New Travel Scam Tricks Target Vacationers Abroad

From Beijing to Mexico, travel scam artists prepare to strike if you let your guard down: Internet Scambusters #394

If you’re about to take your annual summer vacation abroad, watch out for a travel scam.

In popular tourist countries like China, Mexico and the historic sites of the Middle East, together with new destinations such as Turkey, we’ve identified several new global travel scams.

We explain how they work and how to avoid them, and recommend some of our earlier Scambusters issues on the subject for more info.

On to today’s main topic…


New Travel Scam Tricks Target Vacationers Abroad


On every vacation at every location, a travel scam lurks to catch the unwary tourist.

Over the years, here at Scambusters, we’ve highlighted many travel scams.

Travel Scams — Here, There and Everywhere

Airport Travel Scams: Watch Out For These Airport Tricksters

10 New Travel Scam Alerts for the Upcoming Vacation Season

And with the 2010 vacation season now in full swing, we’ve identified a new batch of travel scams to look out for.

As previously reported in How to Avoid Travel Scams When Vacationing Overseas, overseas vacationers are a favorite target of global travel scam artists who exploit their unfamiliarity with the language and the locale.

So we’ll focus on these for this issue. Here we go…

The Beijing Tea Scam

China is an increasingly popular tourist destination, and the nation’s capital, Beijing, lures the vast majority of the country’s visitors to its fabulous culture and architecture. So it’s a well-tried travel scam hangout too.

For instance: In the most popular haunts, a couple of young women approach you, claiming to be English students and saying they want to chat to improve their language skills.

Eventually, as a sort of thank you, they invite you to a Chinese tea ceremony and you follow them to a backstreet tea house.

You and your “friends” drink copious amounts of tea, without thinking of the price (if there’s a menu, it won’t list prices).

Then they disappear, the bill comes — for $100 or more (you discover refills aren’t free) — forcing you to pay. Don’t waste your time trying to protest: you drank the tea!

Action: These travel scam artists, who earn commission from the tea house, are persistent but just refuse their attention. Eventually, they give up.

The Turkey Trot

Perhaps due to the low prices and a fascinating cultural history, Turkey has experienced a huge tourist boom in recent years, giving the less scrupulous locals a chance to practice the art of theft.

There’s nothing sophisticated about these tricksters; they’re just adept at pick pocketing and bag snatching.

In particular, they scout out distracted tourists, usually alone, carrying shoulder bags loosely or those weighed down with shopping bags.

Often, they grab your purse, bags, or your camera as you’re trying to get into a taxi and therefore have your back to them. They also use these occasions to pick pockets.

It’s no use following. They make their escape fast. And, anyway, catching them could land you in more trouble if there’s no one around to help.

Action: Keep your money and valuables out of sight — preferably at your hotel — and be wary of going out alone.

Not So Ancient Wonders

Whenever you visit the ancient worlds of the Middle East, North Africa and India, traders can drive you nuts trying to sell you souvenirs.

Seems like they’ll never give up, but they’re just doing their job, trying to make a living. In a way, it’s part of the whole tourist scene. If it gets you down too badly, you might want to consider not going.

However, one thing you should definitely be wary of is attempts to sell you what the trader claims is an ancient artifact.

The truth is that a whole backstreet industry churns this stuff out around the clock — and they’re experts at the con, whereas you’re probably not!

Still, if it looks good and the price is right, maybe these things make suitable mementos of your visit.

On the other hand, if, by any chance, the item is a genuine relic of ancient times, buying it could break the law.

Many countries, like Egypt and Israel, forbid the sale of certain artifacts, and airport searches (sometimes by less than honest officials) are common.

Action: It’s best to check the laws online for the countries you’re visiting before you go. If you’re not sure, check with the countries’ embassies. And if you’re still not sure, don’t buy.

The Mayan Dollar

We’ve mentioned currency confusion before but this is a new one on us.

In Mexico’s Riviera Maya earlier this year, Scambuster Keith was mightily impressed by the low prices offered by traders for souvenirs at the famous Chichen Itza heritage site.

“Only five dollars,” the trader would shout, thrusting a handmade bag or an ornate stone carving in front of him.

But once hooked, he discovered this price turns out to be “Mayan dollars,” a non-existent currency that someone apparently dreamt up and many traders now use.

This means the exchange rate can be whatever the trader wants it to be — US$10 seems to be the most popular, but US$5 is also used.

Of course, once you discover this, you can back out of the deal but if you already agreed to the purchase, this can be an uncomfortable experience.

Since Keith’s experience, use of the “Mayan dollar” ruse has been reported from other parts of this beautiful area. It does a great disservice to the Mayan people.

Action: Well, now that you know about this one, you won’t fall for it. But it does emphasize the point about knowing your exchange rates. If you struggle with this, carry a pocket calculator with you.

Also, it’s probably not a bad idea to ask what currency the sale price is in before agreeing to the purchase.

It Didn’t Look Like That in the Brochure

How many times have you arrived at a hotel or vacation rental disappointed that the place looks nothing like you imagined, and not even like any photos you saw of it when you booked at the travel agency or online?

These are hard times and the travel trade is tough right now, and in the scramble for business, some owners, especially in Mediterranean Europe, exaggerate the amenities and benefits of their properties.

You may have to stand on tiptoe on the roof to get that “ocean view.” Or they may just forget to mention you’ll be miles out of town, with no transport.

Action: Reduce the risk of being fooled by checking independent reviews and photographs of the place. TripAdvisor.com is a good starting point.

That Volcano!

Scambusters’ home page already sounded an alert about bogus cash pleas from people claiming to be stranded as a result of the Iceland volcano eruption.

Now, travelers who have been genuinely stranded are targets.

A bogus email, supposedly from the Chief Consumer Protector of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), claims the organization has set up a fund to compensate them.

All you have to do is send your name, address, phone number and a copy of your passport. Then he sends you a check, which you bank immediately, and pay the phony CAA an administration fee, by wire transfer, of course.

Action: Need we say more? This is a very thinly-veiled attempt at both ID theft and an advance payment scam. These crooks show no mercy.

By staying informed and being alert, you can avoid all of these travel scams. Also, be sure to check out our earlier list of tips on the subject: Travel Scams: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Taken.

It’s important to point out that the vast majority of locals in popular tourist countries are decent, honest people — even when they live in extreme poverty.

In some ways, because of their bad compatriots, they too are the victims of a travel scam, if it deters vacationers from visiting.

Time to close — we’re off to take a walk. See you next week.