Watch for con artists

5 worst travel scams and how to avoid them


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The pros of traveling definitely outweigh the cons, but that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind when exploring new places.

While the language barrier and the cultural sites are exciting, they also open up travelers to scam artists and petty thieves. During the holidays, many of us are already distracted, so adding a new place and big crowds only further overloads the senses, making it difficult to keep eyes peeled for cons and “overly friendly locals.”

With this in mind, the members and editors of travel website VirtualTourist have compiled a list of the “Top 5 Worst Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them.” In addition to the scams, we also noted a few spots where they are most commonly found.

•  “Senor Sticky Fingers” — pickpockets — Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain.

Pickpockets are no longer limited to the simple “bump and grab;” their scams and scenarios have greatly diversified. VirtualTourist members mentioned that pickpockets often work in teams — while one shows you a gold ring or points out mustard on your shirt, another cohort is stealing your wallet.

Keep in mind, though, there are many more things for thieves to steal than simply your wallet. Cameras and smartphones are readily carried by travelers, and they have a high resale value in most cities.

Another popular iteration of this scam is the distraction. A woman will approach you waving a newspaper or asking for help reading something, but under the newspaper, she is palming your iPhone off the cafe table.

It’s important to note that if someone offers you unsolicited help, politely decline and quickly walk away. Always keep most of your valuables (passport, important papers and extra credit cards) in your hotel safe, and record the serial numbers of any vital electronics that could be stolen, as some cities require a serial number in order to file a police report.

Unfortunately, pickpocketing is a scam that is not limited to one specific destination, but it is rampant in crowded areas with a large number of tourists. Also, while pickpocketing probably exists everywhere, VirtualTourist members commented that it was common in Barcelona, particularly Las Ramblas, the central pedestrian street that runs from Placa Catalunya through the Gothic Quarter and to the sea.

•  “He’s Going the Distance” — gypsy cabs — Termini Station, Rome.

Taxis are often ground zero for scam artists, since passengers entering taxis have often just arrived in a city or aren’t completely sure how long or how far their destination is from their pickup. Taxi scams can be as simple as drivers being unlicensed to overcharging and “long hauling,” when drivers take a longer route to a destination to increase the fare, which is particularly common in Las Vegas.

However, there are a few rules to follow to make traveling by taxi easier. First, in Rome, always use a taxi from a queue where licensed taxis wait for fares. Second, many cities (Rome, New York and Los Angeles, to name a few) have a set fare from the primary airport to inside the city — make sure you know this number and confirm it with the taxi driver before letting him or her place your luggage in the car. Lastly, if you are leaving your hotel, ask the doorman or concierge how much the taxi fare to your destination should be.

VirtualTourist members said that Rome is a particularly bad spot for taxi scams, especially near Termini Station.

•  “The Overly Sympathique Stranger” — volunteers with poor intentions — Gare du Nord Station, Paris.

When in a country with different currency or a language barrier, a common trick is for “volunteers” to offer to assist you when you’re making a transaction or using any automated machine. Kind strangers may offer to assist you in buying a week-long ticket, but in fact, they’ll get you a one-time use ticket and pocket the change.

Be wary of any stranger that “offers” help too easily, particularly in high tourism areas or transportation hubs, such as Paris’ subway and train stations, particular Gare du Nord. If possible, buy transportation tickets in advance or through a window vendor at the station; at the very least, know before you arrive how much the tickets should cost.

•  “The Palace is NOT closed today” — tuk tuk scammers — Grand Palace area, Bangkok, Thailand.

Multiple VirtualTourist members stated that in certain parts of Southeast Asia, they were approached by locals claiming that a popular site was closed due to an assortment of excuses, including a religious ceremony, royal function, a Buddhist holiday, or simply for cleaning. These locals steer tourists into a nearby tuk tuk (or rickshaw), offering to take them to a gem factory or another tourist attraction that is open and then return them back to the site once it reopens.

Many members reported that the approaching locals even appeared in some sort of uniform, making their information and suggestions seem more reliable. However, the palace/site/ wat is probably NOT closed today, so before you turn around and embark on a tuk tuk ride to commissioned jewelry stores and tailors, check for yourself.

Numerous member report this scam happening at a variety of sites in Bangkok, including the Grand Palace and Wat Po.

•  “The Math Genius” — cash payment scams — Istanbul, Turkey and New York City

Sadly, the “Math Genius” can be found in a variety of places, and the most common culprits are waiters or taxi drivers, since they’ve already provided you with a service and you need to pay them to exit the situation.

If the scam occurs in a taxi, it usually goes this way: you owe the driver 15 euros, and you pay with a 20 euro bill. He switches out the bill you gave him for a 5 euro bill, which looks quite similar. He holds it up and argues that you owe him 10 more euros. You apologize and give him another 10 euros, and only after exiting the car do you realize you essentially paid twice the taxi fare.

Almost every traveler has fallen for this trick at some point, just because of exhaustion or being unfamiliar with the local currency. While this can happen everywhere, it is a particularly common problem in Istanbul and New York City.

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