It was the perfect spring break in Tanzania for Delhi-based professional Priya Nanda. That is till she was duped out of Rs 9,000 by a smooth-talking scammer. This was in 2010. Since then, thousands of people travelling abroad on work or pleasure have been robbed of their money and valuables by frauds who only seem to have become more innovative with time.
Nanda was cheated as she looked for a money changer. A tourist suggested a commission-free place he claimed to have used himself. He introduced her to a “cashier”, who handed her a wad of notes in exchange for dollars. “He counted the money really fast and counted twice. Since the pile was big and I wasn’t familiar with the local currency, I left without recounting it,” says Nanda. What she got was actually half the amount she should have.
From a stranger spilling ketchup on you to distract you while an accomplice picks your pocket to a gypsy offering unprompted good fortune gifts only to demand a fee later, the instances are many. While you can be cheated anywhere, the chances are more in some countries. “The most notorious destinations are those with a high footfall like Thailand, Singapore and Europe,” says Sharat Dhall, COO (B2C), Yatra.
So how do you protect yourself? To start with, carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the original when stepping out. Don’t hand your card to strangers at ATMs and acquaint yourself with the place before the trip starts. This will save you from the most common frauds. Remember, no insurance policy will cover travel scams.
1. Currency exchange deals
Money frauds are common in countries where different denomination notes are of the same size and colour. Usually the money changers count very fast while an accomplice distracts the tourist with small talk. Or they count so slowly that the tourist gets impatient and leaves without verifying. Either way, the tourist gets less.
In shops, cashiers often replace a similar looking bill of higher value with that of a lower value. Taxi drivers are known to be in the game too. They take a high value note from the customer, drop it on the car mat, replace it with a less valuable note while picking it up and hand back short change.
US and some African countries
How to avoid it:
Familiarise yourself with the local currency. If ‘zero commission’ or ‘higher exchange rates’ sound too good to be true, it’s because they are. Try transacting with exact change. It’s better to avoid cash usage wherever possible. “Indians have a tendency to carry excess cash. It’s better to exchange most of it in forex cards to avoid frauds,” says Karan Anand, Head—Relationships, Cox & Kings.
2. Too ready to help
Thieves posing as friendly locals are common in cities where English is not the primary language. They loiter near ATMs, ticket machines and currency exchange offices and are quick to offer help on seeing a confused tourist. During her a trip to Paris in 2017, Shikha Upadhyay (see picture) narrowly escaped getting scammed in a train station. A local offered to help her with a ticket machine that displayed directions in French. She accepted his help but soon smelt a rat. “He was distracting me with his movements, which got me suspicious,” she recalls.
The intent behind the help is to get closer to your stuff and steal your belongings. In helping with a withdrawal at an ATM, the conman will either memorise your PIN and then pick your card or will just grab the withdrawn cash and flee. The scammer could well warn you to keep your belongings safe, claiming to have seen someone being pick-pocketed nearby. They will notice where you checked your wallet and phone so that they can pick your pocket later.
Locals recommending souvenir shops or restaurants from where they get a kickback is common. In Thailand, frauds are famous for sending off tourists to ‘beautiful alternative’ attractions saying that the original one is closed for the day.
Europe, Thailand, Mexico and South Africa
How to avoid it:
Avoid unsolicited help or advice from a local, including hotel staff. Learn basics of the native language to navigate train stations and to avoid getting misguided. When stuck in an ATM or ticket machine, seek help of an official. In Thailand, if a tuk-tuk driver offers to take you to off-beat spots for a cheap fare, know that you are in for trouble.
Shikha Upadhyay, 27, Delhi
Scammed in: Paris, France What happened: A local offered to help her with the ticket machine at Gaur De Nord station. With an over friendly demeanour he tried distracting her with his movements and small talk so that he could steal her belongings. Money lost: Nil
3. Fake cop alert
The modus operandi of fake cops is to stop a tourist on the street, accuse him of a crime and then demand to search his belongings. The scammer will either slip a few bills out of your wallet or flee with all your stuff.
To increase the chances of success of the robbery, an accomplice posing as a tourist first makes contact with you. As you two talk, a group of plain-dressed men posing as undercover agents surround you and ask you both to show IDs. The accomplice will quickly take his wallet out and advice you to do the same assuring that it has happened with him before. Sometimes, the fake police may nab the accomplice saying he is a drug dealer. They will then tell you that you are a key witness and ask you to accompany them to the police station, only to rob you on the way.
In another variation, a stranger will ask you to look after his luggage while he goes to the washroom and comes back with someone posing as police. The bag contains illegal drugs so the scammers will extort money out of you. This usually happens outside airports and train stations.
In other countries, fake police penalise tourists for breaking a law that doesn’t even exist. Delhi-based Tanishq Vashisth (see picture) knows this too well. On a trip to Thailand in 2016, Vashisth was conned into paying a fine for lighting a cigarette in public. “Even open restaurants in Bangkok don’t allow smoking, so I swallowed his story,” he says. In reality, littering cigarette butts in Bangkok attracts penalty but there is no ban on smoking in open spaces.
Barcelona, Bangkok, Mexico and Amsterdam
How to avoid it:
Undercover police do not interact with tourists unless you have committed a crime. Just walk away when a plainclothes person claiming to be police approaches you. “If a tourist feels something is out of place, they should simply walk away,” says Dhall. Walking away will deter the scammer from persuading you. Don’t hand your documents or belongings to even legitimate appearing police. Instead request they inspect you in presence of an embassy member or in your hotel. If you are sceptical about the person’s badge or uniform, ask him to accompany you to the nearest shop to verify his badge. A legitimate police officer will comply with your request, whereas a scammer will avoid getting a third party involved.
Tanishq Vashisth, 26, Delhi
Scammed in: Bangkok, Thailand What happened: A stranger dressed as a policeman fined him for smoking outdoors on a sidewalk. It is actually not illegal. Money lost: Rs 4,300 (2,000 baht)
4. Beware the drink
This is usually targeted at single men. A young attractive woman will ask you for directions. After striking up a conversation, she will invite you for drinks and food at a nearby ‘highly recommended’ club. She will drink on your tab and disappear moments before the bill arrives, which will be prohibitively expensive. The pub would be a secluded, dim-lit place guarded by bouncers. You will have no choice but to pay up.
In China, this scam is played out in tea houses. A young woman on her way to a tea ceremony will ask you to accompany her. Or school children will request you to teach them English in a nearby tea house. Either way, you pay a hefty bill for a cup or two of tea. Sometimes, female tourists are approached by strangers in clubs and offered a drink. The scammer either spikes the drinks or offers a cigarette that has crystal meth in it. The motive is to knock you out and rob you. You could be drugged enough to impair your judgement and dragged to the nearest ATM to withdraw all your money.
Barcelona, Budapest, Beijing, Shanghai, London and Rome
How to avoid it:
Avoid going to bars or restaurants with strangers. If you do strike a friendship and want to go out, suggest a place of your choice. Ask the prices before ordering, drink only what has been poured by the waiter and never let your drink out of sight.
5. Dropped money
This involves two or more scammers. A con will point to a stash of cash or a gold ring lying on the ground and ask if it belongs to you. Just when you pick it up, his accomplice will appear claiming to be the owner and accuse you of trying to steal it. He will then threaten to call the police unless you pay a neat sum for settling the issue without getting the police involved.
In another variation, the accomplice will persuade you to split the money in half. After you have split the money and part ways, the ‘owner’ will appear and demand his money. Since you have half of it, you will end up paying the other half from your pocket. If you don’t accept the splitting offer, the con will hand you the wallet and request you to deposit it with the police since he is in a hurry. Once you have the wallet in your hand, what follows is similar to the first variation. If it’s a ring, the con will try to sell it to you. However, what you’ll get is a gold coated metal ring.
Turkey, Ukraine and Paris
How to avoid it:
Don’t pick up or accept any valuable items, wallet or cash lying on the ground. Report it to the police or security personnel. Never agree to accompany the stranger who found it to the police station as they may rob you on the way.
6. The photo-op that really isn’t
Though not so famous, this scam happens mainly in London. In a busy tourist spot, a friendly stranger will request you to take a photo of them or their group. When you hand the camera back, he will fumble and drop it, smashing it to pieces. The scammer will then blame you for the incident and force you to pay for the repairs or he may kick up a fuss so that you are obliged to pay to avoid a scene in public. In the case of a group involved, they may create commotion and pick your pocket when you bend to pick the camera from the ground.
How to avoid it:
One way to detect this scam is that the camera used for this purpose typically does not function properly. So if you are handed an equipment which is not working for a photo request, know that you are likely to get swindled. If you do get into such a situation, don’t give into paying. Walk to the nearest ticket counter or security guard to enquire if a similar incident has happened before.
7. Double check the menu
An usher outside a seemingly fancy restaurant will lure you inside by showing a menu with cheap rates and take it away after taking your order. Then, an exorbitant bill will arrive. When you argue, you will be shown another menu with the same inflated prices as on the bill. Another way in which this scam is played out is by advertising an impressive discount or low-price buffet deal outside the restaurant to attract tourists. However, the final bill will bear normal prices, which is quite expensive. There is no way to argue your way out of this fraud.
China and Italy
How to avoid it:
It is best to avoid restaurants with persuasive touts trying to attract tourists inside. If you end up seating in a sleazy food joint with very few tourists present and a suspiciously cheap menu, insist on keeping the menu till your bill arrives.
Some travel insurance policies provide emergency cash in case of theft but no policy covers scams. “Travel insurance covers for passport and baggage loss. Another key benefit is third party liability where financial loss or legal liability arising from damage caused to a third person is covered,” says Anuj Gulati, MD and CEO, Religare Health Insurance. Third party liability can come in handy if a tourist is tricked into paying for an accident he did not commit. If robbed, make sure you file a police complaint. “A police complaint can help with insurance claim on your return to India,” says Anand.