Tourist Scams I’ve Fallen For (And How to Avoid Them)

I think one of the biggest challenges for any traveler is finding that balance between being cautious and being too closed off. Scams targeting tourists are a sad reality of traveling in pretty much any country, which is why I think it’s important to be aware of the most common scams that take place in whichever country you’re traveling to. It’s the best way to remain open to the people and the culture, while still having the knowledge to recognize a suspicious situation when you see one. Here are a few scams to watch out for that I’ve experienced personally.

The “It’s Closed” Scam

This scam happens in cities all over Asia. You hop into a taxi and tell the driver you’re going to a particular restaurant, attraction or hotel, and the driver tells you that, unfortunately, it’s closed. But, lucky for you, he knows an even better place that he can take you to! As you might immediately realize, these drivers have an arrangement with the hotel or restaurant they recommend in which they receive some kind of commission in exchange for dropping off confused, naïve tourists. These establishments aren’t necessarily terrible places, but they’re definitely not the place you originally wanted to go to, which is, most certainly, not closed at all.

I was vaguely already aware of this scam, but Brent and I still fell victim to it in Manila. We arrived late – it was dark and we were tired. It wasn’t one of my finer moments of preparation, since I basically only had the name of a hostel some friends recommended and no idea which area of this enormous city it was found in. Our friendly taxi driver told us that that hostel was closed, but he knew another one nearby. If you’ve ever encountered one of Asia’s fast-talking taxi drivers, you know how easy it is to find yourself agreeing to something even though you didn’t really mean to say “yes”, and that’s what happened. As soon as we pulled up at the guesthouse, I knew we’d be scammed. It was run-down, overpriced, and the driver even brought us right inside to the front desk, like a cat proudly dropping a dead bird at its owner’s feet.

There weren’t any other guesthouses visible nearby, we didn’t know the neighbourhood, and this part of Manila felt just scary enough at night that we didn’t want to go wandering around further than a few blocks. Thus we were stuck either paying too much for the dingy guesthouse in front of us, or paying a new driver to take us to the other hostel.

The Petition Scam

I’ve only known this scam to happen in Paris, particularly outside busy tourist attractions like Sacre-Coeur, which is exactly where Brent and I fell for it. We were doing our stupefied tourists thing, staring at Sacre-Coeur for the first time, when a girl approached us and handed us clipboard with a petition to help the blind and deaf. We quickly signed it, only half paying attention, wanting to appease her. Of course, it’s never a great idea to sign something without reading it, but we’ve all done it at some point, right? The girl then insisted that we also needed to make a minimum donation of 50 Euros each in order to validate our signatures. I think a lot of people would have made the donation to avoid the extreme awkwardness of the whole situation, but our desire not to part with a collective 100 Euros was far greater than our desire to avoid the discomfort that ensued as we shoved the clipboard in her face and rushed away while she chastised us. I later read that this petition scam is also sometimes used as a distraction technique, which keeps you occupied while an accomplice picks your pockets. Fortunately, however, this was not the case for us, and they were simply trying to take advantage of people who didn’t read the fine print.

The One-Stop Tuk-Tuk Scam

This has to be one of my weirdest scam experiences because I partially knew that it was a scam. I’d read online that sometimes tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok ask if they can make a stop at a friend’s suit shop on the way to a destination. From what I understood, the driver would get a commission for bringing tourists to the store, but in exchange, Brent and I would be able to negotiate a lower fare.

We weren’t in a rush when one driver made this offer, so we decided to go for it. He pulled up in front of the suit shop and told us to go inside and browse for 10 or 15 minutes. It seemed easy enough. But as soon as we stepped inside, the store employees pounced on us, shaking our hands tightly, and literally taking out a tape measure to start fitting Brent. We tried to tell them that we just wanted to look around, but they asked us increasingly aggressive questions about what exactly we were looking for until Brent flat out told them that we had no intention of buying a suit. The whole thing lasted for about 5 minutes and then they kicked us out of the store. We returned outside to our driver who exasperatedly told us that we needed to go back and stay in the store for longer. Needless to say that was our first and last attempt trying to work this system. Plus, I’ve since realized that it’s best to avoid tuk-tuks in general. If you’re a tourist taking a tuk- tuk in any major Thai city, you’re most definitely being charge 2-3X the normal rate, even if you haggled beforehand.

The Overly Kind Stranger

This scam is one of the hardest ones for me to protect myself against because it happens all over the world and comes in so many different forms; however, it always boils down to someone getting you to pay for something that you didn’t even realize you accepted.

Often I arrive at a bus station, and someone will immediately try to grab my bags and start carrying them over to the taxi queue. I really don’t like being separated from my bags and I don’t need help carrying them 10 feet from the station exit to the side of the road, yet the person always expects a tip for their assistance (and not a small one) at the end. Or sometimes someone will hand me a flower as I walk down the street or wrap a handmade bracelet around my wrist as I pass by their stall. It’s never a gift and they always expect full payment for the item.

So now I generally shoo away strangers who approach me offering to help or give me something for no reason. It’s unfortunate because it’s quite possible I occasionally reject people who really are trying to be kind. It also helps to read your environment. Someone pops out of the blue and offers to help you in rural Japan? It’s probably innocent. But if someone makes the same offer in the middle of major tourist area, it likely has some strings attached.

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67 thoughts on “Tourist Scams I’ve Fallen For (And How to Avoid Them)”

  1. Thank you for this article! Great tips!

    I’m visiting Taiwan right now from the U.S. and have been met with so many friendly people. The culture seems so nice. When I went to the Shilin Night Market, I saw a clothing stall with pet clothes and was so excited to check it out. I looked around and found one I liked, but it was too small for my dog so I asked for a larger one. The lady helping me knew I was not from around there. My Chinese was terrible and I didn’t know the weight of my dog in kg, only lbs. After finally communicating the size I needed and while she was getting it, I saw another outfit I liked more. When she came back she told me that one is more expensive, 390 NT. The sign showed the price of one is 290 NT and 2 for 500 NT. Because everyone has been so nice I just trusted her and didn’t even really question it. In hindsight I think I got scammed. The price was for the entire wall of dog clothing, why would certain ones be a different price? 🙁 I should have been less trusting and remembered when I tried bargaining in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Instead of the price going down, it went up! I’m a bit bummed I wasn’t more careful and wasn’t thinking more about it in the moment. I should have walked away. I was too caught up in my excitement that I finally found a dog clothing stall!

  2. The comments about the trike/ tuk tuk drivers made me want to understand the truth about what we should consider as a fair trike fare in a foreign country. With this in mind, I spent some time finding out what the real story was with trike drivers in the Philippines… You will find the truth very interesting!

    My first port of call was to check out the circumstances of the average trike driver. Most of them live in housing/shelter constructed out of Bamboo, sometimes without running water. If they are lucky they might live in a dwelling constructed of bricks or concrete. When I say concrete dwelling, this would be of a far different standard than we would be used to; and would often be basic. In some parts of the Philippines the drivers are paid only PHP 6 per journey. That’s equivalent to about USD 0.1 per journey. In most places there is competition between trike drivers so they might only get 20 journeys per day. So that equates to maybe P120 or USD 2 per day; maybe PHP 200 on a good day; in other words most days they would probably earn less that USD 5.

    They have to provide food and clothing for their families. Should there be a technical issue with the vehicle, they need to pay for maintenance or repairs. If one of their family members needs medical attention, then unless they have another source of income, they would be lucky to afford even the most basic medical care. For more serious ailments they would have zero chance of affording medical care. So they really are poor.

    We are lucky enough to be paid a fair wage, have affordable healthcare (or in some cases free healthcare), good education and access to nutritious food. We would not bat an eyelid at tipping a waiter in a restaurant in our own country USD 5.

    A short journey in our own country would easily cost USD 5, or more, for a journey of equivalent length.

    If paying a little extra than the locals for a trike journey means that this guy is going to get the chance to feed, educate or pay for medical care of a sick relative. Then this is OK by me. I consider it a fair-trade trike fare; in other words a fare based on our ability to pay. You will also feel wonderful knowing that you have done your bit to help a family have a better standard of living.

    Try it, give them a day’s wage P120 or 200 (USD 1 or 2) for each journey. It’s still far cheaper than an equivalent journey in our own country and makes a huge difference to the recipient and his family. A little from us makes a big difference to someone in need.

    Have a wonderful holiday!

  3. Hello there!
    I’m glad you posted this article. I’m planning to travel to China soon and reading this made me more aware that scamming does indeed also happen in other places. I am aware that our place has a lot of scammers, too. You’re right about those taxi drivers in Manila. They do get commissions for that.
    However, there are still a few people who’ll just simply drive you to your hotel.

  4. Thanks for the tips Jessica. I don’t like the overly kind scammer too. They just pretend to help you but they charge you for the service which you are not aware of. Glad you pointed that out. Love your work! Thanks 🙂

  5. Tip: whenever I’m walking through a vendor area and people slap bracelets on my wrists, I just pretend I’m just dumb and give a thumbs up and walk away. I’ll often get stopped and then argue that the person gave me a gift then was mean to take it back, loudly, like a child.
    Almost every time, the vendors yell to each other to avoid you. And then the rest of my shopping experience is peaceful.

  6. We saw guys in Paris pull the bracelet scam on girls.

    For us, we got pulled into a visa scam at the Thai/Cambodian border, but managed to get away.

    Been ripped off/charged exorbitant prices on a couple of occasions through Asia but thankfully nothing serious. I never felt scared or unsafe in our 6month RTW trip, but that said was travelling with my hulk of a husband, heh.

  7. Its amazing how many scams are out there. I wrote a similar article to this about scams I’d experienced and heard, and there all different.

    My favorite for sheer audacity is The Scooter Salesman. A guy on a moped will pull up next to you and offer to sell you something. Usually they will just take your money and ride off without giving you the product. Never buy anything from someone sitting on a getaway vehicle.

  8. I have also encountered the same experience in Thailand, its just that its not a “tuk-tuk” its a taxi. Good thing I did not fall for the taxi driver’s motive. As foreigners to countries that we are visiting, its hard for us to say no to locals offering us assistance. However, we should take tripple precautionary measures when deciding on certain things. Its really best to ride the train or the common bus.

    I have also encountered a similar scam in Manila wherein I asked a cab from point A to point B. It took us almost an hour to arrive in point B. The next day I strolled around the area. It took me 30mins from point B to point A.

    It really pays to know your destination well. Be safe fellow travellers.

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