Don’t Fall for These Holiday Travel Scams

You may run into these scams year-round but they seem to generate more buzz during the holidays. Maybe it’s a reality check of sorts, to be alert whenever you travel – even during the season of peace on earth, good will toward men.

No-scam zone: How to find best-priced holiday flights

Four Travel Scams

These scams have played out in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world and while most of us probably don’t have to worry, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Besides, it’s a fun read.

1. Email requests for money

The man who supposedly sent the following email earlier this month – and the recipient – are distant cousins who have a friendly relationship but don’t speak often. The recipient’s first thought was maybe the email is legit. It wasn’t.

  • Subject line: “Awful trip”. Text of message:

“Sorry for any inconvenience, I’m in a terrible situation. Am stranded here in Manila, Philippine since last night. I was beaten and robbed on my way to the hotel I stayed and my luggage is still in custody of the hotel management pending when I make payment on outstanding bills I owe. Am waiting for my assistant to send me money to get back home but he hasn’t responded. pls let me know if you can help and I will refund the money back to you as soon as I get back home. My return flight will be leaving soon, please let me know if I can count on you.”

What to do: Step 1, do not send money. Step 2, use your common sense. If someone knows you well enough to ask for money, wouldn’t you know they were out of the country? Ask yourself other common sense questions like, Don’t most hotels require credit cards upon check-in? If any doubts remain, ask the sender a question only he or she could answer. Again, these emails are almost always a scam so do not send money.

2. Postcard notification of free flights

Postcards promising free flights have been appearing in mailboxes all over the U.S. This one was received in December:

“Southwest Autumn Celebration: Congratulations! We’ve selected you to receive two (2) round trip, coach class airline tickets. Call this number!”

The name of Southwest Airlines is plastered all over the postcard, but Southwest had nothing to do with this (we asked). Nor are these free tickets totally free; as the postcard notes in teeny-tiny letters, that winner may have to pay taxes and fee (which can really add up). FareCompare has called the numbers on several of these postcards and learned that the requirement for getting the so-called freebie often involves sitting through a long, high-pressure sales pitch for condos or travel clubs.

What to do: Depends. How many hours of your life are you willing to give up for a couple of airline tickets that will cost you something, may take you somewhere you don’t really want to go, at a time you don’t want to travel?

3. Bump and run money grab

These scams work because victims get distracted. Some recent anecdotes:

A tourist in Rome is “accidentally” bumped into by two women, one of whom holds a baby. As the three make their apologies, one of the women helpfully brushes the man off, straightens his coat, and vanishes. So does the man’s wallet. [Note: The ‘baby’ is often a realistic-looking doll]

Local man tries to sell you a cheap bracelet or bauble; while describing its charms at length, his buddy picks your pocket.

Nice guy offers to take your photo with your new camera or fancy phone; as you get ready to pose, he takes off with your gadget.

Fellow diner at an outdoor cafe bumps into your table and spills a drink; as he mops up the mess he spouts a steady stream of apologies, but by the time he leaves he may have all your money.

What to do: There are a few things.

  • Don’t let valuables sit around unattended (such as a phone on a restaurant table).
  • Never sling a purse over the back of a chair where you can’t see it.
  • Keep money, cards, passports  in a safe place on your person, in front where you can reach these items perhaps in money belt worn at the waist or around the neck. Note to men: Your back pants pocket is not a safe place.
  • Be aware of where valuables are at all times, but no showing off; displaying cash is not smart no matter where you travel.

4. Laptop thefts

This isn’t so much a scam as it is easy pickings for thieves. The scene of the crime is often airport security; travelers get distracted as they empty pockets or walk through scanners so they’re not paying attention to the laptop as it goes along the conveyer belt. When it comes out, a thief in the crowd can easily pick it up and walk away before its owner is even aware it’s gone.

What to do: Keep your eyes on anything valuable at security. Plus don’t blame it all on thieves! Airport and security lost & founds are filled with laptops and other expensive electronic gadgets that were left behind by preoccupied passengers. Don’t be one of them.

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Updated: December 11, 2014