Once, when I was driving down a deserted side street in beautiful Siena, a woman in a police uniform jumped out in front of my rental car and—in a very assertive, authoritative manner—waved a hand-held stop sign at me. When I complied, she walked up and, in broken English, told me that I was driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Since I had about two days of actual driving experience in Italy and found all the strange street signs very confusing—and since she appeared quite intimidating—I immediately assumed that, yes, I had probably made a mistake. As she repeated in detail what I had done, I had visions of being taken to a local constable to pay a fine and perhaps be detained there too. It was not a happy moment.
Then, to my surprise and delight, she said that I could pay my fine on the spot—yes, right then and there. Luckily, I had plenty of cash on me. She asked for the equivalent of about $150. Feeling a huge relief, I quickly paid and apologized. She took the money in a very official manner and gave me her permission to leave (along with a warning to watch the street signs more closely). I nodded, started the engine, and moved on, still a little shell-shocked.
About 30 seconds later, it hit me—she hadn’t given me a receipt. I returned to the spot, but of course she was gone. And, I noticed, cars were now going both ways on this street. I had to laugh. Yes, I had just been scammed. And yes, I should be aware that this—or something like it—could happen to me again in my travels.
Surveys repeatedly confirm that we are usually safer in most popular destinations than we are in our own hometowns. But American tourists, unsure of themselves in foreign lands, remain prime targets for scammers, and it’s always good to keep an eye out for certain activities. Here are a few scams that—no matter where you travel in the world—always seem to be popping up.
- Fake Police. As well as pulling the scam I experienced, these people can ask for your passport, tell you there’s an irregularity, and inform you that they will take you to a higher local authority, unless you pay an immediate “fine.” It’s important to be careful here. Sometimes, these are the real police making a little extra money on the side. In a very respectful way, ask for their ID, the names of their superiors, the location of the nearest American consulate, and other questions that might make them think you will not be an easy mark. If you are lucky, they might back down and “excuse you this one time.” The bottom line here is to be careful and stay cool. If they are the real police, you don’t want to get on their bad side.
- Airport Taxis. These guys are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting travelers tired after a long flight and anxious to get to their hotels. Always negotiate the fee to the destination up front and before getting into the taxi. And act as though you are perfectly fine going to the next taxi in line, if you think the cost is too much. Finally, don’t pay until you arrive at your destination.
- Sharing Taxis. While we’re on the subject of taxis, if a very friendly stranger offers to share a taxi with you, politely decline. The person might be totally on the up and up, but you never know. Don’t take unnecessary chances.
- Unbelievably Great Deals. Often, extremely enthusiastic hotel clerks or taxi drivers will tell you about a great deal (anything from gems to carpets to cut glass) they’re happy to let you in on. In fact, this deal is so good you’d be a complete fool to pass it up. While enthusiasm can be infectious, don’t catch it from one of these people. If what they’re offering you sounds unbelievably good for the price, it most likely is not to be believed.
- Very Friendly Young Women. This sometimes happens to male travelers: they meet a couple of very friendly young local women who are delighted to chat, the women suggest continuing the conversation at a specific local bar or tea shop, and everyone goes there. After a while, the women go to the ladies room, the bill comes, the total amount is the equivalent of hundreds of dollars, and the women never return.
- An Invitation to a Factory Store. When a stranger comes up and offers to take you to a factory store so you can buy an item direct and save a lot of money, be wary. Again, the person may be legitimate—or not. And it may not be worth the risk of finding out.
- Timeshares. People pushing timeshares often make offers when travelers are on vacation and their guard is down. The bottom line here is: never agree to a face-to-face meeting or presentation. The pressure they’re known to put on people is enormous. Ask for information to be sent to you.
- When Something Drops or Spills on Your Clothes. There are many variations of this scam. You’re outside and some bird droppings fall right on your coat. Or you’re in a sidewalk cafe and some mustard mysteriously finds its way on to your shirt. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously, a helpful stranger comes to the rescue and towels you down. There is some confusion. And, when the stranger leaves, you find out that he or she has taken valuables from your person. It’s probably best to call the person off immediately and go to a restroom to clean yourself up.
As noted earlier, popular destinations are often safer than your own hometown, but, this doesn’t mean that they are always free from shady characters looking for easy money. Have a great time, but remember that these seemingly idyllic places are still part of the real world.
WikiTravel has a long list of common scams you might find helpful to review. It’s at: wikitravel.org/en/Common_scams.
If you have stories about scams you’ve heard about or experienced, feel free to add a comment to this blog. We’d love to hear from you!