking about him. He finally realizes that there is a huge picture of him in the restaurant (one of the many he took many years ago) and people were recognizing him from the picture. He was a celebrity there šŸ™‚

  17. 1. Wear a money belt and keep your passport and the bulk of your money in it. (Or keep these things in the safe in your hotel room.) That way, if a pickpocket gets your wallet, he won’t get much.

    2. In crowded tourist places, ignore people who approach you. You aren’t being rude. You have no obligation to respond. I rarely respond with anything more than the most cursory of head shakes. Once they see I’m determined to keep moving and the expression on my face is somewhere between blank and a snarl, hawkers and such people tend to give up pretty easily.

    3. Visit out-of-the-way places that aren’t on the main tourist routes. There will be far, far fewer scam artists there. Scammers and thieves need a big population of vulnerable potential victims. So stay away from there. Of course you’ll want to see the major tourist sites, but just be particularly careful there, and don’t spend your entire trip surrounded by other tourists.

    4. Know the prices of things. How much should a taxi from the airport to your hotel cost? Are you likely to run into a bunch of touts clamoring for your business? Is there a prepaid taxi desk? It’s pretty easy to figure all this stuff out by some cursory web searches before you go. Ask the front desk staff at your hotel about prices, too – for everything, from fruit sold by street vendors to the cost of a tuk-tuk to downtown.

  18. With this having to negotiate thing in Beijing everyone should just use Uber.. why bother with anything else..with Uber if they mess with you, the company fixes the fares LOL no need to engage in argument about route or fare šŸ™‚ Bliss…

    I get most of my clothes tailored, even my jeans (check out http://www.viapiana.com) and I get the guy tailor a hidden pocket the size of a passport which i keep money or passport in no way anyone can get to it, also all my pockets are jeans style and in the front, unless you wanna grab my junk you are not going to get my wallet LOL, I have no idea how people deal with normal side slit pockets stuff will fall out of there willy nilly. you can do this to your current wardrobe it attaches at or under the waist band area…

  19. Assume all taxi drivers are trying to rip you off, because a good percentage are. Had a real slick one in Vegas last trip – didn’t get me but see how he would get others and make them feel good about it – shall I take local or the expressway? Expressway sounds fast like the good choice, right? It isn’t. I told him to take X local street to Y local street (which I’d Google’d upon landing, which is why I can’t recite the street names off the top of my head now), and cut his tip down.

  20. As a women traveling solo for so long, I have developed a very hard shell when it comes to this stuff and tend to walk and ignore when I can. I now pay in small bills to avoid the cash scams with larger bills. In Paris at Sacre Coeur with the bracelet guys who swarm you, I said “don’t touch me a bit loudly” and they all moved quickly (my friend was embarrassed by me but oh well). For taxis, I often have the bellman negotiate the fare (in Paris the pre-ordered base fare was higher than it would be for locals I was told). And when approached asking “Do you speak English”, I respond in the local language that I don’t and continue walking. Common sense and gut feeling also comes into play

  21. @philatravelgirl – why would your friend be embarrassed you your saying “don’t touch me”? You have a right to not be touched, and to object if someone is touching you. I would have absolutely zero problem with saying that very loudly and emphatically.

    It seems to me that many of these scams rely on people’s politeness and unwillingness to raise a fuss. I tend to be very polite, but when I’m in an area where i know that scam artists operate, I train myself that my automatic reaction should not be the polite one, but the assertive one – even if it makes me seem like a jackass to whomever happens to be around. But why would I care about that? Hardly anyone is paying attention to me, and even if they are I’m not hurting anyone, and finally I feel perfectly justified in protecting myself.

  22. As someone living in a big city (Philly with frequent visits to NYC), I have learned not to make eye contact in the first place. If you look someone in the eye, they will take it as a cue to step in closer and start the hard sell. Much easier not to make eye contact and keep on walking. Also, keep your hands in your pockets (if you have them). Pretty much impossible to force something into your hand or onto your arm that way.

    On the other hand, I try to be relaxed about stuff away from transit and major tourist areas. I don’t want to miss connecting with people because I’m afraid. And I’ve had some very friendly people offer to help me out when I seemed lost – these have never been scams. I do, however, keep a really close eye on the camera if someone asks me to take their picture. So far, haven’t been a victim of any camera scams.

  23. I’ve been scammed a few times. Most were annoying, but pretty harmless! The waiter who served me in Bali and then proceeded to ask if I was looking for a boyfriend! The rikshaw guy in Jodphur who took me to jewllery shops instead of the bookshop that I requested. The taxi driver who took me 30 mins out of my way when the place I wanted was actually next door. We’d been walking for so long and we still hadn’t found where we were going. We were so close!

    But the scam that I thought could have caused me a potential problem was in Madrid (sorry Spain)! I had planned to meet up with a Canadian girl and when she went to the bathroom, a man came up behind me and said that I had dropped ā‚¬5.00! I said that I hadn’t. He said that there was ā‚¬5.00 under my chair. I said that it wasn’t mine. He said that it was free money and I should take it! Hmm! The more he insisted, the more I held tightly to the 4 camera, 2 handbags, and other stuff on our table. I did not turn around once. I had a feeling that if I did, the strange woman who suddenly appeared near our table, would swipe our stuff. I admit that I was a little scared, so when my friend came back. We left.
    The ā‚¬5.00 was still on the floor!

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