How to avoid common tourist scams when travelling

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Locals of any particular location can spot a foreigner a mile away. In fact in many places, especially if you haven't got a well-researched itinerary, you may as well have a neon sign above your head that says "tourist".

While this isn't always a bad thing, it does make you an easy target for many scams that those with nefarious intentions know won't work on locals You can't really do much about this, but what you can do is arm yourself with strategies to both spot, and avoid, common tourist scams, so you hopefully don't fall victim to them.

Lost property

One of the simplest scams going is the sale of your own items back to you once you're no longer in possession of them. Pickpockets love this scheme, but opportunistic people will take the chance to profit off your belongings if you've accidentally dropped or misplaced them. While avoiding getting pickpocketed can be tough, preventing the loss of your items is a much simpler task.

Ensure that you know where your things are at all times, and keep them in a secure pocket or bag. We also recommend checking out our guide to the 16 safety and security products every traveller needs.

Card skimming

Card skimming most commonly happens when you're paying for something, but it can also occur at an ATM or while you're simply walking down the street. Although an RFID wallet can protect your card while it's in your pocket, you're going to need to keep your eyes open in order to keep your details safe when actually using your card.

Always inspect any EFTPOS machine before tapping or swiping, and do not use it if the machine looks like it has been altered in any way. When it comes to using ATMs, do not do so if anyone is standing unusually close to you, or if the machine doesn't look quite how it should.

Nothing comes for free

The part of the world that you're visiting will impact the kind of "free" items that you're presented with, but as a general rule, nothing comes for free. For example, a common scheme in places such as Egypt and Morocco is to offer you a complimentary Henna tattoo which actually turns out to be quite expensive once it's on your skin. By the same token, scammers will commonly offer you necklaces or bracelets in many parts of the world and then try to charge you an exorbitant fee once you're wearing them.

The good news is that this scam is quite easy to avoid. Simply do not accept anything that is presented as being free. The best option here is to keep walking and ignore any offers, but if you can't avoid the person, a simple no thank you works too. 

Check your drinks

Another common scheme—particularly in places that are hot or where drinking water isn't readily available—is for opportunistic scammers to collect empty water bottles from the trash, fill them up with tap water and sell them. In the best case scenario with this one, you've paid for something that isn't as it was represented, but in the worst case, you can get quite sick.

In order to avoid this, always inspect any drinks that you're looking to purchase, and do not buy them if you cannot confirm that they are properly sealed.

No tab, thanks

If you're enjoying a more adult beverage, a "friendly" local might come and start drinking with you. This may be an instance where they are looking to sell personal services, but, more commonly, they'll simply either put their drinks on your tab or steal your wallet.

If this happens, ensure that you're paying for each drink as you get it and only pay for your own. It is also important to clarify whether someone is looking to simply spend time with you or whether they're expecting your interactions to be transactional. We suggest avoiding moving to a second location either way, as this is the safest option, but at least if you've checked first you won't end up with any surprises if they present a bill.

The ulterior motive

If someone seems too friendly, they probably are. In many countries, locals will approach foreigners and offer assistance of some variety. This may be with directions, your bags, or a hot tip on a secret local place that you simply must try. In this instance, they're either making these suggestions as they get a commission when you visit the place, or they're distracting you so that your pockets can be picked.

Always keep an eye on your belongings if you are approached by someone who seems a little too friendly, and be mindful of pricing if you do go to any places that are suggested to you.

WiFi data theft

International data plans are expensive, so it often makes sense to simply utilise Wi-Fi while travelling. Unfortunately scammers are well aware of this, and it offers the perfect opportunity for them to steal your details. If a Wi-Fi hotspot is free, this is a common sign that everything may not be above board.

To avoid having your personal information stolen in this manner, never connect to a network that you don't know and trust, and always make use of a VPN when travelling overseas.

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Fake and broken taxis

Possibly one of the oldest groups of tricks in the book is the collection of taxi scams that are run around the world. Broken meters, eftpos that doesn't work, and set cash fee trips are all signs that you're about to get scammed. 

To avoid this, do not get into taxis with broken meters and only ever pay cash in the correct amount. 

It is also important to ensure that the taxi you're getting into is in fact actually a taxi. We have a piece on staying safe on public transport when travelling that also features a section on taxis and is definitely worth a read.

Pre-existing damage

When travelling overseas, you're probably going to be making use of rental vehicles both for getting around and fun activities. Unfortunately the rental industry is full of people who will try to claim that you've damaged the vehicle that you rented, and demand that you pay a rather significant sum for repairs.

When you rent a vehicle it is always important to inspect it thoroughly because of this. We suggest also taking pictures of any existing damage and making sure that you show whoever is renting it out that you've done this. This way they can't blame any pre-existing damage on you, and if they attempt to, you'll have evidence to protect yourself if the police show up.

Begging children

Another common scam involving begging children. While many beggars are legitimate, it's just as possible that the child asking you for money is part of a local gang and is collecting on their behalf.

It's also quite likely that you're being watched by someone close by, who will then move in to pickpocket you once they know where you keep your cash.

If you want to avoid falling victim to this scam, but still want to help out, offer food instead. This will be helpful to any child who genuinely needs assistance, but prevents you from exposing yourself to scammers.

Final word

While these common scams will generally only leave you out of pocket, any situation has the capacity to escalate into a safety risk. No possession or amount of money is worth your life, so if you're being threatened, we do suggest complying if you are unable to escape.

Having said that, there are strategies, like those outlined in this piece, that can help you avoid losing your possessions or cash in a safe manner.

Happy travels!

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Jessica Jones
Written by
Jessica Jones
Jess has been writing educational content for almost ten years with a focus on lifestyle content. She loves coffee, dogs and all things fitness, and can often be found with her nose buried in a book and her music blaring through her earphones.

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