Don’t get scammed! 4 cons that target travelers – and how to spot them

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By Christopher Elliott

Nancy Miller considers herself an experienced traveler, so on a recent trip to Bangkok, the last thing she thought she’d get suckered by was a scam aimed at gullible tourists.

But there she was in a jewelry store, being told that today only, the Thai government wasn’t collecting taxes on precious stones. “They did it very, very slickly with multiple seeming unrelated parties corroborating the story of the special time to buy gems,” she recalls. “Fortunately, I didn’t get sold glass, but I overpaid by about 50 percent — ouch!”

Worse, it was months before she realized she’d been taken. She didn’t find out about it until she read about it online. Turns out the Bangkok Gem Scam is one of the oldest in the book.

Miller is an unlikely victim. She’s a college-educated, street-smart New Yorker who has worked in the travel industry.

“When people say they are much too smart to get taken and that the victim must be stupid, naïve or untraveled, I want to slap them,” she says. “Believe me, it really can happen to anyone.”

Scams on tourists

A recent reader poll found that one-quarter of travelers believe scams against them – which are defined as cons perpetrated against tourists at a destination – are “worse than ever.” About 7 in 10 felt the threat was about the same as ever, which is to say, you still have to be on your guard when you’re away. Only 12 percent thought it wasn’t a big problem. (Here’s our ultimate guide to the best travel advice.)

This column normally focuses on the scams that affect travelers before the leave and while they’re enroute, of which there are more than plenty. But what happens once you’re there?

Fact is, there are a lot of scams – way too many to cover in a single story – that await you at your destination. Here are just a few of the most popular ones – and how to avoid them.

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The timeshare scam

This is probably the most common on-the-ground scam, and make no mistake – it’s almost always a scam. You’re approached by a friendly salesperson at a resort, who offers to buy you a drink or two. Then you’re invited to a sales presentation, with more free food and drinks. Next thing you know, you’re signing a check for $34,000. It happened to Christopher Blain when he was in Puerto Vallarta recently. He shelled out 34 grand for 25 weeks at a timeshare, and was assured that he could rent the unit and make one-third of his money back within a short amount of time. The promises were empty. “They say they have no obligation to us,” he says. I contacted the timeshare company on his behalf, and it ignored me.

How to avoid it: Stay away from timeshare and fractional ownership presentations while you’re on vacation. Why? You’re on vacation, not buying real estate.

The mustard scam

Like the gem scam, and numerous others, the mustard scam is team effort. Tom Hayes, a marketing professor at Xavier University, has seen his students fall for it time and again in Buenos Aires. “Usually someone in their teens or early twenties would run up to the unsuspecting person and squirt mustard, ketchup or paint on the person and run away,” he says. “The person would then be approached by what is usually a middle-aged couple, who pull out a handkerchief and begin talking about ‘how awful’ that was and they would help ‘clean’ you up – while pick-pocketing you.” There are an infinite variety of this scam that can happen anywhere in the world.

How to avoid it: If you get squirted, don’t let anyone near you, says Hayes. Good advice.

The gold ring scam

Stever Berger, who recently visited Paris and encountered this scam, explains how it works. “We were approached by women who claimed that they just found a gold ring and had no need for it. Would we be willing to buy it for a few euros?,” he recalls. The rings looked like a man’s gold wedding band, with “18K” stamped on the inside. “It looked very authentic, but was most assuredly a fake. She was willing to take 10 euros for the ring. I refused,” he says. The scammer didn’t receive his rejection kindly, but Berger is sure he avoided a bogus offer. Gold ring scams come in different varieties, but usually involve an offer to sell you “found” jewelry at a cut-rate price, presumably because the finder can’t legitimately sell it elsewhere.

How to avoid it: Run, don’t walk, if someone offers to sell you “found” jewelry. If you want to buy a ring, go to a real jewelry store.

These are by no means the only scams that await travelers when they arrive. In fact, they only represent the ones I hear about the most, as a consumer advocate.

Notice any similarities?

They go after tourists visiting popular destinations like Paris, Buenos Aires or a Mexican resort. The scammers work as a team, building your confidence and weakening your defenses with persuasion, alcohol, or both. And they appeal to a universal desire to for a bargain, or a steal: The cut-rate timeshare, the “found” jewelry or the surprise tax break on a precious stone. (Related: Do taxi drivers prey on tourists?)

Don’t fall for it. Apart from knowing about these scams, you can avoid looking like a target, say frequent travelers like Liz Zollner. “We try to blend in,” she says. That means avoiding the kind of activity that attracts scammers – the big gestures, loud talking and open smiles that can make you a mark as an American.

The best way to avoid a scam, of course, is to stay away from a touristy area and if you can’t, then to not look like a tourist. But I’ll admit, that’s not always practical.

Short of that, the only way to stay away from the scam is to say “no.”

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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