How to Avoid Travel Scams When Traveling Abroad

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INSIDER SECRET: To avoid travel scams when traveling abroad, take photos and videos of your rental vehicles, be wary of anyone who approaches you and work directly with your hotel or a reputable tour company to organize your transport and excursions. Always listen to your intuition. Brian, a savvy traveler and veteran backpacker thought he’d never fall for a travel scam. But when he made friends with a local, Sonny, in the first class cabin on a train from Tangier to Fez in Morocco, he let his guard down and accepted a dinner invitation to meet Sonny’s family at their home. Following a delicious couscous dinner and delightful banter, Sonny and his family offered to let Brian spend the night and he accepted, feeling happy and comfortable.

The next day, a friend of Sonny’s, Alex, took Brian on a tour which somehow turned into a trip to a carpet warehouse, where he was not-so-subtly encouraged to buy carpets at 70% off and ship them to the US. Alex advised Brian to flip them later at an auction and claimed to have made thousands of dollars doing this. When Brian realized he was being played for a fool in an elaborate carpet-selling scam, he insisted on returning to Sonny’s house immediately, where he grabbed his belongings and made a quick getaway.

“Looking back, I was a bit too trusting with someone I had just met,” Brian explained. “While I would likely accept a dinner invitation from a local family again, I would be sure to have my own safe lodging for myself and my belongings. That way if I ever felt uncomfortable, I could easily remove myself from the situation. I now research local scams and annoyances before visiting a place, but I’ve also tried to not let this experience change the way I travel. The vast majority of locals I meet are still friendly and genuine.”
Even the savviest travelers can fall for the carpet scam. Photo by Lori Zaino.

Obviously, scams can happen to anyone, even the most frequent road warriors, but you might not be as lucky as Brian and escape unscathed. Here are the best ways you can protect yourself from being cheated while traveling internationally.

Carefully Curate Ground Transport

Many travel scams happen with transportation. There’s the broken-taxi-meter scam where the driver tells you the meter doesn’t work so he can upcharge you with a flat rate. Or the meter runs — but faster than normal. Sometimes buses will oversell long-haul tickets, leaving you standing or sitting on the floor for a 15-hour ride even though you purchased a seat.

While it’s nearly impossible to avoid scams sometimes, it’s best to organize your ground transportation ahead of time, especially for long bus or train rides. If you can’t do that, at least try to buy tickets directly from the source — physically at the bus or train station, or on a secure website that doesn’t go through a third party. If you can’t, ask your hotel to help. Be wary of agencies that seem overeager or have rock-bottom prices.

For getting from A to B within a city, use a rideshare app where the price is typically noted on the screen before entering the vehicle instead of hailing a taxi/rickshaw. You’re less likely to be cheated, and you’ll have a record of the car that drove you in case you are scammed.

When booking tours or drivers, doing so through your hotel may be the best idea. During a recent trip to Cambodia, I heard stories firsthand from other travelers about tuk tuk drivers insisting that riders prepay, then leaving them stranded in the jungle temples of Angkor Wat with no way back. To avoid this, I paid just a few dollars more to have my hotel arrange a trusted driver/guide.

Sourcing drivers through the hotel can ensure you won’t end up with a driver who insists on making unwanted stops. Sometimes, they’ll go as far as to tell you that your chosen tourist attraction is closed and instead take you to their friend’s shop, where they’ll earn a commission. If you find yourself in this situation, firmly insist on being dropped off at your chosen destination — if it’s actually closed, you’ll deal with that later.

Or, get out of the vehicle if you’re feeling uncomfortable — even at a stoplight, if need be. Always have the phone number of your hotel on hand in case you end up stranded somewhere you don’t want to be. Writing down a local emergency or tourist police number before traveling is also a good idea.

Spend a Little Extra If It’s for Your Safety or Well-Being

It’s perfectly fine to be a traveler on a budget but it’s important to know when to fork over a little extra cash to ensure you’ll have a safe and positive experience. I could have saved a few bucks in Cambodia, going with a tuk tuk driver hawking a lower price at me in the street, but I chose to pay a little extra and organize through the hotel. Knowing I had a reputable guide and driver allowed me to see the temples stress-free.

This is also true for scams like the gemstone scam, where travelers are encouraged to buy and resell gems in the US with tales of “becoming rich.” I can tell you how the story ends: You’ll end up losing money. So don’t let the idea of saving a few bucks or spending money to later gain it back once home lure you into making bad decisions.

It’s easy to avoid the carpet scam, the gemstone scam and many others. If you didn’t come to your destination with plans to buy gems, carpets or other pricey items, don’t let anyone lure you into a purchase. This goes for all goods — wooden drums, carvings, artwork, souvenirs, etc.

Take Photos/ Videos of Vehicle Rentals, Don’t Let Them Keep Your Passport and Don’t Stop for Anyone

When renting cars, scooters, jet skis and more, take photos and videos of the vehicle, especially in front of the person or agency renting. Once they see that you’re extra-vigilant, they may be less likely to target you with claims that you damaged the vehicle upon return when you didn’t. If the renter asks to hold your passport until you return the vehicle, say no. You may have to fork over a hefty cash deposit, but that’s preferable to having your identity stolen or never getting your passport back.

When driving a rental car, don’t stop for anyone telling you that you have a flat tire. If you had a flat tire, you would know! You can always pull over and check later on –but never stop, even if someone is honking or gesturing. Pairs of people often pull that scam —  one will distract you into looking at the tire while the other steals your luggage.

If you do stop somewhere while your luggage is in the car, cover it properly (or even with coats) or place it out of sight in the trunk. Take any important valuables out of the car with you.

Stay Alert and Don’t Get Distracted

Scammers often distract travelers to rob them. This can come in many forms. Sometimes, a child beggar is the distraction. Other times, someone may ask for directions or “accidentally”  spill something on you while their buddy quietly nicks your purse or wallet. Stay vigilant and if someone does spill something on you, keep a tight grip on your purse or wallet. Always be aware of your belongings while talking to unfamiliar people or giving directions.

Politely Ignore People Who Approach You

While this tip may seem a little intense (not every person approaching you is out to get you), it’s the best way to avoid a number of different scams. I try to remember that if I need something, I’ll get it and not from those trying to sell me something. This is best practiced when people approach you with items — especially the dreaded rosemary twig or bracelet. These will be assertively handed over or tied on you with a smile until the “seller” demands payment. Even worse, sometimes you’ll be robbed while the seller is distracting you. Usually a firm “no,” combined with a shake of the head or a wagging of the finger will do the trick — and if you need to, just run the other way.

Here in Madrid, Spain (my home city), I call it rosemary Tetris. Dodging the groups of women handing the twigs out in the main city square Puerta del Sol is almost a game in itself.

Steer clear of anyone offering you bracelets, rosemary, lavender or anything else in a crowded European square. Photo by Novikov Aleksey /

This also comes in handy when people come up and say, “Hey, where are you from?” and walk alongside you. Usually, they will try to offer you a tour, a driver or a visit to their shop. They are often extremely persistent but a firm negative and not responding to their questions will usually shake them off. Even if they are harmless, what’s the point? It’s easy to source a tour, get a driver or visit a shop on your own terms, instead on theirs.

Be Careful Connecting to Unsecured Wi-Fi

For obvious reasons, be careful when connecting to unsecured Wi-Fi at restaurants, cafes, hotels, airports, hostels, etc. when traveling. This is especially true at backpacker hostels, expat cafes or anywhere else that scammers may know that many tourists visit. If you have to connect to unsecured Wi-Fi, try not to log into anything personal or important, like your bank account or even your email.

Exercise Caution With Police and Security Guards

Obviously, you should always respect police and security guards in foreign countries. You never know what the laws are and you definitely don’t want to end up in jail because you talked back to an officer. But if they tell you a particular attraction is closed, you may want to do a little digging of your own. This is a common scam that usually ends up with the tourist missing an epic tourist attraction that is indeed open and dealing instead with the aforementioned gemstone/carpet scams. Don’t fall for it!

Ask Questions, Think Logically and Use Your Intuition

Although it may be easy to think that a local just invited you to dinner out of the goodness of their heart or that this driver really wants you to have tea in their brother’s shop, be practical. People rarely offer something for nothing. Think about the situation and don’t be afraid to ask questions. What is the address of your brother’s shop? What’s his name? This is an easy way to spot right away if something seems fishy. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Follow your gut and if something seems off, don’t do it.

And for all the men out there — that supermodel at the bar who’s really, really into you and wants to see your hotel room? That’s likely a scam too, so be vigilant when women seem over-eager or insist on going back to your place.

Know the Currency

Know the local currency conversion and do the math. This will ensure you don’t get swindled when a cashier or driver is handing you change. Sometimes saying the amount you’re paying out loud and the amount of change you expect to receive out loud helps you to keep track — even though you may feel a little silly doing it. It also shows whomever you’re exchanging funds with that you aren’t the right person to cheat — you know your stuff.

Research Travel Scams Before You Go

Each country and continent has their own scams, so carefully research your destination. Scams vary by country and while you don’t want to be paranoid, staying informed of what scams are out there can help you stay safe and have a fantastic trip.

Protect Your Belongings

Leaving your passport in the hotel safe and only carrying what’s absolutely necessary on you (e.g., a credit card or two and some cash) will protect you in case you are scammed or robbed. It will also help if you lose or drop your belongings, ensuring you have a credit card or cash back at the hotel if needed. And if you are tempted to purchase any gems or carpets, the limited amount of cash you have on you will likely stop you if your intuition doesn’t.

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