Common tourist scams -- what, where and how to avoid

Common tourist scams -- what, where and how to avoid

Think you've seen them all? It's not just gullible noobs who fall prey to these sneaky tricks
Taxis are the first and last point of contact with the locals for most travelers. A bad experience can overshadow an otherwise fantastic trip.

Have tourists, will scam 'em.

Along with construction sites, grumpy waiters and unnecessary towel art, places that attract travelers also attract chancers.

The best, of course, you never hear about. But we know of a few.

Some tourist scams aren't specific to a single destination, though techniques vary. Here's a look at some of the more common ones, and how to avoid them. 

The taxi/tuk-tuk scam

taxi scamVerbal agreements aren't binding. Write down the fare before hopping into that cyclo. Tourists are an easy target for taxis and tuk-tuks looking to make a quick buck, from non-metered cabs that swarm airport arrival gates to those that hold your luggage hostage in the trunk until exorbitant fees are paid.

Ben, founder of blog and a six-year Vietnam resident, describes the most common scam in the country involving the three-wheeled cyclo.

“You agree on an amount with the rider, but when the tour is over, he pulls out a pamphlet saying the ride is actually three or four times the agreed rate," he says.

"Tourists should write down the agreed number on paper before getting on the cyclo."

Ditto in Bali when it comes to finding a taxi that will properly charge the metered rate.

“Drivers claim there is a flat rate of five times the normal rate, blaming it on the high season, slow night or even a busy night!” says Rosemarie, a former expat hospitality employee on the island.

“The rates are still cheap compared to, say, Europe, but our guests felt rightfully cheated.”

Moral of the story: Queue at the official taxi stand like normal folk and ignore any offers on the way. 

More on CNN: Confessions of a Shanghai taxi driver 

The bird poop scam

pickpocketsWhile one person cleans that 'bird poop' off your shirt, someone else is cleaning out your pockets. Here's the scenario: you're in a new country surrounded with new sights and sounds. You let your guard down.

As you're walking along happily snapping away, someone points out a brownish yellow stain on your clothes or shoes. You automatically recoil in disgust. It's bird poop.

Or so you thought. The bird poop scam is widely reported in tourist destinations across South America, including Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, but also Barcelona, India and the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Luckily, there happens to be a shoeshine guy or Good Samaritan nearby who offers to wipe off the stain. Oh, and pick your pockets at the same time. 

The string scam

The string scam in Italy and France (used most often around Montmartre in Paris), involves men holding pieces of string, who seemingly pop out of nowhere and deftly loop them around your wrist and start weaving a bracelet.

While you're thinking to yourself, “How sweet, a free souvenir,” and admiring their swift finger work, the bracelet will be on and payment demanded.

Of course it's on tight enough that you can't take it off, and they're so persistent that they guilt you out of money. Either that or your pockets will be emptied by their partner while you're trying to get out of the situation. 

More on CNN: Biggest travel rip-offs 

The short change scam

tourist scamsNever walk away from an exchange counter without counting your cash two or three times. Sleight of hand ruses don't only befall first-time tourists. Aditya Dwiangga, an Indonesian working in the Netherlands, recently returned to his homeland and visited Bali.

Heeding pre-trip online scam warnings, he carefully counted his money twice at the exchange counter, but back at the hotel realized he was shortchanged IDR 3 million (US$316).

“The money was given to me in stacks of IDR 1 million (US$105) each, but as I was counting the third or fourth bundle, he must've split one of the counted bundles into two, which I did not notice before it was too late,” he recalls.

Moral of the story: When in a country with very low denomination notes, exchange your money at a reputable money exchange counter, or be ridiculously meticulous with counting (and holding on) to currency you're not familiar with. 

The blackjack scam

blackjack scamIn the end, the house always wins. Tricksters love to prey on your greed. Being one of the cardinal sins it's perhaps the least deserving of empathy but worth a heads up so you're not kicking yourself after the fact.

A particularly clever ruse is the blackjack scam, which has been reported widely in Southeast Asia, from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City.

The scam starts with an innocuous ice-breaker, “Where are you from?”

Then, lo and behold, the scammer has a relative going to study/work in [insert your home country here], and invites you to his/her house to offer a few words of advice to their sister or nephew.

You're then looped into a “sure-win” card game to either help them get back at a high-stakes gambler, or playing to your greed, for you to win some cash yourself.

Ben of says a fellow guesthouser was relieved of US$10,000 in this high stakes game. Remember, the house always wins. 

More on CNN: Vietnam's Blackjack scam exposed 

The precious gem scam

travel scamsTurns out trusting the advice of a Bangkok tuk-tuk driver on high-end jewelry purchases isn't really a good idea. Shocker. In Bangkok, the tuk-tuk gem scam is well reported. Various "same same" versions of this exist, but basically a tourist is approached on the streets by "off duty" officials and/or the hotel concierge (let's call them "Team Hook"), claiming wherever you're going, be it MBK or the Grand Palace, is closed for the day.

But what do you know? It's your lucky day because there's a tax-free special promotion going on in town, and they'll even throw in a detour to a nondescript temple.

"Team Line", already stationed at the temple, will then befriend the unknowing tourists, and nonchalantly mention the aforementioned discount at the gem/tour/tailor shop, erasing any niggling doubts.

Needless to say, once at the shop, "Team Sinker" sells you shoddy goods for high prices.

A similar gold ring scam in Paris sees a lady pick up a ring off the ground in your path, confirm it's not yours, and turn into a connoisseur confirming the gold is indeed real, identifying marks and all.

Either she'll let you keep it and ask for “food” money, or spin a sob story of why she can't keep it because she needs the money (and sell it to you outright). 

The lost tourist/leather jacket scam

As a traveler you might find yourself asked to help out a fellow “lost tourist” in a car.

More on CNN: 8 things travelers should watch out for in Bangkok

The driver, invariably employed in the fashion industry, will offer to give you a designer leather jacket or two as a sign of appreciation for your directional assistance.

He'll also ask for €50 (US$63) or so for gas –- chump change considering the jacket's worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, right? Keep in mind that vinyl is shiny, but worth a lot less than leather. 

Moral of the story: Don't believe you'll get something for nothing. 

The milk powder scam

milk powder scamBeware the powdered milk ruse. All over the world, petitions used to illicit donations for nonexistent causes play to the sympathy of tourists in unfamiliar territory. 

Then there's the infamous milk powder scam, reported in poor countries like Cuba, Nepal, India and Cambodia. A mother (many times holding a baby to up the guilt factor) will tell you she doesn't want money, but needs powdered milk.

She'll then lead you to a specific store to buy said powder at an inflated rate, return it to the shop later, and split the winnings.

Moral of the story: Some may believe a few dollars is nothing when you're helping a less fortunate soul. But keep in mind that many of the babies are rented and the beggars can belong to an organized crime syndicate. 

Have you ever been scammed while traveling abroad? Tell us about your experience in the comments box below.