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Biggest Traveling Scams and How to Avoid Them


Being a tourist seems to paint a giant target on your back. Con artists and thieves like to prey on foreigners who wonder into their web. Locals aren’t an exception, but they tend to be a bit savvier. When you are hundreds of miles away from home and in a land with confusing customs, different currency or just an environment you aren’t familiar with it can translate to a wounded gazelle for a hungry thief. Bob Arno, co-author of ‘Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Crime While Traveling,’ gives an estimate that 70% of Barcelona tourists will be approached by a thief.

During my senior year, our class went to Chicago. They set us free in the city with a time and location to meet at that evening. A friend and I began sprinting to shops so we could hit every store on our list. Now, I grew up in a very small country town with two stoplights, but when a somewhat attractive man approached us and said he was a modeling agent looking for girls interested in doing a makeover and a test photo shoot – my gut told me to RUN. I am thankful I did. My dad is awesome, but he isn’t Liam Neeson.

It was one of several instances I managed to avoid, but there are hundreds of scams out there. Here are a few common scams and pickpocket tactics…

Airport Hot Dog – They may be a quick way to fill up, but they are an airport thief’s tool. A careless fellow hot dog patron will squirt you with ketchup or mustard as a distraction while an accomplice walks off with your luggage and carry on.

Avoid It – If your bags or luggage aren’t in your hands – they need to be planted between your feet.

Newspaper Bluff – While it isn’t limited to a newspaper, it is a common tactic. A group of kids or even adults waving newspapers around as though they are selling them will crowd you and try aggressive sales pitches. They might like your money for the paper, but they are really trying to distract and overwhelm you so they can forage your pockets and purse.

Avoid It – My hands instinctively fly to my purse when I feel threatened. This can be a good thing. Keep your hands on your cash and don’t be afraid to plow through the mess of waving papers and shouting. However, grabbing your cash stash can alert pickpockets where you are hiding the bulk of your money. Sometimes, I use a small decoy purse that is only filled with directions, tissues and other items I wouldn’t miss. In honesty, my bra sometimes holds my cash.

scam womenDangerously Pretty – Men are targets here, but women can fall victim too. Two attractive people will invite you into the private or VIP room of a bar. Once you are there and have had a few drinks, a largely inflated bill arrives and the bartender will demand cash while refusing credit cards. They are pocketing the cash while you are left with no proof to show the bar’s management.

Avoid It – This one can end in an even more dangerous manner. So for the sake your cash and your life – don’t trust strangers.

Something with a Ring to It – Rings are a favorite ploy of your average street criminal. It is easy to lose, hard to prove it is a fake and something everyone wants. Often, thieves will try and sell it to you or give it to you to try and gain trust. There a several cons that begin with a “found ring,” but they all end with scam. The same goes with all jewelry. On a recent cruise to the Bahamas, you will often see locals trying to tie bracelets on you telling you they are free, but them ask for donations for the “children” who made them. If and when you decline, they will then start yelling that you have stolen the bracelet from them.

Avoid It – If anyone approaches you asking if you lost a ring, confirm you didn’t and end the convo by walking away with vigor. Same with those “free” bracelets. Don’t take them.

Security-Checkpoint Scam – While at the airport, a man cuts in front of you after you have placed your belongings on the belt to go through the metal detector. He walks through the scanner and, oops, he forgot to remove his loose change from his pockets. Meanwhile, he accomplice on the other side of the metal detector has walked off with your bags.

Avoid It – Don’t put your tray on the belt until you are ready to walk through the detector. Keep your eye on your bags as you make your way through the checkpoint.

Duty Free Shop Middleman – This scam has recently hit the press as being a favorite of those con artists in Bangkok. A tourist will be handling the merchandise in those duty free kiosk shops and will be arrested for suspected shoplifting. Once in custody, a middleman will enter the scene and offer to pull a few strings to gain the accused thief’s freedom. The police, the shop and the middleman all split the cash and you are on your way.

Avoid It– As my mother said when we were young, “Look with your eyes!” Don’t touch anything. If you see something you want, get a clerk and ask permission to handle it with them in your presence while you ask questions and then purchase.

Art Show – This scam is a favorite in Beijing and Shanghai. The friendly locals will invite you to an art show which turns out to be a high pressure sale of amateur and worthless “art.”

Avoid It – Decline any and all art shows in China.

Catch and Release – There are two variations to this scenario. The first, a woman – usually elderly- will faint or fall. As you attempt to be a good person and help her up, her partner will pickpocket. The second is a young woman who will run up to you with her baby and toss it at you. As you catch the kid, you are pick-pocketed in the confusion and distress leaving you to discover the baby is just a doll wrapped in a blanket and you no longer have your purse or wallet.

Avoid It – This tactic is usually used in Italy and other parts of Europe. Avoid gypsies and beggars on the street and keep your valuables close.

Wallet Full of Trouble – What seems to be a fellow traveler will drop their wallet and or purse. You, being a kind an compassionate person, pick it up and attempt to return it. The traveler then accuses you of stealing the cash from the wallet, but offers to forget the issue if you give him/her the money back.

Avoid It – If someone drops a wallet or purse – don’t touch it and alert them that they dropped something before swiftly moving on. If you get caught up in the moment and pick up the bait – don’t be afraid to LOUDLY call out the thief. Most police are very aware of this scam and con artists don’t want to be tangled up with it.

General Guidelines to Avoid Scams and Thieves

*While traveling, especially in unfamiliar territories or abroad, don’t be flashy. Leave non-essential items at home. Your cell might be a necessity, but trade that electric green case for a boring black. iPhones are a thieve’s favorite item.

*Keep passports and other travel documents in the hotel/resort safe. Snap a couple of photos of each document separately and keep them on a file sharing app.

*Blend in as much as you can. Wearing badges, pins or lanyards that identify as part of a tour singles you out as an easy target.

*Drink less. A second bottle of wine at dinner may seem like a good idea, but your senses are dulled and also makes you and easier target.

*If you want to explore the area around your hotel, stop by the concierge and ask if there are any areas you should avoid.