The latest travel scams – and how to avoid them

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Have you ever arrived at a hotel to discover that the 'sea view' room you fell head over heels for online doesn't actually exist? Or examined a restaurant bill only to find it includes items that you never ordered?

It's easy to become too paranoid while travelling and turn everyone you meet into an object of suspicion. But a little foreknowledge can keep you one step ahead of the scammers. Here's a rundown of prevalent pitfalls along with tips to help you avoid them.

Extra items on the bill

Restaurant bill by iwona_kellie. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.Restaurant bill by iwona_kellie. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

After lingering over a meal, it's easy to forget to check that your bill tallies with what you actually ordered – something crooked establishments count on. Another trick is upping menu items' prices on the bill: make sure the individual items match the prices listed on the menu you chose from (not the pricier version they may hand you later). Also check extra items haven't been added (that bottle of mineral water on the table that you didn't order or open, for example).

Don't stay at a phantom apartment

Short-stay apartments are a fantastic way to save money and live like a local. But unless you book through a reputable agency, your apartment might not actually exist (nor the airport pick-up you were promised).

Scammers often compile fake apartment advertisements at too-good-to-be-true prices from photos and descriptions on legitimate sites. Search online to see if the apartment is registered with an authorised apartment rental company and, if so, contact them to cross-check availability. You can also verify apartments' validity by asking for a copy of a utilities bill in the owner's name (and ensuring it hasn't been altered).

Above all, under no circumstances send payment to an untraceable account via a money transfer.

Keep a close eye on your plastic – or pay in cash

Credit cards in a wallet. Image from Wikimedia Commons.Credit cards in a wallet. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic is easy prey for scammers. Never let a waiter, shopkeeper, hotel staff member or anyone else take your card out of your sight – even beneath the counter – where they can copy your information. In places with high instances of credit card fraud (flea markets, for instance), stick to cash.

Is that locker really secure?

Ensure luggage lockers – even in backpacker hostels – are actually locked. Some appear locked but if you pull the unit away from the wall (or lift it from the floor), they're backless (or bottomless) and completely accessible.

Get the price and details of your hotel room in writing

Unscrupulous hotels commonly claim you 'misheard' a price quoted over the phone or on arrival, or that they have no record of your sea view, balcony and so on. Get prices and any premium room features in writing, and insist on a receipt immediately to avoid later being asked to pay twice. And never let hotels hold on to your passport to take your details down later – wait for it in reception.

Don't let anyone get their hands on your luggage

No matter how lost or overloaded you might be, don't let anyone carry your luggage at a train or bus station, even if they're wearing an official-looking badge. At best they'll invariably expect payment; at worst they'll disappear with it, or use you as an unsuspecting courier.

Stick with reputable cabbies

Taxi fares sign by emilydickinsonridesabmx. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.Taxi fares sign by emilydickinsonridesabmx. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Dishonest taxi drivers the world over inflate prices, substitute bank notes you handed over for notes of lesser value they claim you gave them instead, and take circuitous routes. Research fares beforehand so you know exactly how much a trip should cost in the local currency – tourist offices or your accommodation can give you an indication of prices and reputable cab companies. Ideally, have your own map, so you know you're getting taken directly to your destination.

Don't let drivers load your luggage until you've agreed on a price, and pay careful attention to denominations on payment.

Beware the creative pickpocket

Pickpockets come up with endlessly creative diversions to distract you for as long as it takes for them to filch your wallet (a matter of seconds for seasoned professionals): tying friendship bracelets on your wrist, peddling trinkets, posing as beggars and handing you a 'please help me' card to read, or as tourists wanting you to take their photograph...

A current tactic involves scammers pretending to 'find' a gold ring on the ground that they've conveniently placed there (variations include offering to sell you the ring for an outrageous price, or having the ring's 'owner' arrive and demand compensation). Ignore them.

Pickpockets are also tuned into announcements advising tourists to beware of pickpockets, at which time people instinctively reach to check their belongings, thereby flagging precisely where to target.

Is your ticket for real?

Oystercards and wallets from the London Underground. Image from Wikimedia Commons.Oystercards and wallets from the London Underground. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

With cutting-edge technology at scammer's fingertips, counterfeit tickets for anything from the London Tube to Disneyland can look amazingly realistic, and there's an army of strangers, fraudsters and scalpers ready, willing and able to sell you a lemon. Buy only from official vendors to ensure you won't be denied entry, fined or arrested.

Missing mobile phone credit

A favourite scam of dodgy electronics shops is to sell you mobile phone credit and say you'll receive a text message confirming your top-up soon, only for the message – and credit – to never materialise. Returning with a receipt isn't much good (they'll claim you've deleted the text and used the credit). Your best bet is to use only reputable suppliers.