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January 7, 2013

Conned: how to avoid common tourist scams

A fool and his money

A fool and his money. Photo: David Goehring / Flickr

Interacting with locals is one of the highlights of travel. On the flip side, the worst is running into local con artists who treat travelers like they’re walking ATM machines. Here’s a great post off The View from the Wing blog: Common tourist scams and how to avoid them. Also read the comments by the street-smart readers. For more, you can check out this extensive article on Wikitravel about common scams.

The basic rule of thumb is that if a person approaches you first, assume it’s a scam. Also any distractions, like someone bumping into you, falling in front of you, dropping something in front of you or on you (e.g. bird poop), there’s a million variations. If you’re a guy, be wary of any good-looking women who approach you and want you to take them to a bar they’ve already picked out.

I once got scammed in Paris.  I was at a train station and needed to take a train to the airport. Had some trouble with the self-serve ticket machine. A fast-talking African guy said I was doing it wrong. He whipped out a card, put it in the machine and grabbed a ticket and gave it me. Then demanded some Euros.  Like an idiot, I paid him.  Of course, he had given me an ordinary subway ticket, not the RER commuter train ticket that goes to the airport.  By the time I looked up, he was gone.

Other scams I’ve encountered are fake art students in Beijing, China and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Luckily, I didn’t fall for their tricks. Overall, I ran into scams more often in Europe than Asia. My guess is that my Asian appearance makes locals think I’m a fellow resident, rather than a traveler.

One downside is that you can be overly suspicious and offend people.  The one time that’s happened to me was in Burma (a.k.a Myanmar).  I was in Mandalay, and trying to find a pharmacy shop. My hotel had given me the address but I got lost. An old man walked up to me and asked in English where I was going.  I ignored him and kept walking.  Eventually I realized I’d walked past the address and had to back-track.  Came across the old man again and found the pharmacy.  I apologized to him, but that just made him more angry. “Why you say ‘sorry’ now?!” he said. He told the pharmacy clerk how rude I’d been, while I was paying for the medicine.  The clerk pretended not to hear, but I felt two inches tall at that moment.

To get more positive, the two places where I’ve only positive experiences with locals approaching me was Japan and Taiwan. Especially Taiwan, super-friendly people of all ages love to talk and meet you. Coming from scam-heavy places like China or Thailand, the overt gregariousness of Taiwanese can feel off-putting and suspicious. The only scammers I’ve run into in Taiwan were the bosses of the ESL English cram schools.

Have you been scammed? Please share your stories in the comments so other readers can avoid getting tricked.

Posted by | Comments (3) 
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind


3 Responses to “Conned: how to avoid common tourist scams”

  1. DEK Says:

    Scams are just a cost of visiting a city, like an extra hotel tax or surcharge on a taxi fare. It’s just a local custom. Don’t take it personally. If someone is scamming tourists he is probably not getting rich off it. Get out of the city and the tourist stream and the scam problem goes away.

  2. Matt Says:

    Here’s a couple:
    -Getting the wrong taxi at Shanghai airport, end up paying about 3x the normal price, you need to take the ones with the lines.
    -Nothing happened to me personally, but have seen other foreigners play the role of a tourist to buddy up with a group at a hostel and fleece them when convenient, ie cameras, etc.

    Those are probably some of the more common ones, that likewise can be prevented with a little awareness, although sometimes your guard is down, you’re tired or other distractions.

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