Seven Scams to Avoid When Traveling

Adventure Travel
Photo: Martin Walsh

If you travel enough, you are bound to come across a few scams. From crooked taxi drivers to counterfeit currency, we break down seven of the more common tricks.

Dodgy Taxi

The dodgy taxi is ubiquitous. Whether you are in Nairobi or London, there are a disappointing number of taxi drivers who are willing to rip you off.

Techniques vary but can broadly be broken down into two groups: official taxis with unscrupulous drivers, and fake taxis operated by chancers with no license. The first group is far more subtle. The most common trick I have encountered in the west is the fare estimate. You stop a black cab on the street in London and ask how much it’ll be, roughly, to Tower Bridge. The driver gives you a cost estimate and you jump in. They start the taxi meter and you begin your journey. As you approach your destination, the meter is lower than their estimate. They will then casually turn off the meter for the final section of the journey. On arrival, they quote you the significantly inflated price of their “estimate”.

Another trick used by official taxis is to raise the fare by elongating the route. Simply, the taxi drives around in circles while the meter ticks up. This used to be quite common, but the advent of smartphones, Google maps and fully offline map apps have thankfully made this a much riskier scam for drivers. It’s now easy to avoid. Just download an offline map app (I use Maps.me) and install your next destination before you leave home. Even without mobile data, you will be able to track your location and route.

Do I trust this taxi? Mumbai, India. Photo: Martin Walsh

The second group, fake taxis, are a bigger problem. Cities like Manilla and Cairo are plagued by these chancers. Since they don’t worry about losing their license, these drivers may resort to more extreme measures to part you from your cash.

Some of the tricks you might encounter:

  • Taxi meters that have been altered to rapidly increase.
  • Prices quoted in the wrong currency: “That will be 200,” the Nairobi taxi driver tells you. You assume Kenyan shillings and get in. When you arrive, he insists it was U.S. dollars and that you agreed to the fare.
  • You are told that you need to pay non-existent taxes, tolls or airport parking fees.
  • Your hotel is closed/full/dangerous and they need to take you somewhere else (where they get a commission from the owner).
  • Your bags are locked in the back until you have paid a massively increased fare due to “heavy traffic/time of night/the currency scam/driving around in circles/the weather”. You can avoid this issue if you travel only with what you can comfortably carry on your back, and by always keeping your bags beside you in the taxi.
  • The remote drop threat. One of the worst-case scenarios. The driver takes you to a very remote location and claims that this is your destination. They demand a large amount of money to take you back to a transport hub.
  • The mugging. Even worse, but fortunately a tactic limited to a few high-crime cities in the developing world. The fake taxi picks up “friends” who sandwich you in the back seat. You are then driven around and gradually relieved of your valuables, which are passed on to numerous people as you drive through the city.

You should be particularly careful around transport hubs (airports, bus terminals and train stations), where these fake taxis wait around, hoping to take advantage of tired or inexperienced travelers. Whenever possible, use official taxi desks and make sure that you know the rough route, price and distance to your destination before you begin a journey. Researching official taxi companies will also help you to weed out any obvious fakes.

Counterfeit Note Currency Swap

As with many items on this list, this scam is less common than it used to be. The proliferation of ATMs and the rise of cashless payment options means you don’t have to worry about this in Europe or North America. However, it still happens elsewhere, almost exclusively with the U.S. dollar.

Not all unofficial currency transactions are scams. Sometimes market sellers, as here In Uzbekistan, give far better exchange rates than banks. Photo: Martin Walsh

It is a simple scam and can be difficult to spot. You may not even realize it has happened before unwittingly passing on the counterfeit currency to someone else. Typically, it goes like this: you find an exchange shop to change some dollars. You pass them $200 and they take the bills off the counter. Either through sleight of hand or after briefly disappearing to a back room, they hand the bills back to you and tell you that they can’t accept them for whatever reason (the denominations are too big, there are marks on the notes, the date of issuance is too old, etc.). They have now switched the notes for counterfeits, kept your $200 and send you off with their fakes.

To avoid this, inspect your bills before handing them over and wait for the cashier to count out and present the local currency. Try to avoid letting anyone out of sight with your money.

The Tea Ceremony

This is a China-specific scam, but there are variations of the same ruse all over the world. In China, the con artists hang around major tourist sights and pretend to be internal Chinese tourists. They target lone travelers and strike up a conversation, perhaps asking if you can take a photo for them. Once in conversation, they explain how they are about to go for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. They think it will be the highlight of their trip and would love you to come along.

The con artists take you to a specific tea house with which they have an arrangement. You enjoy a brief tea ceremony and may be pressured to buy some tea leaves to take home. When the bill arrives, it is several hundred dollars. The con artists happily pay their share without batting an eye. The majority of victims do likewise, not wanting to appear cheap and having not thought to ask the price before the ceremony. The con artists and the tea house then split the money after you leave.

A Chinese tea ceremony. Photo: Tea Sourcing

There are two minor variations of this scam. In one, you genuinely participate in a (very expensive) tea ceremony at a real tea house. The “tourists” you met are just being paid to drum up business in an underhanded manner. In the second version, you are just given cheap tea and sold terrible tea leaves for ridiculous prices.

While in Shanghai a few years ago, I was approached by the same pair of young Chinese “students” three times in two weeks while walking the Bund. Clearly, I wasn’t very memorable!

International variations of this scam include shisha ceremonies in the Middle-East and khat (a chewable plant that is a mild stimulant) sessions in East Africa. The best advice is to be suspicious of cold approaches on the street by anyone speaking English.

The Fake Border

The most advanced scam I have come across. The setup is quite impressive. A big fake border post is set up, complete with offices, flags and English-speaking staff. All foreigners getting off the bus or train near to the border are picked up by tuk-tuks, who have been paid to drive them to this fake setup. At the fake border, tourists are charged an inflated price for their visa on arrival, sometimes triple the official rate. Then they are shuttled back to the real border, and the tuktuk speeds off. The visa they have been granted is real, so most tourists don’t even realize they have been ripped off unless they are approached by a visa fixer at the actual border and subsequently told the correct price.

Heading to the border, hopefully. Northern Mozambique. Photo: Martin Walsh

The Honeypot

As with the tea scam, it is best to be skeptical if you are approached out of the blue by someone speaking English. If the person is incredibly attractive, alarm bells should be going off.

The scam can evolve in various ways, but a common situation involves attractive women in the bars of cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh. They will approach single men, get chatting and flirt their way through a few drinks before disappearing to the bathroom. When they don’t return, the bill arrives, and it now includes several very expensive glasses of imported whisky. The staff at the bar insist that you pay for your “friend’s” drinks.

Saigon, Vietnam. Photo: Martin Walsh

Disappearing wallets and phones are also a risk, particularly if your new friend is instantly very touchy-feely…

A good rule of thumb is that if you aren’t so unbelievably good-looking that you are regularly stopped in the street by beautiful people at home, you haven’t magically become more attractive in Cambodia.

The Gem Scam

A big one in India and Nepal, the gem scam has been around for decades. Its persistence means that people must still get duped.

This scam preys on people’s greed. A local person befriends you over a couple of days, eventually telling you about valuable gemstones that are common in the region. Unfortunately, the government won’t let locals exploit or sell these, instead, they hoard the wealth for themselves! Perhaps you, a foreigner, could ship them back to your country and make loads of money? Your new friend will sell some to you for a fraction of what they are worth.

The gems are, of course, worthless, and the act of sending them back home means that the victim won’t find out until much later. Sometimes, the scam is expanded to include fake police. The police swoop in as you try to post the worthless stones, extracting yet more money in return for not sending you to “jail”. The stones (quartz, glass and pretty-looking common stones) are then retained for the next victim.

Fake Police

Often incorporated into other scams, the fake policeman is a tricky one to handle. With fake badges and vaguely official-looking uniforms, these crooks like to hang around at bus and train stations. The aim is to get you somewhere alone, a backroom or a dark corner, where they can pressure you into a bag search. They will then slip some money from your wallet or take something valuable from your bag. By targeting those arriving at travel hubs, they hope you disappear to your next destination before realizing that you are a few hundred dollars lighter.

Don’t worry, fake police/army officials are outnumbered by the real deal. Many of them just fancy a chat. Casamance, Senegal. Photo: Martin Walsh

If you are stopped by the police, be sure to ask for identification and check it thoroughly. Stay in public spaces and do not allow them to take you anywhere. If they insist you have done something wrong or that you need to be searched, volunteer to walk yourself to the nearest police station (having data enabled on your phone to look up the location will help here!). Remain calm and ensure that you are making enough of a commotion to be noticed by others around you. Fake police, or crooked cops, typically give up if you prove too difficult to deal with. Playing a friendly idiot can also work. Smile lots and pretend you have no idea what they are talking about until they give up.

From personal experience, fake police seem to be most common in Central Asia, and crooked cops most common in sub-Saharan Africa (particularly if you are driving).

About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Based in Da Lat, Vietnam. Freelance writer travelling the world one basketball court at a time.

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Chasing Dreams Travel
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Awesome read – thanks for sharing! I think if we were all honest we could admit to being duped at least once.