Thief taking travellers wallet

Most common travel scams

Don't let your dream getaway be spoiled by scam artists. Learn the most common cons to avoid in Australia's 10 post popular destinations.

Tourist scams are a common part of hitting the road. While some people wouldn’t dream of coming back without a few blatantly-fake designer souvenirs, credit card and ATM fraud are posing an increasing risk, even in once-safe destinations.

Depending on where you go, these might be the main risks to watch out for, or they might just be the latest addition to the plethora of travel scams out there.

Travel risks across the top 10 destinations for Australian tourists

New Zealand

New Zealand is well known for its natural beauty, friendly locals and ads for seasonal jobs that seem too good to be true. As the age-old rule goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In 2014 New Zealand’s Consumer Affairs Department issued a warning about fake job ads, often targeted at backpackers and other non-locals. The biggest giveaway is that they’ll ask for some kind of upfront payment, or they’ll offer the opportunity to make big bucks for an outstandingly cushy job.

It’s been some time since the department issued a warning, but fake job scams are big business in a lot of places, and with New Zealand’s status as a top destination and tourist mecca, there are doubtless plenty more springing in and out of existence all the time. Sometimes these are pyramid schemes hiding behind a thin facade. If the job does deliver as promised, there’s a chance you’ve unwittingly been doing work for a money laundering front.

Other than this, ATM and card fraud can take place anywhere, in both the cities and the countryside. Caution and common sense are key to avoiding it. When in doubt, you can generally trust going to the bank directly.

Indonesia

Australians know Indonesia as a haven of unbeatable prices, but the same rule doesn’t necessarily apply when you’re buying a suspiciously cheap house or timeshare. Legal disputes are a common followup to holiday club, land, timeshare and other real estate purchases and fake goods are easy to find.

Make sure you’re buying from an authorised seller and that it’s a legitimate, done deal before you hand over any money. After all, selling a bridge is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

On the higher tech end of the spectrum, gadget-assisted ATM and credit card fraud poses a threat in the form of card scanners. These devices are essentially fake card readers installed on once-legitimate ATM machines so that unsuspecting users can pass on their card details without knowing it.

When you do use an ATM, stick to machines that are part of an actual bank branch whenever possible, or those in high-traffic private property areas such as a hotel lobby.

The United States of America

If you want to get into the USA, you need an electronic travel authorisation (ESTA), which you can get online. It costs exactly US$14, no more, no less. There’s only one real ESTA website, but altogether too many fake ones.

None of them will give you anything but regret. Some will try to charge you a higher price in the hopes of striking lucky, while others will take the more cunning route of offering ESTAs for low, low prices. And some might just try charging you exactly $14 in the hopes of passing as the real thing.

Don’t use any websites linked in an unexpected email and make sure that when you do go to get your ESTA that it’s the real thing.

Once you’re in the states, it also pays to watch out for card skimmers. Servos (or gas stations, if you speak American) are largely pay-at-the-pump by card only these days and it’s not unheard of for one or two pumps among the rest to have card skimmers installed. Play it safe by using pumps near the entrance and in good lighting.

Card skimmers aren’t always quick or easy to install right, so the less-visible pumps on the outskirts of the station tend to be riskier to use.

The United Kingdom

“Look, it’s the Queen and her corgis are even cuter in person!” You’ve turned to look and fallen for yet another age-old trick. In a nod to tradition, London’s tourist areas play home to a number of pickpockets, but they probably aren’t the classic scamps or street urchins that you might be picturing. Distractions are a classic trick because they work and can keep you from realising that you’ve lost your phone and your wallet until they’re long gone.

The UK is also home to card skimmers and other forms of ATM and card fraud and the same rules generally apply. If it’s an isolated, shoddy ATM machine in the middle of nowhere, it might no longer be trustworthy. Stick to using well-travelled ATMs in daylight hours and keep an eye out while you do.

High-traffic tourist areas can also host fakers looking to hawk rubbish at tourists. It’s worth remembering that classy West End restaurants, Broadway theatre productions and the like generally don’t go around selling moth-eared (or even glossy and nice) voucher books for half-price meals or free tickets to a show. Suffice to say, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you show up and try to use one of these vouchers. Get your discounts from somewhere reputable instead.

Thailand

In Thailand, it’s not unheard of for accidents to be fabricated on the spot. Smart Traveller warns people renting jet skis to be aware of coercive compensation scams, where accidents or damage on the water leads to the police being summoned… for their cut of the pay.

Alternatively, gangs have been known to show up feigning outrage at the state of the jet ski and refusing to let travellers leave until they’ve been “duly compensated”.

Inspect the machine before taking it out and take photos as well for some solid evidence. If you think you’ve been the victim of a jet ski scam, call the Tourist Police on 1155 for an authority focused on keeping Thailand safe for travellers.

Meanwhile, gem scams have also proven to be a profitable way of fleecing visitors. Here, someone will pretend to be looking for a way to get rid of high-quality, smuggled Burmese gemstones at rock bottom prices. By the time the buyer realises that they’ve just bought a bunch of glass or costume jewellery, the seller is long gone and the shop is nowhere to be found. Thailand’s Tourism authority advises travellers to be aware of the telltale signs of a scammer, advising that “well-pressed slacks and a button down shirt, freshly cut hair of a conservative style and a late-model cell phone comprise their uniform.”

Bogus investment properties, time share and property rental schemes and other real estate scams also remain an issue, as do card skimmers and other ATM theft.

China

In China, Smart Traveller advises that your plan should include not accepting random invitations to tea houses, restaurants, massage parlors or bars that you weren’t planning on going to. Once you’ve finished, there’s a chance of facing an enormously inflated bill that no meal or other service could ever be worth.

If you say no, the threats of violence might come out and if you do pay, there’s a very real chance that you’re running your card through a skimmer and giving away your numbers.

Be a smart traveller and exercise appropriate caution. With so much to see and do, China is a popular tourist spot for a reason. If someone wants to take you to a back alley restaurant to “practice their English”, you might be finding a hidden gem, but then again, you might not.

Singapore

One of the most enduring perceptions of Singapore around the world is that it’s ultra-clean and ultra-modest, where people can be fined for inappropriate language in public and other bad behaviour. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but the people levying fines on travellers aren’t always authorised to do so. If you’re being asked to pay an on-the-spot fine for unruliness, bad language, spitting or the like, it may be worth asking if you can go to a police station to pay the fine instead.

Rental property and other real estate investment scams are also an issue and, once again, travellers should be careful when spending large sums of money on substantial investments.

Japan

Japan is known for its fabulous scenery, unique culture and exceptional hospitality. Just make sure you don’t end up being a lot more hospitable than you planned. Covermore travel insurance highlights one scam in Japan where a group of young people or school kids approach you to practice their English. You hit it off and end up at a cafe or restaurant. When the bill arrives, however, they’re nowhere to be found.

In many ways, this is the dine and dash version of the more serious, and dangerous, scam where a traveller might accept an invitation from a hawker, only to find themselves paying way more than intended and much more than their drinks were worth.

Smart Traveller doesn’t highlight any particular scams to watch out for in Japan, but caution should always rule the day when you’re overseas.

Fiji

Credit card and ATM fraud is a problem wherever tourists can be found and even where no visitor would tread. Fiji is definitely in the former category.

ATMs and credit cards are popular targets for thieves due to the potential of a quick, big payday. It may be as simple as someone looking over your shoulder as you hit up an ATM or surreptitiously taking a video as you punch in your PIN. Or it can be as complicated as using card tapping devices while you’re buying something. It’s a good rule of thumb to never let your card out of sight, as well as to cover your PIN code, visit ATMs only during the day and withdraw money from inside financial institutions if you can’t trust the machines.

India

Smart Traveller advises visitors to India that there’s a high risk of skimming at ATMs, so it may be preferable to stick to withdrawals at bank branches or to use the machines that you know you can trust. Busy high-end hotels may have ATMs in the lobby that may be more trustworthy than what you’ll find on the streets.

Other scams range from the opportunistic to the deviously planned. Tour package scams, for example, involve a guide selling fraudulent tour packages. Other touts have been known to hang around at government offices such as the Foreigner Regional Registration Office where they offer a queue-jumping VIP service for a price. If you’re visiting a temple you might also be told that you need to make a donation before going in, only to find a second fee being charged once you’re through the door, or to learn that entry was free all along.

Fake guides can pose a more direct risk and it’s generally not a good idea to wing it with someone who offers you guide services on the street. They might have accomplices nearby and it might turn out that you’re only getting led to a future crime scene. Booking ahead of time is an effective way to make sure everything’s on the up and up, and you can still score some great discounts.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Bessie Hassan, insurance expert at finder.com.au, knows what to do if you’re caught up in an overseas scam and how to claim your money back.

“The Australian embassy or consulate, the local police and your travel insurer should be your first three ports of call.”

As for what happens next: “You will typically need proof of the scam from the local police to make a travel insurance claim, so ensure you have a witness.”

And make sure you have the right cover: “A basic travel insurance policy should provide cover for property loss or damage and cancellations, but it may not cover fraud. Having adequate cover is often more important than price, so if you’re heading to a high-risk country, make sure you compare policies online to adequately cover yourself.”

These are the top 10 destinations for Australians heading overseas and none of them are immune to scams. There’s a reason why travel insurance is advised for all trips and holidays that you take, and why the Australian government, through Smart Traveller, sternly recommends travel insurance no matter where you’re going.

Compare travel insurance online and check out a range of policies to make sure you don’t get ripped off before you even leave home.
Picture: Shutterstock

Andrew Munro

Andrew writes for finder.com, comparing products, writing guides and looking for new ways to help people make smart decisions. He's a fan of insurance, business news and cryptocurrency.

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