10 Common Travel Scams

I thought I had advanced street smarts when coming to South America, but then I got pick pocketed on my third day. Here’s a list of popular scams I’ve learned about.

1. The pick pocket. This is usually an organized team effort. You are first marked as a tourist and a pocket is identified for picking. Success depends on you being distracted away from the pocket being picked, and this is usually done by a physical bump or shove. Or you do all the work distracting yourself by walking into a crowd at an outdoor celebration. Sometimes you are discreetly marked with chalk beforehand as a signal to nearby pick pocket accomplices.

Defense: Reach for your pockets when you get bumped. Don’t walk into crowds and at the minimum don’t put anything valuable in your back pockets.

2. The bag lift. Either sitting in a park or outdoor cafe, you notice keys or change on the ground. As you pick it up, the backpack you left a couple feet behind has disapeared.

Defense: Don’t take your eyes off your bag. Everyone who had their bag snatched says they only looked away “for a second.”

3. The bag slash. Usually on a crowded bus, someone slashes the outside of your backpack while you are distracted with some random commotion. Once slashed, someone sticks their hand in hoping to find something valuable. You don’t realize your bag has been slashed. Variation: Instead of slashing they just open the zipper and reach inside.

Defense: Put your bag in front of you when taking public transport.

4. The mustard spray. Someone sprays a condiment around your waist as you are walking outside. A very polite accomplice with toilet paper then offers to help clean up the mess but to get it out all you need to do is take off your backpack. You never see it again.

Defense: Walk with the mustard until you get to a safehouse.

5. The fake police. This is a particularly dangerous scam operated by organized gangs that involves an English speaking confederate who befriends you in a public space like a bus station. A “policeman” arrives to do a random check and finds out your new friend has contraband, and demands you come with him to the fake police station where you tied up and relived of your credit cards and their PINs. Sometimes you are held for days as the robbers withdraw the daily maximum amount from your accounts. Variation: You are in a cab and someone wants to share the ride with you. Almost immediately, a fake policeman pulls the cab over and discovers contraband on the new passenger. The key to this type of scam working is you making the decision to voluntarily follow the fake policeman.

Defense: Ignore a lone officer by pretending you don’t understand him. Don’t follow any policeman unless multiple vehicle backup arrives and it’s obvious they are real. Two Austrian tourists were victims of this scam in Bolivia and were killed.

6. The bus overhead grab. Once you fall asleep on the bus someone either sifts through your bag in the overhead or grabs it and gets off at the next stop. Nearly 100% chance of happening on overnight buses in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. A variation is grabbing things from your jacket / fleece pockets as you sleep (while you are wearing it).

Defense: Keep your bag on your lap or check everything in underneath the bus, where it will be safer. Putting your bag on the floor is a poor defense if the robber gets in the seat behind you.

7. The taxi runaround. If you are coming out of a bar or club at night piss drunk, a crooked cab driver will disorient you by driving around. Then he pulls into an alley where an accomplice with a weapon relieves you of your money and clothes. This is an opportunistic crime because the cab driver selects people who he thinks wouldn’t notice being driven in the wrong direction.

Defense: Don’t get so trashed that you don’t know the route home. Speak up if you think something is off to let the cab driver know you won’t be an easy victim. If you are certain he’s driving you into a trap, get behind his seat and go apeshit. Sitting next to a cab driver is a poor defense because accomplices can get in the backseat.

8. The bar tab. An English speaker befriends you and tells you about this really great bar down the street. You get there and see two girls at the table next to you raise their glasses in salud after opening an expensive bottle of wine. Your tab comes and turns out you bought that bottle of wine and several more for the many mediocre ladies in the bar. Burly bouncers won’t let you leave until you charge an exorbitant sum to your credit card. Primitive variation: You are led into a “bar” (abandoned building) where you are immediately relieved of your goods.

Defense: Don’t follow someone you just met on the street into a bar or club unless it’s a really hot girl.

9. The found money. You are walking down the street and a man walking next to you finds a large roll of cash on the floor. He offers to split it with you. Out of nowhere an accomplice enters and claims it was his money and there is a significant amount missing. The man who found the money pays up and urges you to do the same to avoid serious trouble.

Defense: If it’s too good to be true…

10. The switcharoo. A guy on the street is hawking cheap cameras that seem legit. Vendor is long gone by the time you realize you bought a box of rocks. Sometimes even stores will give you a box that is already opened.

Defense: Examine the goods.

Even if you know every travel scam, you will still be defenseless against a mugger with a knife or gun, or someone who randomly karate kicks you in the head. This usually happens at night where you are not carrying things like passport, jewelry, credit cards, or your Canon digital SLR camera. It’s best to give up the goods when attacked unless you have a weapon of your own and want to battle.

Bottom line: Be skeptical of people and use your brain but don’t but don’t let paranoia rob you of what could be a sexual experience with a local. Not everyone is trying to rob you.

If you liked this post then I think you will like my travel memoir A Dead Bat In Paraguay, about when I quit my job and sold my stuff to try and bang my way across South America. It contains my experiences with South American women and the struggles that crushed me both mentally and physically. Called "refreshing." "honest," and "inspiring," A Dead Bat In Paraguay is available in both eBook and paperback. Check out the homepage to watch the introductory video, read exerpts, or learn more about what's inside.

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  • http://beachbumatheart.blogspot.com Beach Bum

    A “tip” people give in Brazil is if anyone with a gun try to take you anywhere your best defense is to run away — chances are their aim is not that good that would actually hit you, but if you stay they can shoot at anytime from close proximity, plus if you go with them, the odds of you being killed are high. So don’t go into that car even if there’s a gun to your head, run away instead…

  • mike says

    I don’t see how paranoia doesn’t ruin the experience.

  • eugenius

    beach bum, i am a little unsure of “So don’t go into that car even if there’s a gun to your head, run away instead…” if it was that easy while a gun is an inch from your face then everyone would always run away……i bet the time it takes you to turn around to run, or whatever crazy maneuver you think you have, two bullets would be pumped in your skull…….then you are really fucked… The running away part is a bit vague can you elaborate on how you would do that in this situation?

    Thanks.

  • virglekent

    “two bullets would be pumped in your skull…….then you are really fucked”

    Ok, that made my day

  • Nabs

    The easiest way is just to keep your distance from tourist cities, especially where the tourists tend to be Americans, I’ve found that the places frequented by American tourists tend to contain the highest levels of crime… oh and acting poor helps too.

    Mike, the paranoia doesn’t ruin the experience, because you get used to it, you question everything. It is only in America and Europe where businesses and society tend to be forthright (well more forthright than those found in most third world countries). This is the way that most of the world operates, not everyone is depressed actually they are probably happier than most Americans.

  • miik

    When being robbed – give them your camera box filled with rocks. While they are distracted opening box – pick their pocket. Run. Follow really hot girl into club.

  • Anonymous

    Good Post!! Crosses bolivia an peru off of list.

  • Skeletor

    I always thought that you weren’t supposed to reach for your pockets because then they know where it is.

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in India. And most of these scams are well known over there. And it doesn’t happen only to tourists. Some of the ingenious ways, Indians deal with pick pocketing: Men have a pocket in the boxers (WTF?),(As they wear sarongs, they can actually reach here quite efficiently) and women carry their valuable stuff in their blouses :) Also, their is a hidden pocket in tailored pants, right by the buttons, where the money can be kept. And Once I have carried about 200000 Indian rupees, in a towel tied around my belly, with a t-shirt and a shirt over it:) And most tailored shirts in india, have a pocket inside, (yep), hidden by the linings of the outer pocket. Another place, is the rolled shirt cuffs:)

  • http://wendysmightyminutiae.blogspot.com Wendy

    It surprises me how many Americans are shocked by theft/violence in third world countries. (Not saying you are)

    I grew up in a border state and knew all you know now at 16 years old sneaking down to Juarez Mx. for no cover two for one all night. I would go party until six in the morning drive back to the states and go to school and sleep through science.

    I was crazy, risky and glad to be alive now. Many friends of mine were killed on the drive home drunk or locked up in the Mexican jail with no bribe money. THIRD WORLD countries.

  • me

    Man this makes me love America!

  • http://virtualbizweb.com/ Tim

    Great Post! One I wanted to add was a scam I came across in rural Costa Rica (which is otherwise a very great place to visit).

    You go into the bar, have your drinks, and then leave. When you get outside, the young locals tell you that the taxis don’t run after 10pm (or whatever their time of choice may be)… but they offer to give you a ride in their own vehicle for some extra money.

    They DO take you where you need to go, but they often charge way more than the taxi would have… and lie in general about the taxis not running.

    And… the truth is, most taxis are privately owned… and many are on call all hours of the day and night.

    Good idea is to grab a business card of the cab driver (they all have them) and verify one that runs all night… and just use the same one or two cabbies your entire stay.

    Tim’s last blog post: This one takes the cake? ?Pay to Volunteer?.

  • yoso

    Don’t think these things happen only in Third World countries. In the USA, in larger cities with large number of tourists, in airports, around national monuments and parks, anywhere there are numbers of strangers, there will be thieves. The best thing anyone can do is be vigilant and wary. Never show large amounts of money. Hide extra money or separate money into more than one place. Put your motel room key and identification on your person rather than in a bag or tote. A handkerchief pinned to underclothing is good if you don’t have a purpose-made pocket. Use bags or totes with large flaps and zippers or locking tabs. Think ahead and plan your routes to sightsee or shop, so you’ll know if the taxi driver is taking you elsewhere.

  • Me

    #8 is a fake. That doesn’t actually happen. It was taken from various movies, including Dumb and Dumber. Nobody would ever accept a distant wave as “The people next to me must be telling the truth.” Even if they did, trying to recoup their losses by mugging another patron is a separate, unrelated crime.

  • Anonymous

    Almost all of these are not actually scams. They are thefts, pure and simple. A scam requires a bit of cunning so the mark gives up his money voluntarily, and only later discovers he was ripped off. I’d say 9 and 10 qualify, but the rest aren’t really different from mugging.

  • Anonymous

    Of course the real way to avoid this is not to go to any of these whacked countries (the whole of South America for instance) if you are stupid enough to go to these places for a vacation then hey deal with this stuff… otherwise think of all the cool things there to do in the US, Australia and Europe without having to put up with this..

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  • Anonymous

    Response #16:
    Other than the “differences of the hunt” you’ve described at length, what really is different about one country and another? Nothing. Drink, dance, chatter, fuck. Save yourself the en-route-violence and evolve your “hometurf game”, dude…like doing that thing you so despise in other men: developing your career. All that vacation money along with all that booty-chasing energy could have been put into a degree or business that sets you up with other intellectual competents that did more than spend their 20′s getting laid by strangers. You’ve been playing the wrong game.
    “But the rush of almost getting stabbed by a rusty screwdriver on my way to yet another drinkhole filled with flotsam vadge…man, that makes the nectar so much sweeter when my PhD-level ‘game’ pays off…”

  • Anonymous

    Oh, and here’s a consolation prize since you hate Beta-pushovers like me: I LOVE EATING PUSSY.

    Shave and get a real pastime that doesn’t involve draining your balls…it has warped your sense of discourse(pick-up drivel to nowhere?) and loyalty(or did your parents divorce do that?)

  • Joe

    Somewhere in one of those I saw “karate kick to the head” ….Dude, I will be VERY disappointed in myself if I let someone do the crane kick on me and then steal my stuff…I’d much rather have the story of “a guy pulled out a gun and demanded my money” than “this guy raised one leg in the air and held his arms out…then he jump kicked me and stole my stuff!”

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  • Druzilla

    I carry a second wallet (the real one is hidden) and in there I have a few old, cancelled credit cards an old Drivers License and about the equivalent of $20 US in the local currency – or maybe just a couple of $10 bills. This is in my front pocket. In Rio, when approached by 3 serious looking dudes, this was the wallet I “gave up”. They opened it, looked at their “score”, smiled, and ran off. I always carry two of these fake wallets in my suitcase, but have only needed that one time. Also — keep a cotton handkerchief stuffed in each front pocket, on top of your wallet and cash. Pickpockets can not easily get past this without you feeling the “commotion” in your pants! This has stopped the pickpockets twice — once was a group of elderly ladies in Cusco, Peru (I kid you not). They appeared out of two separate doors and surrounded me (about 6 of them), and started bumping into me. I felt hands going into each front pocket (back pockets always empty) and I smashed my hands down on each pocket. The Handkerchiefs were both still there and the little crowd dispersed magically within 3 seconds – vanished back into the walls and doors from which they came — weird experience. All my “stuff” was intact.

  • Rick

    So I get into a cab in Italy and agree on a price to the hotel. When we get there the guy says it is customary to pay for the cab to drive back to the airport. Or he threatens to call the police. And he is showing me some kind of laminated ID card ther whole time. (Like you can’t laminate anything you want at Office Max) So I tell him to go ahead and call the cops, I’ll wait. And he finally takes what we had agreed on and calls me some names and leaves.
    Cabs are always the low point of travel

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  • http://ghostnation.blogspot.com Anonymous

    Actualy scam no 8 or a version of it happens in Londons Soho (the red light district of London). A scumbag looking guy will hassle you on the street to enter a bar where you will be expected to pay for a ‘hostess’ without having charges made clear. The police were leafleting Soho about it tecently

  • John Stranger

    Shame! You go over there to use and take advantage of the people. You deserve to get judged and punished just like what happened with the Secret Service in Columbia.

  • Tropicano

    If you are a piece of shit ,dumb,and afraid of the adventure,better stay at home and let mom and dad take care of you asshole.Gringo loco can’t mess with patos locos.

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  • http://lozintranslation.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/scams-in-istanbul-pt1-why-i-trust.html Loz in Transit

    Scams happen wherever there are lots of tourists and has a segment of the population willing to take advantage of it. Its not confined to the Third World at all, Barcelona, Paris and Istanbul are other hotspots.

    ‘Scam City’ is a great NatGeo show that covers all the common scams city by city