Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow this year, which means spring is right around the corner. For the winter weary, however, summer is still too far away and the lure of blue-green seascapes under sunny skies is strong.
If you’ve decided to take the plunge, remember: Your vacation is supposed to be a time to unwind. Unfortunately, there are thieves who make a living off your relaxation. That’s why it pays to know the telltale signs of common travel scams and to do a bit of preparation before you fly, drive or sail off to parts known and unknown.
Before You Fly: Search Engines Are Your Friend
Chances are probably good that you went online to find out which restaurant has the best local food, where you can get the biggest bargain on beachside cocktails or what unforgettable adventures await. You may even have taken a virtual tour of your accommodations before you made your reservation.
But, while every destination has a special cocktail or a must-try local delicacy, many often have a local scam or scams as well. That’s why you should go online and plug your destination along with “crime” or “tourist trap” or “scams” into your favorite search engine.
Didn’t find anything? Try some wider search terms. For instance, substitute the city you will be visiting with the name of the county, state, province, island or country you will be visiting. With that in mind, here are some common scams that target travelers, along with some advice on how to avoid getting got.
1. Fake Deals
In many destinations it’s not uncommon to be offered deals on luxury items, and many ports of call will boast several completely legitimate retailers of gem stones and jewelry as well as local handicraft and antiques. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon to be approached by a freelancer offering these valuables for the deal of your life.
When it comes to larger items, a common scam tactic is for the seller to take a percentage of the agreed sale price, the rest being payable on delivery — sometimes after endless haggling where you are made to feel like an excellent negotiator. The outcome: You lose the down payment, as well as the precious vacation time you wasted waiting for a delivery that never comes.
How to Avoid the Scam: Buyer beware. You wouldn’t buy a pearl, a diamond or an antique carpet from some guy who approached you in the parking lot of your local supermarket, would you? So what’s different about a vacation spot? Resist the temptation and stick to shopping at reputable retailers in the area.
2. Front Desk Scam
You get a call from the front desk a few hours after a late check in, probably after midnight. You are told that the credit card number you provided has been declined or an error was made when they keyed in your information. The caller then asks you to read the card number again or they request another card number.
How to Avoid the Scam: Hang up, and go back to sleep. The chances that a hospitality worker would wake you up in this fashion are slim to none. If you’re worried, you should still hang up, then call the front desk yourself.
3. Fake Police
You may be approached by someone posing as a police officer. He demands to see your identification (and finds fault with it) or accuses you of having committed a crime. But, wanting to be a good host, he is willing to overlook the incident if you could see your way to slipping him a little cold hard cash.
How to Avoid the Scam: As a matter of course, make it your business to know where the local police station is, as well as the local hospital (and U.S. Embassy if you are traveling abroad). That way, if you’re approached by a purported law enforcement official seeking instant justice, you can offer to drive yourself to the precinct to pay the requested fine.
4. Photo Bombs
You are walking along and Captain Jack Sparrow is standing there, beckoning to your children. He wants you to take a picture as a keepsake. As soon as you do, you’re informed of the fee.
In another variant, a bystander offers to click a photo of you and your significant others. You hand over your phone, with the security code punched in, and as you strike just the right pose, the helpful photog runs away — with your phone. At first blush this may seem like the mere loss of hardware until you have that “oops! moment” and remember how much personally identifiable (and highly bankable) information you have stored on it.
How to Avoid the Scam: Just say no.
If you really want that picture with Jack, negotiate the fee before you take any pictures. And, for those Kodak moments, buy a selfie stick.
5. Taxi Fare Scam
You hail a taxi and tell them where you want to go. They take you there, but the fare seems high. There are a few reasons this may be happening, but the two most common are rigged meters and needlessly long routes.
How to Avoid the Scam: Only take licensed taxis and ask how much the fare will be before you get in.
It’s also a good idea to ask locals you trust (such as the concierge at your hotel) how much this or that trip should cost.
6. The "Closed" Hotel Scam
You hop in a taxi at the airport and give them the name of the hotel where you have a reservation, only to be told by the driver that the place is unexpectedly closed, but he knows a comparable hotel with a vacancy.
How to Avoid the Scam: Find another taxi.
7. The Take-Out Fake-Out
You finally get to your hotel room and you’re famished. Room service is expensive, closed or non-existent, but alas there is a menu! It was either slid under your door, or strategically placed on the desk by an accomplice with a key to your room. Unfortunately, the number on that menu is fake — it belongs to a scam artist who is all too eager to take your order while stealing your credit card information. An hour passes, your hunger is off the chart and your patience — as well as your available credit — has been drained.
How to Avoid the Scam: Always call the front desk to confirm if the restaurant is legit before dialing that number.
8. Recreation Rental Scam
You rent a bicycle or a scooter, and the attendant gives you a lock and key. Off you go! You lock up your rental to get lunch during your adventure and return to find the rental(s) gone — likely taken by the very same attendant, who also had a key to your lock. You are stuck with a hefty fee, if not the replacement cost of the item you rented.
How to Avoid the Scam: Don’t rent anything from anyone you haven’t checked out with locals you trust.
Make sure you have a written contract that clearly states what happens if the item is lost or damaged or stolen.
If you have reason to believe your payment or personal information was compromised, you should monitor your financial accounts — and your credit. A sudden drop in your credit scores is a sign your identity has been stolen. You can see two of your credit scores for free, updated each month, on Credit.com.
Vacations are supposed to be a time to recharge your batteries. Too often they become an opportunity to press charges against a fraudster you can neither find nor identify in a lineup. Have a good time, but be informed and alert so that someone else doesn’t have a good time on your dime.
Levin is chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit. His new book, "SWIPED: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves" was released last year.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.