Top 10 Worst Travel Scams

There are many honest taxi drivers left in this world.

This story is not about them.

Every traveler, it would seem, has a tale about a cabbie who has gotten “lost” or “misunderstood” directions or “forgot” to put on the meter, forcing the rider to negotiate a fare that ends up being higher than it ought to be. Perhaps you know all these tricks, but even the oldest of scams can have a twist.

“I've been caught out by a very elaborate version of the taxi scam twice,” says traveler Brian Ghidinelli,

“once in India where they used a hacked meter so the rate was about ten times what it should have been.” The second scam took place when Ghidinelli and his wife were cabbing it in San Jose, Costa Rica, “where not only was the meter rigged but [the driver] had a matching laminated - and very official looking - price grid that matched the metered price. It's hard to argue with that.” Consequently, a two-dollar cab ride ended up costing the Ghidinellis twenty bucks.

“The most important trick I've learned, says Ghidinelli, “is to get several taxi drivers and ask them all how much it's going to be and turn them against each other to get a lower, more realistic price.”

Some scams are more “behind the scenes,” says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet. One such ploy, he says, is when your driver says that “your hotel 'burned down in a fire' or a requested restaurant is 'closed' and leads you to his cronies, where he gets a big kick-back for delivering you.” The drivers of tuk tuks, the three-wheeled rickshaws in Bangkok, “are notorious for this,” Reid adds. “You ask to go to the Golden Temple, and suddenly you're on a whirlwind tour of lesser temples and souvenir shops you don't want to see and where the driver gets a commission even if you don't buy a thing.”

Consider these other scams, some new, some so old that they are in fact, new again.

The flat tire scam

Not all moving vehicle scams involve taxi drivers, suggests Robert Siciliano, head of “My wife was traveling in Spain and stopped at a red light,” he recounts. “Someone knocked on her passenger window and kept pointing towards [the car] and saying ‘tire flat, tire flat.’ She got out of the car to look and they opened up the passenger door and took her purse off the seat.”

The Trojan Horse scam

Tour guide Ann Lombardi of the Trip Chicks says she “recently watched a schemer in action in Frankfurt Germany train station” perform the classic hollow suitcase with rollers and frame trick, which Lombardi says works thusly: “A distracted tourist takes his eyes off his bag for a second. Behind the tourist lurks a guy with an enormous suitcase. In a flash, the thief lifts the enormous hollow luggage, puts it over the tourist's bag, and calmly wheels away with his prized catch.” Avoid such schemers by always protecting your luggage between your legs while in crowded transportation areas, she says.

The basksheesh scam

While in Egypt, longtime flight attendant Betty Thesky, author and podcast host of Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase, recalls that it was hard to look away when “a local man started yelling ‘Madam madam madam!’ and, when he had my attention, he pointed at a sculpture. I have eyes; I could see the sculpture, but because he pointed to it, he now considered himself my personal tour guide, and he wanted money. He followed me around saying, ‘Baksheesh, baksheesh, baksheesh!’ which means tip. The goal seemed to be to irritate me enough so that I would give him money just to make him stop,” Thesky says, which she did not do, though baksheesh man continued harassing her.

The spill scam

That ‘bird poop’ on your shoulder might very well be tube mustard that’s been squirted there by a scammer, says Lombardi, after which the scammer or an accomplice offers to “help wipe the offending matter off your clothing. Then swoosh! There go your wallet, passport, and other valuables.” Invest in a money belt, Lombardi suggests.

The money-drop scam

Lonely Planet’s Reid observes that “Moscow toughs still try to play the mind-numbingly obvious, though apparently still successful, money-drop trick,” performed when “a guy rushes past a foreign visitor in the Red Square area and 'accidentally' drops a wad of hundred dollar bills. Another tough guy picks it up at your feet and offers to share it with you. If you do, the original guy will track you down and demand the full amount back.”

The skim scam

It’s not uncommon for a dishonest merchant to “add an extra zero or two when submitting his merchant's copy of your signed credit card receipt to the card provider,” yielding an inflated charge that you’ll have to contest when you get home, says Lombardi, who recommends “writing long, dark horizontal lines before and after the charge amount on the receipt you sign overseas.”

Private investigator Jeff Stein says to look out for skimming, which involves a small electronic “skimmer” used to swipe the magnetic strip on your credit card and steal its information. “A skimmer can hold hundreds if not thousands of card holder account numbers,” Stein says, and “it used to be common for waiters and waitresses to use them.” Once you leave the restaurant, Stein says, the scammer can “retrieve the information from the skimmer and start placing orders with your account number.”

The ATM receipt scam

How ATM users handle their receipts is a source of a perpetual scam, says John M. Wills, a former Chicago police officer and retired supervisory special agent for the FBI. Scammers “can spot out-of-towners [at ATMs] in a heartbeat,” Wills says, and “when they do see one, they will be on the lookout for how that ‘mark’ handles the receipt. If they leave it at the machine, or crumple it and put it in the nearby trash,” the scammers will retrieve the receipt to see how much you withdrew as well as your remaining balance. The rest, Wills says, is history. “The bad guys tail the man or woman until the opportune time presents itself to rob them of their money, force them to withdraw the balance of their account, or do both. It all works because people just aren't aware of their surroundings. It's easy money.”

The pour scam

Stein says he’s often hired by bar owners and hotel and casino chains to root out bartenders “who will ring you up for the premium liquor, however they will use the house brand and pour the premium liquors to a future customer and pocket the cash without ringing it up on the register,” Stein explains. “Or they’ll charge you for the premium, but pour you the house brand and pocket the difference.”

The sob story scam

Traveler Hali Chambers was sitting on a bench in the Seattle airport when a man approached her and asked for help.

“He launched into a story about how he had a fight with his girlfriend and she took off without him and he had no money to take the shuttle,” Chambers recalls. “He was waving a shuttle schedule at me. I extended my hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Hali. What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Sean.’ And then I said, ‘And your girlfriend’s name?’ He didn’t answer right away, but then said, ‘Jennifer.’ The man started in on her again with his story, at which point Chambers asked him if he was from around there. His response? “Are you going to give me the money or not?’” She didn’t.