6 Real Travel Scams: How to Identify and Prevent Them

Author: Evan Garfield 

For many people, international travel presents an opportunity for new experiences, insights, and adventures. However, it can also present an opportunity for criminals and swindlers to prey on those they perceive as easy targets and take advantage of travelers’ unfamiliarity with the local area.

Here at On Call International, one of our top priorities is ensuring our travelers are prepared for anything that could come their way—keep reading to learn what On Call Global Security Specialist Evan Garfield has to say about 6 common travel scams, as well as some advice and reminders to help your travelers avoid becoming victims.

1. Dropped Wallet Scam

How it works:
In this scam, a criminal accuses the victim of stealing cash and then bullies them into paying to avoid further conflict. The typical scenario involves a suspect who drops a wallet in front of a potential victim, hoping the potential victim will pick it up. The suspect then states money is missing and accuses the victim of stealing, threatening to call the police in an attempt to panic the victim. Often, an accomplice interjects by falsely introducing himself as a police officer. The police impersonator will ask the victim to hand over his or her wallet to ensure they did not take the money. The victim subsequently complies, never to see their wallet again.

How to prevent it: The best defense against this scam is to not pick up any lone wallets or items in public. Travelers should walk away and not engage the perpetrators in conversation. Travelers should keep in mind that real police may ask for a personal ID but will not ask travelers to pay a fine on the spot, unless the police officer(s) are corrupt. If the officer issues a fine, travelers should tell the scammer they plan to go to the police station to deal with the matter.

2. ATM Scam

How it works: In this scam, (otherwise known as the “money bomb” scam), well-dressed criminals strategically monitor and stand near frequently-used ATMs. After a potential victim has finished a withdrawal, the perpetrator will drop a roll of paper on the floor, coated in genuine bank notes, which gives the illusion that a fairly large sum of cash has just been left unattended in the street. Once an unsuspecting victim nears this roll, the perpetrator will ask them if they want to split the money. If the victims agrees, the money bomber will then take the victim to a more secluded area, only to mug and take the money the victim initially withdrew from the ATM.

How to prevent it: Travelers should decline any offers of this sort and be wary of individuals offering any kind of “help” at ATMs, even if they are well dressed.

3. SIM Card Scam

How it works: In many countries, travelers may encounter vendors or small stalls outside the airport attempting to sell prepaid SIM cards to tourists, requiring no registration or documentation. Vendors may promise you unlimited 4G data and local phone calls for 10 to 30 days. On the surface, this may seem a quick and convenient option. However, travelers should be mindful if a seller doesn’t request the necessary paperwork, as they could be buying a used SIM card or unverified SIM card that doesn’t work. In many cases, these SIM cards may work for a short time, but not for the duration or at the speed promised.

How to prevent it: If travelers plan to buy SIM cards while in another country, they should do their research on the necessary paperwork required through a credible mobile phone provider. In some countries, the provider may request a copy of the traveler’s passport and a 2×2 photograph for a legitimate SIM card. It is usually safer for travelers to buy SIM cards through a credible mobile phone provider rather than through a third-party.

4. Bar Scam

How it works: In this scenario, a “friendly” local strikes up a conversation and offers to buy a traveler drinks. As the night continues, the local eventually disappears, leaving the victim with an unpleasant surprise – a huge, overpriced bar tab or even a stolen wallet.

How to prevent it: Travelers should always keep an eye on their valuables and drinks and keep a track of how much they are drinking. It’s important for travelers to only pay for what they consume and avoid opening up a bar tab.

5. “Gunk” Scam

How it works: This scam is used by criminals to divert a victim’s attention away from their valuables. In this scenario, the perpetrator squirts or spills anything such as food, sauce, or a beverage on the victim’s back. An accomplice, posing as an innocent bystander, brings this to the attention of the victim, insisting that they help clean the victim’s jacket or coat.

The goal of this scam is to get victims to take off their jacket, backpack, purse, and/or camera. While “helping” clean the victim’s jacket or coat, the perpetrators will also clean the victim’s pockets.

How to prevent it: A good rule of thumb for travelers is not to take off any items or valuables if someone tells them they have something on their backs. Instead, travelers should keep walking, ignore any “Good Samaritans,” and only remove their items when in a safe location.

6. Friendship Bracelet

How it works: Another popular trick, particularly common in crowded tourist areas, is for a stranger to take a victim’s arm and put a string around their wrist. Even when the traveler politely declines, the scammer will typically not free the victim’s wrist and will continue until the bracelet is complete. After, they will demand the traveler pay whatever they feel the bracelet is worth. It’s unlikely these vendors will become violent, but travelers may want to offer the scammers a small sum and insist they take the bracelet back.

How to prevent it: To avoid getting caught in this situation, travelers should walk with their hands in their pockets and be aware of their surroundings.

Personal Safety Reminders to Share With Your Travelers:

  • While you may feel the urge to be a Good Samaritan, avoid picking up any seemingly abandoned items of value in public.
  • Use an ATM in a safe location, preferably inside a bank or hotel, and avoid counting the cash before walking away. Be wary of strangers offering help at ATMs, even if they appear well-dressed.
  • Invest in a money belt or wallet to store your credit cards and cash.
  • Know where your valuables are at all times.
  • Keep bags between your feet when sitting, or loop bags through a chair leg.
  • If a stranger “accidently” spills something on you in public, avoid taking off your backpack, jacket, or other items of value until you are in a safe location.
  • Store your wallet in your front pocket, and wrap a few rubber bands around it so it’s more difficult to remove.
  • Women should use cross-body bags and keep a firm grip on their bags at all times.
  • Make sure zippers and buttons are secure on bags and backpacks.
  • Always keep your passport stored in a safe at your hotel.

Want more information on travel safety and holistic risk management? Contact us today.

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