Travel Safety Tips: 6 Common Scams to Beware
Guard yourself against unscrupulous taxi drivers, phony tour guides, exchange rate cons and more
Travel consultant Steve McIninch recalls driving away from Chicago’s O’Hare International
Airport in a rental car when he and his wife were stopped by a guy pretending
to be a cop.
“We got pulled over by an unmarked car with some lights and a guy who had a badge, and he said I was speeding,” McIninch says. “It just didn’t sound right. I asked for his identification and he didn’t have any. Then I asked to speak to his supervisor on the radio. He went to his car and then pretended he had another emergency and he sped off. He’d asked for my ID, but cops usually ask for your license, registration and proof of insurance — that’s how they phrase it. And he was driving a late-model Toyota.”
McIninch, a travel consultant with Globe Travel Agency’s office in Charlottesville, Virginia, says the “fake cop” con is one of several common scams perpetrated on travelers.
Whether traveling at home or abroad, watch out for these scams, according to McIninch, Kim Goldstein, a travel consultant with Journeys Inc. in Richmond, Virginia, and other sources.
Taxi driver scams
The hustle: Variations involve either jacked-up fares or kickbacks for taking you to places you don’t want to visit, according to scamdetector.com. In one scam, the driver says your hotel is no longer in business, but he will gladly take you to another equally good hotel (where he receives commissions for bringing in business).
In another scam, the cab driver claims the meter doesn’t work and demands an outrageous fee at the end of the ride. Similar to this scam is the driving-around-aimlessly scam, in which the driver circles the same few blocks for half an hour while the meter keeps ticking. Some cabbies will claim not to have change if you hand over a large bill.
Travel smart: Negotiate the taxi rate in advance if the meter is broken. Look at a map and know the general route to the hotel before venturing too far from the airport. and carry small bills.
The hustle: Fake cabs have recently cropped up in New York City , and the drivers have stolen credit card information from their “passengers.” In some countries, like Mexico, tourists have been kidnapped, beaten and robbed by people pretending to be taxi drivers, aka piratas (some are driving stolen taxis).
Travel smart: If you’re in a country plagued by fake cab robberies, never hail a cab on the street; only take a cab that a taxi official calls for you from a central taxi stand in the airport or city (“taxi sitio” in Mexico ). In New York City, look for a cab medallion and a license displayed within the vehicle .
Tour guide scams
The hustle: You probably know to watch out for “tour guides” that come without a recommendation, since people are occasionally robbed after being led down an alleyway. Fewer people have heard of the guides (or fake guides) who demand a second payment for a prepaid tour. McIninch says that just past year, he had clients with a voucher for a prepaid tour of one of the largest museum in Florence, Italy. They went outside to wait for their private guide and were approached by a man who asked if they were going on a tour. The couple assured him they were ready to go, but he told them their credit card authorization hadn’t gone through and they needed to pay before they could go.
“They thought that was strange because everything was prepaid, so they contacted me,” McInitch says. “I said, ‘no, go inside right now in the hotel and ask for security and tell them somebody’s outside trying to scam you. If it didn’t go through when it was paid three months ago, you wouldn’t have a voucher.’ The police came and escorted the guy off the hotel property.”
Travel smart: Call your credit card company or travel agent before paying any additional money if any issues arise.
Currency exchange and payment cons
The hustle: This
is often an easy con because many travelers are not familiar with the current exchange
rate and lose money to black-market currency dealers. Also, some lose more
money when the vendor claims he was shortchanged, which may be just a ruse to
get more money from you.
Travel smart: Change your money at the bank, or if you exchange it on the street, memorize the exchange rate (which can change daily). “I encourage a lot of my clients to use U.S. dollars in the Caribbean and Mexico,” Goldstein says. “In Europe, the Euro is a fairly simple system; you just have to learn the exchange rate. And when exchanging money or paying for an item, count your money out loud as you hand it over."
Related: Stay Safe on That Dream Trip to Cuba
The fake Good Samaritan scam
The hustle: Some scam artists target tourists by looking for big cars with lots of luggage on top. In this scenario, you’re driving along and a local pulls up alongside, gesturing frantically that there’s something wrong with your vehicle, maybe a wobbly tire or exhaust problem. Their plan is to rob you when you pull over.
Travel smart: Don’t stop. If there is nothing obviously wrong with the car, keep driving until you reach a public place. In addition, keep the car within your sight if you stop for a meal. One group driving to Mexico City from Santa Cruz, California, in a car loaded with Christmas presents stopped for a meal in one town and returned to the car to find all their presents stolen (along with their luggage). Fortunately, they had carried their travel documents with them.
The phony hotel clerk scam
The hustle: You’ve arrived in your room after a long journey, excited about the adventures ahead. Then someone at the desk calls to say your credit card would not process. Rather than disturb you with a trip down to the lobby, this phony “clerk” offers to take your credit card information over the phone, according to scam-detector.com.
Travel smart: Hang up and visit the front desk in person. McIninch and Goldstein advise never giving out credit information over the phone, even if the call is from a phone number within the hotel. Criminals pay accomplices to scout hotels for new arrivals and wait until they’ve entered their rooms. From there, it’s easy to call the hotel, ask the operator to ring your room — and the hustle begins. If there is a legitimate problem, you can always go to the front desk in person and get it resolved. And ask to speak to the manager: Some brazen scammers have even been known to call rooms from the hotel desk when an operator takes a break. Any phone call about a credit card “is cause for suspicion,” says Goldstein.
Related: Hotel Safety: What You Don't Know…