Outwitting the top 5 travel scams

  • Article by: MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 1:25 PM

Travelers, especially abroad, can easily fall prey to these common cons.

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Shoppers walk through a crowd with their purses and bags exposed. Chicago police are waging an offensive against an ancient criminal craft that picks up among shopper and travelers each holiday season.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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The pros of traveling definitely outweigh the cons, but that doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind when exploring new places.

While the language barrier and the cultural sites are exciting, they also open up travelers to scam artists and petty thieves. During the holidays, many of us are already distracted, so adding a new place and big crowds only further overloads the senses, making it difficult to keep eyes peeled for cons and "overly friendly locals."

With this in mind, the members and editors of the travel website VirtualTourist offer this list of the "Top 5 Worst Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them."

1. "Senor Sticky Fingers" -- pickpockets -- Las Ramblas, Barcelona

Pickpockets are no longer limited to the simple "bump and grab." VirtualTourist members mentioned that pickpockets are often working in teams -- while one shows you a gold ring or points out mustard on your shirt, another is stealing your wallet. Thieves are also after more than just your wallet. Cameras and smartphones have a high resale value in most cities.

Another popular iteration of this scam is the distraction. A woman will approach you waving a newspaper or asking for help reading something, but under the newspaper, she is palming your iPhone off the cafe table. It's important to note that if someone offers you unsolicited help, politely decline and quickly walk away. Always keep most of your valuables (passport, important papers, and extra credit cards) in your hotel safe, and make sure to record the serial numbers of any electronic items that could be stolen, as some cities require a serial number to file a police report.

While pickpocketing is rampant in many areas, VirtualTourist members commented that it was common in Barcelona, particularly Las Ramblas, the central pedestrian street that runs from Placa Catalunya through the Gothic Quarter and to the sea.

2. "He's Going the Distance" -- taxi scams -- Termini Station, Rome

Taxis are often ground zero for scam artists, because passengers have often just arrived in a city or aren't sure how far their destination is from their pickup spot. Taxi scams can be as simple as drivers being unlicensed to overcharging and "long hauling," when drivers take a longer route to a destination to increase the fare, which is particularly common in Las Vegas. However, there are few rules to follow to make traveling by taxi easier. First, Rome has taxi queues where licensed taxis wait for fares -- always use a taxi from one of these lines. Second, many cities (Rome, New York, and Los Angeles, to name a few) have a set fare from the primary airport to inside the city -- make sure to know this number and clarify with the taxi driver this flat rate. Lastly, if you are leaving your hotel, ask the doorman or concierge how much the taxi fare should cost to get to your destination. Rome is a particularly bad spot for taxi scams, especially near Termini Station.

3. "The Overly Sympathique Stranger" -- volunteers with poor intentions -- Gare du Nord Station, Paris

When in a country with different currency or a language barrier, a common trick is for "volunteers" to offer to assist you when making a transaction or using any automated machine. Kind strangers may offer to assist you in buying a weeklong ticket, but they'll get you a one-time-use ticket and pocket the change. Be wary of any stranger who offers help too easily, particularly in high tourism areas or transportation hubs, such as Paris subway and train stations, especially Gare du Nord. If possible, buy transportation tickets in advance or through a window vendor at the station; at least, know before you arrive how much the tickets should cost.

4. "The Palace is NOT closed today" -- tuk tuk scammers -- Grand Palace area, Bangkok, Thailand

Several VirtualTourist members stated that in certain parts of Southeast Asia, they were approached by locals claiming that a popular site was closed due to an assortment of excuses, including a religious ceremony, royal function or simply for cleaning. These locals steer tourists into a nearby tuk tuk (or rickshaw), offering to take them to a gem factory or another tourist attraction that is open and then return them back to the site once it reopens. Many members reported that the approaching locals even appeared in a uniform, making their information seem more reliable. The palace is probably not closed, however, so before you embark on a tuk tuk ride to commissioned jewelry stores and tailors, check for yourself. Many members report this scam at a variety of sites in Bangkok, including the Grand Palace and Wat Po.

5. "The Math Genius" -- cash payment scams -- Istanbul and New York

Sadly, the "Math Genius" can be found in a variety of places, and the most common culprits are waiters or taxi drivers, because they've already provided you with a service and you need to pay them to exit the situation. If the scam occurs in a taxi, it usually goes this way: You owe the driver 15 euros, and you pay with a 20 euro bill. He switches out the bill you gave him for a 5 euro bill, which looks quite similar. He holds it up and argues that you owe him 10 more euros. You apologize and give him another 10 euros, and only after exiting the car do you realize you essentially paid twice the taxi fare. Though this trick can happen anywhere, it is a particularly common problem in Istanbul, Turkey, and New York City.

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