You won’t believe the newest tourist scams.
Adrian Dinulescu didn’t when he booked a four-star hotel for a week in Santorini, Greece, this summer. The property had almost perfect reviews, but when he showed up, he found the place was a dump.
“No towels, no soap, no clean sheets,” recalls Dinulescu, a student from Suffolk, England.
Ah, the what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get scam. That’s an old favorite with a new twist this year: it’s happening more often because of record-high demand. But there are additional swindles out there, including scams involving deception, distraction and petty theft.
“Scammers will always take advantage of current circumstances,” says Paige Schaffer, CEO of Iris Powered by Generali, an ID theft protection company. “And with more people traveling again, they have taken notice – and action.”
Can you avoid these tourist scams?
Let’s skip right to the solution. The newest tourism scams are not only preventable; they’re sometimes reversible. Dinulescu, who had prepaid $500 for his room through Booking.com, appealed to the online travel agency. He sent photos of the trash bags in the hallway and the beds without sheets.
In response, Booking.com credited him $80 — a good start. But what about the rest of the money? Booking.com promised to investigate, but the weeks started to drag by. Finally, he asked me to help. I reached out to Booking.com to ask about the fake four-star hotel in Santorini. A representative contacted me shortly after that.
“I wanted to let you know that Adrian will be receiving a full refund,” she said.
No one is safe from the newest tourist scams
Even experienced travelers can get taken by the latest scams.
Milosz Krasinski was on a road trip through Europe this summer when he fell for this swindle: At a gas station, he found a makeshift gift shop selling vignettes at a reduced rate. (A vignette is a mandatory sticker that shows you’ve paid your road taxes.) He bought it.
“It was a counterfeit,” he says. “It looked like the real deal but wasn’t registered in the official system.”
And you probably can guess what happened next. A police officer pulled Krasinski over when he was driving through Prague. Krasinski was embarrassed to have wasted $17 on a 10-day vignette. But the London-based web consultant was more worried about what he would have to pay in penalties.
“It was a jarring moment, realizing I’d been scammed and that I might now be facing a hefty fine,” he recalls. “But the police officers were incredibly understanding. They explained to me the vignette scam and how it targets unsuspecting tourists. Instead of fining me, they instructed me to head to the nearest official point of sale to purchase an authorized vignette.”
What kind of tourist scams are out there?
Scams that target travelers come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Here are the major ones:
- Games of chance. If you see anyone playing three-card monte or a shell game, just keep walking. It’s a confidence game, and you will lose money. I’ve seen it all over the world.
- The gift scam. That’s where a scammer tries to give you a bracelet, a ring or a flower and then pressures you to pay for it. If someone offers you something, especially in a touristy area, just say “no.”
- Money swindles. From ATM skimmers to shady merchants who give you incorrect change or counterfeit money, money scams are everywhere. Pay by credit card where possible, and always check to make sure they’re charging you the right amount. Avoid using cash.
- Taxi overcharges. You get into a cab and — oh no! — the meter is broken. The result is a huge overcharge. It happened to me twice in Indonesia last month. Call an Uber or get a taxi using an app.
The worst tourist scam I’ve seen lately is the shady business of moving a decimal point when someone charges your credit card. So a $20 souvenir costs $200 — or $2,000. Most visitors are too distracted to notice the switch, and by the time they get back to the States, it’s too late. If you have a reliable credit card, you can dispute the charge under the Fair Credit Billing Act.
What are the new tourism scams?
Scams evolve as tourists get smarter. Shell games become more sophisticated. Money scams get smarter. Here are some of the “innovations” to look for:
Scammers are using new distraction techniques, such as asking for directions or pretending to be lost, to divert your attention while an accomplice steals your belongings. “Stay alert and keep a close eye on your valuables in crowded areas,” advises Pallavi Sadekar, the head of operations at VisitorGuard.com.
The “helpful” local
With more Americans going overseas, the helpful local scam is making a comeback, say insiders. Michael Donovan, who runs a site about New England, says he’s seen more so-called “helpful” locals in his international travels. “They offer to guide you, only to steer you toward a friend’s expensive shop or charge outrageous fees,” he says. Donovan recommends being cautious of overly friendly locals.
Waiting for you to let down your guard
Mike Ballard, director of intelligence for Global Guardian, an international medical and security service provider, says the newest scam in the book is a version of the oldest one. “It’s petty theft or other opportunistic crimes in major tourist areas, public transport or crowded areas like public transit hubs and markets,” he says.
How to protect yourself from tourist scams
You don’t have to fall victim to these tourism scams. You already know the biggest travel scams if you’ve made it this far in the story. And now you also know the up-and-comers. The best piece of advice I’ve heard is: Pay attention.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” says Carrie Pasquarello, CEO of Global Secure Resources, a risk mitigation and threat assessment planning company. “Keep an eye on your belongings when someone strikes up a conversation or asks you a question.”
Location matters, too. A new tourist scam index compiled by the U.K. site Quotezone.co.uk found that tourist hotspots in France, Spain and Italy are the places you’re likeliest to get scammed while you’re in Europe.
Also, pack your common sense when you go somewhere. The friendly local who is offering to show you the sights is too good to be true — chances are, there’s a scam behind it. The taxi driver with a dark meter? Move on. Also, stay away from games of chance or friendly natives who want to give you gifts. And if someone tries to distract you, keep an eye on your belongings.
I saw a pretty sophisticated distraction technique on a recent visit to Christchurch, New Zealand. As I passed a crowd of kids, one of them said to me, “Sir, you dropped your wallet.”
I instinctively reached for my billfold — showing him exactly where I had my cards and money. I knew what would happen next. He would text his friend a block away and tell him where I was keeping my wallet. I switched directions, avoiding what might have been an unpleasant confrontation.
The scammers are coming for you this fall. Don’t let them get you.
Your thoughts, please
Have you ever been scammed when you were traveling? Or has anyone tried to scam you? I’d love to hear about your experience. The comments are open.