Playing It Safe

On the Street: Scams and Schemes
The Gem Scam
Ben Curtis, who runs culture and language blogs and podcasts at and , was in Thailand when a young, friendly guy approached them. He offered to show them around in exchange for the chance to practice his English. As the day warmed up, the man offered to take the group to an air-conditioned shop, where the store owner told them about this gig he'd worked out with another traveler who bought sapphires and then resold them in the UK for a whopping profit.

"After half an hour there, it seemed like we pretty much were begging them to let us do the same!" Curtis says. When Curtis got home, he realized the sapphires he'd bought were worthless.

Curtis, who has been back to Thailand, still keeps the sapphires as a reminder of the trip—and he says he's much more suspicious of overly helpful people in big cities. "I would advise fellow travelers to Thailand to take this approach, too, but without being too paranoid," he says. "Once you get out of the really touristy areas, there are a lot of genuine people around."

Scams can spread from city to city like the hottest new brand of jeans. "If you start to see a trend in one city, and it works, you'll start to see [a similar scam] elsewhere," says Hewitt of Rick Steves' Europe. For that reason, it's good to rely on recent travelers' reports—the Graffiti Wall on the Rick Steves site has a special section devoted to European scams; check other travel boards for the latest tricks elsewhere.

One classic is the "slow count" when you're changing money or when getting change from a merchant. Someone may count the money with unusual (and long) pauses, encouraging an impatient tourist to grab the money and leave. Be patient, and count the money yourself before you leave—even at the bank.

Last March, Hewitt saw a scam in Paris where someone approaches a traveler with a gold ring, claiming to have found it on the street. The person will point to a symbol on the ring that he says means it is real gold. If the scam artist can convince you to buy at a "bargain" price, you'll later find the ring's a fake.

In places like London, Budapest, and Prague, an attractive woman might invite you to a bar, order drinks, and then disappear—and you'll be left with an exorbitant bill. Hewitt's also heard of this happening in Istanbul, with a "friendly guy" who wants to chat travelers up over drinks—and sometimes the establishment is in on the graft as well, hence the exorbitant prices, so don't expect sympathy from your barman.

When researching Costa Rica a few years ago, Whitman learned about a scam on a discussion board in which a tourist's rental car tires were slashed while they were away from the car. Then, a few miles down the road when they pulled over to deal with the flat, a "helpful" person would assist with the tire change (while an accomplice made off with the luggage). By now, another scheme may have replaced this; stay current by checking in with other travelers before you go.

In her trips to India, Whitman noticed that most thefts are one of opportunity—a day bag with an open zipper, valuable items left visible in the mesh pocket of a backpack, luggage left unattended. But take a taxi and you'll find "everybody wants a little extra," whether it's for turning on the air-conditioning or making an additional stop. She and a friend had negotiated one price for a taxi to the airport in Kerala; when they arrived, the driver doubled the price. Whitman's response: she told the driver that they'd have to check with the tourism police. The two paid the original fare.

One of the best ways to avoid most trouble, from scams to stealing: use your head. "It's amazing how far common sense will take you," Potts says. Typical scams like the tuk-tuk touts in Thailand, where drivers quote ridiculously cheap fares with "only one stop" en transit—to a shop proffering fake gems or a sub-par tailor—are all over the place. You can deflect the offers by saying you've been in the country for weeks, that you've seen everything, or that you're only there for work. But the best rule of thumb: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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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