Buyer beware: 10 common travel scams

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While you’re often safer overseas than you are in your hometown, a few scams seem to pop up all over the world. Repeat the mantra: if it looks too good to be true, it must be too good to be true…

1. Fake police

Sometimes also the real police, they’ll demand to see your passport and find something wrong with your visa, but then suggest your troubles will all be over if you pay a fine. To them. In cash. Right now. Standing your ground and offering to accompany them to the station will usually see the error 'excused'.

2. Gem or carpet deals

On entry into a store, often prompted by an enthusiastic taxi or rickshaw driver, you will be offered a deal so preposterously lucrative that refusing it seems unthinkable. Think again – those gems are going to be worthless and the carpet you buy may not make it home at all. There are legitimate traders selling both jewels and rugs, and they don’t act like this.

3. Airport taxis

Drivers taking you into town might try every trick in the book, from asking you for an inflated fare to driving around the streets to raise the price higher. This is usually harmless, but you should only travel with licensed taxis and, if you can’t pay in advance, agree on a fee before starting out and don’t pay until you get where you want to be.

4. Timeshares

You're approached by an extremely genial young man who offers you a scratchie card, no strings attached. He's friendly, so you accept the scratchie card and, lo and behold, you've won some sort of prize, which could be anything from a t-shirt and cash to a holiday. What's the catch? The local insists you must accompany him to a hotel (which might be an hour's drive away) to collect your prize. If you haven't smelled a rat by now, you need your senses tested.

The penny drops, you start staring at the ground and shifting your feet uncomfortably, the seemingly-genuine local says that if you don't come with him, then he won't get paid for his job. However, if you do end up going with him, on arriving at the hotel you'll be shuffled into a room with a bunch of other tourists and forced into watching an hour-long presentation about timeshare apartments, which you are pressured into buying at a very special discounted price by slick Westerners. If you come out of it with your wallet intact, at worst you would have wasted an entire afternoon you could have spent lying on the beach.

5. 'This is closed'

In some countries everyone from touts to taxi drivers will try to tell you that your chosen hotel, restaurant or shop is closed…but there’s another, even better one you should visit, where they can pick up a commission. This is more annoying than harmful, but always insist on having a look for yourself.

6. Motorbike scam #1

Living out your dream of riding a scooter for a day around the countryside quickly turns into a nightmare when the bike you're riding breaks down or you have an accident. The owner of the motorbike is quick to escort you and your damaged bike (which doesn't look in that bad a state) to the repair joint of their choice, where the mechanic makes a grossly overinflated estimate of the damage costs. The owner of the motorbike insists you cover the costs, otherwise no customers will want to rent his bike. You shell out hundreds of dollars to cover the costs of the damage you possibly made, plus cosmetic improvements to the bike that you have now also covered for the owner.

More than likely, you've just lined their pockets with more cash than the locals would earn in a month. Take photographs of the bike before you start riding, preferably with the renter in them, so they can't blame you for imaginary damage costs to the vehicle. And don't rent from companies that are attached to hotels or guest houses.

7. Motorbike scam #2

The motorbike you have hired comes with a lock and two keys: you have one, and your rental company has the other. When you park the scooter and wander off, an enterprising person from the rental company arrives and 'steals' your scooter, thus later requesting you pay a large sum of money to replace the 'stolen' scooter. As you handed them your passport and you signed a contract, you're obligated to pay for it. Carry your own lock and key and an old passport to avoid getting sucked into this scam.

8. Bird shit

The surprising splat of bird shit landing on you from a great height is followed by the swift appearance of a stranger who towels you down. In the confusion, valuables are removed from your person, never to be seen again. Another variation on the same scam has someone 'accidentally' spilling mustard or other condiments on you.

9. Bar/tea shop scam

Notoriously aimed at male travellers, young local girls approach a tourist and, after gaining trust with some idle chit-chat, you agree to accompany them to a local bar/tea shop. Thrilled at the opportunity to converse with a couple of local lasses, you offer to buy them a drink. On receipt of the bill, the girls are gone, and all you are left with is a massive shock when you glimpse the sum total, which can amount to hundreds of dollars.

10. Hotel scams

As you hop off the train or bus into a strange town and into a waiting taxi, you ask them to take you to a specific hotel. You're dropped off, hand over the money for several night's worth of accommodation, you're persuaded to sign up for a number of day tours then escorted to your hotel room. The hotel's unusually quiet and it doesn't seem like the advertised atmosphere. Alarm bells ring: you've been duped by the friendly local who talked to you on the bus, and the quick phone call he had to make was to the awaiting taxi, whose driver was very quick to escort you to the hotel of their choice.

Like a well-oiled machine, they worked together to ensure you handed over all your cash immediately, and fleeced you for a couple of tours while they were at it. Many hotels trade on the names of popular hotels and are rarely of the same standard, so make sure you check the name and address of the place before you're shuffled in to sign your life away.

This article was authored by Tom Hall and Kylie McLaughlin.

This article was first published in September 2010 and was republished in January 2013.