A useful piece of advice in the Dangers and Annoyances section of a travel guidebook describes Sri Lankans as friendly but reserved and not given to approaching strangers, adding that if someone with the charisma of a game-show host bounds over while you’re in the country and asks where you’re from, it’s likely their intentions are less than honest. The warning is a good one and holds true in most places – after all, how often do you loiter around the Peak Tram terminal asking visitors how long they’re staying in Hong Kong?
We’re most likely to be scammed within hours of arriving in a new country. Conmen gravitate to places where tourists gather; making us especially vulnerable at airports and bus and train stations. A scam isn’t the same as being overcharged, however. If you take a taxi from outside a five-star hotel, there’s a good chance you’ll pay too much, but if the price is agreed beforehand then it’s not a scam. The taxi driver who apologises because his meter is “broken” and offers what he claims is a reduced (extortionate) fare is a conman.
While you’re highly unlikely to fall victim to any of the following stings, it never hurts to stay on your toes.
1 My sister is a nurse This scam has been around in various forms for at least 25 years. You’re approached by a well-dressed man (conmen are nearly always well-dressed) who asks where you’re from. You tell him and he shakes his head in disbelief. His sister is a nurse and she has been offered a job in your country or city but is rather apprehensive. Would you mind coming over to the house for a coffee and to reassure her that everything will be OK? This request taps into our willingness to help as well as our desire to meet the locals while on holiday. Unfortunately, the coffee will be drugged and you’ll wake up on a beach the next morning with a sore head and no sign of your valuables.
There’s a variation that involves an “immigration officer” who recognises you on the street. “Remember me? I stamped your passport when you arrived. How about a coffee?” How this fake airport employee could possibly remember the faces of every new tourist never crosses the victim’s mind. You’re jetlagged, a long way from home and he seems so friendly.
2 You’ve damaged my jet ski A brutally simple scam, bordering on theft. You hire a jet ski, motorbike or car and sign a form accepting responsibility for damage. When you return the vehicle, a dent or engine problem is discovered that the hirer says didn’t exist before. Alas, the big guy has your passport and looks ready to turn nasty. In some places, the police won’t help – mainly because they get a kickback for siding with the hire company. The best way to avoid this stand-off is to use your phone to photograph the vehicle beforehand and don’t, in any circumstances, hand over your passport. Better still, look around for a reputable firm.
3 The Taj Mahal is closed today You’re approached by a “guide” some distance from a (busy) entrance to the temple, palace or archaeological site you’re intending to visit. He explains that the attraction is closed for a presidential visit but can offer you a private tour of the city for a very special rate. While you’re digesting this information, your helpful new friend receives a phone call from his cousin with the news that there’s a gemstone expo taking place nearby and, it’s your lucky day, foreigners are allowed to buy stones at cost price. Don’t let greed blind you. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Variations of this scam include “the hotel has closed down”. A taxi driver at the airport or railway station breaks the bad news but fortunately he knows of another (more expensive) hostelry. And watch out for hotels that trade on the name of other more popular places. On hearing you’d like to see if the Sunny Lodge has rooms, the tuk tuk driver takes you to the Shady Lodge, instead, and trousers a commission for delivering you to the inferior property.
Lastly there’s “the fully booked train”. A semi-official looking character asks where you’re heading then goes through the motions of checking with the ticket clerk in a language you don’t understand and, long story short, the train or bus is full. But guess what? He knows a taxi driver who will be happy to take you to your destination as he lives there and needs to get home. Cue one vastly overpriced ride.
4 Distraction mugging Diversionary pickpocketing takes the victim by surprise because it happens so fast. You’re jostled in a crowd and someone spills washing up liquid or a sachet of ketchup on your new jacket.
The clumsy passer-by apologises and cleans up the mess while at the same time rifling through your pockets. Other distractions include a fight that suddenly breaks out, a group of children who surge forward asking for charity donations or a stranger who unfolds a large map in your face and asks for directions. Treat any commotion as suspicious and make sure your money belt is beyond the reach of nimble fingers.
5 Counterfeit cops A couple of police officers waving (bogus) badges ask for your wallet to check for counterfeit currency. It’ll be returned a few notes lighter. In a more serious version, you’ll be asked to hand over your passport for inspection. That’s when the fraudsters discover a small packet of white powder between the pages. To avoid having to buy your way out of trouble with a hefty bribe, never give your passport or wallet to anyone. Better still, if you’re ever stopped by dodgy-looking cops without good reason, offer to accompany them to the police station. If they are imposters, they’ll disappear in a flash.
However, if they turn out to be real police officers but one starts telling you he has a sister who is a nurse, unfold a large map in their faces and run.