Airport Travel Scams: Watch Out For These Airport Tricksters

7 travel scams that could await you at the airport: Internet ScamBusters #294

Goodness knows, air travel is expensive enough these days without losing your money (or worse!) to an airport travel scam.

In our new batch of 7 travel scams, we focus on airport cons and what you can do to spot and avoid them: from unscrupulous money changers to South American kidnappers. This issue is a “must read” before your next trip to the airport.

Time to get going…

Airport Travel Scams: Watch Out For These Airport Tricksters

Every year, vacationers lose a fortune to travel scams. Every year here at Scambusters, we highlight the latest cons aimed at the unwary traveler. And every year, the scammers come up with a whole new set of tricks.

So, let’s review the latest travel scams — some common, some less well-known.

This time, we focus on a batch of tricks you might run into at airports, though some of them may also turn up on the streets or in other public places.

And, as more and more people travel with laptops and cell phones, travel scammers are increasingly targeting these devices. Sometimes, even perfectly legit companies pull the wool over the eyes of travelers, and we have some advice for you about these scams as well.

From the moment you step off the plane into an airport, especially an unfamiliar one, you’re a walking target for travel scams. Here are 7 tricks to watch out for.

Travel Scam #1. Short changed!

In most North American, European and Australasian countries, authorities license and carefully control money changers. Not so in some other countries, where anyone can set themselves up as a currency exchange bureau and charge whatever rates they like.

That’s OK, you might think, as long as you know the rates they charge and take the trouble to compare them at one booth with another. But, when it comes to money changing, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

For example, some bureaus post an exchange rate that looks really great but when you make the exchange that’s not the rate they give you.

With all the hustle and the language difficulties, you might not even spot it, but if you do, you’ll find either that you’ve been charged an additional “commission” or that the posted rate applies to sums over $1,000 or is the “day rate” when you are changing your money at night.

Action: Take some currency with you when you go, so you don’t have to exchange at the airport. When you do need to change money, go to a bank or a recognized brand-name exchange bureau. Hotels are usually reliable too but their exchange rates are often poor.

When you can (and you feel in a sufficiently trustworthy situation) use a credit card for purchases (except as we outline below). You’ll probably get a better exchange rate and your purchase will be protected.

Travel Scam #2. Phone Sting #1

You’re in an unfamiliar airport in a foreign country and you need to make a phone call. Either you don’t have local currency or you haven’t got the hang of it. Or maybe you just can’t figure out how to use the coins with the phone.

You spot a phone that takes credit cards. Great? No, bad move. There’s nothing on the phone booth about call rates. Well, you think, credit card calls always cost a bit more than cash — but surely the bill won’t be huge.

Maybe it will. In the Caribbean island of Aruba one caller recently paid more than $40 for a call that lasted less than a minute. The victim tracked down the phone operator who told him that the minimum call charged was five minutes and that calls were transmitted via satellite.

Action: Avoid using your credit card to make phone calls in tourist airports. Even when rates are posted, they often don’t reveal additional hidden charges.

Travel Scam #3. Phone Sting #2

At a couple of airports in Germany, travelers jump at an attractive cell phone rental offer: Return the phone within two weeks and get your rental money back.

What they don’t reveal are the exorbitant rates you’ll pay while you use the cell phone, plus a security deposit and other charges. Of course, you handed over your credit card and signed a form when you rented the phone, so you’re sunk.

You may get the rent back but you could be hundreds of dollars out of pocket. All perfectly legal as well.

Action: These days, most people carry cell phones and have subscriptions that will work in just about any country. But if you don’t, try to find airport booths selling SIM cards for a fixed price that slot into your own phone and work for a specified amount of time.

If you really must rent one, always read the fine print and make sure you know all the charges. If it’s in a language you don’t understand, either get someone to explain it to you or go somewhere else.

Or even better, plan ahead and buy a cheap unlocked phone that will take a locally purchased, pre-paid SIM card.

Travel Scam #4. Phone Sting #3

Got Bluetooth? Welcome to the world of cell phone hacking, now in full swing at an airport near you.

As you probably know, Bluetooth is a radio transmission setup that allows cell phones and PDAs to talk to each other and to use wireless headsets. To link it to other devices, it has to be set to “discoverable” mode.

If it’s left that way, an airport hacker can easily pair with your device without you knowing, to steal information, send messages or even install a virus. These scammers prowl around airports and other public buildings with powerful Bluetooth detectors.

Action: Unselect the “discoverable” option on your device and keep all sensitive data safe with encryption software

Travel Scam #5. Kidnapped!

Don’t be alarmed, but beware. We’ve previously talked about taxi and limo travel scams, where an unlicensed driver approaches you in the airport or at the back of the line and offers you a ride that turns out to be costly.

But this is much more cunning:

At Caracas Airport in Venezuela, several travelers report entering the arrivals hall to see a man holding a placard bearing their name.

He introduces himself as a driver for the named hotel where they made reservations. Although the travelers aren’t expecting a ride to the hotel, they think he must be genuine because he knows their name and their hotel.

In fact, he got the info from someone on the airport staff who handled the immigration cards they filled in. He phones the details to his accomplice who then creates the placard.

What happens next can be anything from a meandering (and expensive) journey to the hotel, to a kidnap, where victims are robbed, then driven and dumped out of town.

Similar cases have recently been reported from a couple of regional airports in India.

Action: If someone you’re not expecting meets you at the airport, check their credentials and, if you’re not 100% satisfied, go to the airport information desk and ask to contact the hotel for confirmation.

Travel Scam #6. Computer scam #1:
Off With Your Laptop!

This is a cunning trick you might run into at any airport in the world. You’re in the security line and place your laptop PC on the conveyor belt. You wait to pass through the passenger scanner.

Then the person in front of you triggers the metal alarm. You wait patiently as he empties coins and keys out of his pocket. The alarm sounds again, so he removes his belt, and so on.

Meanwhile, his accomplice — yes, this is a scam — who has already cleared security, walks off with your laptop. He may swap it into another case, walk quickly down to a gate, or just conceal it somewhere for later collection.

Action: If possible, don’t put your stuff on the conveyor until you’re about to go through the scanner. If you can’t do this, watch your laptop like a hawk and alert a security guard if you see someone walking off with it.

If you are traveling with someone else, let them go thru the scanner, and after they are through and can watch the receiving end, put both of your laptops on the conveyor belt.

By the way, you did back up all the data on your laptop before you left home, just in case, didn’t you?

Note: be aware that US border agents are demanding passwords, and scanning laptops when you enter / return to the US. (This is for citizens and non-citizens alike.)

Travel Scam #7. Computer scam #2:
Free Internet service could be a snoop

More and more these days, we expect to be able to use our laptops to log onto the Internet in airports and other public places, free of charge.

But when your wireless laptop sniffs out available Internet connections, it often shows there are actually several in the vicinity. These may include the free airport link and other legitimate services that happen to be close by.

You may even piggy-back onto someone else’s unsecured Internet link on a nearby laptop. But that same laptop may also be just a lure. Once you jump onto it, the operator may be a hacker waiting to get access to your machine.

He might then upload malicious software, including a key-logging program to capture all your personal information.

Action: Either before going to the airport or by visiting its information desk, find out the name of its public Internet link service so you will recognize it when your laptop finds it. Even then, the link may not be secure from snoopers so don’t type in personal information.

You can find out more about wi-fi scams in The Evil Twin.

You can find more on travel scams in How to Avoid Travel Scams When Vacationing Overseas.

And be sure to read Travel Scams: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Taken.

As many of our new batch of travel scams show, technology may be a blessing but it’s also a route to thefts and rip-offs. By taking common sense precautions, checking facts and identities and being vigilant at all times, you can make your journey through the airport a safer experience and enjoy your vacation.

That’s a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!