≡ Menu
Vagabond Journey

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 [...]

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

Filed under: China, Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 87 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3349 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech RepublicMap