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5 universal travel scams — and how to avoid them

pickpocketingIf you’re travelling abroad and can’t hide the fact that you’re a tourist, you’d better be on your guard. There are plenty of people willing to take advantage of you. This happens everywhere, not just in developing countries. From taxi drivers taking you the long way around to creative street theft, tourists the world over need to keep their eyes and ears peeled for these universal scams designed to relieve them of their spending money, or in some cases, their savings.


1. Pickpockets are everywhere. There isn’t  a country that doesn’t have them – even authoritarian regimes where theft is punished by amputation, such as Saudi Arabia, where in 2007 a pickpocket had his hand cut off. With seemingly no deterrent, you have to have your wits about you in busy areas.

A common trick is for someone to accidentally ‘spill’ something on you – even bird’s droppings from a roof – before a thief will come along and clean you up – wallet included.


2. Taxi driver scams are a similarly universal scourge. From London to Laos, tourists risk getting taken for a ride by cabbies who exploit their passengers’ lack of local knowledge. The scams are particularly frequent at airports, where tourists are fresh  ‘off the boat’ and often just want to get to their hotel no matter what the cost. You can mitigate the risks by checking in advance the cost of taxis in the destination you’re headed to, and booking in advance with reputable companies. When hailing cabs on the street, try to ascertain if the taxi is registered and agree a fare before setting foot in the car.


3. Prostitution is the oldest profession, and there are some tricks that just don’t appear to get old. One of them is making you pay for things you didn’t realise were being charged. Take, for example, a friendly local girl who approaches you in a bar. You buy her a drink, which is fair enough. But when the bill arrives, you realise she’s in cahoots with the barman, and has charged you for her time as well. There is no easy way to avoid this kind of scam without cutting yourself off socially. Just be sure to ask yourself if that pretty young girl is really interested in you.


4. Timeshare sharks: where to start, except to say that a special circle of hell is reserved for the sales bullies who push people into buying timeshare apartments. They lure you in with a scratch card where you’re surprised to see that you’ve won a prize. Then you attend a meeting at the beginning of which a cash deposit is taken and not returned until after hours of pressure selling. Hours later, you’ve been lured into signing your life savings away on an apartment you get to use for one week a year. Don’t be lured in by people offering prizes in exchange for your attendance at any kind of meeting.


5. Drug mules operate all over the world, smuggling packages into countries for gangs of organised criminals. Often these gangs use unsuspecting passengers as mules, befriending them and slipping packages into their bags, or asking their new friends or lovers to deliver a present to their grandma, which turns out to be ten kilos of heroin. Unsuspecting tourists get caught up in these traps all the time, such as the two young Irish women who appear to be heading for a Peruvian jail for this very offence. Make sure you never carry anyone’s baggages through airport security, no matter how charismatic and trustworthy they appear to be.


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