Few things are going to cause you stress on a trip abroad, like getting cheated, duped, taken advantage of or just plain screwed over. When we travel, we often let our guard down, because we're curious about people in our host country, we want to be liked, and we want to believe that we'll be treated fairly; however, there are plenty of scammers, schemers and slimy scheisters looking to cash in on our trust and optimism. And when we go someplace we're not familiar with, we're vulnerable: We often don't know our way around, may not be in charge of our transportation, may have very limited language skills, and may not know where to go for help. One of the best ways to defend ourselves against scammers is to know what their tricks are, and how to avoid them -- then you can go back to actually enjoying your vacation. This special series covers 18 of the most common universal scams.
1. Currency Swap
Many seasoned travelers keep a wary eye out for crooked cashiers and clerks around the world who give back the wrong change in bills (e.g., a 10 bill instead of a 20) in shops large and small. A less common, but more effective, scam is to give you back a 20 bill -- but it's the wrong currency. For example, a clerk in Beijing may give you back a 20 ruble note instead of a 20 yuan note. Since you see "20," you think all is good, and don't even notice the different currency -- but the clerk has just given you something worth one third of what you're owed (and hey, who wants to visit Russia these days anyway?)
With so many countries using different size notes and distinct colors for currency (a notable exception being the U.S.) you may think it's hard to get confused -- except when you're country-hopping, outside the Eurozone, or just in too much of a hurry to see if that somber guy drawn on your bill is from the country you're actually in.
2. "Non-Exportable" Gifts and Souvenirs
If you've fallen in love with (and immediately purchased) a unique handicraft made out of natural materials such as preserved plant products or small amounts of animal skin, feathers or fur, beware of these items being confiscated by border police -- not because it's prohibited to take such items out of the country, but because corrupt cops want to sell them back to the tourist shops (who peddle them to other unsuspecting travelers). This is a particular problem in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.
What should you do? Only buy natural product/"heritage" items from larger stores that provide information (such as in a product insert) about where the product came from. A good bet is to buy such items from government-operated museums, zoos, aquariums, or the like. At the other end of this scam, remember that legitimate border police should be able to produce written regulations stating what natural product items cannot be exported.
3. The "Red-Light Bag Grab"
Think your bags are safe beside you when you're sitting in your taxi at a red light? Not always so. In Southeast Asia, South America, and South Africa, thieves on motorbikes (or even on foot) may simply open the unlocked door across from you and grab your carry-on, briefcase, or purse. What's worse, your innocent-looking cab driver might be in on the scam.
To reduce the risk of this scam, make sure your taxi door and the one across from you is locked -- and by all means, try to avoid taxis with roof-top luggage racks which make the temptation even greater for crooks.
4. Dual Menus
A bar or restaurant can scam you by providing a menu with inexpensive prices, then taking the menu once you've ordered. Later you get a bill with double or triple the prices, and once you make a fuss, the manager produces a menu with the higher prices on it. This scam is most common in China and parts of Southern Europe.
A fairly straightforward way to avoid this is to simply hold onto the menu until you're ready to pay -- or better yet, stay out of bars or restaurants with too-good-to-be-true specials, and that clearly cater to tourists. Your hotel will probably be happy to tell you which restaurants in the neighborhood may give you indigestion in more ways than one.
5. "Per Person" Taxi Charge
Before you get into an unmetered taxi -- especially an independently-operated taxi in a country not known for treating tourists well -- ask the driver if the quoted price for you and your partner/friends is for the ride, or per person. Nothing is going to sour you and your (possibly) drunken group more than being told at your destination that you owe three or four times what you thought you did. Of course, you can always give the driver the price he gave you when you hired him, and walk away -- but it's inadvisable as you could be harassed, followed, or worse.
6. Your Passport as Security for Equipment Rental or Debt
The news that two passengers aboard Malaysian Air Flight MH370 traveled with stolen passports has generated a flurry of reports on how many passports are stolen every year -- and how easily people make themselves vulnerable to such scams. It's remarkable how many people will hand over their passport to people behind a counter in a foreign country -- even for things like kayak or motorbike rental. If a clerk in a beachside or roadside establishment demands your passport -- in addition to your credit card information -- in exchange for equipment rental, beware. Pay cash wherever possible, demand a receipt (even handwritten) and hand over some other form of identity (such as your work badge) instead.
Next week: Lodging scams, "free tours," forced upgrades and other things that will make you fume, rage and rant unless you wise up. Stay safe out there, and stay smart!