Scams in Asia that target travelers are a constant nuisance. From the moment you step outside of the airport, someone will be trying to find out if you know enough about local ripoffs to avoid them. Newly arrived travelers who may not know the well-worn cons make the juiciest targets.
Although sometimes you can sense a scam right away, many begin more subtly. Even the most seasoned traveler still falls victim every now and then. The best way to avoid getting ripped off is to know about popular scams in Asia before you go!
Watch Out for the Drivers
No matter the country or mode of transportation, the drivers in Asia are pros at finding ways to boost the money made on a fare.
Never get into a taxi or tuk-tuk without first agreeing on a fare or confirming the meter works and will be used. If you forget, the driver can ask for any price he wants once you arrive!
Even in places where taxi drivers agree to use the meter (many won't for tourists), you may be taken on a circuitous joyride to increase the fare. Some meters have even been modified electronically to run faster.
Tip: Many tourist destinations in Asia have a local "taxi mafia." Fares will always be higher from these drivers who remain parked outside of tourist places all day. Walk out on the street and hail your own passing cab for a better chance of finding an honest driver.
Be Vigilant Near Borders and Transportation Hubs
Seasoned scammers often set up shop close to border crossings, bus and train stations, and anywhere else where fresh travelers arrive with a pocket full of cash. Be wary of any stranger who approaches as you exit a bus or train station; these guys aren't just looking for friendly conversation and usually have a motive.
Some tourist buses such as those that cross between Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia may stop at an office just before the actual border crossing. They'll try to charge you to complete the same necessary arrival forms you could get for free at the actual border had you just waited.
Don't Stop at False Ticket Counters
Although it sounds too bizarre and audacious to be true, sometimes con artists set up false ticket windows and counters outside of attractions and bus terminals.
These false counters have official-looking signs and are typically the first ones you see as you approach somewhere. When you purchase a ticket, someone takes your cash to the real ticket window — often literally next door — and purchases your ticket while pocketing the difference as a "commission."
Tip: Walk past the first ticketing counters that you see to make sure there isn't a more official counter just a few feet away.
Don't Try to Get Rich in Asia
Who wouldn't want to come home after a long trip with a profit? Many classic scams in Asia are centered around the prospect of a traveler earning money somehow by buying for cheap, then selling for a profit at home.
India's infamous gemstone scam (also a thing in Thailand) is the perfect example. Don't think that you're the first to think about buying antiques, gemstones, collectibles, or anything else to sell once you return home. Unless you're an experienced professional with a good eye for spotting fakes, don't try it. There are also many other tourist scams in India to watch out for as well.
Don't Buy Fakes and Pirated Goods
Although there are some great shopping bargains to be found in Asia, many of the movies, CDs, perfumes, and even popular-brand clothes are fake, low-quality imitations. Even American-brand cigarettes get faked in China!
Street hawkers aren't the only place you'll find pirated imitations; even department stores and shops in big malls will stock faked goods.
Although many of the recreations are convincing, fakes rarely live up to their genuine counterparts. Don't trust the labels; they are mostly there for the seller, who knows they are clearly fake.
Beware of Bus Thefts
The overnight buses in Thailand between Khao San Road, Chiang Mai, and the islands are legendary for theft. The driver's assistant typically crawls into the bag storage as the bus is moving, then rummages around for valuables while passengers are sleeping.
The thefts are rarely obvious; the thieves only take one or two small items from each bag, and people never notice until long after the bus is gone. Targeted items include replacement razor blades, flashlights, pocketknives, chargers, sunscreen, and other pricey items you may not notice missing.
Tip: Lock your luggage before putting it onto a bus. Hide valuables in the very bottom. Anything that you really care about should be kept with you at your seat. Take your day bag or purse with you at restroom breaks.
Don't Upgrade to VIP Buses
Paying for a “VIP” bus upgrade in Asia typically means that you pay more and still get the same bus as everyone else. Don't let travel agents upsell you a slightly more expensive ticket with promises of more comfort.
Nearly every long-haul bus plying the roads in Southeast Asia is labeled as a VIP bus on the side. On some occasions, you will be told that the VIP bus has broken down, and you'll get put on the regular bus anyway — with no refund in the fare difference.
Be Careful When Exchanging Money
Exchanging money on the street, particularly near borders, is always a risky prospect. To be safe, only exchange money in banks, the airport, or at licensed exchange counters. Even then, count your money closely before walking away, and know the current exchange rate beforehand.
Consider carrying a small calculator or use your smartphone to do your own calculations. The calculators in some countries have been electronically modified to show the wrong amount!
Tip: Never accept worn out, torn, or damaged banknotes. These are often given to travelers, and you may not find anyone who will accept them later.
Skip Most of the Tourist Information Offices
Tourist information kiosks and offices in Asia are not always government sanctioned or really there to help you out.
Many of these information offices are simply middlemen travel agents looking to sell you attraction tickets, bookings, and accommodation while tacking on a commission.
Some tourist information offices are good for maps and free information, but you'll be able to tell if they are operating by a real tourism board or just trying to sell you something.
Always Ask the Price First
Same as when getting inside of a taxi, always ask the price before accepting something. Once you receive an item, a favor, etc, it's too late to refuse to pay. In many places in Asia, prices aren't listed; locals seem to inherently just know. But if you don't ask first, you most likely will not receive the local price.
Ask the price before that street hawker cooks your food or you consume something that was already on the table. Prices in shops can change on a whim; don't assume that because you've bought something in the past that today it will be the same price! Different proprietors at the same stall or shop may switch prices on you.
Tip: When staying somewhere for an extended time, try to return to the same shop or street cart. Once you become a familiar face, you're more likely to be quoted the actual price for something.
Beware When Renting Motorbikes
Many travelers choose to rent scooters and motorbikes for exploring the sights in a destination. Although rental prices (often US $10 or less) appear to be a bargain, you should stay vigilant. Never rent a person scooter from someone on the street; stick to established rental offices.
One of the most popular scams in Vietnam includes renting a scooter with a scratch or defect, then you'll be asked to pay for damages later. A more severe scenario involves someone following you from the rental shop, then actually stealing back the motorbike with a spare key. You'll be held responsible by the police for the full amount.
Tip: Only rent motorbikes from legitimate businesses; check the bike closely for scratches and problems before signing anything. Use your phone to photograph existing damage. You can even ask the agent to point or give a thumbs up next to existing scratches as you photograph them.
Avoid Interactions With Local Police
Unfortunately, police corruption is a real problem in many parts of Asia. Dishonest officers supplement their income by targeting tourists to pay on-the-spot fines.
In many places, locals may get away with something, however, tourists will be fined. Seeing locals no wearing helmets while driving scooters or smoking in no-smoking areas doesn't mean that you'll get away with doing so.
Unfortunately, you're best bet is to avoid all unnecessary interaction with local police.
Don't Believe Places Are Closed
Oldest of the scams in Asia, you'll be told that your hotel, a particular attraction, temple — wherever, is closed when really it isn't. Drivers and travel agents sometimes do this to talk you into another hotel (often owned by a family member) or distant attraction.