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Scam-Proof – How to Avoid Being Duped While Traveling

China Part 2a from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I came across the above video on the blog of productivity guru and author of “The Four-Hour Workweek”, Tim Ferris. Tim who is extremely well-traveled, was recently in China on a trip with Kevin Rose (internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Digg among other things) and another friend, Glenn McElhose. Kevin and Glenn got completely scammed by two women pretending to be local art students that led the pair through an elaborate set of “cultural” experiences – excessive purchases of supposedly local student art, over-priced tea drinking, etc.. I won’t spoil the video because it is well worth the 20 minutes for anyone planning a trip abroad (or anyone that is curious about how scam artists do their thing).

The video was especially interesting to me because it brought back a slew of memories of contact with scam artists of various guises. Take the over-persistent, uber-friendly fast talker who offered illegal climbing tours of the pyramids near Cairo. There was also the Nigerian taxi cab driver who attempted to cram a host of other passengers in on our dollar. Even more disturbingly, there were the phony Manila police officers that flashed fake badges, kidnapped my friend’s father and only let him loose after a substantial monetary exchange…

Nobody enjoys being the victim of a scam artist, so what can be done to prevent this absolute damper on your vacation? The first step is as readily obvious as it is ignored: Do your homework. Invest in a pocket travel guide on your destination.  It is less than $20 and is worth every penny in the value that they add to your experience. You’ll know what to go see and what to avoid. If you prefer to go paperless, try virtualtourist.com (recommended by Tim Ferriss), a superb, free, online resource, written by actual travelers, constantly updated and containing everything from detailed listings of city attractions to information on scams – even the specific scam that Tim Ferris’s friends fell for.

A second step that I have found useful: If at all possible, find a reliable local guide that can give you the basics on where to go, what to see and what to ignore. Who can you trust? Well, definitely not the eager cab driver you met at the station who has an uncle with the cheapest Muay Thai tickets in Bangkok. I stick to: 1) Locals recommended by friends at home. 2) Official hotel/hostel staff. 3) Religious officials (local clergy, missionaries, etc.). 4) Official bureaus of tourism. Remember: DO NOT listen to someone just because they are friendly, persistent or somehow seem to have all the right things to say – scammers are professionals and have gone through the trial and error process that has refined their show; they are SUPPOSED to be convincing.

Third, have a researched itinerary. Know what you want to see on any given day and have a clear, solidly researched plan for:

  • What things cost (DO NOT accept the price that vendors give you without first researching the approximate pricing for what you want.)
  • Approximately how long the journey should take (cab drivers will happily take you on elaborately circuitous routes IN TRAFFIC, simply to run up the tab.)
  • What to do in an emergency – make sure everyone has a local phone card and the number of the hotel and your embassy.

With a post like this you always run the risk of turning people off traveling altogether. That is absolutely not my intention. With some street smarts, travel can be one of the most enlightening experiences in life: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

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Bjorn Karlman