Bicycle touring is an activity that takes place in the street… and because of this, it means interacting with the types of people who are commonly found on the roadside. Some of these people are kind, friendly and helpful, while others are there to prey off the weak and vulnerable.
In this article I will share with you some of the most common street/travel scams I have encountered from all around the world. This article is not meant to scare you, but is instead designed to inform you about some of the most common scams and robbery techniques so that you can watch out for them and, most importantly, not fall prey to them during your travels.
I’ve listed the scams in order from, what I believe to be, most common to least common.
The “No-Change” or “Wrong Change” Trick
The most common example of this scam occurs when paying for an item that requires a small amount of change. Often times, the individual in question will say that he does not have any change to give you in return, or he will give you only part of your change in return – thereby pocketing the rest as a profit. Be sure to count your change before walking away to make sure you have received the correct amount.
Another variation of this scam occurs when you make a payment that requires change and an individual demands that you pay the exact amount. If you are not very attentive however, the indivudual may “forget” to return your initial payment to you. It may seem strange not to notice this, but in a fast moving and confusing setting, it happens more easily than you think – especially if you are somewhat tired or confused.
In another variation, a seller will insist that he does not have change for the item you purchased and that you should accept goods (often of low-quality) in place of your change. If you ask to “cancel” the sale and get your money back, the seller may become quite pushy in insisting that you take the goods. He may also try and make you feel guilty because he needs the money for his family or business. If paying with large bills, it is best to ask if the seller has the proper change before handing over any of your money.
A final variation of the “no-change” trick involves ticket windows at tourist sites. Ticket sellers will take your money, take a long time stamping your tickets, talking to colleagues, taking your ID as security for audio guides, etc., and simply “forget” to give you your change. They may give you some brief information, smile, and say “okay” or “here you go” to distract you and send you on your way. Once you leave the window you have no chance of getting your change, so be sure to ask for your change and not be distracted by their “helpful information.”
The “You Didn’t Pay The Full Amount” Scam
In this scam you make a purchase from a business for a certain amount of merchandise for an agreed upon price. You then hand over your money, but before the merchandise is actually delivered into your hands, the owner pockets some of the money you gave him and claims you paid less than you did. There are no other witnesses, so it’s your word against his. This is common at food stands, where the merchant receives the cash before the food is delivered into your hands, so you are now at his mercy. The best way to prevent this scam from happening is, rather than handing over a number of different bills or coins, you count out your payment before handing it over and you both agree on how much is being exchanged before the money leaves your hands.
Distraction thefts take a variety of forms. Generally the thieves work in groups: one or more will distract you and the other will rob you while you’re distracted. Examples of distractions include:
- ready-made distractions like a busker, departure boards, or your own phone or music player;
- having an attractive or friendly accomplice talk to you;
- minor assaults, such as throwing things at you or “accidentally” bumping into you;
- having a child talk to you and when the child’s “parent” comes to apologize, the child steals something due to the distraction of the new conversation;
- fake drownings, robberies and similar emergencies causing you to leave your belongings behind;
- or staged assaults/fights between accomplices.
It’s best to be aware of what’s going on around you in any public place and to be suspicious of strangers who appear to be trying to single you out. If you are the victim of a minor assault, suspect that it’s the prelude to a robbery attempt and, if you feel safe enough, try to get in a position where you can look after your belongings. But beware, you may need to refuse the help of concerned onlookers as it’s common to have an accomplice or two pose as concerned onlookers.
Sometimes locals will simply try to force themselves on you to help with a ticket machine, a subway map or directions. For bicycle travelers, the most common example of this scam involves someone suggesting that they watch your bicycle for you while you go inside a store to shop. They might just be overly helpful, or they may also be looking for and demand a small tip for their forced help. In general, be wary of anyone who forces their way into your personal space and who starts doing things for you without asking you if you need them. In many instances, it is the person who offers his or her help that you need to be most concerned about.
The Currency Swap Scam
If you are persuaded to buy souvenirs or other items from people selling on the street, look at the change you are given from the sale before putting it in your wallet: it may be in a different currency of similar appearance. For example, in China, a street-vendor may hand you a 50 ruble note in change instead of 50 yuan; the former is worth one-third as much as the latter. Also be careful that the notes you receive are not ripped or damaged as these may not be accepted elsewhere.
Credit Card Scams
There are several different types of credit card scams, but the most common instance occurs when you use your card to pay in a shop or restaurant. While your card is out of your sight, it is swiped not only in the machine that sends the information to your bank for approval, but also on a second machine that records the card’s identifying information from the magnetic strip. (The card information may also be written down on paper… or they make take a photo/video of the credit card details). The copy of the card, or the credit card number, is then used by the thieves to buy goods and services. Often, this is an inside job: employees of the outlet are using the information themselves or are being paid to acquire it.
The best way to prevent this scam from happening is to keep your card in sight at all times. Unfortunately, the typical restaurant custom is to let the restaurant staff take your card away and bring you back a receipt to sign. That being said, it is becoming more common for restaurants to bring a wireless credit card machine to your table so you don’t have to worry about the data being stolen.
When you travel, be sure to keep the receipts you receive when you use your credit card and check them regularly against your credit card statement. Make sure the amounts match up and make sure there are no additional purchases you didn’t make. Report any discrepancies to your credit card company: the liability rests with them, not you, as long as you report fraudulent transactions in a timely manner.
Passport as Security for Debt or Rental
If you rent equipment like a jet ski, motorcycle or bicycle, you may be asked to give your passport as a security guarantee. After returning the rented goods, the owner claims you damaged the item and will ask for exaggerated prices to compensate or claim to have “lost” your passport (later the police or lost property office will want a substantial “donation” for its return). If you do not agree, they threaten to keep your passport.
In another variation, your passport is simply never returned to you (either because they take it from you and disappear… or because you simply forgot to get it back). The passport is then sold for a profit and you are stuck in a foreign country without any documentation.
To prevent this from happening to you, never hand over your passport as a security or guarantee in any circumstances. Pay cash (and get a receipt), or hand over something comparatively worthless, like your library card, student ID, or an old gift card of some kind (I prefer using expired American Express gift cards, because they look like valuable credit cards). You can also try going to another business that doesn’t require your passport as a security guarantee. Often times, the threat of leaving the business will be enough to make them agree to whatever you are proposing.
In this simple scam, your driver, guide or a friendly local will tell you that the place you’re heading to is closed, no good or too expensive and that he knows of somewhere better to stay. While this may be true, it’s likely that the ‘better’ place is giving him a commission for referrals, and his commission is just going to increase your room rate.
You should insist on going to your planned destination… or on finding your own accommodation for the night. In some instances taxi drivers will refuse to drive you to your planned hotel, even if you insist. In some places, taxi drivers will take you to the wrong hotel and insist it is the one you requested!
To avoid being held hostage by a mercenary taxi, keep your luggage with you on the back seat (rather than loading it into the trunk) so you can credibly threaten to walk out and not pay. They’ll usually back down by the time you start opening the door — and if they don’t, get a new driver.
The best thing you can do is avoid using taxis whenever possible. Before arriving in a new location, have your accommodation pre-booked, find out where it is on the map and see if there is alternative transport such as local buses to get to or near your accommodation. If you can’t pre-book your own accommodation, try finding a place to stay on your own, asking for prices and to see the room, at several different places before agreeing on where you are going to stay.
Flat Tire Scams
In this scam, you stop to help a motorist who appears to have a flat tire. As you speak with the driver, an accomplice (one of his passengers) steals your purse, wallet, camera, or anything expensive to hand (this can happen within seconds).
Another variation of this scam takes place when tacks or nails are laid down in the roadway, causing you to get a flat tire on your bicycle, motorbike or car. When one or more people happen upon you and offer their assistance, you are happy to receive their help, only to later discover that they were robbing you while you were distracted and working on your flat tire.
Gifts from Strangers/Beggars
A beggar stops you on the street and gives you a “present.” Alternatively, they “find” something like a ring or flower and give it you. After a few moments of chit-chat, they start demanding money and follow you until you give them what they want.
This scam works because people feel guilty for accepting the free gift and then giving nothing in return. So the secret to avoiding this scam is easy. Don’t accept free gifts from strangers!
Another similar scam involves overly pushy people who pose as collecting money for a school or charity. A child, teenager or old man/woman will approach you, give you a flower or another small gift and expect you to “donate” money to their “cause.” Inquiring about the specifics of their “charity” may help to scare them off, but that’s not always the case. Ask lots of questions, see if they have any official paperwork, and be prepared to say “No” and walk away.
If you need to use an ATM machine, especially in heavily trafficked tourist areas, exercise extreme caution. When possible, avoid ATM machines that are accessible from the street and instead use only ATM machines that are inside bank branches.
Low-tech ATM scam: Where someone watches as you key in your PIN and then physically steals your card and empties your account. To prevent this, ensure that your PIN cannot be seen when you enter it.
Medium-tech ATM scam: Where they rig the ATM so that it swallows your card and then retrieve the card after you stomp off in disgust. Having someone come and try to “help” you retrieve a lost card at this point is a red flag that you’ve been scammed — they’re trying to get your PIN. To prevent this, ignore offers for help, stay with the machine until authorized personnel arrive, and cancel your card immediately if you absolutely have to leave the machine.
High-tech ATM scam: Where they retrofit the ATM with a card reader that records your card details and PIN and then creates a cloned card. This is the nastiest form, as you may not notice a thing until it’s too late; the only form of prevention is to ensure that the card slot on the ATM machine has not been tampered with.
In all cases, the best thing to do is to check your statements frequently and regularly change your PIN while traveling. In the case of using an unfamiliar ATM machine, hover nearby for a moment or two before using the machine and watch to see if any other customers have their cards taken by the machine. Also watch the people near the machine to see if they are behaving in a suspicious manner.
In this scam, a bar or restaurant will give you a menu with reasonable prices and then take it away after you place your order. When the bill is presented, the price for your meal is a lot higher that you expected it to be. If you argue about the price of the meal, they produce a menu with the higher prices listed on it. The best way to avoid this is to stay out of sleazy tourist bars… and to keep the menu at your table while you eat.
Watch out when asking for a menu in English, as the prices on the menu are sometimes higher than the menu in the native language. It is best to ask for a menu in both English and the native tongue – that way you can check to see if they prices are the same, regardless of language.
Another variation of this scam occurs when rather than ordering off the menu, your waiter offers you a “special” that is not shown on the menu. The meal will not be very special, but will come with a price considerably higher than anything else on the menu.
Entrance Fee / Pay Toilet Scams
In places where pay toilets or popular tourist attractions exist, a scammer will position him or herself in a location en-route to the restrooms / attraction. This gives the appearance that this is the person you are supposed to pay for the service. But then, after paying and passing this person, you are unexpectedly met by the true attendant who must also be paid. In other instances you will pay the scammer and then also need to pay a turnstile, or you may find that there was no fee to use the toilet or visit the attraction in the first place.
The “Water’s Not Safe to Drink” Scam
Many hotels in foreign countries often toured by westerners will leave signs in the rooms stating the water is not safe for drinking, and that drinking water must be purchased from the front desk or a minibar, often for sky high prices. In many of these countries, water is perfectly safe for consumption by visitors, and the hotel will tell you this in order to sell you bottled water. In some cases, they will give you the water bottles, implying they are free, but then add it on as a hidden charge later. To know whether or not the tap water is safe to drink somewhere, do your own independent research, and don’t rely on the hotel to provide you with this info.
Legitimate tolls use existing structures. But in some rural areas, primitive makeshift gates and road blocks are set up on little traveled roads frequented by tourists, and money is demanded in exchange for passage. Saying “no,” being persistent and simply walking, driving or cycling past the gate/road block will work in some instances. However, there are times when it is best to simply offer up a small amount of money to let the locals leave you be so you can continue on your way. If you don’t want to pay the fee, be prepared to turn around and go back the way you came. You may need to find another way around.
The Red Light Robbery
While stopped at traffic lights, thieves open the doors to your car/taxi and take whatever they can, as quickly as they can. This is particularly prevalent in places like Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa. Another variation is to have someone drive past you on a scooter or motorcycle and snatch your bag or camera out of your hand. Because you are on foot, you will be unable to catch the thieves.
The Art School Scam
You are met in the street by people who say they are art students. They speak English well and invite you to visit their school. Then they will try to get you to buy one of their works for an excessive price. The “students” are usually attractive young women who are employed by the gallery to attract customers and to make the customers feel obliged to purchase “their” works and repay them for their friendliness.
Friendly Locals Wanting to Join You For Dinner or Drinks
In this scam you are approached or assisted in some way by one or more friendly locals. After striking up conversation, they may suggest going out for a drink, or that you go with them to a nearby restaurant or nightclub. It may seem as though you’ve just made a new friend (or friends), but once the evening ends, you are going to be expected to pay for the fun you’ve been having – the food, drinks, entry fees, etc.
Fake Police Officers
In this scam you are stopped or pulled over by a security guard, police officer or some other individual in uniform. The supposed officer says you are about to receive a large fine or even be taken to the local jail, but you can avoid this by paying a small cash fee. This is not a tactic used by law enforcement agencies anywhere in the world. Legitimate police officers care that the law is obeyed, not about the money they will receive. Police will either issue a real ticket that must be paid directly by mail or in person to the department, a warning in which no money needs to be paid at all, or they will let you go completely free. If you are in doubt, you have the right to request for another officer to come to the scene.
Be aware that it is quite easy to impersonate a police officer or any uniformed official. Police vehicles are typically models that are also sold to civilians, and many of these models have not been redesigned in many years, so older ones can be purchased cheaply. Rotating lights like those found on the dashboards of unmarked police vehicles can be purchased easily in electronics or hobby shops, and police uniforms and badges can be purchased from uniform stores. Never hand money over directly to a police officer, unless of course, you understand that you are offering a bribe.
In this final scam, you find yourself walking down the street when all of a sudden you see a bunch of people attacking another person (sometimes an old man or a woman) in the middle of the street. When you step in to help, bystanders take photos of you and will blackmail you afterwards to go to the police. Now you find out that the attacked person, the attackers and the photographer are a group. They will blackmail you for big amounts of money, because if they go to the police, you most likely need to leave the country.
Avoid this scam by following this piece of common sense: It is never wise to engage in fights. If you witness a fight, your best bet is to either walk away or alert the nearby police. Never get involved yourself. Laying your hand on a local in a foreign country may result in jail, deportation and heavy fines in countries.
So… what about you? Have you ever fallen victim to any of these street scams? What other street or travel scams have you seen or heard about during your travels? Leave a comment below and let me know what you have to say.
Photo by: epSos.de