Warning: American tourists are being profiled. Don’t be one of them!

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By Christopher Elliott

If it feels like you have a target on your back when you’re traveling, you might be right. American tourists are being profiled like never before.

Sometimes, it’s harmless. For example, I recently walked into a cafe in Rio de Janeiro. Before I could say “bom dia,” a server handed me two menus — in English. 

How did she know? No matter how hard I try, I look like an American, and when I walk into a restaurant, I smile like an American. So, of course, I get the English menu.

But sometimes, the profiling is deadly. If you’re pegged as a tourist in Colombia, you could get drugged, robbed and even killed. The State Department has issued a warning that numerous U.S. citizens have fallen victim to dating scams that can end with them getting seriously hurt — or worse.

“U.S. citizens should definitely use caution while traveling and try their best not to stick out or be profiled as American while abroad,” says John Gobbels, chief operating officer of Medjet, an air medical transport program for travelers.

No one keeps statistics on the number of foreign tourists profiled or killed abroad. But based on the number of new State Department warnings and some of the stories I’ve been hearing from international travelers, the problem has never been worse.

Although most profiling is just irritating — a hard sell of souvenirs or tip-baiting, for example — some of it can be hazardous to your health. But there are things you can do to avoid being targeted. I’ll tell you how in a minute.

Most profiling is not dangerous — it’s just annoying

Reality check: Most tourist profiling is harmless and should come as no surprise to the average traveler.

Ellie Blake was on a tour of Japan with her college alumni association when she began to feel the pressure to buy things. 

“For example, our tour guide took us to a museum shop,” she says. “It was a very long stop compared to other sites we visited.”

Along the way, the people they met would ask them, “What did you buy?,” almost as if they were egging them on to purchase more souvenirs.

Blake believes the tour guides added these shopping breaks because they pegged their group as affluent Americans. It’s something I’ve seen recently in Japan, too. I was on a coastal cruise last summer, and our land tours always seemed to end at a business that sold pricey art.

The solution: Resist the temptation. Better yet, choose a tour where they put the attractions — not the shopping — first. (If you’re on a guided tour, always ask about the shopping opportunities. If there are too many, you may want to select another tour.)

Sometimes, the profiling is scary

You can’t always walk away. Consider what happened to Ariel Figg recently when she booked a last-minute tour in the Dominican Republic.

One day, the guides detoured to a village, where they took Figg to a gift store filled with trinkets and pressured her to buy local artwork. She refused. (Here’s our guide to everything you need to know about traveling this year.)

At the end, she offered the guides a generous tip. “They counted the money in front of us, scoffed at our faces, and told us that, as Americans, we should pay more because we can afford it,” she says. 

Figg says she should have known better. After all, she’s a travel coach, and before taking a last-minute tour, she would have told her clients to research the tour operator carefully. 

I had a similarly awkward moment in Santiago, Chile, recently. After having lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant, I stood up to pay. The server brought over a mobile point-of-sale system. She asked me to enter a tip amount in front of her and then tap my card to pay. There was no apparent option for “no tip.” 

Figg is right — avoiding this more forceful kind of profiling is easy if you do your homework. I learned my lesson about restaurant tipping in Chile and ordered takeout after that. And Figg will never take a last-minute tour again without doing her homework.

Profiling can also turn deadly

“Americans have been targeted overseas by criminals and sometimes by dishonest businesses, simply for being Americans,” explains Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Advanced Operational Concepts, a security consulting firm.

Why? He says thanks to Hollywood, people in many foreign countries perceive that all Americans are rich. The perception has some validity when compared to income levels and the standard of living in developing nations.

Fortunately, the profiling rarely leads to death. But experts like O’Rourke warn that in some parts of the world, people are desperate enough to use force against a visitor. And especially at a time when Americans are going to far-flung places, it’s important to stay aware of your surroundings. (Related: The hidden cost of ‘stupid’ tourists.)

I’ve never been attacked because of my nationality, but I’ve been followed. I remember being in an ancient village in a remote part of Turkey a few years ago. I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a group of young men hanging out and smoking. They looked at me and said, “American! HI!” and then started to follow me. 

I wasn’t sure what they wanted and didn’t want to find out, so I turned around and walked back toward the town square — and safety. 

But maybe I should have stayed.

“Profiling is not always negative,” says Thomas Swick, author of the memoir “Falling into Place: A Story of Love, Poland, and the Making of a Travel Writer.” (Related: You look like a tourist! But here’s how to blend in.)

Swick remembers visiting Vietnam in the early 1990s. Students would approach him and ask if he was American. 

“When I told them I was, they politely asked if they could practice their English. Then we’d go off to a café for an hour of conversation, which was as beneficial to me as a travel writer as it was to them,” he recalls.

He makes a valid point. Being recognized as an American when you’re abroad can make your next trip more interesting — as long as you’re being recognized for the right reasons.

Elliott’s tips for avoiding profiling 

If you’re traveling abroad, here are a few strategies to avoid being profiled as an American.

Dress down

Avoid wearing USA T-shirts and American sports jerseys. And since this is an election year, I have to say it: No MAGA caps or shirts, please. You could be putting yourself in danger. Wear muted colors and avoid sweatshirts with hoodies, and you will at least keep them guessing.

Mind your manners

Kitty Werner, a former airline reservation agent who has lived overseas, says nothing gives away your nationality faster than your etiquette — or lack of etiquette. That’s true in Europe, but in places like the Middle East or Japan, your casual attire screams “American!” “You can tell an American tourist immediately by their manners,” she says.

Shut up

“Many tourists are too loud,” says Harding Bush, associate director of security for Global Rescue. “Be mindful of your volume and avoid drawing attention to yourself.” Your noise level is a dead giveaway and may also mark you as an American tourist.

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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.

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