How to avoid travel scams

Tying a whistle around my wrist to ward off the con man

I have heard numerous stories over the years about how people have returned from a vacation with sour stories of stolen passport, money or expensive items. And then there are others that fall victims to con artists and willingly fall into the trap of giving it away free willing. In fact, some people have a business of scamming tourists and are pretty good at what they do. If you have watched the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, you know what I am talking about.

If you want to avoid a travel scam, the first rule is to be smart and alert at all times. You are relaxed, on vacation, want to make friends, talk to strangers, so it’s easy to let your guard down. But this is when you can get into trouble! Never leave your luggage unattended, even in a taxi or a bus. If I have to go to the facilities, I look for a family or a large group that I have observed for a while, then politely ask them to watch my bag. Don’t ever hand over your passport or important documents to anyone. If they need to make a photocopy (for whatever reason) demand that you go with them.

When I went to Morocco, I was forewarned by numerous people about the famous con artists I would encounter there. I would say I managed to stay away from all but one. While on the train from Rabat to Fes, one of my girlfriends was approached by a young man who pretended to be affiliated with a tour guide company. He offered us a train station pick up, a tour of the city and return transportation, all arranged before we reached our destination. After much discussion and contemplation, we decided to not take a chance of being stranded in the Sahara! Follow your instincts at all times.

Other signs of a scam in progress are when someone approached you from nowhere, is making an extra effort to convince you, or is offering a really good deal that is hard to refuse. Scam artists will never give you (even if they promise they would) receipts, addresses or brochures that have a price on them. It would always be a verbal contract, tailor-made especially for you. When in doubt, don’t do it.

Another time, while walking down the shopping area in Hong Kong, a shopkeeper saw me admiring the high-end watched in the showcase. He asked me to come inside so he could show me his sale items. Next thing I realized, I was walking through alleys and stairs, walking into a tiny office in one of the buildings. As soon as we reached this place, I walked out without taking a look at the items. If your gut tells you something, listen to it.

Scams during shopping are the most common. You may enter a store and pay the full asking price for an item, only to realize that the person before you paid a fraction of that. Do your research by asking locals, checking in different shops and parts of town and bargaining when the culture demands. Having some knowledge of the local language and not coming across as a complete tourist also helps.

Travelling abroad with credit cards

I have friends who believe in not using credit cards at all in order to control their spending. I say to them, you must carry a credit card when traveling abroad. You never know when you get into a situation when you need extra cash (such as when all airlines stopped operating due to the volcanic ash from Iceland last year) or when you get stranded in a foreign country against your wishes.

Here are some tips I have listed that will help you in better managing your credit cards while on your next trip overseas:

Research the country you will be traveling to and find out what are the acceptable cards there. Some countries, such as India do not accept Discover cards at most outlets. You can easily find this out by visiting a local hotel web site and looking at their reservation page.

Make sure you carry the same card that you use to make your travel reservations with. Sometimes, the airline or hotel would ask you for it.

You don’t need to carry all your cards with you. Carry only 2-3 credit cards, plus your debit card with you. I find my bank offers me the best conversion rate on foreign currencies and no ATM fees anywhere in the world. Therefore, I just withdraw cash as and when I need it.

Most credit cards offer a transaction fee when using the card outside US. Call your credit card company and ask them their rates before deciding on which one to carry with you.

If you are planning to go outside the country for a longer period of time (1 month+) call your credit card company and ask them to issue you another local card so that you are not paying a transaction fee every time. If they say no, call their local office in the country you are in once you get there.

Call your credit card company and let them know where and when you will be travelling. If you fail to do so, you may find that your card has been put on fraud alert and you no longer have access to it.

Make sure you make a photocopy of each card or write the card number and customer service number. This will be handy in case your card is lost or stolen. You will be able to call the bank and cancel your card immediately.  

To avoid scams when travelling abroad, I recommend using credit cards only at reputable facilities. Use cash at restaurants, smaller shops, tours, etc. If the establishment does not have a web site, it will be hard to dispute any false charges later on. Do not give your card to individuals under any circumstances.

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