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False friends: Avoiding scams overseas

By December 19, 2015 No Comments

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:  I am a Nigerian prince.  Unfortunately, because of x, y and z I can not access my grand wealth and need you to deposit THIS check and write me a personal check for the balance…

Shell game in Berlin


Internet dating, inheritance, work permits, overpayment, and money-laundering.  What do these all have in common?  They’re all advance fee systems requiring you to fork out cash beforehand only to find out you were duped after it’s too late.    These are typically done over the internet, and while you should be aware of them you’re less likely to run into them while traveling.   So what are the common scams you may see in person?

  • The distraction:
    Someone had a spill

    The Distraction

    You’re bumped into, spilled on or some other commotion happens nearby that distracts you while someone picks your pocket.  Simple, effective.  If something loud happens I make a point of looking around and away to see if someone is approaching or overly interested in my actions.

  • Faux guides: Guides who are not certified by the state – look for some form of ID signifying that they’re legit.  Not all sites will have authorized guides, some will be opportunists or locals who know the area well.  If this is case trust your instincts but always agree on a price before the tour starts.  If they do a great job you’re always allowed to tip.   A good guide will get you to all the sites and some shopping.  A great guide will get you behind the scenes for a look at local culture and life.
  • Bait and switch: I never knew I had so many friends until I traveled to West Africa.  Everyone is your friend and everyone has a cousin who can get what you’re looking for.   However, some of your new “friends” will off you a gift of “friendship” for “free”.  Do not accept this “gift” from your new “BFF”.  Here’s how this plays out:  You take the gift and say thank you then walk away.  He starts yelling that you have to pay him for said gift and will threaten to go to the police, he makes a big scene and you give him money.   They will also offer “gifts” to your children – prep them beforehand to not take anything they’re offered.  I’ve experienced this in Senegal and heard reports of it in Greece as well.
  • Taxi with the broken meter:   http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-london-taxi-image25345527Make sure your cabbie turns on the meter before you leave.  If he won’t, get out and get another.  If he doesn’t have one, negotiate the price beforehand.  If he’s the only cab around, you may be stuck – you know, supply + demand and what not.  Better to pay a few bucks more than be stranded in a shady, unknown area, especially after dark.
  • Taxi luggage drive away:  You load your luggage and get in the cab.  You get to your destination and get out to retrieve your luggage.  Taxi drives off with your luggage still in the trunk.  Make sure the cabbie gets out first.
  • Counterfeit cash: Unless you’re trained in detecting forged overseas currency, best to stick to legitimate exchange booths, ATMs or hotel cashiers to change out your doubloons for local currency.
  • Exchange rate snafu:  Know the exchange rate before you go.  I put it on my cheat sheet at the 5, 10, 20 and 50 increment to know what I’ll be paying.  Don’t sign a credit card slip before you know what you’re paying, you could be WAY overcharged by some unscrupulous vendors who will never see you again.
  • Acid syringeSyringe You thought acid wash went away with the 80’s.  Guess again.  A syringe with acid in it can be used to silently destroy your pocket, allowing your wallet to fall out and onto the ground without you noticing.  I never carry a wallet and never put any cash or valuables in back pockets.  First heard of this in Guinea.
  • Turkey drop:  You find a bag or cash or other item on the ground. Scammer arrives with official looking person and proceeds to shake you down… which means you… are… the turkey.

*This list is not all-inclusive, people are coming up with scams all the time as travel trends and technology change.

Saigon pickpocket?

Watch yer pockets

The Bottom Line – pay attention to what’s going on around you; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.   Most of all:  Not everyone is who they seem and while there are some really good people out there, there are also some extremely shady folks as well.  Don’t put you or your family in danger just to be nice.

Have you seen a new scam going around?  What happened and how did you deal with it?

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