Typical Travel Scams

Pickpockets and Street Scams
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Tourist Congregation
TOURIST CONGREGATION: High-traffic tourist locales like New York's Times Square are a perfect spot for pickpocket artists. Keep alert. (Brand X Pictures)
A Few Tips

Don’t touch your wallet often to confirm that it’s there—it’ll show potential thieves where it’s kept.

Wrap a few rubber bands around your wallet to make it harder to lift.

ALWAYS keep an eye on your belongings

Take advantage of the security that straps provide by wrapping the camera or bag around your arm, shoulder, a table or chair leg, hand rails, etc.

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The Obstructionist
This one comes in many guises (blind pedestrian, crying kids, unruly rugby fans), but the gist is basically the same: working in teams (of two or more), the obstructionist blocks your passage through a doorway, turnstile, or hallway, rudely bumping into you, or at least barring your stride for a few steps—which is just long enough for their accomplice to pick your pocket while you're otherwise distracted. The non-moving variant could be the woman with two kids who insists on reading her newspaper right in front of your face, which of course provides cover for her kids to riffle through the now-unzipped bag at your feet.

The Separationist
Like the obstructionist, the strategy here is to get you separated from your group, thus making you an easier take. Working in groups or solo, you end up slowing down behind a crazy family, unruly bunch of sport-goers, etc., and as you struggle to get past and return to your crew, they use this moment of distraction to swipe your wallet.

The Obvious
It should go without saying, but as we've seen it happen: a clueless backpacker wears a daypack with a stylish mesh pocket, where they've stashed money/keys/passport/camera. While riding the bus or subway, the easy-to-access zipper pocket is stealthily unzipped, and the valuables are removed, without the need for a search. In short, keep your valuables concealed.

The Swipe
A lazy tour in an open-air transport (tuk-tuk, cyclo, motor scooter) makes you an easy mark for faster vehicles like motorcycles, who might saddle up next to you and grab the dangling strap of your purse, bag, or camera. So keep all straps… well, strapped around something. Same goes for sitting at a streetside café. At the very least, loop the strap underneath the chair leg.

The Slice
Similar to the swipe, the target= is the bag—well, more directly, the contents inside your bag. The most common application: cutting your shoulder strap with a sharp blade, followed by a swipe of said bag. The variant? Slicing into the bag itself—typically just an outside pocket—and then snagging whatever's exposed or falls out. As with the swipe, the best defense is to be aware of your bag at all times, especially when in crowded areas like subways, buses, and busy streets.

The Slow Count/Wrong Count
Checklist tourism can create impatience, which can be the scam artist's best friend. Witness this common scenario: You've just withdrawn a big bill out of the ATM and purchase a small-ticket item like a postcard. The proprietor willingly accepts payment, but then counts out your change at a near-glacial pace. The waiting bus is about to leave or your fellow travelers are rolling their eyes, so you just wave off the detailed count and go, only to realize later than you’ve been short-changed. A similar scam involves taxis who just hand you a wad of change. You get out, and as you go to count it, the cab speeds off with an over-generous tip.

Familiarize yourself with the currency—the coins and the bills—so as to avoid the quick change scam.

The New Best Friend
All variants on the same theme, this one: someone offers to show you around “to practice their English", only to lure you into a counterfeit gem store; an attractive woman (or man) lures you into buying a round at a pub or café (that’s also in cahoots), only to find yourself stuck alone, with a huge bill; an over-friendly person offers to help you change the flat tire that you discover upon returning to your car (while a colleague snakes your luggage as you struggle with the jack). In short, keep your wits about you.

But, a caveat: sometimes people are friendly just to be friendly. One frequent traveler was outside the Honduran international airport and got chatted up by a local security guard. At first he kept his radar up, but soon it became clear that the chain-smoking amigo was just anxious to chat about his experiences in the United States—no more. In less-touristy areas, the people tend to be more genuine…


Published: 10 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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