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How to Prevent Against Being Scammed When Traveling

It is easy to be scammed when traveling. A good scam artist will know what you want in their country and how you want to be treated, then fill these two voids and take their commission. To prevent being taken in by scammers, first and foremost be aware of where you are and who you [...]

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It is easy to be scammed when traveling. A good scam artist will know what you want in their country and how you want to be treated, then fill these two voids and take their commission. To prevent being taken in by scammers, first and foremost be aware of where you are and who you are, and know that you can be targeted. Realize that IT can happen to you.

It is easy to read about scams that have happened to other travelers and think that they were merely fools and that you would not fall for the same tricks. I’ll tell you right now that you’re not immune, that even the most blatant seeming of scams are often difficult to get out of once your in them — and it often seems like an easier recourse to go with the flow and pay up than to go against the grain and not be duped. This tip is about how to prepare for the variety of scams that you’re bound to face around the world.

Know who you are NOT obliged to

Scams work in surprising few ways. One way is by catching you on a wave and creating a sense of social obligation between you and the scam artist. This is often done by making it appear as if you’ve built up some kind of rapport of friendship or some other type of inter-personal bond. People want to trust and feel connected to other people — especially when traveling — and this desire is a hook that can be used by the unscrupulous to use you as an ATM machine.

In 13 years of world travel I’ve been scammed only twice — and both were so minor and for such small amounts of money that they were almost worth it for the experience. But I’ve been targeted by scam artists hundreds of times. The reason why I’m not usually taken is because I don’t feel socially obligated to strangers or people I’ve just met — and it doesn’t bother me if they try to convince me that I’m rude.

The moment I feel someone pressuring me to do something that I’m hesitant to do is the moment a little switch is flipped on in my head and I know that it’s time to walk away. I’ve emotionally bookmarked what it feels like to have a con artist — or someone trying to make a sale etc . . . — push me into a trap of obligation. Lock in props are ubiquitous around the world, but I don’t know of any that can stop two feet walking away.

What is a lock in prop?

A lock in prop is a strategy used by scam artists, thieves, unruly merchants etc . . . to make you feel obliged to them in order to extract money. They often consist of doing you a favor, giving you a gift, buying you a meal, proclaiming your mutual friendship, making statements of international unity, giving you a glimpse into their culture, showing you hospitality — doing something to make you feel socially obligated to them. Usually, a call to action will soon follow where you’re pressured to buy something, given a sob story and asked to help them monetarily, or simply led into a situation were “bad people” rob you. Sometimes these call to actions happen almost immediately, sometimes they don’t come until days, or even weeks, of trust building has elapsed.

In point, be cautious when being shown extensive hospitality in tourist areas especially. You are not special here, you are one in a million, part of the landscape — and if you’re called out as being distinct and unique, be suspect that it could be a trap. Outside of tourist areas extensive hospitality has a much greater chance of being genuine, but the following advice still applies.

I know that if someone was truly my friend they would never pressure me into giving them money, helping them, or buying them anything. The genuine people of this world, generally speaking, have more pride than this. Even the poorest of the poor will often go to no small ends to cover up their poverty in the presence of a guest, and generosity without the expectation of reciprocation is usually the rule. Hospitality is almost culturally universal, and, if your new friends are genuine there will almost never be a call to action to have you reciprocate their kindness. The moment you are made to feel obliged to monetarily assist or do a favor for the people you just befriended abroad is the moment you can assume that you’ve been led into a scam.

Get out fast.

How to get out of scams

I have no fear of offending anyone. When I need to I have no qualms about speaking directly and loudly. I know that stepping off the wave of a bad situation means that I must stop being a polite and obedient little tourist and act like a Man. I can be a brute — it’s a character type that most all long term travelers eventually cultivate — and this keeps me from being taken advantage of by touts, scam artists, and thieves. I don’t do what people tell me to do just to be polite, and if this offends someone, I know that they were not really my friend anyway.

If someone does not have ill intentions, the words “No thank you” will be respected.

To get out of situations that feel as if their spinning out of control, just stop: stop the presses, stop the spinning wheels of the situation, step off the wave, and leave. Stop in your tracks, look the scam artist in the eye, and say “No, I don’t want to do this, leave me alone.” Then, with emotional impunity to the pleas and wails that you’re offending them, that you don’t understand their culture, that you’re a typical tourist, rude etc . . . you turn around and walk away.

I believe in patterns. Some mislabel them as stereotypes. Many people who are busted by scams often go into them knowingly, but, for some reason, they believe they could be a possible exceptions to the rule. They ignore the patterns they’ve been taught to see, they turn their backs on their preconceived notions of what constitutes a bad situation, and they open themselves up to being abused. Some travelers seem so much to want to feel as if they are special and are having a “unique” experience different from all the other tourist that they almost willfully get burned and taken advantage of.

The China tea house scam, were a group of friendly Chinese people who speak English invite you to join them for a cup of tea and then you’re severely overcharged for it, is still alive and well. Though the hostels in Beijing and Shanghai have warnings posted about it and the internet is full of testimonials and sob stories, foreigners still get suckered in by it nearly everyday. Many even know about the scam but they apparently don’t want to believe that it is happening to them as they walk into the tea house.

This scam is among the most typical in the world.

When in a tourist area, you are a dumb tourist, I’m a dumb tourist — it’s okay to abide by this identity and run with it. It can be dangerous to not know your place when traveling abroad: separate the fantasy from travel and be yourself.

Am I any better than anybody else? No, I just learned these lessons the hard way: through experience.

More on avoiding scams and theft when traveling abroad

How to avoid pickpockets
Top travel safety tips


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Filed under: China, Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • Josh November 27, 2012, 4:32 pm

    Do you have chuggers in foreign countries? For the uninitiated… chuggers are ‘charity muggers’, often young adults, who are insanely cheery and happy and attempt to persuade you that you are lifelong friends. They then take your money for a charity…

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    • Wade Shepard November 28, 2012, 12:35 am

      Chuggers? Wow, I didn’t know they had a name. Thanks. Yeah, they’re all over the place. Sometimes they’re called NGOs, sometimes it’s just an individual collecting “donations,” and sometimes it’s just as you put it: people who try to gain your trust and friendship and they put you in a position where you feel obliged to pay out.

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    • djalexr April 18, 2013, 11:24 am

      chuggers are not really a scam though!? although they can be annoying just walk past them and say no thanks. And you should give to charity!

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  • Dmitri December 28, 2012, 4:42 pm

    Yeah! I spent about a month in Peru and everyone was so wonderful and nice that when I came back to Lima to catch a flight back home, I totally just wandered about downtown in midday feeling like having a drink, carefree, open to talking with people – so this guy just seemed like he was doing about the same thing as I, so we went to a cafe and ordered the drink. As we are having the drink I realize this guy is kind of boring I’m kind of stuck, so I ask for the bill. Yeah. I’ve been to expensive restaurants in Lima. But this was something else in total for a freaking drink. Pagar! Pagar! she yelled. What a bitch. Anyway I didn’t get my real money out, just kind of dropped a few back-picket bills and change and make it. I wanted to talk to a cop about it but didn’t. Would that be a good idea? I mean, everyone knows its a kind of theft, but can anything be done about it? I mean, technically the restaurants can have a menu with a million dollar hotdog, right. But yeah that was the only time. The rest of the time taxi drivers advised me how much to pay for different things so I’m not overcharged. It’s real cool when people don’t expect anything from you though.

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    • Wade Shepard December 29, 2012, 3:58 am

      Yeah, it’s pretty sad to have something like this happen on what was otherwise a good trip. Unless in immediate threat of physical danger, I recommend just paying a fair amount and walking out. They usually don’t come after you — and if they did you could just make a scene and tell everyone in the street what they tried to charge you. In places where this scam is run the locals tend to at least be aware that it exists in some form. I never recommend going to police anywhere for anything. They don’t tend to make situations any better and often make things a lot worse. It’s one thing to be robbed or cheated, it’s another to be robbed or cheated a second time by the police. Ask the locals in many Latin American countries if you should report a matter to the police and they usually just laugh.

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  • Uzuoma January 24, 2013, 7:17 am

    Woow it is becoming scary how much I can identify with the articles you are writing. Reading your articles I’m constantly nodding my head cause it sounds so familiar. 
    Last year I did a 3.5  months trip to Ghana and Burkina Faso ( have you been there?). While I was there I’ve been going through this social pressure almost everyday in Ghana and a few times in Burkina Faso ( The people in Burkina tend to be much more genuine and less Western-influenced then the Ghanaians). 
    In Burkina Faso I stayed two months and in the first week I met a guy whom I became friends with. I needed to sell a phone and buy some other stuff which are hard to get but he told me it was easy for him to get these things. So after 1.5 months of getting to know him, his friends, his family and sort of being integrated in the neighborhood, I thought I could trust him well enough to give him some money to buy these things. So some weeks after I gave him the money I was asking him where the things were at? He was trying to postpone it until I would have to leave… So one week before I was leaving Burkina Faso I confronted him with it and he came up with all kinds of excuses and even accused me that the only thing I was seeing was money and that I was using him. So I figured that from the first time he saw me he already had in mind to scam me.
    I know this might sound weird, but I couldn’t get angry at him, as I honestly don’t know how I would have acted if I were in his shoes… His life was pretty fucked up and future-less and then I haven’t seen all of it.  Of course I met lots of other people there who were genuine with me all the way, but it stays hard  to judge someone who is in such a situation.
    To get to what you said about being special and unique. My mother is from Europe and my father from West-Africa, but I was raised in Europe. So while in Africa I sometimes found myself to be in between the tourists and the locals. One time I had to watch over the crafts-shop of someone I was staying at. Then some tourists  came in and thought I was the shop owner! But if I walked outside and walk into another shop I would be treated as a foreigner. So it was hard for me not to feel like I’m in a special position. But don’t get it confused, when it came to scamming I was just the same as all the other tourists (some even used it against me). Although I think more doors opened up and I met more people because of my appearance. So unique? Yes in a lot of situations except not when it’s about money, no foreigner is no matter what you look like.
    Considering all this I don’t think people who read this article should be afraid of being scammed and not engage with locals anymore. After all these times of being scammed I stayed open to others and had a lot of nice meetings with people. I just was more careful, wasn’t afraid to be impolite when I was feeling uncomfortable and let the other know my limits. 

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    • Vagabond Journey January 25, 2013, 3:30 am

      @Uzuoma Thanks for sharing this story. It is often difficult navigating the seas of trust when traveling. For sure, as you put it, being afraid of being scammed and not opening yourself up to interacting with people is often worse than being scammed.  
      Yes, so much of this has to do with basic issues of respect. It is my feeling that respect is essential for friendship, and if someone cheats you there is no way that you could ever really be friends with that person, as it’s clear they have no respect for you.
      This is what bothers me about scams perhaps more than anything else: it’s not the money or things you stand to lose but realizing that someone you thought was your friend truly has no respect for you or interest in having a genuine friendship. That is what stands to be lost. 
      But putting yourself out on a limb and trusting someone with your money or possessions is a good way to see where you really stand in a community, as it shows you how well you’re respected. This is vital knowledge to gain, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell behind all the smiles how people really feel about you, as a foreigner in their group. When you’re in places where you’re truly respected and have true friends, there is no worry about being cheated, as the entire community will often acknowledge that respect.

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