18 Travel Scams & Ways to Avoid Them
We all go on holiday or abroad with our friends and family to enjoy ourselves and have a good time. But unfortunately, the amount of British citizens falling victim to tourist scams is increasing year-by-year.
Over the last two years alone, the number of UK citizens affected by tourist scams abroad, particularly in Europe, has jumped from a total loss of £6.7 million in 2017 to over £7 million in 2018. With an average cost of about £1380 to each victim, we’re going to go over the most common travel scams that are used to target British tourists and how you can avoid them. This way you will be able to travel with ease knowing what to look out for.
Common Tourist Scams in 2019
1. Spiked Drinks
One of the more sinister scams out there, this doesn’t happen as often as you’d come across an unlicensed taxi or the typical pickpocket, but drink spiking can happen and can prove to be seriously harmful and even life-threatening in some extreme cases.
There are a few reasons why scammers will spike drinks and how it can be done. Sometimes, scammers will cunningly add more alcohol (usually of a high strength, like vodka) to their victim’s drink to get them intoxicated quicker. However, an increasingly common and alarming method is by using illegal substances such as GHB and Rohypnol. Due to the strength of some of these substances, they will often leave victims feeling extremely intoxicated and out of control, usually forgetting anything that occurred before the spiking.
Men and women can both be targeted, usually as a pre-cursor to stealing the victim’s valuables such as their cards, cash and phone. However, statistics unfortunately show that the risk for women is significantly higher as drink spiking is often used as a prelude to committing sexual crimes.
To keep yourself as safe as possible, our first recommendation to keep yourself safe would be to never accept drinks from a stranger, especially at a busy nightclub or bar. If this is unavoidable, accompany the person to the bar and only accept the drink directly from the bartender who prepares it, so you know that it hasn’t been tampered with.
Another great way to make sure you don’t fall victim to this unfortunate scam is by keeping an eye on your drink at all times. Never leave your drink unattended, such as on an empty side table or bar. This is especially true with “open top drinks” (Anything that comes in a cup or glass), so if you can help it, try to stick to bottled drinks with twist-off lids. This way, you can re-seal your drink if you need to and in your sight.
2. Fancy a Free Bracelet?
This common tourist scam is common in almost every major tourist city in Europe and should definitely be one to look out for when travelling anywhere in the world for that matter. The idea is simple; Victims are approached by the scammer, who will either give the victim (or create) a friendship bracelet on the spot, tying it around the victim’s arm.
They will then begin to ask for money, often becoming pushy and demanding in an attempt to make the victim feel sorry for them before handing over money to the scammer. Even though this is bad enough, the “pushy salesman” technique can often be used as a mask, as somebody else associated with the scammer could be pickpocketing the victim whilst confronting the pushy scammer.
The best way to avoid this simple scam is to not let any stranger put an item of clothing, jewellery or any other kind of accessory on you or in your possession. Taking a hard stand and ignoring the scammer will stop them in their tracks, as they only prey on those who are willing to give them the time of day. As difficult as it may seem, keep your guard up and be wary of anybody you don’t know that tries to approach you with the same or a similar scheme.
3. Meterless Taxi
Unfortunately, this is a scam that is common in major cities and towns all over the world, no matter where you’re travelling to. Therefore, this is one of the biggest scams you should be looking out for the next time you go abroad, as it can easily happen to tourists that are in a rush or not paying attention. This scam occurs when tourists pre-book or pick up a taxi on the street, most commonly taking place outside airports. Taxi meters are designed to calculate how much a fare will be based on distance.
However, if the meter isn’t activated without the tourist’s knowledge or there isn’t one present in the vehicle at all, drivers who are looking to scam their passengers will often take the long route and add an unnecessary amount of money on top of your fare. This is commonly referred to as a “Tourist Tax”. Drivers may also claim to not have the correct change or any change at all, leaving you short if you pay with a sum a lot higher than the fare cost. The best way to make sure you don’t get caught out by this scam is by looking for any kind of meter in the taxi itself. If there isn’t one present or you’re not sure, ask the driver before committing to the journey. If they turn aggressive or refuse to answer, opt for another vehicle and driver.
4. Spillage on Your Clothes
This is a very simple scam that often takes place in large crowds and used as a pre-cursor to pickpocketing. The idea is that the scammer will target someone from a crowd by “accidentally” spilling or dropping food or drink onto the victim’s shirt. As if it isn’t bad enough having your clothes ruined by a stranger on holiday and in public, they will apologetically begin to start cleaning the mess they’ve made.
Although you might disregard this as a simple mistake that the scammer is trying to make up for, they will use the time it takes to clean their spillage to pickpocket their victim. The best possible way to avoid this scam is by refusing any assistance or help if something happens to spill on you. If this happens, keep your cool and find a quiet place such as a public toilet to clean yourself off.
5. Unlicensed Taxis
Despite the rise of instant taxi services like Uber and the abundance of trustworthy taxi firms that can be verified and checked via the internet, the number of people that still fall victim to unlicensed taxis both on holiday and at home is staggering. Not only is this a way for drivers to scam their victims out of a higher fare, but this scam can also lead to more serious consequences.
Unlicensed taxis are essentially posing as regular taxis, but do not have any kind of official license to operate from the local authorities. Everything may seem as normal on the surface (They may have a fake identity/driver card on display), but the drivers themselves are committing a crime and there can be a real threat to safety by getting into one of these vehicles. The driver may simply take their victim on the longest and most expensive route to their destination, charging a much higher price for the fare than what it should be. If the victim suspects or questions the price, drivers are known to get aggressive and pushy, threatening to contact the police if the victim doesn’t pay.
Threatening the victim with calling the police is common, as drivers will stick to the story that they are just normal drivers that aren’t getting paid, making the victim feel like the scammer. Although this scam will often leave victims with nothing more than a dent in their wallet, some cases can prove to be a real danger to personal safety.
There are a number of different ways that you can deal with this scam. One of the first things you should do when planning your taxi trip is booking with a reputable company. Do your research on the biggest and most trustworthy taxi companies in the city or area before making any kind of booking. When it comes to the actual vehicle, make sure that it has the correct licensing stickers or information on the registration plate or elsewhere. If something doesn’t look or feel right for any reason, it’s probably not worth taking the risk.
6. Child Begging
An all-too-common occurrence, child begging is a common sight in most Western European cities including the UK. The saddest fact about the situation is that the children that can be seen begging in Europe’s city centres can be as young as four years old and can be outside throughout the day or night in all weathers. Although this is a very common and extremely controversial subject that divides opinion all over Europe and the rest of the world, city and state authorities across Europe have been sceptical about issuing blanket bans on begging.
Due to the controversial nature of this subject, we cannot give you any recommendations on what you should do if you find yourself in this kind of situation. Ultimately, it is your personal choice whether or not to give money to someone on the street. However, we recommend that you stay mindful and be aware that you could be faced with a scam, although there is no guarantee that this will be the case.
7. The Flower Scam
Compared to every other major city and capital in Europe, Barcelona ranks the highest for the amount of pickpocketing cases taking place each year. The most common pre-cursor to pickpocketing that’s become a favourite for Barcelona scammers is the flower scam.
Known to take place in large public areas such as Las Ramblas, couples are often the targets of this particular scam. Being a city full of romance, it may not be the biggest surprise to you if an overly-friendly stranger offers you a flower. Using this as an excuse to get close to you, the scammer will then use this opportunity to search your pockets whilst convincing you to take the flower.
If they don’t manage to find anything in your pockets, scammers are known to become quite pushy and demanding almost straight away, asking for a ridiculously small amount of money for the “gift”. In some cases, scammers are known to have actually reached into their victim’s purse or wallet to “find the correct coin” for them!
To tackle being targeted by these common tourist scams is to never allow a stranger to give you or place any accessory on you, despite how genuine they may seem. Simply refusing by saying “No thank you” and walking away will suffice in most cases!
8. Data Theft on Public Wi-Fi Networks
With the rise of technology and high-speed internet, more and more businesses and public areas across Europe and the rest of the world offer free and unlimited WiFi connectivity. Whilst this is a great way to stay connected to those around you whilst on holiday and a much cheaper option than using your mobile data abroad, scammers are increasingly targeting public and unsecure WiFi networks.
This is probably one of the most important scams to look out for, as it can be done completely without the victim’s knowledge until its too late. There are two ways that scammers pull off this trick. One of the most common ways is by intercepting and stealing sensitive data that’s accessed on public networks, especially ones that don’t require a password to connect to.
For example, if everybody in a café is connected to the business’ unsecure WiFi, sensitive data that is accessed on customers’ devices could be accessed by anybody else on the same connection. Scammers will prey on businesses or public areas where many people seem to be using the same unsecure WiFi connection.
The second way that this scam is pulled off is when a scammer sets up a “mobile hotspot” posing as a legitimate WiFi service. For example, something that may be appear as “Library WiFi” could be a mobile router on a scammer’s person, harvesting sensitive data such as bank card details, passwords, emails, private messages and everything in between.
To avoid this kind of scam, make sure that you turn off the setting that automatically connects your phone to the nearest available WiFi hotspot, which can be done on almost every modern smartphone. Avoiding unsecure WiFi connections should always be your top priority, but if you really need to use one, then using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app to secure your connection is the best choice. There is a lot of choice on the market when it comes to VPNs. Some are subscription-based services, but there are plenty of safe and free apps that will help keep your data secure… just make sure to compare services first!
9. Taking a Group Photo
This is probably one of the most common scams that take place constantly across the globe. Unlike many of the other scams on this list, this is one that happens all too often even if you aren’t travelling abroad.
Targeting mostly groups of travellers (both big and small) and couples, the scammer will approach groups asking if they would like the scammer to take a group picture of them. While this occurs often at tourist attractions and landmarks in towns and cities all over the UK and the rest of the world without any scam taking place, the risk is always present.
The scammer will often use tactics to win the trust of their potential victim, often asking how their holiday has been, what they have planned or any other friendly question. Once the victim has been put at ease, the scammer will then likely offer to take a photo of the group. However, once the victim hands over their expensive camera or phone to the scammer to take the picture, the scammer will disappear, leaving you severely out of pocket.
10. Vehicle Rental Damage
Some of the most expensive scams are vehicle-related, and this one is no exception. This scam often starts off relatively normal; the victim hires a rental car at the beginning of their trip, with no issues driving throughout their time renting the vehicle. But upon returning the car to the rental company, victims are hit with huge repair bills for damages that don’t exist.
One of the ways that scammers pull this trick off is by making a slight tweak to something inside the car, whether it be the engine or the carburettor, for example, whilst the victim is distracted. They will then “notice” the damage just before the victim leaves, issuing them with a non-optional bill for the damages that can total up to thousands of pounds in some cases.
The best way to avoid this expensive scam is to thoroughly research car rental companies in the area beforehand to find out where is the most reputable. For example, finding somewhere with thousands of positive online reviews makes more sense than a directory advert for an extremely cheap rental quote. The old saying applies to this scam: If it seems to good to be true, it probably is!
11. Gold Ring Scam
One of the more cunning and long-winded scams on this list, the gold ring scam is probably one of the oldest in the book. However, still manages to catch out hundreds if not thousands of tourists each year, especially in Paris!
Targeting mostly couples visiting the “City of Love” on a romantic break, scammers will drop a gold ring next to a couple passing by. The scammer will then pick up the ring and get the attention of the couple, asking them “Is this your ring?”.
Victims often respond naturally by saying no, before being offered the ring for a small price. The scammer will often keep trying to negotiate a price until the victim gives in, handing over a sum of money to the scammer. However, the ring will never be of any value, often being a metal ring simply coated with gold paint!
12. Phony Police
There are a number of different scams that criminals perform as fake police officers, commonly reported in European cities like Rome, where legitimate plainclothes police officers often check tourist’s receipts for the purposes of tax. One of these scams is known as the “counterfeit money search”. This is where the scammer, pretending to be a police officer, will approach potential victims and ask to check their banknotes. The scammers will give their victims the reason for checking their notes by telling them that there’s been an increase in the circulation of fake money in the area recently, and that the police are conducting random checks. The scammer will often count the notes straight from the victim’s wallet or purse without even picking them up, using slight of hand and distraction tactics to take some of the higher value notes for themselves before moving on to their next victim.
Another popular and arguably more terrifying scam conducted by fake police officers is the bribe scenario. Often taking place at night in quieter areas of city centres, the victim may be approached by a stranger that will offer to sell them illicit drugs or something similar. The second scammer, dressed as a police officer, will then approach the victim and begin to threaten them with legal action or arrest if they don’t pay a fine, hand over their passport or meet any other demands they make.
Although this scam is largely uncommon, if you happen to be approached by police officers asking to check counterfeit notes or receipts, remain calm and polite whilst asking to ring the local police station to verify the search, as they could be who they say they are. However, most scammers will give up after you ask to ring the police, so this is probably your best option. It’s also worth noting that you should never hand over any of your personal belongings that they ask for, whether that be your passport, mobile phone, wallet or anything else.
13. The Broken Camera
One of the more financially damaging scams on this list, this trick is another one to look out for when in a busy tourist area that’s popular for photo opportunities. Scammers ask their victim to take a picture of them. But as the victim passes the camera back to the scammer, they will often fumble and make it seem like the victim has knocked the camera or phone out of their hands. Scammers are then known to get aggressive and begin to demand money in an attempt to guilt-trip the victim into paying for the repairs.
Although this may seem like a difficult scam to avoid, there are actually a few measures you can take to protect yourself. First of all, you don’t have to withdraw completely from helping strangers take pictures if you happen to be asked but saying no is always an option! However, if asked, make sure that the device (mobile phone, DSLR, compact camera, etc.) is working and switched on to make sure it isn’t a dummy. Also make sure that if the device has a loop or wrist strap that you wear it, minimising any chance of the scammer being able to knock it out of your hand.
14. Talkative Cashiers
Sadly, this is a scam that takes place all over the world and one that you should especially be aware of when travelling to an unfamiliar country. This scam takes place when a cashier at a small shop or business appears to be talking on the phone as the victim hands over their card to pay for goods. The cashier then secretively uses their phone to take a picture of the victim’s card, stealing their information. This scam is particularly dangerous as victims won’t know that they’ve been scammed until it’s too late.
The best possible way to avoid this scam is by never handing your bank card over to anybody. If you can help it, pay for goods and services with cash and only withdraw money at a reputable ATM machine (Try to withdraw cash from only ATMs inside banks, rather than machines on the street that could be tampered with). If you insist on paying with card, then make sure that you check the balance of the transaction before paying, and make sure your card doesn’t leave your hand.
15. The Cups and Ball Scam
The Cup and Ball Scam is one of the most popular scams in London but could be spotted being played at almost any major tourist attraction in Europe and the rest of the world. Posing as street performers, a scammer will set up a simple space with a ball and three cups. Placing the ball under one of the cups then switching them around, the idea is to guess which cup the ball is under.
It sounds simple, and it will look simple too! The scammer is usually joined by multiple helpers, who will pretend to be members of the public by playing the game and guessing correctly. The scammer will ask victims to place bets when they play but will always end up guessing wrong. This is because the scammer will use sleight of hand to trick the victim out of their money.
Avoiding this simple yet effective scam couldn’t be easier. The simplest thing to do is ignore any request by the scammer to play the game and just walk away. This is because although it seems like a fun and harmless idea at first, victims will always end up out of pocket after playing. There have also been reports of different variations of the game, so refusing to take part in any street-based game for money should be your priority.
16. Diners Scam
This is a very common scam and can happen at any café, restaurant or bar no matter where you’re travelling to in the world but has been reported most often outside eateries in Barcelona. Usually in large groups, the scammers will take up a seat on a table next to their potential victims. After sitting for some time then leaving without ordering, victims will only then realise that the group’s loud chatting was just a distraction for the scammers to take valuables from them before completely disappearing.
Ideally, the best way to avoid falling victim to this kind of scam is by keeping a very close eye on your personal belongings. Try not to leave your coat or jacket on the back of your chair, especially if there’s personal belongings in them. Keeping all of your valuables in a bag or on your lap means that nothing is out of your eyesight.
17. Counting Money Slowly
This is a well-known scam that can happen at almost any busy tourist area, such as a small shop or currency exchange bureau. The cashier at the desk will take a long time to count out cash (usually banknotes) to the victim, using odd pauses in their counting and distraction tactics in the hope that the victim will become impatient and rush the cashier. However, the cashier uses these tactics to purposely trick the victim into taking less money than what’s being “counted”, putting the rest in the scammer’s pockets.
This can be a difficult scam to avoid, but there are ways to make sure you don’t get caught out as easily. If you’re withdrawing a large sum of money or exchanging currencies whilst abroad, make sure you watch and listen to the cashier as they count your cash. If they make a mistake or you’re simply unsure, apologise and ask them to count the money again. Once you’ve received the money, count it out again in front of the cashier, making sure that all of your money is there.
18. The Flirtatious Local Men/Women
This is a common tourist scam that happens to both men and women, mostly reported in cities in Southern Europe like Rome and Barcelona. In most cases, the victim is approached on the street by the scammer and begin chatting. After a while, the scammer will invite the victim for a drink at a local bar. However, the bill for just two drinks will be many times more expensive than what they should be, with some cases reporting that victims have been forced to hand over hundreds of euros after being caught out by this scam.
We know that people like to chat and meet locals when travelling abroad, and there’s no reason why you should let this scam prevent you from chatting to new people during your holiday. Luckily, this scam can also be quite easy to avoid. If asked to go for a drink, suggest a local place of your choice. Even better, suggesting a bar you may have already visited and have become familiar with is the best way to go, avoiding any chance of being taken to a bar that’s co-operating with the scam.
How to Avoid Common Travel Scams?
No matter where you travel to in the world or how long you go for, there’s always a risk of falling victim to any of these scams we’ve listed above, including many more that take place in big cities and at major tourist attractions. Although some scams are more common in certain cities than they are in others, the chances of being at risk of a scam is almost impossible to guess. That’s why we recommend taking every precaution possible when travelling anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world.
Almost 100% of the time, scammers will look for and target individuals or groups they believe to be naïve tourists. For example, having expensive personal items on show is a huge giveaway (Digital cameras, smartphones, bum bags, etc). Even if you’re returning to a country you’ve visited or lived in before, the risk is still present, so drawing as little attention to yourself as possible is a great way to avoid being targeted in the first place.
Research Travel Scams
Despite the vast amount of information about the biggest and latest tourist scams that hit thousands of British holidaymakers each year, very few people research or check what scams are common in the area that they’re travelling to before they go abroad. Unfortunately, most people won’t research travel or tourist scams unless they’ve fallen victim themselves.
Although data suggests that the amount of people researching travel scams before heading abroad peaks around May, the number of people doing research before they go abroad is alarmingly low.
The chart above shows the average amount of times each phrase has been searched on Google over the past year. As you can see, the figures are extremely low. Although there isn’t any hard evidence to suggest it, but the lack of people doing their research before they go on holiday could be the reason why so many people get scammed abroad each year.
Carry Small Amounts of Cash
Cash is one of the biggest targets for scammers. Whether it’s pickpocketing, using the “Slow Count” scam or attempting to exchange legitimate money for counterfeit notes, you should always be mindful when carrying cash anywhere abroad.
One measure you can take to prevent being scammed or pickpocketed is by carrying as little cash as possible. Most modern hotels and some accommodation come complete with a combination safe, so only taking cash you know you’re going to spend during the day and leaving the rest safely locked away in your room is a great idea.
If you don’t know how much you’re going to spend or you may need a little bit extra for emergencies, then why not take advantage in the rising popularity of pre-paid travel cards? Independent companies and banks that operate top-up cards that you can load with the local currency before you head on your travels has become massively popular in recent years. Not only does this protect you from cash-based scams but is also a great way to make sure you don’t get ripped off by unfair exchange rates abroad. Before you decide on a specific travel card, make sure you check all terms and conditions beforehand and make sure to compare providers before making a choice!
Buy Some Comprehensive Travel Insurance
Despite how cheap and easy travel insurance is to buy, many people still travel abroad with no travel insurance whatsoever. Not only does it cover you with interruptions like flight delay compensation and lost baggage, but you could also be entitled to compensation if your money is lost or stolen. Like with anything else, make sure you check for the best policy and prices, checking what you’re covered specifically for.
Use Common Sense
This may seem like the most obvious answer, but when you’re in abroad and enjoying yourself, it can be easy to ignore the hazards and let your guard down. For example, leaving your valuables such as your mobile phone or wallet/purse on show when in public is never a great idea.
Don’t Leave Bags Unattended
Whether you’re taking in the sights or chilling out at a local café or restaurant, always make sure that your personal belongings are in sight and on your person. We recommend keeping all of your valuables off show, such as in a backpack or handbag, so that scammers won’t be tempted to approach you. However, make sure that you don’t put down your bag or take it out of your sight!
Look Out for Strange Things
Spotting a scammer can be extremely difficult or even impossible. However, sometimes there are obvious warning signs and red flags that can be picked up quite easily. In cities like Paris where the Gold Ring Scam happens almost every day, you may be able to spot somebody being scammed. If it doesn’t look right, then it probably isn’t!
If Something Looks Too Good to be True – it is!
This may go without saying, but this classic piece of advice couldn’t be truer when it comes to avoiding scams abroad! Like we’ve mentioned above; If you’re offered or given something by a complete stranger that appears to just be a friendly exchange, the chances are that isn’t the case. This is the foundation of scams that involve gifts like friendship bracelets, flowers and other small items that scammers will use to pressure money from their victims.
Learn Some Basic Language
Although you may be travelling to Europe where most people speak at least a basic level of English or somewhere else where English is commonly spoken, it doesn’t hurt to learn a few basic words and phrases in the local language. The basics like “Hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “no thanks” are all great starting points. By doing this, scammers will be less likely to press on with their scam if they approach you, as showing them you know the local language gives them the impression that you aren’t vulnerable to scammers.
Find Your Local Police Station & British Embassy
If you’ve fallen victim to a tourist scam or any other crime abroad, then you need to contact the local authorities immediately or find the nearest police station to report it. This way, the police will be able to file a report which you can use to claim against your travel insurance. If the worst is to happen or you find yourself in serious trouble, then your first port of call should be the British Embassy to the country that you’re visiting. Luckily, except for a handful of countries, the UK has an embassy or high commission in almost every single country in the world.
Make sure to check where the British Embassy is in the country you’re visiting before you travel, which you can do here: https://www.gov.uk/world/organisations
Although there are so many scams and cons to be aware of when travelling abroad, the last thing you should do is let the idea of potentially falling victim to holiday fraud or scams stop you from travelling and exploring the world! The idea behind bringing these scams to light isn’t to cause fear, but rather to make tourists more informed on the most active scams currently taking place and how you can avoid falling for them. Overall, the biggest piece of advice we would give to any traveller is to learn from the stories and experiences of scams and use them to spread awareness.