Avoid Being Ripped Off
This guide covers many of the most common scams you will likely encounter whilst travelling/backpacking.
Everyone who travels gets scammed in one way or another. But it is important to note that a scam doesn’t necessarily carry the same intent as it does in the UK.
In impoverished countries some people are literally at the wire, they have nothing and no means and so born through desperation they turn to wealthy tourists to feed their families.
Whilst this is true for many scamsters it isn’t for all, some are aggressively dishonest to the point that they would take your last breath and then kick you for more. I mean really nasty, devious people, the sort who know they are leaving you vulnerable and with nothing and couldn’t care less if they tried.
It goes without saying that some scams are more common than others and some are more complex than others. With that in mind I haven’t listed them in any particular order, but it goes without saying, new scams pop up daily and they are getting ever more complex. Differentiating between someone trying to rip you and off and someone trying to help will perhaps be one of the things you should try and learn quickly once your travels begin.
This applies to anyone that will take you from point A to B, be it a tuk tuk, taxi, rickshaw etc. If ever you feel threatened by a driver simply get out, do not get angry, start shouting or anything, just get out.
The following is a warning for women travelling alone (or with kids).
DO NOT EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES GET IN A TAXI/TUK TUK WITH TWO MEN, IF ONE JUMPS IN EN ROUTE, MAKE A FUSS AND GET OUT. YOU HAVE FOUND YOURSELF IN A SERIOUS SITUATION THAT IS UNLIKELY TO END WELL.
Anyway, the list is by no means exhaustive and variations of each scam pop up every now and again…
Your hotel is burned down/doesn’t exist/is dangerous etc…
A common scam that is easily called by saying you are meeting a friend who is already there. It’s amateur and you feel like slapping yourself silly that people still try this 70’s classic on.
The meter isn’t working/inflated meter rate/price changes upon arrival
This is more of a boring rhetoric than a scam, even if the meter was working you would struggle to get the driver to use it. When you agree a price be absolutely sure it is for the car and not per person, when you arrive if the driver says it was a different price calmly remove yourself from the situation quickly. This is not as common a scam as some books/websites might have you believe.
Taking the long way around
It happens in the UK, so you can be sure it is going to happen in poor countries. Always be clear about where you want to go, or at least know the distance/direction of where you are going and pull out the compass on your phone. If you are in a new place and don’t fancy the scenic route simple call ahead and get your hotel to send someone for you, or to tell you how much it should be.
The taxi has broken down en route
Taxi drivers in Asia have the most amazing luck, every time they break down it always seems to be right outside a restaurant/shop, and that restaurant/shop is always the best place around town to grab a munch. This scam is more common in SE Asia than anywhere else, and is almost the norm for journeys longer than say 30 minutes.
Would you like to visit a [INSERT MUSEUM/PLACE OF INTEREST] en route
Despite the fact that you have got in a tuk tuk with a driver that barely speaks English and who has agreed to take you where you want to go; He knows the perfect excursion, a place you will absolutely love…Also a place he will get commission.
Can’t find your hotel
This is a classic, and has happened to me the 3 times that we have arrived at Agra, India. Now, it is actually highly likely the driver might not know your third floor hostel in some back street. Few drivers will turn away business because they don’t know your destination, they will nod and take you and work the rest out later, but be aware, some drivers will attempt to make it look like you are well and truly lost then magically some hotel manager will appear and has the perfect deal for you. Avoid this obvious scam by calling ahead, or when you get lost calling the hotel and letting the driver speak to the manager. Remember though – Drivers do actually and genuinely get lost!
Whilst it is true some meters account for air conditioning in the car, some drivers will ask if you want it on, then bill you extra at the end. If a driver asks if you want it on ask how much.
I haven’t got any change
It’s amazing how few drivers apparently carry change, but this doesn’t mean you have to pay the amount you hand over. Nip to a nearby shop and buy some chewing gum and watch the drivers face drop as you hand him what you agreed. If you have a hefty note, ask before you get in if he has change. Scuppering the scam from the off.
Sleight of hand
You hand over a fifty, and within half a second the driver has swapped it for a ten and is asking for more money. Difficult to argue, easy to avoid. Count your money and let him know, you know what you have just handed over.
Driver cum tourist guide
It’s your lucky day, you just happen to have stepped into a taxi whose driver is also a tourist guide, he will point out obvious places and say them in broken English expecting to be paid for his services in addition to the fare. That said I was in Java, Indonesia and didn’t want to pay a certain price to get in somewhere and the driver offered to take me to a place where we could see into the complex and get really close. Things like that should obviously be rewarded.
The phantom popping boot
Never put anything of any real value in the boot of the taxi. Boots have a tendency to pop open when the car is stuck in traffic or at lights and your things can disappear. Of course the driver knows nothing about it…
The lead onto another scam, scam
Almost as common as getting over charged, the driver will ask where you are going, next destination etc and then get on the mobile to his buddy who is fresh and waiting for you at your destination to have a whole load of other scams waiting for you.
Airport/train station/toll fees
Be careful with this one, plenty of drivers do add on journey fees and this is expected, but the amount they add on can be suspicious. If they have to pay a fee, ensure that’s the fee you have to pay.
Thanks for the stuff
Never pay the driver until you have got out of the car, got your belongings from the boot, grabbed the kids and are ready to go. It’s common sense really.
I can only go this far
The driver randomly stops and claims he is unable to go any further, but not to worry, along comes someone on a camel, donkey, pedal rickshaw etc who can go further. This scam is a tricky one as in places like Agra and Varanasi in India there are restrictions of motor vehicles, but exercise a bit of common sense, 99% of the time this is a scam, and so look around, is your driver the only one not allowed to drive further? Really.
The sad reality is that the most scams you will encounter travelling are from taxi/tuk tuk drivers, but I have been assured it’s not just tourists that have to face their perpetual and relentless efforts, locals too are at their mercy.
Exercise a bit of common sense, never pay up front (unless it is prepaid and then ensure you get your receipt) and take things with a pinch of salt, laugh at the blatancy and try not to let it ruin your day.
It’s a just fact of life.
Most hotel scams are tied in with taxi scams. You know the score, every taxi driver knows some hotel manager happy to pay him a hefty commission for bringing you. Be exceptionally careful when contacting your hotel for pick up as some popular hotels have fake Facebook sites where you are actually calling a competitor who will promise to pick you up for free. Once he collects you he explains the hotel is overbooked but he has found you alternate accommodation in his other hotel. See right through this one, it’s been going on since the 15th century.
One of the things that has always puzzled me as a traveller is how some guy with no teeth, who hasn’t had a wash for a year thinks he can strut up like he is straight out of Compton, do the most blatant scam ever and actually expect me to fall for it. I mean come on! Read on for just how blatantly obvious these guys are!
This scam has been doing the rounds since the day baby milk got invented. Some woman (or guy) desperately poor comes up and asks for milk for their obviously malnourished baby. It’s an awful position to be put in and any parent will feel sad to the pit of their stomach at the state of the poor child, but it’s a scam, and it’s a bastard scam because if people weren’t purveying this you might actually be willing to help out meaning all those who aren’t scamming lose out. Anyway, you go to the shop and buy some baby milk at an inflated price, you walk off feeling you have done a good deed and the woman/guy return the milk and skims off the commission.
Bird Shit Scam
I didn’t name it this, it is a common scam and one that has happened to me twice in one day. You are walking along minding your own business when ‘splat’ a big splodge of what looks like bird shit lands on your shoe, or your shoulder, but not to worry, today is your lucky day, there just happens to be a guy right there who can clean you up, buff your shoes or whatever for just a small fee. Come on!!
Language/let me be your friend scam
You are approached, usually by a smart looking guy who wants to be your friend. He also needs help reading or writing a letter written in English, could you help? Yeah sure, you agree and head off to a local bar/restaurant for a few drinks. After a few rounds the bloke goes off to the loo and you don’t see him again. You are left with a hefty bill where your drinks have been massively overpriced and you have no option but to settle. An hour after you have gone the bloke returns for his cut.
There are a million variations of this and so be careful, if you are being led to a bar or restaurant with anyone have your wits about you.
Ok, you might be able to spot that the DVD purporting to be Terminator 7 is fake because it’s not even been written yet, but what about that granite pyramid? Or that emerald? Unless you are straight out of the antiques road show be careful when handing money over for something that is meant to be something else. It very often isn’t.
This bad boy is probably the first scam ever invented, and there are loads of variations that typically centre around the same thing – Someone trying to sell you gems at a knock down price for whatever reason. Tourists looking to get rich quick have been left penniless by this ridiculously obvious scam.
The closed temple scam
You approach a temple and are told it is closed for whatever reason, or that only people offering blessings can enter. You are then either directed to another temple where you must pay a hefty price for entrance, or to a guy selling overpriced offerings. Or perhaps you would like a tour of somewhere whilst you wait until it opens?
Some touts will be so relentless in their hounding of you that you just give in and let yourself be scammed because it is easier. They know what they are doing, don’t give in.
These blokes will make it look like its taking candy of a baby, but they are masters of sleight of hand and never lose. Don’t ever get involved with street gambling, you will not win.
Price increase scam
This happens all the time, you agree a price with someone for something and inflation goes up and then you are charged more. Stick to what you agreed, it’s more of a harmless tiresome chore than anything sinister. Always agree a price beforehand.
There are variants of this, but someone selling something too big to carry offers to ship it to your home address. I mean really, as daft as it sounds people do actually fall this expecting to get home to a nice new carpet or whatever. Needless to say it rarely ever arrives.
Not so much a bad scam as a hindrance, you decide a call home or some work online is in order. So the deciding factor in where you eat is free Wi-Fi, well obviously everywhere advertises free Wi-Fi, but check before you order that they actually do have it, and that it works. In Pokhara, Nepal for example, every single restaurant claims to have free Wi-Fi, yet only about 20% actually have Wi-Fi at all.
Third Party Scam
This is one of the most frequent scams you will likely encounter. There are variants of it but it’s essentially some bloke approaching you to help you, he then takes you somewhere and you are fleeced whilst he gets commission. Ask yourself, do you really need some guy to find you a taxi? Or to show you to a shop?
The sex scam
You head out and decide to get chatty with a girl way out of your league. You buy her drinks all night, settle the bill and you think you are onto a winner. Back at the hotel things get frisky and then you are knocked sideways by the presence of a penis where you didn’t expect one. Statistically this has never happened to a single bloke – Realistically it happens all the time.
You are approached by a guy claiming to be the police and whatever you have just being doing isn’t permitted, but pay a fine and all will be ok. This also happens by actual police who will stop tourists driving motorbikes/scooters and claim you’ve just infringed some traffic act.
You agree a price, but the driver doesn’t tell you he actually meant one way and so he floats around in the centre refusing to take you back to shore unless you cough up.
Train station scams
You turn up at the station fresh as a daisy and some guy needs to see your ticket. Unlucky, your ticket needs validating and so he gestures you head off to some building where there is obviously a fee. Don’t fall for it, it doesn’t need validating.
Bus ticket scam
I have fallen for this one, in Indonesia I got on a bus and before it set off some guy came and asked me where I was heading. I stupidly paid for the ticket and he gave me a ticket, then en route a different guy came round asking for my ticket. I had been duped. Point being, unless you are buying a ticket from an official ticket office based at the bus station – Buy your ticket on the bus from the same dude everyone else is buying from.
Motorbike return scam
Some people will tell you this is the most common scam in Asia. You rent a motorbike and are dumb enough to leave your passport as security. When you return the bike the renter claims you have caused damage that wasn’t there previously and so charges you ridiculous amounts before handing your passport back.
Motorbike theft scam
You rent a bike for a few days and on the application put the hotel you are staying at. At the end of the first day you park up and whilst you sleep the renter comes along with a spare key and robs the bike. You are now left with the cost of stumping up for a new bike.
Here are some potentially dangerous situations.
Never accept a drink from anyone on a long distance coach/train that you do not fully trust. Travellers get spiked and before long you will be unconscious whilst your things are stolen. Rapes have also occurred as a result of travellers being spiked.
Never get in a taxi with two or more blokes (that you don’t know). Single women have jumped in and ended up being gang raped, single blokes have ended up being beaten and robbed. Don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you are extremely vulnerable.
Be aware of other travellers who will befriend you and then keep an eye on your things whilst you head out, only for you to return to nothing. The sad reality is some backpackers do this for a living, don’t become a victim.
If you choose to have any form of sexual contact it is absolutely vital that you take necessary precautions. Instances of sexually transmitted disease and HIV/AIDS is often much higher than in the UK/Europe.
As I have already said, scams are as much a part of backpacking as carrying a backpack and the vast majority are little more than blatant hiccups in your day.
Remember, if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and not everyone is out to scam you.