Fly-By-Night Friday: 7 Common Travel Scams To Watch Out For

Street vendors are generally trustworthy, but make sure to count your change. (Ericka Hamburg photo.)
Street vendors are generally trustworthy, but make sure to count your change. (Ericka Hamburg photo.)

By Sharyn Alden

Travel is all about letting go of the daily grind and having fun. But while you’re having the time of your life in Rome, London or Singapore, don’t let your guard down. Even the most innocent-looking person showing you a street game or lost ring might be planning to grab your wallet or passport.

Most people are on the up and up, but where tourists flock – train stations, city parks, and world-famous landmarks like the Louvre  and St. Mark’s Square – scammers congregate.

Look at yourself from a scammer’s perspective. Are you hanging onto a guidebook while snapping pics of some landmark? To those looking for a fast buck, you might as well have a sign on your back saying, “Yes I’m a tourist, I don’t know what I’m doing and I have money to throw away.”

Lots of things label you as an easy mark to scammers: flashing big wads of money when you make a purchase, wearing expensive or dramatic clothing and accessories, traveling alone (especially if you’re female), or giving the impression that you’re ignorant of local customs (in some countries it is not okay to wear shorts in public, for instance).

This isn’t a new thing. At many legendary tourist haunts in Europe and Asia, con artists have been awaiting crowds of tourists for centuries.

You aren’t going to stop scammers who operate on streets and in city squares and public spaces, but you can sharpen your travel smarts and realize what’s going on. Then all you have to do is say “No thanks” and mean it. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Here are seven of the most popular and effective scams to be aware of and avoid.

  1. “I’ll take your picture.” Beware of someone who offers to take your picture in front of a landmark. He may have been watching when you looked around for someone to snap your pic with a friend. If you give him your smartphone or camera to take your photo, he may ask you for money before he returns it. It you refuse, he may simply run off with your camera or set up pickpockets to do their thing. You can avoid this by taking selfies or by asking someone reputable, like a museum official, to snap a few shots. Don’t give your camera to anyone who wants to help you. Besides losing the camera, you’ll be losing whatever photos were stored on it.
  2. Valuable ring drop. In Paris, I commiserated with other travelers who had had a similar experience. The con artist taps you on the shoulder and asks if the ring on the sidewalk (which they dropped) is yours. After you say no, they say it looks valuable, and they’ll sell it to you at a good price. If they sound convincing enough, you haven’t realized it’s a scam. They may say they’ll “give” it to you since they “found” it right next to you, but not without exchanging money for it. It’s so easy to fall for this one, which points up a cardinal rule for travelers: If it feels like a scam, it probably is. No one who has found a valuable ring is going to try to pry money out of you on the street. By the way, the “dropped ring” has a cousin, the “dropped wallet.” Both use the same concept to take your money.
  3. Finger trap. This one is so ridiculous, you can just imagine a few scammers sitting around thinking this up and someone saying it’ll never work. But it does, and it’s caught unsuspecting tourists for years. Street entertainers show off their skills by making intricate designs using string. They tell a vulnerable onlooker they’ll show them how it works. All they have to do is put their finger on the string to help “release” the patterns. At that point the trickster tightens the string and the onlooker’s finger is caught so tight they can’t get away – and they won’t be let go unless they “donate” some money.
  4. Heads up – here comes a baby! Scammers know how to use shock value to clean out your pockets. Imagine you’re walking down the street when out of nowhere someone throws a baby at you! Momentarily you’re in shock, and while chances are that “baby” is a doll wrapped in a blanket, the shock effect is the same. Within seconds the people who threw the baby are going through your pockets or bag, grabbing valuables, and running. Another version involves a drunken young woman – or rather, a young person playacting — distracting you while thieves rifle your pockets and purse.
  5. Street games. So you’re walking along in Florence or London or Prague, and you come across people playing sidewalk games. They might involve puzzles, balls and cups, matchsticks, or magic tricks. If a player asks you to join them, walk away. It’s easy to get caught up in the crowd that forms around the games. You may feel safe because no one is asking you for money. Not so fast. They’re not asking because one of the street performer’s partners plans to pick your pockets while you watch the entertainment.
  6. “Helpful” helpers appear. Watch out for friendly helpers who sense you are a tourist needing assistance. They hang out at transportation hubs, city landmarks, cab stands — anywhere where you, the newcomer, need help navigating the culture and fares. They may even look “official,” with a “uniform” of some sort. I fell for this when I was looking for a cab in Istanbul. A young man whose shirt sported a brass emblem (that I later learned was a trinket from a bubble-gum machine) said he knew which ones were the safest for tourists. After I paid him about $7 (U.S.) to flag down the appropriate cab company, he vanished. That was the last I saw of him – and my money.
  7. That middle-of-the-night call. Once you’re off the streets, comfortably ensconced in your hotel, are you safe from scammers? No! One common scam involves an identify thief who has learned your name and hotel-room phone number. The thief will call you in the middle of the night (purposefully when your guard is down), claim to be a member of the hotel staff, say your credit card was declined, and ask for the numbers again to retry your reservation. Never, never give anyone sensitive financial information like a credit-card number over the phone. When in doubt, call your card company to confirm your suspicion, then contact the hotel’s front desk to report the incident.

Keep in mind these scams are far more prevalent in some areas of the world, but anything can happen anywhere. So play it safe, get yourself some high-quality travel insurance, and keep your eyes open!

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.