Travel Scams: Dating, Midnight Callers and Free Stuff That Isn't Free

There's no need for you to be a victim, if you stay reasonably alert.

February 22, 2015, 6:39 AM
PHOTO: Beware of long-distance romances that start over the internet, as they may lead to a fraudulent Romeo.
Beware of long-distance romances that start over the internet, as they may lead to a fraudulent Romeo.
Getty Images

— -- Scams have been around forever. I picture noisy Neanderthals distracting a clueless caveman as his prized mammoth moccasins are spirited away.

Substitute credit card, phone or money for the moccasins and the old distraction dodge is still playing out today. No need for you to be a victim, though, not if you stay reasonably alert, take common sense precautions and know what to expect.

Here are seven scams, traps or theft scenarios that travelers should know about.

1. Internet dating and romance scams

To the U.S. State Department, this scam is serious enough that it gets an entire page on If you're not familiar with these scams, they usually involve a romance that blossoms over the internet involving a fraudulent Romeo (though women do this, too) who claims to be a U.S. citizen who travels around the world on business. Once you're hooked, usually via romantic email exchanges, a visit is arranged.

Then – oh, no! As the State Department notes, these poor guys "have the worst luck imaginable" because they always seem to get in a car crash on the way to the airport, or are mugged, arrested, beaten, whatever. And only you can help! By sending them money, of course.

Don't get scammed: Do not send money to someone you've never met. If you do, you'll be asked for more and more. And no, you will never meet Mr. or Ms. Romeo.

Note: Americans aren't the only targets. Police in Great Britain recently warned about similar scams that cost its citizens about $50 million last year, while a media report in Australia called romance cons the "chief culprit of online frauds."

2. Vacation rental scams

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received thousands of complaints from people who sent deposits to “owners” of rental properties on beaches or other summer destinations, only to discover - too late - that the people who got the money didn't own these places.

Don't get scammed: The FTC says always look for red flags like premium properties offered at below-market rents; being rushed or pressured into making an immediate decision; being required to wire money. Put on the brakes and get a contract before paying a dime (and be sure to read it).

You must make sure the property you're interested in actually exists (check the address) and the owner does, in fact, own it. Don't overlook the obvious, either; if the property is part of a resort, call them to confirm details. When in doubt, don't.

3. The bracelet scam

This scam apparently remains popular in Europe; here is a friend's description:

"A guy approaches you in a busy tourist area and asks for help with a ‘demonstration.’ While he weaves a colorful string bracelet on your wrist he puts on a show, talking non-stop, telling jokes, asking questions (‘Name the colors in Spain's flag!’). It was fun but at the end you're wearing a bracelet you don't want but can't remove and are asked to pay an astonishing price for it (20 euros for colorful string, really?). We paid but the guy seemed disappointed. Later we read this was a classic scam where naive tourists are pickpocketed while distracted by the show, but we clutched our purses tightly all the time so it didn't work on us."

Don't be scammed: Never get so distracted that you aren't aware of where your valuables are, and always keep them close. Gentlemen, no wallets in back pockets, please.

4. Free cruises, free plane tickets

If a freebie sounds too good, it's not, or not entirely. A common scenario: You're invited to attend a sales presentation and just for going you get a prize. Sometimes it's plane tickets, sometimes a Caribbean cruise. So you steel yourself for a few hours of boredom, resist the hard-sell for the time-share then, bingo - free trip! Only problem: you might discover you alone are responsible for a bunch of taxes and fees (and this can add up).

Don't get scammed: Not all these freebies are frauds - there's often fine print somewhere - but ask questions about prizes, particulars about costs you're expected to shoulder. If you can't get a straight answer, it's not a free trip. If you have to pay an up-front deposit, it's not a free trip.

5. Disappearing electronics

Airport security checkpoints can be hotbeds of theft where big payoffs are laptops and other electronics. The FTC says travelers should treat laptops like cash: "If you had a wad of money sitting out in a public place, would you turn your back on it, even for just a minute?"

Don't get scammed: The FTC advises travelers to physically hold onto laptops (or tablets or phones) until the person ahead of you has gone through the metal detector or scanner. Only then do you place it on the conveyor belt but keep your eyes on it as it emerges on the other side.

6. Helpful local folks

I picked up this tip from traveler-extraordinaire Rick Steves, who warns about overly helpful locals, the ones who offer assistance in case you find those foreign ATMs too confusing. What they want of course is your PIN.

Don't get scammed: Foreign ATMs are not too confusing. Say, "No thanks!" then make sure they back-off before you punch in the pin (and shield those numbers with your hands).

7. Credit card snafu

This one has been around for years and though I've written about it before, it's potentially costly enough that it bears repeating. You're in a hotel room when the phone rings in the middle of the night. A very apologetic desk clerk says there has been a mix-up with credit cards and if he can just have your number, he'll sort it all out.

Don't be scammed: These midnight callers are not with the hotel; they are banking on you being sleepy enough to hand over your number without a second thought.

Instead, wake up! Then hang up, and call the desk or go down there if you have to. Peace of mind is worth a little beauty sleep.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney in this column are his alone and do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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