5 common scams, rip-offs and robbery tactics targeted at travelers

You found a cheap flight and you're on your way to vacationland.  Now let’s make sure you hang on to those savings.

You see, it doesn’t matter if you vacation at a beach near your home or an ocean away; there are scammers all over who would dearly love to separate you from your wallet.

But avoiding rip-offs starts with recognizing them.

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First of all, every traveler should be especially alert when entering popular tourist areas both domestic ad abroad. Check the U.S. State Department’s website for a country-by-country rundown of safety and security information while planning, but always be wary of the following, all-too-common scams.

1. Distraction thieves

Thieves distract you, then make the most of it. Here are a couple of sad scenarios experienced by acquaintances of mine while traveling in Europe.

  • The chattering crowd of kids: You’re surrounded by a noisy and determined bunch of children who implore you to buy handicrafts (or sign a petition, or the like); while you’re busy saying "No thanks," they’re busy lifting your wallet.
  • The storyteller: A friendly young man begins weaving a string bracelet around the wrist of a woman in your party while entertaining everyone with amusing stories. This draws a crowd, and while everyone is laughing, the story-teller's accomplices empty pockets and purses.
Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche monk with prayer wheel and Blessing

Unscrupulous vendors may try to hold travelers' attention with a story, or by tying a bracelet to one of their wrists, while accomplices pick the pockets of distracted onlookers.  (iStock)

2. Disappearing phones

It’s summer, so it’s a pleasure to sit outside and watch the world go by whether you’re in Paris or Portland, but don’t let your phone sit on the table unattended. Thieves have been known to glide past café tables, grab your electronics and disappear before you know they’re gone.

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3. The photographer

Has someone ever come up to you and volunteered to take your picture? It might simply be a nice person who wants to help; or it could be someone who will take your camera/phone and make a run for it. Be wary of such volunteers; your odds are much better if you're the one asking for help taking a photo, if you need it.

Young positive famly take a vacation photo on the Side ampitheatre view

Or, if worse comes to worst, you can stick to selfies.  (iStock)

4. ATM assistants

Keep an eye out for ATM machines that appear to be tampered with. Also be wary of folks lurking nearby when you’re getting cash out — basically anyone who might be able to see you punch in a pin number, or badger you for change. When in doubt, go to another ATM, and use them only in daylight hours, if possible.

5. The 'please send money' scam

This is sometimes known as the grandparent scam, and the U.S. State Department says it usually works like this: Someone claiming to be a grandchild or a family member in trouble claims they need money, sometimes to get out of a jam, or sometimes to come visit. The scammer then asks that the victim keep the whole thing a secret.

Believe it or not, people fall for this scam. If you’re contacted, don’t send money to anyone you don’t know. And if this person claims to be a grandchild of yours, disregard the part about keeping it a secret and check with the child's parents immediately.

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In general, follow these simple ways to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Don’t flash cash.
  • Leave valuables at home.
  • Don’t put wallets in back pockets or allow purses to dangle from the backs of chairs.
  •  If someone tries to distract you, or bumps into you, or seems unusually chatty – hold your purse close, keep your hands in your pockets, and do not engage.
purse thief istock

Keep your purse close, lest this happen on your next vacation.  (iStock)

Above all, be aware of your surroundings and use your common sense, and you’ll do just fine.

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site