Common travel scams (and how to avoid them)

My travel scam journal sad


Scams come in all forms and types, and tourists are a hot favourite because of their unfamiliarity in a foreign environment. The first step to ruining a good scam is awareness, and we hope to bridge this information asymmetry by describing some of the most common scams targeted at tourists. 


The fake WIFI spot
Tourists connect to WIFI spots like a moth to a flame. The relief of finally finding a free WIFI spot lowers the tourist’s guard down. Unfortunately, some of these free WIFI spots can be dangerous. Hackers set up WIFI hotspots in touristy locations that could give them access to your computer; personal data, passwords, online accounts, etc. 

Thin Margin Tip: If you’re in a public space, look out for signs for the official free WIFI for tourists. If you’re at the airport, in a shopping mall, or café, check with concierge or the café’s staff for the official WIFI connection. 


Let me help you!
The bird poop scam
Unfortunately, this very scam happened to us in Barcelona. There are many variations to the items to smear on tourists, ranging from ketchup/mustard to even animal faeces. The scammer will smear something foul-smelling on you, or an accomplice might fling it onto you from a distance. The scammer will then inform you of the vile substance and offer a tissue. The point of smearing something vile on you is to separate you from your belongings, such as your jacket, bag/purse, or camera. Depending on how much you can tolerate foul smelling substances, you may be in a hurry to get everything off in disgust. In the midst of the confusion, the scammer makes off with your valuables. 

Faces censored out of shame for privacy reasons.

Thin Margin Tip: If you discovered that you have something vile on your clothing or if someone has “kindly” pointed it out to you, do not receive their help. Walk on and clean yourself up at a restroom or a safe location.  


Fancy a drink?
The flirtatious local
You arrive at a new country only to find that your attractiveness increased by a factor of 10. Ladies can’t seem to keep their eyes off you, and one finally invites you for a drink at the nearest bar. After several drinks, you are presented with a lofty bill and your “date” is nowhere to be found. 

This is usually targeted at men but can sometimes happen to ladies as well…not. Ladies are usually smarter than men when it comes to this. If you find yourself getting more attention than usual from a lady, chances are that she’s trying to get to your money, not you.

Thin Margin Tip: Men, take a good look in the mirror. If you usually have decent luck with the fairer sex, good for you! But if you look anything like me, then the answer is clear; any flirtatious lady is probably a scammer sad Just walk away!


Cheap fare to the city!
The taxi standoff
After a gruelling 12-hour flight, you drag your jet-lagged body to the taxi stand at the airport. A friendly looking gentleman calls out to you and guarantees you a “cheap fare” to wherever you’re going. The driver may usher you quickly into the taxi and drive away, leaving you without time to negotiate a price or even check if the meter is working. During the journey, any requests to turn on the meter or attempts to negotiate a price will be met with increased agitation and vehicular speed from the driver. You begin to fear for your safety and slowly sink back into your seat…only to face a ridiculous fare at your destination. 


Thin Margin Tip: Unless you know what you’re doing, don’t board an unregistered taxi or private vehicle. Check the list of reputable taxi companies in that country. Most responsible taxi companies give you recourse if their drivers behave unethically. 

Get a rough estimate of the fare for your journey from your hotel’s staff or from online sources. Ensure that the taxi meter is working before boarding. Sometimes you may prefer a fixed fare if you’re in a large group and want to book the taxi for several hours (to visit several attractions). In this case, negotiate and settle on the fare before boarding. Again, check with online sources if you’re getting a fair rate. Make it obvious to the taxi driver that you have GPS and maps enabled on your phone, so you’ll know if any unnecessary detours are taken.

Free friendship band for you!
The overly friendly local
A friendly local flashes you a big, bright smile and welcomes you to the country, before proceeding to tie a band onto your wrist. “For you, my friend!”. You feel all warm and fuzzy inside, only to realize your new friend is demanding payment for the item and you can’t seem to take it off. The “free’ items are usually wristbands, hats, roses, or a sprig of rosemary, but can be anything scammers can get on your body. 

Thin Margin Tip: You can usually spot them from a distance from their attempts to get items on people. Don’t let anyone put anything on your body. If anyone attempts to do so, don’t make eye contact, ignore them and just walk away quickly. The situation can turn sour rapidly if they manage to stop you. Be extra cautious if anything is offered for free. 


You need to pay a fine
The fake police
Someone may stop you in your tracks to offer you illicit products or services, like drugs. A police officer may then appear immediately, catching you both in the act. The fake police officer (sometimes real in some countries) will then insist that you hand over your passport, wallet, and pay a fine. 

Looks legit..not.

Thin Margin Tip: Never hand over anything. Tell them your passport is locked up in the hotel, and they will have to follow you back to the hotel if they want anything. Ask to see their identification, and inform them that you will be calling the police to confirm their identity. Stand your ground and if they still insist, involve another local and tell them you will only comply at the police station. Make a big scene if you have to! A noisy tourist is often not worth the trouble. 

Sorry to bother you, but your card was declined
The midnight call
Scammers usually target guests staying at upscale hotels, calling them at their hotel’s room phone. The scammer would then pose as the hotel’s staff, asking you to confirm your credit card details again. Card Verification Value (CVV) numbers are not even needed for scammers to create charges to your credit card.  

Thin Margin Tip: Never disclose any personal information over the phone, especially credit card details. Visit the front desk personally to resolve any issues. 


You damaged it, you’ll have to pay!
The damaged rental
This is an extremely common scam in many parts of Southeast Asia. If you rent a jet ski, the operator may tow the jet ski back to land after you’re done with it and show you some “damages” that were there all along; you just couldn’t have seen it since the jet skis were in the water when you first rented them. If you rent a motorbike, the operator may kindly lend you a lock, only to follow you and steal the motorbike after you locked it, then demand for compensation. If you rent a car, the operator may claim that some scratches were not there before you rented it and again, demand that you pay for the repair fees. 

Where's my bike?


Thin Margin Tip: Check with the locals or online sources for reputable rental companies. Always assess the rental and take photos from all angles to document any damages. If you’re renting a motorbike, bicycle, or car, don’t disclose where you’re taking the vehicle to, especially not the address of your accommodation. Ensure that there’s a safe place to park and lock the rental. If damages do occur, take it to an independent repair shop, not someone recommended by the shop. 


I’ll help you take a photo
The disappearing photographer
While travelling in a group, you want to get everyone in the photo and a selfie stick just doesn’t cut it. A friendly local offers to take a group photo of you and your friends. As you ready for your pose, you realize that there’s no camera to smile at. The friendly local has disappeared with your camera!

Thin Margin Tip: It’s difficult to make a call for this situation. You’ll have to assess the “photographer” and the circumstances. If it’s a crowded place where the photographer can easily blend into the sea of crowd, it is better to be safe than sorry. Approach a fellow tourist instead if you really need someone to take a photo of your group, and offer to return the favour!


Discounted tickets
The fake ticket
This scam even happens to unsuspecting locals. Scammers usually approach people near the ticket stands of major attractions or transit terminals. Someone may offer to sell you their ticket at a steep discount, explaining that they bought it earlier but no longer need it. While it may seem like a good deal to avoid the queue and get a discount at the same time, these tickets are usually invalid. By the time you’re able to check the validity of the tickets, the scammers are long gone with your money. 

Thin Margin Tip: Its just not worth the risk. Always buy tickets from the official vendor.