10 Scams to Avoid for Budget Travel

01 of 10

Counterfeit Money Scam

Photo illustration by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Travel scams at their purest level take money from your hands and leave you holding something of little or no value. Here's a scam that fits that definition perfectly.

This counterfeit money scam sometimes pops up in Beijing or other heavily visited areas in Asia, but it certainly isn't limited to that part of the world.

Here's how it works: a traveler enters a store and attempts to pay cash for some small purchases. Soon after leaving the store, they are chased down and accused of paying with counterfeit money. The money you supposedly used to pay for your purchase is returned to you--but it's really counterfeit money. You pay twice and are left holding phony currency. Telltale signs of counterfeit money.

02 of 10

Unsolicited Assistance

Ticket machines and ATMs can appear confusing at first, but don't take help from a stranger in this setting.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

The machine that dispenses train tickets is unfamiliar, but given just a moment or two, you'll figure it out. During that brief time, you might look a bit confused. Someone comes up to offer assistance.

Be careful!

ATMs in another country can be confusing. If you have trouble, go inside the bank and ask for assistance.

Scam artists stake out ticket machines and ATMs all over the world and appear to give you the benefit of their local experience. But what they're really after is your code, which they will use to clean out your account. Perhaps they want to see where you keep your money, so they can pickpocket you at some point after the transaction is completed. Or maybe they'll practice sleight-of-hand and exchange your first-class tickets for something less than what you purchased.

The best policy is to politely refuse such help. If the offers persist, simply walk away and transact your business elsewhere. Read more about ATM thieves.

03 of 10

The Helpful Cleaner

Tourists enjoy a market in Greece.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

A pleasant scene, isn't it? People are comfortable and even taking family pictures in this heavily visited area. Imagine how this scene could change. Suppose you suddenly found a messy substance all over your clothing.

Many street scams involve diverting your attention for just a few seconds, and the messy clean-up is just such a ploy. A substance is squirted on you--perhaps mustard or something formulated to look like bird droppings. A "helpful" bystander takes pity on you and helps clean the mess from your clothing. This is an opportunity to either pick pockets or for an accomplice to grab anything you might put on the ground in the process of cleaning up. Travel veteran Wendy Perrin avoided such a rip off in Buenos Aires. Again, these street scams occur almost anywhere there is a crowd. Read more about the helpful cleaner.

04 of 10

The Key Toss

Pleasant outdoor cafes can become prime spots for scam artists to ply their trade.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Can you imagine harm coming from an action as simple as throwing down a set of keys on a table at a sidewalk cafe?

This report comes from About.com's Guide to United Kingdom travel, who was in Barcelona at the time of this incident. But she points out that this could -- and will -- happen anywhere people enjoy sidewalk cafe dining. A well-dressed man or woman tosses a batch of keys on their table hard enough that they slide off the table but in your direction. The key tosser then pretends to look for where they landed, counting on you to reach down and retrieve them. In the same instant, an accomplice is ready to prey on this distraction by scooping up your purse or camera bag. Read how Ferne Arfin avoided becoming a victim of the key toss.

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05 of 10

Imitating Legitimate Police

Al Bello/Getty Images

Come rain, sleet, snow or perfect weather, police are trusted partners with travelers. They protect us. Unfortunately, crooks and scam artists around the world play on this natural trust by impersonating legitimate police officers.

It is best to cooperate with police, and most of us know it can be dangerous not to do so. In tourist areas, crooks sometimes pretend to be police who need to inspect your wallet for counterfeit cash or in rare cases, spirit you away to a fake station where they steal everything you have on you. Sometimes, making a loud scene will drive these crooks away, fearful the real police will arrive. Read more about fake police.

06 of 10

Playing on Your Natural Instincts

Triple-digit heat in Vienna leads to some hot feet.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Want to meet some new friends? Try the nearest cool water when it's 97 degrees in Vienna. You'll find other people who have been walking all day on hot pavement and ready for a break.

It is natural and appropriate for travelers to strike up conversations with friendly local residents. These are some of the best travel experiences. But be a bit suspicious of someone who seems overly friendly from the start and fairly aggressive with invitations to join them at a certain store, restaurant or bar. Sometimes, these are touts who are leading you into a high-pressure sales pitch or inviting you to an overpriced establishment. Trust your instincts and step away from anyone who seems a little too friendly at first meeting. Read more about avoiding travel rip-offs.

A less overt example: I entered a crowded bus in Berlin, and found a "helpful" sign someone had posted in English warning me to beware of pickpockets. If I had been carrying a wallet, I would have involuntarily reached for it to be certain it was still there. This instinctive action also would have tipped off a nearby pickpocket to the location of my valuables. Invest in a money belt and take some other simple precautions to avoid becoming a pickpocket victim. Read more about avoiding pickpockets.

07 of 10

The Hotel Calamity

Feng Li/Getty Images

Travel scams come in many forms. Some are designed to prey upon a tired traveler with limited local knowledge.

The picture above shows an actual hotel fire in Beijing. Fortunately, such fires are fairly rare in the world of travel. But not if you listen to touts and dishonest cab drivers.

About.com's Guide to India reports a common scam that is sprung on people who have just finished a tiring airplane trip. They get in a taxi for passage to the hotel where they have reservations. The driver offers up a number of excuses for bypassing that hotel and taking them to another place (where he receives a kickback). Among the most common of these excuses -- you guessed it -- "the hotel burned down just yesterday."

Fire isn't the only excuse. Some prefer to keep it simple: "I can't find that hotel." A variation of this occurs with touts who approach ferries or trains and offer rooms to travelers who already have reservations. Read more about The Hotel Calamity.

08 of 10


Sunset on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

In many parts of the world, it's common to dress in layers of clothing, even when the sun is beating down. This tip in no way is meant to encourage treating people with suspicion simply because they cover themselves in layers for religious reasons or because it is their custom.

But if it is warm and you see someone bundled up while all others around are trying to stay cool, there might be cause for at least some caution.

There have been reports of scam artists who will thrust a "baby" up in the air, knowing you will catch it and drop your valuables at the same time. Far more common is the simple wrapping of a doll (or perhaps a real baby) in excessive cloth, which serves to hide roaming fingers intent on pickpocketing you. If someone is overly bundled on a hot day, do yourself a favor and step away from them as a precaution. Read more about Over-Swaddled Babies.

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09 of 10

Youth Gangs

Walking the streets of York, United Kingdom
(c)Mark D. Kahler

One moment, you're walking down a pleasant but unfamiliar street. The next moment, out of nowhere, you are surrounded by a group of children. You could say this group is a street gang, but at first glance, they look harmless.

These are not youth gangs in the way many Americans would imagine--they are groups of fairly young children who are not armed with anything but treachery. They surround an unsuspecting traveler, make lots of noise and even use newspapers or posters to add to the confusion. As this unfolds, one of the more skillful youngsters is helping themselves to your valuables. This one is easy to see coming and avoid--if you know about it in advance. Read more about youthful street gangs.

10 of 10

Do Some Additional Reading

Courtesy U.S. Department of State

There are a number of ways to read up on scams. One is to search listings at trusted sources such as the U.S. Department of State's website. Here, you'll read about confirmed scam cases and other potential problems travelers could face. Some of these are organized geographically.

Peter John has written a thoughtful book on this subject entitled Around the World in 80 Scams: an Essential Guide (Bennion Kearny, 2011). As the title implies, he literally walks readers through a list of 80 common scams designed to separate traveler from cash. He voices a concern all of us have when writing about this subject, urging travelers not to become obsessed with the thought that someone around the next corner is intent on taking advantage of you: "Above all, though, I do not let worrying about being scammed ruin my trip, any more than I let the possibility of being run over stop me crossing the road."

It's also a good idea to do a search for the word scam and the country or destination city you intend to visit. You won't find every scam described here in every place, but some are more common than others in certain cities.

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