Travel Scams: 6 Ways to Get Ripped Off

Travel scams come in all shapes and sizes, popping up here at home or around the world – just about anywhere people like to visit and do some sightseeing. Here are some of the most common scams (and one very uncommon one), and how to avoid them.

Listen: FareCompare’s Rick Seaney and Anne McDermott share their own personal scam scares.

1. Bump and run pickpocket scam

It appears like one of those minor, everyday accidents – someone bumps into you, and there’s a brief flurry of confusion as the other person distracts you with apologies and perhaps helps you pick up something you’ve dropped. You part ways amiably. Then you find out your cash is gone.

What to do: Always be alert to your surroundings and do not engage with any strangers who try to distract you. Carry cash and credit cards in a secure location (and guys, that means no wallets in back pockets). Women should keep purses tightly zipped and close to your body (snugly under an arm is good). Money belts are great for all travelers or keep extra cards/excess cash in the hotel safe. If you do lose cards or passports, learn what to do here.

Your credit cards and passport are missing – what to do

2. Middle of night credit card scam

I noticed this one in Time magazine. Apparently, rip-off artists call your hotel room in the middle of the night to say there’s been a computer problem and can they have your credit card number again?

What to do: Need I say it? Do not give your card number over the phone. On the off chance it’s a legitimate call, phone the front desk. Chances are they won’t know what you’re talking about but if they do, they’ll wait for you to show up with your card in the morning.

Pack it all in a carry-on – yes, it can be done

3. Asian gem shop scam

Many travelers to Bangkok have heard of this one. Either a freelance guide or a tuk tuk driver (a fellow with a three-wheeled motorized vehicle) approaches to offer taxi and/or tourist services but instead of taking you to any attractions – which supposedly are all shut down – they take you to a gem shop that just so happens to be having an amazing sale. You’ll be pressured to buy stones that will turn out to be worthless or worth far less than what you paid for them.

What to do: Pre-arrange guides and transportation before heading to an unfamiliar country, or wait in line for a taxi like everyone else. Sure beats getting steered wrong.

Free tickets? Uh, not really

4. Free ticket scam

Two methods: One is an out-and-out scam where you’re asked by an email supposedly from an airline to give up your credit card number as verification in exchange for free tickets. Don’t do it and don’t click any links.

The other supposed freebie isn’t exactly a scam but chances are you won’t get anything totally for free either, and the airline involved in this “giveaway” likely knows nothing about it. Typically, this free ticket message arrives via snail mail, and it’s a come-on to get you to sit through a high-pressure sales pitch. Your reward is a flight voucher that is highly restrictive and may require you to fork over a substantial amount of cash for taxes or fees.

What to do: Anytime you hear about such an offer, reflect on the old maxim, “There’s no free lunch.” Read the fine print on any offer, and/or check out the airline’s website and search for the term “phishing.”

5. Stripper scam

This one, from travel guru Rick Steves, is a new wrinkle on the old distraction dodge. A woman who’s in on the scam is accused of shoplifting and to prove her innocence, starts removing her clothes while – not surprisingly – a crowd gathers around. After she ‘proves’ her innocence, she disappears, which is when the spectators discover their money has disappeared, too.

What to do: See number one.

6. Luggage squeeze scam

Here’s a new one on me: An agile thief who must be an incredible contortionist squeezes himself (or herself) into a big bag which is then placed in the cargo compartment of a bus and during the long ride, this person gets out, rifles other suitcases and puts the loot back in the original bag and re-enters it. I can’t imagine this happens often, but apparently it’s been tried in Spain.

What to do: Leave all valuables at home. Keep hand-held electronics on your person.

How to Avoid Many Scams

Think like a local: The more you stay away from the usual tourist haunts – outside the glide path of practiced scammers – the better off you’ll be. Use phone apps for off-the-beaten-tourist-path destinations and attractions and dine where the locals do. You might wind up having a lot more fun.

More from Rick Seaney:

Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them


Published: November 25, 2013