Ripped Off: Common Tricks Pulled on Tourists and What to Do About Them

Tourist scams are common in popular destinations. You can end up ripped off and in danger if you fall victim. Read on to find out how to avoid them, and what to do.

When you travel, you may end up vulnerable to being ripped off and scammed. You don’t speak the local language, you are unfamiliar with the area, you don’t know the local customs, you don’t understand the currency, and you’re far from home.

All of these factors combine to make you seem like easy pickings to anyone looking to make some money by manipulation.

Most scams will target you for your money, or possessions that can be sold. In some more extreme cases, a scammer might try to steal your passport or bank card, or in a worst case scenario you could find yourself in real danger.

None of this is to say that travelling is dangerous. Travelling is one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences in life, and to refrain from travelling due to a fear of being ripped off would be a foolish.

Knowing what to look out for is one of the first steps to avoiding being ripped off.

Taxi scam

One of the times you’re most likely to be ripped off is when you’re taking a taxi. You might not know the language well enough to negotiate a fair price before you set off, you don’t know the area well enough to tell that your driver is taking you the long way round, and you might not feel confident enough to argue if you feel that you are being overcharged.

The best way to avoid being ripped off by your taxi driver is to only use reputable taxi firms. Look up some numbers before you go and keep them with you, or ask at your hotel’s reception desk. Keep away from any unlicensed taxis as not only are they more likely to overcharge you, you could find yourself in danger.

If you worry that you are being taken on an excruciatingly long journey when a much shorter one would have sufficed, keep a map handy, or use your phone to figure out where you should be going.

If you can, use a journey planning app before so that you know what the average time of your journey should be.

Confusing currency

a collection of various currencies

Many tourists report being ripped off by being given change in fake or old notes. If you pay with a large note, you may be given change in notes that are unusable, essentially robbing your spending money.

Other than this, some sellers may simply take advantage of the fact that you are not being vigilant about your money.

When you receive change in the currency of your home country, you can often tell just by glancing at it that you have been given the right amount. This same instinct does not apply with a foreign currency, so later on you might find that you have been given far less than you anticipated.

Some sellers, sensing that you are distracted and in a hurry to get to the next tourist attraction on your list, will count your change incredibly slowly and pause frequently, in the hopes that you will simply grab the money from them and get out of there, even if they haven’t given you all of your change.

Some travellers have reported that when paying with a large note in a restaurant, the wait staff would loudly remark on the size of the note and how hard it will be for them to make change, effectively embarrassing the traveller so much that they are not prepared to make another scene if they are presented with the wrong change.

If you worry that this might happen to you, try stating the value of the note loudly as you hand it over, to show that you will not be made to feel guilty about paying with a large note, and make sure that the seller cannot plead ignorance later.

The best way to avoid this scam is to familiarise yourself with the shape, appearance, and denominations of the currency you are using, and to count your money before and after each transaction. Try to use smaller notes, and pay in exact change whenever possible.

Hidden charges

Hidden charges are not unique to tourists: they are everywhere in daily life. However, when you are travelling in an unfamiliar place you are most susceptible to them, and likely to be less able to negotiate against them.

Some common hidden charges in popular tourist areas include a hefty service charge being tacked onto your bill, your hotel charging you as you check out for ‘extras’ that you believed were free of charge, and finding that the price displayed in a café is for ‘takeaway only’ and the price to eat in is much steeper.

So how can you combat frittering your holiday budget away on charges you didn’t even agree to?

Be savvy, always read the small print, never assume something is free or included in the price unless you have been explicitly told that it is, and be willing to fight your corner if you feel that you are being treated unfairly.

If it turns out that the charge was clearly stated and you never noticed, then you will have to back down, but if you stand your ground about a big charge that came out of nowhere, they might agree to take it off the bill.

Gifts from strangers

While there are many kind and generous people in the world, if a person on the street or someone you just met in a bar offers you a gift, it might be the best idea to politely decline. This scam can work in many ways. Someone may give you a gift, claiming that it is free, and then later demand the money from you.

One person may give you an item for free, while waiting for their partner in crime to accuse you of stealing the item and insisting that you hand over some money. The gift may simply be a way to distract you: as you gleefully accept or awkwardly hand the item back, someone has the chance to rifle through your pockets or bags.

To avoid being scammed in this way, remember what you were taught as a child: don’t take gifts from strangers! If you are offered something by a person you have only just met, it is likely that their intentions are not good, so it is best if you politely refuse and then walk away.

If you see someone approaching you in the street with something to give or sell you, walk in the opposite direction. While you should never be rude, you are not obliged to give any of your time to people who try to sell you something.

Some people wonder what to do if they have been spending time getting to know local people and are offered a souvenir or gift. This is a situation in which you have to trust your gut instinct. Many people in the world do things simply out of kindness and generosity, and you don’t want to be seen as rude by refusing to take what is offered to you.

The most important way to stay safe in this situation is to make sure that your money and other valuables are not in a place where they can be easily grabbed. Try not to keep your entire travel budget on you in cash, as this will leave you high and dry if your wallet is snatched.

Bogus officials

young woman on bicycle with police officer in traffic

This scam can be very tricky to avoid, and very scary if it happens to you. There are many variations, but it always involves somebody claiming to be a police officer, or another kind of official, asking you to hand over your money, bank card, passport, or valuables.

The official might stop you and tell you a (made up) story about fake bank notes circulating in the area, and insist on seeing yours, before making off with them. Alternately, they might ask to check your passport or other form of identification.

The best way to avoid this scam is to know your legal rights in the country where you are travelling. Such information is likely to be available online, or you can contact the embassy if you are particularly concerned.

Ask to see the supposed police officer’s badge, and ask them why you have to hand over your money or passport. However, if you are physically threatened, it is far safer to hand over what they are asking for than risk your own safety.

Don’t let any of this put you off enjoying your trip. If you are cautious with your money and valuables, and use some common sense when it comes to situations where you are being offered something for nothing.

Remember the old adage ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’.  For every local who is trying to scam some money from you, there are many more who are decent, friendly people, so never be afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone you meet. 

About the author


Reader, writer, blogger, part-timer, volunteer, all things to all men. I can usually be found wearing yellow clothes and drinking green tea. Some of my favourite things include waterfalls, polar bears, rum, and charity shops.

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