Travel

Real-life travel scams you'd better know about before your next trip

As re-watching season one of Scam City will only go so far to keep you from getting ripped off on your next vacation, here's a rundown of 10 recent real-life travel cons that've separated unsuspecting tourists from serious amounts of cash -- and landed the swindlers behind bars.

1. Travel contest winners = drug mules
Imagine your excitement to learn you've won two free tickets to Canada (stop laughing -- remember, we're imagining here), seven nights at a nice hotel, and a brand new set of luggage. Now, picture your dismay as airport authorities reveal almost 8lbs of meth hidden inside each new bag when you return home. That's what happened to one Australian couple who -- almost duped by a fake Canadian tour company -- became suspicious of their free new luggage and "alerted customs officers"; eight drug-smuggling Canadians were eventually arrested and are awaiting trial. 

Tip: Don't take luggage from a stranger on a plane. And if you "win" a free vacay, call the Better Business Bureau to vet the company first, and realize you'll have to pay taxes on the trip ('cuz ain't nothin' free).

2. Fake tickets to the Louvre
While the culprits are still at large -- and likely part of a Chinese organized crime syndicate -- thousands of fake billets (as they say en Français) to the world's most-visited museum began flooding the market late last Summer, popping up predominately in the hands of Asian tour groups. Belgian customs actually intercepted 4,000 counterfeit tickets hidden in a package from China. Similarly, four American conmen were arrested back in '09 for peddling bogus tickets to Disney World and Universal Studios.

Tip: Don't sign up for an Asian bus tour, and definitely only buy your museum, theater, and sports tickets from authorized vendors.

3. Korean cabs overcharging tourists
Cabbies overcharging tourists is hardly new, and is so prevalent in Seoul that the city's mayor actually led an undercover sting operation to try to bust them. While his efforts were unsuccessful, authorities did nail 20 drivers for fleecing tourists and providing fake receipts. Expect much the same in Kuala Lumpur. And Saigon. And Bangkok! 

Tip: Only take officially marked cabs, ensure drivers turn the meter on immediately if they're not accepting a flat fare, and use the World Taximeter to pre-calculate what you should pay ahead of time.

4. Nobody wants your timeshare
Despite the allure of free steak knives, the timeshare industry's imploded in recent years, leaving a market ripe with sellers and devoid of buyers. Which made easy pickings for one slimeball who grossed $30 million swindling 22,000 timeshare owners out of "closing costs" on fake sales she arranged with non-existent buyers.

5. Phony vacation packages
A Michigan man was arrested in 2012 on nine counts of federal larceny for operating a travel company, Timeway Tours, that booked seniors on bogus tour packages. He reportedly not only failed to deliver on the trips, but blew all the cash at a local casino.

6. Paris pickpockets
Much like overcharging tourists for cabs, pickpocketing travelers has been going on since, well, the advent of the pocket. But things got so bad in Paris last year that employees at the Louvre walked off the job, in protest of the notorious levels of crime inside the museum. By August, French authorities nabbed a gang of camera-toting Eastern Europeans who were fleecing Mona Lisa-entranced Asian tourists for upwards of $2,500/day.

7. Irish ATM scam
A group of high(er)-tech swindlers installed readers on the ATMs in a local Irish tourist town in County Donegal, and -- for six months -- used stolen card details to buy a crap-ton of swag. The scam only recently came to light, and they've yet to apprehend anyone involved.

Tip: Use ATMs inside official banks, and cover your typin' hand when entering your PIN.

8. Fake Red Cross credentials in Vietnam
While donating to charity on the street is, admittedly, a bit of a gamble, three locals in Hanoi successfully convinced well-intentioned tourists to open their wallets by posing as official Red Cross volunteers, complete with bogus membership cards. All in all, records recovered by police indicated they cleared over five grand.

9. California vacation home rental scams
Taking advantage of newer rental sites like HomeAway and Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), two scammers in Palm Springs were tried on 15 counts of embezzlement after allegedly taking home owners (and renters) for over $50k. The con: Serving as the middle man, they'd book vacation properties on behalf of the owners, and, after renters wired the deposit, the scammers'd cancel the reservation. 

Tip: Before even thinking about placing a deposit, check out your online booking site's rental security info, and go with an outlet you've researched. 

10. Bogus travel clubs
A New Jersey man who owned and operated a fraudulent travel club pleaded guilty to second-degree theft last summer for, according to the Better Business Bureau, "pitching phony vacation travel membership packages" that offered -- but never delivered -- big deals on airfares, hotels, and cruises if you belonged to the club. 

Tip: Too-good-to-be-trues are exactly that. And trust your booking with an agent or the internet -- not some guy from Jersey.

Dave Baldwin is Thrillist's senior travel editor and was once mugged at knifepoint in Madrid. He lost $11 and the switchblade he bought in Portugal. The irony. Follow his exploits at @ThrillistTravel.