How to Avoid the 3 Common Scams American Travelers Fall For
We’ve all seen him. The typical American traveler overseas: white sneakers, shorts, Gore-Tex windbreaker over golf shirt or (worse) sports gear, ill-fitting baseball cap, fanny-pack. The look on his face is of someone slightly overwhelmed but happily dazzled by the foreign landscape. He is a beacon for the hustler, for the scammer, for the type of person who looks to separate this American archetype from his money and/or valuables.
Pshaw, you say. I wouldn’t be caught dead in white sneakers or a fanny pack and I hate golf. I’ve been abroad and I know what’s up.
Perhaps you do, my friend, perhaps you do. But while these hustlers covet the aforementioned clueless American, be assured that you are on their radar as well. What follows is some advice on travel scams and not just for the neophyte traveler, but also for those who have been around the block. It’s by no means exhaustive -- there are many scams and scammers out there. Get a handle on these, though, and you’re off to a great start.
The Scumbag Taxi Driver
Experienced travelers all have a story about being scammed by a taxi driver. You get into the car having a notion of what the ride should cost, or maybe just trusting that this driver will get you to where you need to be for a fair price. Then you arrive. The driver -- typically with either an intimidating stare or a shifty smile -- hits you with a price tag multiples of what you were thinking.
Living in Prague for many years, I knew taxis were a well-understood scam. I came to loathe those guys, lurking outside tourist restaurants and train stations. Occasionally, when I’d see them chatting up their targets, I’d warn the tourists and offer to call them a taxi from a reputable service.
Daniel Levine, a trends consultant, also lived in Prague and developed his own strategies for dealing with them. Then, one day, he was in a hurry, and things went pear-shaped. The meter was spinning so fast he couldn’t even keep track of the numbers.
“It was such an obvious fraud,” he says, “but I was already on my way and in a rush so I figured I would just deal with it when I got there. I had dealt with that situation before and I generally threw half the money for the fare at the driver and said I knew it was a scam and they're lucky I wasn’t calling the cops. They usually accepted being called out and took half the fare, which was always more than a ride would cost anyway. But this time I had to pull something out of the trunk and the guy got out and started arguing with me. I refused to pay more. Next thing I knew, he took a swing at me.”
The cabbie missed, and Levine walked to a street where he knew cops hung out. It worked: He wasn’t followed.
“I refused to pay more. Next thing I knew, he took a swing at me.”
But if he can get screwed, you can too. So don’t. Consider using Uber and the like; they’re going global, and reduce the chances of scam without redress. In any case, do a bit of homework beforehand. I would always advise visitors to Prague to use a particular taxi company that we expats knew to be reputable. I fondly recall the many occasions of getting into one of their cars at a restaurant and waving at the line of mullet-headed sleaze-balls stewing, with brothel advertisements on the sides of their cars.
Asking a hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi is a better move than just getting one on the street, but those hotels and restaurants often get kickbacks from taxi companies. More buyer beware.
Before getting into any taxi, you may want to settle on a price beforehand. Learn the local word for police as well. These low-lifes are typically lazy and cowardly -- the roundhouse at Daniel Levine notwithstanding -- and threatening to call the cops will usually send them on their way.
Ah, overseas travel. Visiting places with different climates, strange food, bizarre architecture... and exotic members of the opposite sex. Admit it, part of the reason you itch to travel abroad is to meet an alluring stranger who finds you more exotic and exciting than you usually come off at after-work happy hours. And, hell, as an American you’re bound to find someone willing to take a chance on you, right?
All of this may be so! Yet your horny optimism leaves you open to an old scam that goes like this: An American (with or without fanny pack) is approached by a stunner who suggests drinks. The American is naively flattered and lets his guard down. After that, all bets are off as to where you wake up, what you remember, and how much money you still have on you.
Eastern Europe, and Budapest in particular, is notorious for this scam. A long-time expat, who wished to go unnamed but referred to himself as “an aging party reptile” noted that this particular move is prevalent in the nightlife area of the seventh district and the main shopping avenues nearby.
Your horny optimism leaves you open to an old scam.
“The girls are travelling in pairs and they accost American and other tourists, suggesting they go to a café or bar for a drink,” he says. “The hapless punter then repairs to a bar, where after a happy hour of small talk and drinks, they are presented with a bill for several hundred euro. If they protest they don’t have the scratch, a couple of Dolph Lundgren types appear, and escort them to the nearest cash machine. Most quickly pay.”
They should be glad to have all major organs still intact. In practice, stay away from bars that aren’t on street level and that don’t have menus/prices easily visible. If you walk into one of these bars and there is an ATM on-site, you might be walking into a trap.
Being overly suspicious of friendly locals is a good way to have a flat time anywhere you go. But do consider suggesting another bar or café than her choice or ask if she’d like to take a walk instead. If she's adamant about going to a specific bar, that’s a sign that something's amiss. And generally, if a beautiful stranger is weirdly enthusiastic about getting to know you, remember that even in the former Eastern Bloc some things are too good to be true.
The Fake Handbag Hustle
China and Southeast Asia are notorious for knock-off markets where you can buy dirt-cheap imitations of luxury goods and electronics. (Sometimes, it’s the real thing. More on that in a moment.) Once you decide you want to wade into these ethically dubious waters you will be swimming with sharks. The touts at these markets are agro to the extreme, often pulling you into their stalls, cajoling you with a mix of compliments and physical exhortations that can be overwhelming.
Most of the time you will be dealing with Western-designed goods that have been copied by locals. But the plot thickens, because occasionally these markets feature the genuine article, being sold for a song.
How does this happen? A manager at a luxury purse factory, for instance, will do an after-hours run of product or claim a certain shipment of goods has been stolen. What really happens is that manager gets a nice payment from someone who can fence the products at the knock-off markets.
Faced with this likely scam, know what you’re after, for starters. If you’re lusting after that Gucci handbag, go to a real store and carefully examine that bag. Look at stitching, feel the weight of the bag, look at the lining. Educate yourself. The proof is in the detail.
Faced with this likely scam, know what you're after, for starters.
Ultimately, they won’t be able to prove that what you’re buying is real; you just want to get the closest thing to real you can get. Decide what the product is worth to you, have that number in your mind, and don’t go above that when the haggling begins. The vendor will almost certainly not agree to your price. Walk away and be ready to stay away. As a veteran of this maneuver I can report that a huge percentage of the time they will come running after you to make the deal.
Don’t worry about bargaining hard. These guys are not going to make a deal that doesn’t net them a profit. Worry instead about whether you want to engage in this sort of transaction (I now avoid it). If you’re cool with the ethics, you can come away happy, so long as you stick to your budget.
The best way to avoid being scammed anywhere is to do your research, then be alert. Listen to your gut. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I’ve always taken that as a vote for spontaneity and exploration. Just be sure that a peculiar suggestion doesn’t lead to you dancing away your hard-earned dollars.