Like any big capital city, there are a few scams in Kuala Lumpur that target travelers. Most are harmless nuisances meant to relieve you of that colorful Malaysian ringgit you’re carrying before you get a chance to enjoy all the things to do in Kuala Lumpur.
But some of the more nefarious scams could compromise your identity. Having your ATM card deactivated on the trip will be a major inconvenience. Fortunately, a little vigilance really reduces your chance of having to deal with the hassle.
All scams rely on one thing to be successful: a lack of knowledge and preparedness on the part of the target. Knowing about these popular scams in Kuala Lumpur is the first step to avoiding them!
What to Do if You Become a Victim
Learn from the experience, then warn others. Any money lost is probably unrecoverable, but you can report the activity to the tourist police by calling 03 2149 6590. Add +60 and drop the leading “0” if dialing from an international number.
If you or someone is in physical danger, dial “999” — the emergency services number in Malaysia.
Taxi Drivers Charging Higher Rates
All official taxis in Kuala Lumpur have a sign on the door that reads “This is a metered taxi. Haggling is prohibited.” Perhaps the sign should be posted where the driver can see it better! The first thing most do is to quote a fixed fare that is inevitably higher than it should be.
You can refuse the price and demand that a driver use the meter—many passengers do. This practice has made Kuala Lumpur the get-driven-the-long-way capital of Asia. Maybe it’s a revenge tactic, but the metered fare often ends up higher than the quoted price once you’ve been driven in enough circles!
Never underestimate the crafty audacity of a driver in Kuala Lumpur. If they see that you’re following the journey on Google Maps, they’ll keep you chatting and distracted, or ask to see photos of your family, which are most often on your phone.
All roads (and rails) lead to KL Sentral near Little India in Kuala Lumpur. If you’re staying in Chinatown or Bukit Bintang, you can reach both via the KL monorail for $1 or less. The train system in Kuala Lumpur is extensive—take advantage!
Another option for avoiding taxi scams is to install Malaysia’s rideshare app, Grab. Unlike Uber, you can pay the driver directly with cash.
Directing You to the Wrong Type of Taxi
Size matters when taxis in Kuala Lumpur are concerned. “Budget” taxis, the ubiquitous red sedans seen driving around Kuala Lumpur, are the default. But if a minivan, mini-SUV, wagon, or larger vehicle answers your call, it’s probably an “executive” or “family” taxi. Executive taxis demand nearly double the usual meter rate for budget taxis.
Not asking about the taxi class is a problem when arriving in KLIA, KLIA2, or at KL Sentral railway station. Unless you specify at the counter or kiosk that a “standard” or “budget” taxi will suffice, you may be sold a coupon for the more expensive “executive” taxi, also known as a “premier” taxi.
Overcharging Tourists in Local Eateries
Nasi kandar / nasi campur restaurants are on every corner in Kuala Lumpur—take advantage! These fun, sometimes-frenetic eateries are the best way to sample delicious local favorites for cheap.
Customers are given a plate of rice and then are charged for what they take from the already prepared meats and vegetables displayed buffet style. Prices are rarely, if ever, labeled. Locals know approximately how much adding a piece of tempeh or chicken costs; tourists do not. And asking the price of everything you take is a sure way to get on the bad side of whoever is serving you.
Although a majority of the nasi kandar restaurants only round up slightly for uninitiated patrons, a few in tourist areas really fleece tourists based on appearance. Prices are made up on the spot. The nasi campur food counter in front of the Restoran Chinatown Food Centre in Chinatown is one such place.
Fortunately, eating at these buffet-style restaurants, even after the “tourist tax” is applied, is still an inexpensive cultural experience. Arrive earlier for the freshest food; many dishes are only prepared once per day then kept warm or served at room temperature.
Children Selling Flowers and Begging
In Kuala Lumpur, particularly while eating or drinking at tables outside, you’ll be approached by children selling flowers. Jalan Alor, the famous food street around the corner from Bukit Bintang, is worked nightly by begging groups.
Although the kids look needy, they are often part of organized begging rings forced to turn over the money to bosses. Giving money or buying flowers supports this criminal practice. Once children are too old to beg, they’ll either be turned loose or trained as pickpockets.
Card-skimming devices installed on ATMs are a problem around the world. Tourists who are unfamiliar with the look of ATMs in Kuala Lumpur are susceptible to having their card information stolen.
Card skimmers are installed over the actual card slot on ATMs and record your card’s magnetic data as it passes through. Sophisticated skimmers even employ tiny cameras or membranes over the keypad to record your PIN.
Avoid having your card compromised while abroad by only using ATMs in well-lit areas, preferably with guards or a 24-hour human presence. The machines inside bank branches, the airport, or busy transportation hubs are most ideal. Avoid street ATMs in dark kiosks where someone could install additional hardware without being seen.
Selling Fake Electronics
Malaysia is one of the top hubs in the world for manufacturing semiconductors, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find bargain prices for electronic devices.
That ridiculously low price you see in a mall for the latest iPhone unfortunately is too good to be true. The phone is a well-made fake, as are the laptops and tablets that are $100 cheaper than you can get at home. The size and quality of a mall storefront are not reliable indicators of whether or not devices sold are fake.
If you plan to purchase expensive electronics, stick to the specific stores (e.g., buy that Samsung phone directly from the Samsung store) rather than third parties. Even a big shop in an upscale mall could be selling fakes.
Tip: Know how international warranty claims are handled before you commit to a purchase abroad. You may not be able to get support or service for a device not bought in your home country.
Cheating You at the Checkout Counter
Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown in Penang have a running trend of minimart cashiers finding ways to distract and then overcharge travelers. The problem isn’t just at small, independent shops; the workers at well-known chains pull the same scam, particularly at night.
When checking out, don’t allow yourself to become distracted. Clerks may begin a friendly conversation, asking you many questions throughout the transaction. The scam then unfolds in one of several ways as they never miss a beat.
They close the register drawer, insinuating that you’ve already received your change and put it absentmindedly in your wallet. Or Rather than scan what you put on the counter, they scan another barcode behind the register that costs a little more than whatever you are buying. And sometimes they accept your payment, don't open the register, distract you, and then pretend no payment was received. Pros are convincing enough to have you paying a second time!
Foreign travelers rarely speak up about the small difference in price but discover the discrepancies on the receipt later.
Sketchy SIM Card Purchases
Another bait-and-switch scam, the employees in cell phone kiosks and shops will ask how much pre-paid credit you would like added to your newly purchased Malaysian SIM card. Sometimes top-up credit comes in the form of scratch-off cards or receipts with a code on each that needs to be typed into the phone.
Employees sometimes charge for 1 GB of data service but actually only set your phone up for 500 MB of credit. You can guess who keeps and uses the additional data credit!
Rogue Wifi Hotspots
More and more rogue Wifi hotspots are popping up around Kuala Lumpur. In public places, knowing which Wifi networks are safe and which are not is becoming more difficult. The rogue access points are turned on laptops or other devices by people to capture your login credentials with man-in-the-middle attacks.
Just because you are in the airport, an SSID such as “Free Airport WiFi” may not be the real deal. These hotspots sniff traffic as well as provide fake DNS information to redirect clients to fake versions of real sites. Once you log into the simulated Facebook or Gmail page, your password is harvested to sell later, and you get redirected to the real site without realizing what happened.
Only use Wifi signals that can be trusted. If something feels “off” (e.g., a site’s login page looks funny, but you log in and then inexplicably have to log in again a second time) change your password on a secure connection immediately.
Tip: To better spot fake hotspots, remember that SSIDs are case sensitive. So “Starbucks” is not the same as “StarBucks” or “starbucks.”
Monkeys Around the Batu Caves
The macaque monkeys around the Batu Caves just outside of town are well-practiced tricksters.
Daily, the cheeky residents of the area snatch sunglasses, water bottles, and anything else within reach on the many tourists who climb the stairs to see the caves. They wouldn’t think twice about grabbing that expensive iPhone from your hands as you lean against the railing for a selfie.
To stay safe around monkeys, finish any snacks or drinks at ground level before starting the climb up the stairs. Don’t carry food in your daybag—they can even detect an unopened bag of nuts! If a monkey grabs anything on your person, you’ll unfortunately need to let it go to avoid a potential bite. Don’t play tug of war with a determined macaque—you may have to go get a series of rabies shots if it nips you.
Sometimes monkeys will grow bored with something they grabbed and drop it. Don’t chase them, or they may climb high out of reach with your bag. Wait, watch where your item is taken, then seek help from someone who works around the caves.
Don’t encourage bad behavior by feeding or interacting with the monkeys!