Author: Liv Skyler

If you take proper precautions while traveling, you will be safe from most minor risks. Every now and then though, something unfortunate does occur. Travel scams are unfortunately common and can befall even the most cautious of travelers.

By making yourself aware of these scams, however, you will protect yourself beyond basic precautions. Once you know how scam artists try to rip tourists off, you will be more vigilant in your protection. In some cases, it is possible to take specific actions to avoid becoming a victim as well.

In order to expand on these points, we’re going to look at four of the top travel scams. We will also explain how you can avoid falling prey to them.

The “Spill” Trick

Unfortunately, the pickpocketing of valuables from tourists is a common problem. It’s strongly associated with Europe but occurs elsewhere around the world as well. And pickpockets have a lot of different tactics. Some make grabs in crowded metros; some confuse travelers with currency exchanges at ATMs; some offer to help with directions while making slick moves for your wallet.

One particularly common tactic is the “spill” trick, though. It takes various forms, but the general idea is simple: A local will “accidentally” spill something on you. They will then insist on cleaning you up, making a show of offering help. Amidst the confusion, they will make a move for your wallet or other valuables. It happens surprisingly frequently, and it’s a difficult scam to avoid because there is physical contact involved. Nevertheless, the strategy, in this case, is simply to walk away. Locals practicing this scheme will be persistent, but if you insist there’s no harm done, make it clear you don’t want to be touched and continue on your way, you will be less likely to become a victim.

Border Scams

Like pickpocketing, border scams come in different forms. Generally, though, someone posing as a border patrol agent or visa official will approach you. They will assist with your transfer across the border for a non-existent fee, and may then offer additional services for more cash (like a ride in their car). It is essentially a way to make travelers pay for routine border crossings under the guise of official duty.

The first step to avoid this scam is to familiarize yourself with who you should see at a border crossing — and how they should act. Particularly given the advent of online education and the availability of online bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice today, people in these roles are likely to be educated professionals. Customs agents and border patrol officers study criminal justice, specializing in their roles, and practice established routines. This is not to say that a scam artist can’t imitate an official. But by familiarizing yourself with what to expect from actual border officials you will improve your odds of spotting the difference.

One specific tip: Choose a relevant question or two that an educated and experienced border official is likely to answer in a particular way. You will have a chance to spot an imposter and avoid being overcharged.

Wi-Fi Theft

Cybercrime over Wi-Fi is not a problem unique to travel. However, it is another scam travelers often fall prey to. When you travel, you will likely be excited just to find available public Wi-Fi. You may need to send an email home, check directions for tourist activity, etc. Whatever the case, you will be inclined to log right onto whatever Wi-Fi you can and get to work. In the process though, you will expose yourself to potential cyber crimes. Opportunistic and savvy scammers are capable of obtaining your personal information over wireless networks.

The way to avoid this problem came up in our dos and don’ts of using your phone abroad. In that piece, it's noted you should turn on your phone’s “Ask to join networks” feature. It’s a simple step, but it’s one that allows you to consciously monitor Wi-Fi. Without connecting automatically, you will give yourself a chance to decide whether or not you trust it. Additionally, you give yourself the opportunity to turn on protection such as a VPN.

Exchange Scams

This is another idea that takes multiple forms. It may be a taxi driver giving change. It might be a helpful stranger at an ATM. It may even be a store owner. The idea in all these cases though is that someone will attempt to confuse you about exchange rates. When you’re in a foreign country, it is easy enough to get overwhelmed by conversions. From there, it’s tempting to trust a local who seems either kind or professional (or both).

Patience and attention to detail will go a long way toward helping you avoid this sort of scam. Whenever you exchange currency, take a moment to do the math. If you need reassurance, there are currency converter tools you can download for free and use as well. However you do it though, take care to ensure that the exchange is done fairly. A lot of scam artists have a surprisingly easy time tricking travelers this way.


These are not the only travel scams you might encounter. They are among the common ones though, and the ones you should look out for. By identifying these scams and some ways to get around them, we hope to have helped you prepare for a secure trip the next time you’re on the move!