Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them

PHOTO: A man performs as human statue on La Ramblas St. in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 29, 2009.Samuel Aranda/Getty Images
A man performs as human statue on La Ramblas St. in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 29, 2009.

Some friends were strolling the Via del Condotti in Rome this summer, admiring the impossibly expensive designs in famous boutiques when they ran into a traveler's nightmare.

"A woman holding a portable crib in her arms bumped into my husband," said my friend, who asked to be anonymous. "There were smiles and apologies, and both moved on. Then my spouse thought to reach into his pocket and you guessed it: His money was gone."

Pickpockets can be a problem anywhere tourists gather; fortunately in this case, all that was lost was $100 or so, not credit cards or passports. As scams go, it may be the oldest one, but there are plenty more out there that travelers should be aware of plus amazingly creative new ones. I've gathered some of my favorites here as well as tips on avoiding them.

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First an overall tip, then on to the scams. My advice is, "go local" and by that I mean, use your smartphone to find off-the-beaten-tourist-path places to explore, fun things to see and do that allow you to soak up the local flavor while staying outside the scammers' glide path. This is where apps like maps, restaurant listings, lesser-known attractions and social networking are invaluable. Sure, when you're in Barcelona, take a quick dive through Las Ramblas but the real fun is enjoying the cuisine at an excellent restaurant favored by the locals.

Contortionist scam: According to media reports, it seems thieves in Spain sometimes manage to squeeze into a suitcase which is then placed in the luggage compartment of a bus. Then, during the ride, the agile crook emerges, rifles other bags, and places them back in the suitcase with him (or her).

Tip: The obvious way to avoid this is to leave all valuables at home (a method I highly recommend). If you can, keep your valuables on your person, secured where probing fingers cannot reach (roomy money belts may work in some cases).

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Midnight desk call: This got a mention by Time magazine (which cited cases in the U.S. state of Georgia) and it works like this: You get a call in your hotel room in the middle of the night. It's the front desk saying there's been a computer snafu and they need you to give them your credit card number again. Apparently, people fall for it.

Tip: If this ever happens to you, wake up! Tell the caller you're going to hang up and call the front desk yourself. Then do so. Don't be surprised if the hotel clerk on duty has no idea what you're talking about.

Gem shop sale: This'll be familiar to at least some travelers to Thailand. Typically, a tourist in Bangkok is approached by a freelance guide or tuk tuk driver (a kind of half-car, half-rickshaw conveyance) and these fine folks tell you the attraction you want to see is closed, but, the good news is they know a gem shop or factory nearby that's having an incredible sale! Travelers report being pressured into buying "gems" that turn out to be worthless or far less valuable than advertised.

Tip: Arrange for guides in advance with reputable travel firms. Don't accept services from strangers no matter how good their English is or what an amazing coincidence it is that they too have family in Chicago (they probably don't). Check with airport officials or trusted well-traveled friends on finding legitimate cabs; it's better to wait in a long line for a real taxi than to accept a ride from someone who may steer you wrong.

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Free tickets: I've seen this in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. A letter or email arrives bearing the wonderful news that yes, you've won two free tickets from American or another airline. Look closely: The picture of the plane may have American's logo on it, but you won't find the airline's name anywhere else. Usually it boils down to sitting through a high-pressure sales pitch for a time-share or something like that, which is not illegal and you may in fact get vouchers for tickets, but the 'prize' may also be filled which restrictions including paying a hefty sum for taxes and fees. By the way, there are reports this is now turning up on Pinterest and Instagram, too.

Tip: Read anything that says 'free' on it with a jaundiced eye. If in doubt, check the airline's website and search for 'scam' or 'phishing' and you'll get the real story.

Stripper scam: This one comes from popular travel blogger Rick Steves who tells about an attractive woman accused of theft. To prove her innocence, she slowly removes most of her clothes while a crowd gathers round to watch. Once the woman gets her apology and disappears, all those gawkers suddenly discover their wallets have disappeared as well.

Tip: Always be aware of your surroundings, and always keep money, credit cards and passports in a safe place. For men that means not in your back pocket and women should carry purses that zip securely with the zipped portion closest to your body under your arm. Money belts are useful though some prefer to leave valuables like passports and extra credit cards back in the hotel safe.

One last scam: The same friends mentioned at the start of the column left Rome for Barcelona where they got caught up in the bizarre scene at Las Ramblas, home to a plethora of colorful street performers. "One grabbed our daughter's hand and began weaving a complicated string bracelet around her wrist, while peppering us with a steady stream of inane questions," said my anonymous friend.

But they'd learned their lesson; all valuables were safely stowed and no pockets or purses were picked. "The thieves, if that's what they were, got zip," she said, "unless you count us feeling like we had to fork over ten bucks for a worthless piece of string!"

Tip: Don't let your wrist stick out where someone might try to tie a string around it.