Scam savvy: Don't be a gullible globetrotter
If it seems too good to be true, chances are it is too good to be true. To avoid travel scams, follow this adage and err on the side of caution. Registering your travel plans with Smartraveller and visiting the website to check for alerts or "do not travel" warnings is also recommended.
Travel scams play on tourists' vulnerability: you may be in an unfamiliar place, unaware of local customs, and letting down your guard while relaxing. Most scams play on trust, relying on your willingness to accept help or a good deal - and realising you've been fooled can quickly dampen your mood and even ruin your holiday. Left inconvenienced, out of pocket or with nowhere to stay; feeling exposed and embarrassed or angry, it can deter you from future travel.
You can become the victim of a scam even before you leave home; being savvy when it comes to online bookings is the first thing you need to watch out for. With more than 100 complaints of travel-related scams amounting to over $250,000 in loss reported already this year, it pays to do your homework before divulging any payment detailsi.
Booking online can save you time and money, but when taking advantage of offers from third-party providers, verifying airline tickets, hotel reservations, tour vouchers and other travel expenses directly with the actual airline or organisation can also save you potential hassles after purchase. Before entering your credit card number or bank account details, it's worth contacting the company to confirm that the offer is genuinei. Similarly, don't accept unsolicited offers (even from reputable sources) without checking first.
Credit cards, changing money and counterfeit currency
If you didn't organise foreign currency or travellers cheques before departing, changing money is potentially your next challenge. Always use a bank or reputable currency exchange outlet, and familiarise yourself with ATMs. Look out for skimming devices that capture data from the magnetic strip on your card and are usually placed near an ATM's card readerii.
Acquaint yourself with the currency you'll be using to avoid fakesiii and where possible, keep at least one note with you to compare to any you may receive on the street or from suspicious areas. It's not just counterfeit currency you have to be aware of, but also the potential for unscrupulous operators to forget your change, leave the premises to get change and not return, refuse to accept smaller notes due to being damaged or dirty, or even accuse you of giving them counterfeitsiv!
When paying by credit card, always keep your card within sight and don't give anyone your card details without verifying their identity first. To keep your cash and cards safe, be discreet, distribute them between several bags or pockets, and don't carry a large amount of cash unnecessarilyv.
Taxis and rental cars
Transport scams - particularly at airports and tourist hotspots - are some of the most common travel scams you may encounter.
When hiring a rental car, inspect it yourself and read the fine print or you might be hit with hidden fees for damage you didn't causevi. Always demand taxi meters are used, or negotiate the fare before getting invii.
Research the location and cost of getting to your destination to avoid being driven in circles (sometimes literally) in order to increase the taxi fare. Also stand firm if the driver insists the place you're going is closed or at capacity, and offers to take you somewhere else, where they'll no doubt receive a fee for delivering a cashed-up tourist. This is easily verified with a quick phone callviii.
Particularly in Asia, rickshaw drivers will offer you a free ride to your destination - but it's not really free. The condition of your free ride is one (or several) stops that will see you transported to a tailor or jewellery store where you are harassed into spending money, and of course the driver receives a commission for delivering youvii. A ten-minute drive can turn into an hour-long ordeal and there can even be the risk of robbery or assault. To avoid this, it's best to only accept rides from those with a meter or pre-negotiated fare.
Accommodation and tours
Booking your accommodation in advance can save you time and money, but check the hotel is operational and that they will accept your receipt when you arrive. You could also find your booking has been lost and there is no refund policy, or the pictures and facilities in the brochure are far from realityix.
Even if you wait until you arrive to find a room, there are several scams to keep your eye out for, including taxi drivers "accidentally" taking you to the wrong hotel or telling you that your chosen hotel is closed. Street scammers may also offer you a cheap rate that has suddenly sold out when you arrive, and only expensive rooms remainvii.
Likewise, if you are booking a tour or recreational activity, ensure the seller actually represents the company and it is clear on what's includedx.
Entertainment and going out
Tourist attractions and busy town centres are a haven for scammers, and there's seemingly no limit to the cons they're waiting to pull on you. Selling imitation goods at an inflated pricei, or showing you a genuine product then handing you a sealed box with a fake inside are common occurrencesvii.
Restaurants and bars also provide opportunity for local con artists to score an evening out at your expense. If locals befriend you and offer to buy you a drink, be careful that they don't point you out as the one who is paying, only to leave you with a huge bill at the end of the night (when they've long disappeared). Establishments themselves can also be in on the scam, offering free entry and not informing you of outrageous prices or unreasonable minimum spend limitsviii. Pickpockets are another big travel concern, and there are numerous tricks that scammers will use to get close to your pocket or bag. Accidentally spilling something on you and then offering to help you clean up is very effective, as it allows the scammer to touch you and at the same time relieve you of your valuables. They may also find other ways to distract you while an accomplice robs you insteadxii.
Calling the authorities can prove futile when corrupt or even fake police turn up and demand bribes to resolve the situation. Insist on accompanying them to the police station and they will usually let you off "just this once"viii. Besides bribes, corrupt police or officials may request your passport or visa, which is confiscated and only returned at a price. For this reason, carry a photocopy of your important documents and leave the originals in the hotel safe or somewhere secure when permitted by local lawsxi.
Just as research and preparation go into planning your holiday destination and activities, educating yourself on the potential dangers and pitfalls of your chosen location will better equip you to avoid travel scams and enjoy your time away.