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15 common tourist scams to avoid while you travel

A trip to Barcelona, Rome, Prague, Madrid or Paris, might seem like a great opportunity to spice up your Instagram feed. Yet to a seasoned traveller, these five destinations would ring alarm bells as the five worst cities for pickpockets.

Losing your wallet isn't the only tourist scam you have to worry about on holiday. One in ten holidaymakers falls victim to a travel scam during their trip. Holidaymakers are an ideal target for lone opportunists and organised criminal gangs. When you're on vacation, you might be speaking a different language, handling an unfamiliar currency, and dropping your guard. To make sure you come back with the right memories from your trip, watch out for these 15 common types of tourist scam.

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Holiday Scam #15: Pickpockets and street distraction

Wherever there are big crowds and lots of sightseers, expect pickpockets to be working at close quarters. First they have to distract you, and the gambits they use are seemingly endless, from a squirt of mustard on your shoe to a baby thrust towards your face. You can't always keep your distance, but you can keep your wits (and your wallet).

Travel tip: Invest in an anti-theft backpack that has a concealed zipper and an anti-slash mesh lining, carry a decoy wallet in your pocket, and don't walk around a busy city carrying a tourist map.

Holiday Scam #14: Free gifts that aren't

Strangers slip a friendship bracelet onto your wrist or a lucky charm into your hand then begin to loudly demand payment at a non-competitive price point. As an optional twist, an accomplice is also pickpocketing you while you attempt to resolve the original commotion.

Travel tip: Practice the charm-offensive of the experienced traveller, avoiding eye contact and advancing with pace and purpose past trinket-wielding hawkers.

Holiday Scam #13: Wrong change

Especially if you're in a country that doesn't use the euro or US dollar, fraudsters might deploy a slow count when handing back change in local denominations in the hope of triggering your impatience. That allows them to short change you or even slip fake notes into your waiting hands.

Travel tip: Use a currency-exchange app to familiarise yourself with local exchange rates, slow down, and double-check your change with each transaction.

Holiday Scam #12: Skimming scam

This scam is reputedly on the rise in south-east Asia. Watch out for any store or restaurant that takes your credit card into a back room when you pay. They can copy or skim your card and load it with unauthorised transactions before you realise what happened in your next statement.

Travel tip: Do pay with a credit card, which gives you better consumer protection, but don't let it out of your sight when paying.

Holiday Scam #11: Rigged ATM

This scam can occur at home and abroad. It involves criminal gangs who fit ATMs with card slots to read your PIN. An accomplice behind you in the line will watch where you put your card before liberating it later for a spending spree.

Top tip: Pay attention to your surroundings when you use an ATM and avoid any machine that appears to have been tampered with.

Holiday Scam #10: Spiked local delicacies

It could be drinks in bars or snacks on a train journey. Criminals can take advantage of vulnerable tourists by offering them spiked food or drink in order to rob them or rack up apparently authorised charges on their cards. One of the most sinister versions is scopolamine in Colombia, which puts victims into a trance-like state and under full control of the scammer for hours at a time.

Top tip: Travel with a drink spiking test kit and learn to politely refuse hospitality that doesn't feel right.

Holiday Scam #9: Timeshare timewasters

The scourge of popular beach destinations in particular, timeshare scouts will love-bomb you with a sales pitch and the offer of a guaranteed prize or free vacation week. In reality, you will lose a couple of hours or more of valuable holiday time attending a sales presentation before discovering that - on a technicality - there's no free gift.

Top tip: Eyes down, keep on walking.

Holiday Scam #8: Fake wifi hub

You need wifi on your travels, but don't drop your guard on identity theft just because you're abroad. Scammers can create a free unlocked wifi hub and give it an authentic-looking name. Their goal is to steal your data, including passwords and bank details.

Top tip: Use a VPN and avoid unsecured public wifi in airports, coffee shops and on public transport in particular.

Holiday Scam #7: Scams by taxi

Taxi drivers are not just an essential source of local information and travel anecdote. They can be a reliable source of scams too. They may try to scam you on price, by telling you that the metre is broken or shortchanging you with local currency, or insist that your destination hotel is full/closed and that they will help you out by taking you to their (cousin's) better alternative.

Top tip: Avoid unregulated taxis, book a pre-paid trip using the official airport taxi concession, and take note of the driver's licence plate and taxi number.

Holiday Scam #6: Restaurant scams

It's not just high-end restaurants that omit the prices on the menu or wine list. Shady ones will do it too, in order to ambush you with high-end prices once you've finished. Add in the language barrier and it can make for an uncomfortable evening.

Top tip: Pay with a credit card, but only once you've confirmed prices (and surcharges) before ordering.

Holiday Scam #5: Fake goods

Certain destinations pride themselves on their local scarves, leather, silk prints, carpets, ceramics or more. And those are just the legal options. Scammers will either:
Show you a genuine item but sell you a cheap fake.
Offer to gift wrap it for you and switch it with a fake or filler (even newspaper).
Arrange to ship it directly to your home address, without success.

Travel tip: Just as you would with Black Friday scams, repeat the "too good to be true"mantra while browsing any bazaar, emporium or market and always open a package on-site.

Holiday Scam #4: 0% commission

Seemingly reputable-looking currency exchange agencies will lure you in with a 0% commission. That's the bait. The switch is that the conversion rate they use is even worse than the one you'll find in an airport departure lounge bureau.

Travel tip: Save on all your overseas transactions with CurrencyFair. Transfer money between currencies at lower cost and a competitive rate.

Holiday Scam #3: Uninvited companion

This dramatic scam has a familiar narrative that starts with a friendly bartender and a beautiful woman, but concludes with a big, burly bouncer. No matter how irresistible your charms, be suspicious of any stranger who joins you at a bar, especially if they are followed by expensive bottles of champagne or cocktails. They'll soon make their excuses and leave, leaving you to make yours if you want to do the same in one piece.

Travel tip: If a stranger invites you for a drink at a bar they know, suggest one that you choose instead.

Holiday Scam #2: Car or bike rental

You might think you've returned a scooter or car in perfectly good condition, but your rental agency argues otherwise. They may often provide a mechanic to "confirm"that there's structural or mechanical damage.

Travel tip: Even if you want to get going, never skip the initial vehicle inspection, and take photos of all existing bodywork, tires etc.

Holiday Scam #1: Bogus fees or fines

Preying on law-abiding travellers are bogus border crossing guards, railway ticket collectors and hotel room inspectors intent on strong-arming their victim into paying a fee or fine. They may appear to have the badge and ID to support their demands, but they know that you don't know what the genuine credentials look like.

Travel tip: Before paying any fee or fine, request a receipt and badge numbers. If you can, call the local police to check or search online. That alone may be enough for them to wave you through.

How to report scams

If you are scammed while travelling, you need to report the incident immediately to the following:

  • Local police - You will need a police report to make an insurance claim back home.

  • Your bank - Block all your cards if necessary and request a refund on any unauthorised payments. If you are stuck without funds overseas, your bank fraud department should be able to deliver a replacement quickly to a local pick-up point.

Check your statements online and freeze your credit report so that no one can open up new lines of credit in your name if your identity is stolen.

And finally, if you're sending money abroad, always use a regulated foreign exchange platform such as CurrencyFair. Not only will you avoid excessively steep local currency exchange fees, but you'll also reduce your need to carry the cash that local scammers are intent on taking.

Transfer money safely and securely, with world-class customer support and competitive exchange rates up to eight times cheaper than the banks.

Learn more

This information is correct as of April 2022. This information is not to be relied on in making a decision with regard to an investment. We strongly recommend that you obtain independent financial advice before making any form of investment or significant financial transaction. This article is purely for general information purposes. Photo by Tanya Dusett on Unsplash.

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