Updated November 18th, 2017.
When you first start backpacking, worrying about travel scams can make you cautious of everything and everyone you meet. We were all rookies once! You soon learn that not everyone is trying to rip you off and that most people just want to practice their English and make a novelty foreign friend. However, there are more than a few backpackers over the years that have fallen prey to ingenious (and not so ingenious) travel scams, whether it be getting ripped off for a few rupee in a taxi or an elaborate role-play which aims to empty your bank account! Read these tales of pesky tricks, double deals, hoaxes and swindles and learn the signs to look out for to make sure you’re not the next victim…
(Always make sure you have proper insurance before you travel to protect you against scams and other travel mishaps. It’s not worth spoiling your once in a lifetime adventure!)
1. The famous gem scam
The gem scam has got to be the most talked about scam in Asia. It is on most travel forums and there are warnings about it in the Lonely Planet. After all the publicity, it is hard to believe that someone would be gullible enough to fall for this one, but they do! Most common in India, in particular Agra, the gem scam begins when you are befriended by a local. After gaining your trust they offer you a business deal and an opportunity to make a lot of money through investing in a precious cargo of jewels. The locals explain that their gemstones are worth a lot of money if sold in another country, but that they themselves cannot afford the high taxes to export them out of India. However, if you were to buy them for a ‘cheap’ price, you can export them easily under your duty free allowance and then sell them on at a huge profit! The scammers will assure you that once you arrive in the airport of your destination, an agent will meet you and help you to sell the jewels for quadruple the price. Mostly, they want an upfront payment for the gems, but sometimes they ask for a “financial gaurantee” of a credit card number and signature (as you are carrying the gemstones for them and are under great trust not to steal them!). Obviously, there is no “partner” at the airport to meet you and the precious stones turn out to be coloured plastic glass. Meanwhile, your travel budget has been cut short or your credit card swiped. What a surprise! Wanting to make fast money out of some kind of deal in Asia can never go right…
2. Dodgy food & overly helpful waiters
This has got to be one of the meanest travel scams around. Unlike many, this one needs no gullible, greedy backpacker, just a traveller with a natural appetite holidaying in India. The scam begins as you eat your dinner in a friendly local restaurant. As you munch away at your chicken Jalfrezi, rice and a naan, all of a sudden, what you may at first believe to be ‘Delhi belly’ hits you. Nausea, dizziness, the list goes on… The waiters are incredibly helpful, rounding you up and taking you to a local clinic around the corner who will provide you instantly with tablets and water. Just three hours later and the sickness has completely passed and apart from feeling a little weak, the situation has miraculously turned around. And then, the clinic’s whopping bill is placed in your hand. It will no doubt be something extortionate, easily blowing your average monthly backpacking budget. After some discussion and working a few things out you will realise that the efficient waiters were all part of the plan. Your food had been tampered with to bring on the Delhi belly and the waiters and clinic were in on it together. The tough part is what to do next… refuse to pay the bill? Pay up and leave without a fight? It’s a tough one. Leg it we say!
3. Getting driven around the bend by tuk tuk drivers
We’ve all been driven around in circles a few times by tuk tuk or taxi drivers to increase the price of the meter. Unless you’re in a major hurry, there’s no point getting too het up about it. Often when you don’t know where you are going, it is hard to tell if you are being taken for a ‘ride’ or not, so keep the peace and don’t make accusations unless you’re 100% sure! Especially in Thailand you should watch out for being told that your temple of choice is ‘closed’ or that your preferred guesthouse is ‘full.’ The taxi drivers very often want to take you to a tourist destination or hotel where they will get commission for you. Paying 20 baht for a tuk tuk ride from Khao San road and you will end up visiting gem shops, tailors and travel agents through which the taxi driver earns commission or petrol tokens. You get what you pay for!
4. I wanted to go to the park not a brothel!
Unless you know Bangkok like the back of your hand, then you’re an easy target for this common scam that happens under the cover of darkness. Once you’re in a taxi, your driver will tell you that the bar or club you requested is closed. Being a local and no doubt having lived in Bangkok ‘all their life’, they will suggest an alternative. Often this alternative couldn’t be further from what you originally requested… usually on the outskirts of the city, full of ladies of the night and not exactly the hangout you were after. Once there, a taxi back to your hotel will cost you an arm and a leg. At this point, you have little choice but to pay up. Of course, the bar/club you wanted to go to is open and the nightlife is booming. Gutted.
5. Bother at the border
This scam isn’t such a bank-breaker but will certainly damage your pride. Backpackers beware when crossing the border, don’t try and cheat the system and skimp on the price. Many shops and travel agents will lure you in saying, ‘you make visa here, cheap and easy!’ These false claims will be proven untrue when you reach the official immigration control and other backpackers are paying half the price.
6. Fake fortune tellers with bushy eyebrows
They appear out of the shadows of alleyways with the tempting call of “I will tell you the name of your future wife.” These unusual looking characters with their mystical ‘powers’ are hard to resist and the words “go on then” will slip out of your mouth before you even realise. You will then be led to their ‘office’, where the magic begins. The usual technique is for you to write down three wishes and the name of your mother on four pieces of paper and then scrunch them up. Your mind will then be read by this mystical creature who will miraculously know your Mother’s name… oh the paper switching trick! If you get suspicious and duck out at this point, expect to pay the whole fee (often they ask for up to 5,000 baht!). It’s almost worth continuing on to hear your future spouses’s name purely for the comedy factor! Just like any attractive horoscope, these guys are professionals at the sweeping statements and generalisations that can be made relevant to any old backpacker.
7. The elaborate card game scam
The Vietnamese card scam has to be one of the most elaborate hoaxes to be found. This one begins when you are befriended by a talkative local who invites you to his house for dinner. Whilst there, you will learn of his recent misfortune at the local casino when he was cheated out of his money by a big-shot business man. Then comes the proposal. Together, if he teaches you his incredible card skills, there’s a lot of money to be made for the both of you. Before you know what is happening he is giving you some lessons in Blackjack 21 – taught with a special code. And then as if by magic, along will arrive a suited and booted gentleman, ready to play you, with a suitcase full of cash. The role-play begins. Your kindly teacher will loan you a couple of hundred dollars to play and off you go on the crest of a money-making wave… Finally, you’re on the cusp of winning thousands of dollars, at which point your opponent will demand you show him the money. Oh dear. What kind of a backpacker would carry around that amount of cash? (Let alone actually own it!) But you’d be surprised. Some, caught in the game, greedy for the winnings, cough up or put their credit card on the table as a guarantee. It is now that the ‘special code’ fails and hey presto, you’ve lost the lot! You are marched to the cash machine to pay your debt.
8. Motorcycle maintenance
Most adventuring backpackers who are seeking the thrill of speed and a feeling of freedom will end up hiring a motorbike. These nifty machines can get you away from the crowds and out into unspoilt countryside in a matter of minutes no matter where you are in Southeast Asia. But beware. These friendly motorbike hire men with their smiling faces and suggested routes have an alternate motive. Whilst they distract you, they have their fingers crossed that you don’t look too closely at the condition of your rented steed. Then, when you arrive back having felt the wind in your hair and having gained a farmers tan, they will charge you for every nick, every scratch and every dent imaginable. Moral of the story – give your bike a thorough once over before you set off!
9. Drugs are bad
Bangkok Prison is not a place any backpacker wants to spend the night, you only have to read the blurb of the famous book ‘Damage Done’ by Warren Fellows to know that much! However, tuk tuk drivers and shop keepers alike know the power of persuasion. As they tempt you with drugs to ‘heighten your Full Moon experience’ or ‘chill you out man’ on a beach in Bali, they will also be striking up a convenient conversation. “Where you stay? Ahh my brother stay there too! What room? Ahh you neighbours!” usually an elaborate lie, which will then give him the ability to tip off the police as to where you and your drugs are staying. Then comes the ominous knock on the door, search of your room and ultimately, handcuffs. If you end up being sucked into this scam then there’s very little way out. Our advice? Avoid drugs all together. Today, some drug related offenses in many countries in Asia (including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam) carry the death penalty – and whether the law would choose enforce it or not – is it really worth the risk?
10. The slow boat is A-OK
A common method of transport from Northern Thailand to Laos is via the serene Slow Boat, floating up the Mekong as you travel through paddy fields, unspoilt traditional villages and fishing communities. Not only is this method the perfect way to find your new best backpacking friend, but it’s also a few days break from the crazy driving and windy roads of southeast Asia. However, the bus drivers awaiting you at the port have other, ‘better’ ideas. They will try anything to get you on their VIP bus (which is often a public bus full of mangoes, Thai locals and fish, with no air con and sometimes no seats!), warning you of everything and anything from being robbed at Pak Beng (the stop-off village) to catching deadly malaria in the middle of nowhere. Of course, you won’t get a refund on your boat ticket. Go with your gut, if you’ve committed to the Slow Boat, hop on! Don’t listen to the touts trying to empty your wallet and begin your latest adventure up the Mekong. You won’t regret it.
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