Scams are as numerous as the human imagination is limitless. Scams are everywhere and you need to constantly be on the alert for them. The number one way travelers get burned is by getting scammed. In many countries a foreign traveler is viewed as rich and in desperate need of being relieved of some of that extra weight from his pocketbook. There are simple, almost harmless scams, and then there are the big ones that can clean out your bank account. The most effective scams are those in which you are unaware that you have been scammed.

There are a lot of scammers out there, but during your travels most people will not try to scam you. By knowing how scammers operate you can avoid problems, thus preventing one bad apple from spoiling the whole bunch.




Overcharge Scams

The most common type of scam is when someone overcharges you for a service or product. This is a common tactic employed against locals, but most often against travelers as most don't know what a fair price should be. Taxi drivers, street vendors, hotel staff, waiters, transportation companies and tour agencies may overcharge the unwary traveler. Overcharging is especially easy when prices aren't posted clearly. You could be taken for a few cents (very common, but not too painful), or you could be scammed out of hundreds or thousands of dollars (not very common, but ouch, that hurts).

I saw a story on the news once about how a traveler was scammed big time for being foolish. He took a taxi that charged him $400. The next day he took an intercity bus and was charged $500. I'm sure he gave lots of tips to the people that "helped" him as well. Only later, once his girlfriend complained about the scams and he was on television, did he realize how brain-dead he was acting. He should have been charged no more than $5 for the taxi and $50 or less for the bus. $845 is quite the overcharge. He didn't pay attention to prices at all and got nailed.

Much more common is that you'll get overcharged for a candy bar, or be asked to pay for a pen or something else that was "lent" to you. Taxis that don't have meters can quote any price that they want. For those that do have meters the driver might take you around the block a few extra times to up the fare.

The best way to beat overcharge scams is to know the prices. If the price isn't clearly labeled, then ask around. Bargain for prices as it's expected in many countries (see the section on Bargaining for tips). Don't pay for anything until you know how much it should cost.

Touts are people that get a commission for obtaining new customers. Touts may work for restaurants, tour agencies, transportation companies, hotels and even for brothels. They are especially keen on looking for travelers as they know that travelers need many services that they recommend. Many touts are legitimate businesspeople that offer a needed and convenient service. I have used touts on a number of occasions. They are especially welcome after a long, tiring bus ride, when I want to rest as soon as possible rather than having to look for a hostel.

Unfortunately some touts are scammers. Their job offers them the perfect opportunity to talk to travelers. They offer what you need, so you listen to them. It is then easy for a tout to lie or exaggerate the truth about a particular service and to overcharge.

If you don't need a tout, then don't use one. If you are going to use a tout then be sure to ask a lot of questions. Find out the price, what's included, where it's located, requirements (if any) - ask about everything you can think of. Before committing to anything be sure to check out the hotel or agency first. You want to be sure that the tout works for a legitimate establishment. Once there, you can ask more questions and take a look at the service offered.

Never pay a tout money up-front. If the tout is not a scammer he won't ask you for money and he will almost always take you to the business establishment free of charge. If you like what you see, then you may pay, but only pay established employees at their place of business. Never hand a tout money with the hope that he'll go pay for you.

Purchase Crap Scams

At some point during your travels you will need or want to buy an item. If purchasing items like clothing you should be fine as long as you inspect the items and know the prices. If purchasing items like a new digital camera, a CD, or even batteries you'll almost always want to try them out first. There are many counterfeit and used items out on the market that are made to look like a brand-new original. Hey, some things are cheap because they really are cheap.

So test the item first. Make sure that it works correctly and check for anything unusual (scuffs, or a brand name that appears to be altered). Also, give the impression to the seller that you will not be leaving the area for a while and if you are satisfied with his product you may come back for more. You don't want the seller to know that you're splitting town in a couple of hours as he'll be more likely to sell you crap because you'll be less likely to come back and make a scene.

Another trick that scammers use is to convince you to buy something by using accomplices. The seller will be raving about his product to a curious crowd. Some people in the crowd will come forward and talk about how wonderful the product is, what it did for them and that the product is being sold for way too little. Then suddenly one, three, or more people jump out of the crowd and buy the product for a high price. What the crowd doesn't know is that all of these people are in the scam together. They get you pumped up to buy an expensive item that isn't worth beans.

Some scammers are even good at getting you to buy items that you know to be absolutely worthless. Don't think that all scammers are slick, shady characters that look like something from an Inspector Gadget cartoon. Scammers come in all ages, races and backgrounds and from both sexes. Here's a story to illustrate:

My wife Veronica and her brother Smith are Peruvians that were born and raised in Lima. They are very aware of the tricks that scammers pull, but no matter how many scams you know of, scammers will always look for new ways to fool you. Once in downtown Lima a girl about eight years old sold slices of cake to Veronica and Smith. She had a huge mound of cake slices piled on top of a tray, as many sellers do.

A couple of hours later Vero and Smith encountered the young girl again, but this time she was sitting on the sidewalk crying with her cake slices scattered over the ground. When asked what happened, she stated that some boys tried to steal her cake. Everything dumped on the ground and the boys took off. With tears in her eyes she exclaimed that now she won't be able to make money to eat for the day. Feeling sorry for the girl, Vero and Smith gave her some money and so did a few other people (she received a lot more than the cake was worth).

A police officer came by yelling at the girl to leave. The bystanders obviously were wondering what the cop's problem was until he explained that the girl throws the cake on the ground on purpose and she does this everyday. The bystanders were given their money back from the furious little girl.

Make Easy Money Scams

Avoid offers of easy money like the plague. Con artists are very good at hooking travelers by offering them something they want - more money to travel. There are those who ask travelers to pitch in a few hundred dollars to buy some merchandise for a quick resell and triple your money profits. Once you hand over your money the con artist has an almost magical ability to disappear.

Avoid playing cards and any games in which the possibility of making money is involved. Most of these games are fixed. If someone just won 500 pesos at the game you're watching, then he's probably in on the scam. Seeing winners prompts onlookers to join in the game and that's when the game operators reap their financial harvest. A con artist might also tell you that he can cash your traveler's checks for a super-low price, thus saving you a nice amount of money. You sign the checks over to him and he laughs all the way to the bank.

Con artists are smooth talkers who are masters at getting you to drop your guard and to hand over your money willingly. Most of their offers will be illegal or dubious at best. Just don't participate. If it's too good to be true then it probably is.

Friend Scams

Beware of people that come onto you too strongly. Some scammers try to make friends with you as they know that your guard will be down once you trust them. This is not to say that all friendly people are scammers. Some people will truly be interested in you, but others will only want your money.

Street kids love to play the "tourist game." In English they'll tell you who the President of the United States is and sing the ABCs like it's their last request. They'll educate you on where the capital of the U.S. is located, cry and sob while telling you a heart-wrenching story about how their entire family was killed in an uncanny accident with a UFO. Then they'll ask you for money.

Adults play a slightly different game than their younger counterparts. They'll befriend you, either in minutes or over days and weeks, then hit you up with a story about how their children are in the hospital and will die unless YOU give them $500 a day plus expenses.

A common tactic of the friend scammer is to get you all fired up about a new party place in town that he wants to show you. So you both go and you cover the first few rounds of drinks, with the understanding that he'll cover the rest. When it's time to pay up he'll make some excuse as to why he can't cover the bill, or you simply won't be able to find him at all. So make sure that all bills you'll be splitting with someone else are paid for right away and up-front.

Most scammers are clever, smooth talkers. Disbelieve most of what people tell you and hold onto your valuables for dear life. The easiest way for con artists to get your money is for you to willingly give it to them. Make it a policy not to give or lend money. Don't pay for a service or product unless you are sure that it is a fair deal for a fair price.


Travel Course: Thieves


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