Avoiding travel scams

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of United States  , New York
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

As a traveler, there is always at the back of your mind, the worry that you'll be ripped off. Or worse still, that your kidney will be ripped out.

Sure, you need to be cautious and smart if you are traveling, particularly to a place where you are a stranger - even more so if you don't speak the language.

In China I've had a few run-ins with taxi drivers. In one case, we called the police and had to wait a few hours to get something sorted out - the driver quoted a price which we thought was the fare, but he claimed it was the flagfall rate. Then he took us and other passangers, but tried to charge us more money, even though he had got some money from the other two passengers. It was after a long train journey overnight, and we were in no mood for this kind of stuff.
We called the police. The police came, but did nothing. Eventually a plain-clothes policeman arrived, just like in the movies - very cool and laid back - and eventually it got sorted out.

There's a list of travel scams just published this week by the Sun Herald:

If there is a sucker born every day, there is probably also a new travel scam.

Thousands of travellers every year are parted from their luggage or money and many of these incidents can be prevented with a bit of common sense.

Here are some of the most common travel scams and tips on how to avoid them.


You get into a taxi and ask to be taken to a certain hotel, only to be told by the driver that he just tried to take someone else there and the hotel was full.

He helpfully recommends another hotel, which just happens to have a vacancy - and happens to pay commission to taxi drivers.

I fell for this one in Mexico, paying for a night in a more expensive hotel before discovering that the original hotel had plenty of vacancies.

How to avoid it: ring from the airport to make a booking or ask the taxi driver to wait while you check that the hotel has a room (don't leave your bags in the taxi!).


A kid in the street points out that you have bird poo on your shoe and says he can clean it off for a modest sum.

He just happens to have a shoe cleaning kit under his arm - and guess how the poo got on your shoe in the first place?

Melbourne-based travel industry veteran Geoff, who spends a lot of time in countries such as India, says he has had "bird poo" on his shoe more times than he can remember.

"But you have to admire the kids' spirit, I'm happy to give them a couple of dollars," he says.

How to avoid it: just laugh and pay up - many street kids make a living out of shoe cleaning.


This is a more serious scam, where one member of a gang slashes the shirt of your travelling companion while another mugs you for your jewellery or camera.

James, a publisher from Queensland, suffered a minor cut to his shoulder when this scam was used on him and his wife Jenny in Rio de Janeiro. While a shocked James was busy trying to work out what had happened, Jenny had her gold necklace ripped from her neck.

How to avoid it: don't be a target - buy yourself a cheap plastic watch and leave all your jewellery in a safe place at home.


The shopkeeper tells you she needs to go out the back to process your credit card, when what she really means is to copy your credit card.

This is also sometimes done under the counter, where the card is swiped through a second machine that records the details.

Well-travelled Elizabeth Bay couple Alex and Sophie had their card copied in Greece and discovered they were "buying" jewellery and other expensive items long after they had left the country.

How to avoid it: never let your credit card out of your sight and only use it in well-established shops and restaurants.


You put your padlocked bag up on the rack while you sleep on the train and when you wake up you discover your bag has been cut open and half emptied.

Locking your bag to the rack with a bike lock is a good start but many thieves simply slash bags open to rifle through them.

How to avoid it: use a hard-shell, lockable suitcase or invest in a Pacsafe protector, a tough wire net that goes around your rucksack.


It is amazing how often a "broken" taxi meter suddenly comes to life when you threaten to get another taxi. Or how a 10-minute trip can take half an hour, with a lot of twists and turns.

Dodgy taxi drivers are one of the most common complaints among travellers but also one of the easiest to get around.

How to avoid it: insist that the driver either use the meter or agree a price up front. Ask hotel staff or locals how much the fare should be and make sure the driver knows that you know.


Some of the money changers you encounter on the street ought to be working as magicians. Distractions are often used to short-change travellers and they have also been known to duck away to "get change" and not come back.

How to avoid it: work out in advance how much you should be getting and don't walk away until you have counted it. Official money changers are a better bet.


This usually involves some sort of distraction, such as an altercation in the street.

How to avoid it: keep the strap of your bag across your body, or around your chair leg if you are in a cafe. Try to avoid carrying a bag if you are just out for the day.

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