Across cities, countries and continents, there are always con artists lurking in the shadows ready to take advantage of unsuspecting travelers. While sometimes these scams are elaborate plans to target travelers for a long-term pay-off, often it’s a case of a local grifter seeking a way to make a quick dollar. In either case, travelers should be aware—and wary—of too-good-to-be-true situations that could cost them a pretty penny. Here are six scams frequently aimed at travelers and how to avoid them.
1. Taxi Tricks
One of the most universal ways that travelers are cheated is through ground transportation. Visitors unfamiliar with a city may inadvertently hail what’s known as a “gypsy cab”—an unlicensed car accepting passengers that charges outrageously high rates. This is a common occurrence in major destinations, like New York or San Francisco, where the chaotic nature of the city and airport makes it a relief to set foot into the car. To easily spot such cars, be familiar with the basic local taxi laws—such as in New York City where the only authorized cabs are yellow. At airports, be sure to find the sanctioned taxi stand, and always check for a medallion number and photo identification prominently displayed.
Another hazard to be aware of are drivers who will take off with travelers’ belongings in the car after the fare has been paid. When traveling with someone else, it’s safest for one person to remain in the vehicle while the other person removes bags from the trunk; if traveling alone, ask the driver for assistance with the bags before getting out of the car and keep personal belongings—identification, travel documents, phones and cash—on you at all times.
Finally, even licensed cab drivers will sometimes try to drive up the meter by taking roundabout routes or telling passengers that certain destinations are closed and dropping them other places further away. Be specific about which route the driver should take when giving him or her a destination, and if something is supposedly closed, insist on going there first to see for yourself.
2. “Free” Wi-Fi at Airports
Most airports now offer free Wi-Fi to travelers, but a longtime con set up by Internet hackers involves setting up false connection ports designed to steal personal information. This is common in other locations as well, but airports are a favorite hot spot for the abundance of people trying to connect on a daily basis. Unknowing travelers will access these free networks, which actually turn out to be a “peer to peer connection.” In these cases, users will still be able to surf the Internet, but they’re doing so through the hacker’s computer. Passwords, account numbers and social security numbers can be obtained this way, putting travelers at risk for identity theft. Before going online, check to make sure the network is operated by the airport by looking for signs advertising the official wireless connection name. Also disable any automatic connections and turn off file sharing on computers and smartphones, but most importantly, try to avoid visiting financial websites or making purchases on any shared connection.
3. Fake Police
While this scam is commonplace in third world countries and other less affluent destinations, travelers in all areas should be on the lookout for counterfeit police. These fake officers will accuse people of crimes they didn’t commit, and then charge on-the-spot fines or ask for bribe money to look the other way. Intimidated by threats of being locked away in a jail cell, travelers will often hand over the money without thinking twice. In some cases, paying the fine when approached in this manner may be the least dangerous option; however, if it’s not a life-threatening situation—crowded tourist hubs with plenty of passersby, for example—calmly ask for credentials or simply walk away without stopping.
4. Bar Scams
Typically targeted at single male tourists, this scam involves a group of women who greet travelers on the street and invite them to a nearby bar for a drink while they share their knowledge about great locals-only destinations. After a few rounds, the group disappears, leaving the traveler with a large bill for other parties’ drinks placed on his tab. Though more of an expensive inconvenience than a vacation-ruining event, it can be easily avoided by keeping personal belongings close and not offering to hand over a credit card at the bar—pay for drinks up front in cash and make it clear to the bartender not to open a tab.
5. Sidewalk Con Artists
Crowded streets are a hotbed of activity for criminal behavior. Beyond pickpockets who use distraction techniques to swoop in and snatch watches, jewelry, wallets and other small valuables, seemingly innocent vendors on the street can also be also be con artists lying in wait. Sometimes they are literally wearing a disguise: Dressed as superheroes, they’ll pose for photos for tourists while their associates snap photos, and then charge an exorbitant sum to travelers to get their cameras back. For those who must get a photo with a costumed individual on the street, have a friend or family member snap the photo, but ask in advance how much it will cost.
Musicians and vendors on busy city streets will also sometimes try to unfairly charge travelers. Taking advantage of the hustle and bustle of the crowds, they’ll hand merchandise to passersby and refuse to take it back, insisting that tourists pay for the product. If harassed with this kind of behavior, it’s best to gently place the merchandise on the ground and walk away.
6. Fake Goods
Though some individuals knowingly purchase knock-off products from street-side vendors, others are duped into believing that the item they bought was the real deal. Vendors will often pass off gems, leather, handbags and other expensive goods as authentic at a steeply discounted price, pressuring travelers to take them up on the deal before it’s too late. Whenever possible, carefully examine the product, but a good rule of thumb is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Scammers are constantly developing new ways to trick tourists out of a few dollars, so smart travelers should keep their eyes and ears open for any signs of fraud. By following their intuition and being aware of their surroundings at all times, they can have a safe and enjoyable vacation without falling victim to these—and other—con artist traps.