3 Travel Scams That Never Die

“Psst, hey buddy, come here, I got a great deal on a brand new Rolex.” If you are an experienced traveler or have visited a large city in the United States, you have probably been approached with a similar line. Of course, the guy in the trench coat is not selling the real deal—they are knockoffs and it is a scam. People have a tendency to become complacent and think they are too smart to fall for such a ruse.  I did, and I was wrong. Even the most frequent flier can be had. The three largest scams have been around for eons, but they are still prevalent today!

Distract and Lift

Any magician worth his salt knows all about sleight of hand or misdirection. This is by far the most common scam of all and it comes in many colors. A few years back, I was using an ATM and a “nice old granny” asked me a question and when I diverted my attention, her accomplice snatched my ATM proceeds.

Tom Derricotte a business traveler with a Fortune 500 company and the owner of mirrormuffz.com, a website for the latest college fan gear was a victim of misdirection recently in Buenos Aires. “A colleague and I were walking through the city when a man came up to us speaking Spanish and motioning frantically and pointing to the back of our pants and waving a napkin. We had no idea how, but we both had mustard smeared across the back of our jeans, and he was offering to wipe it off.” Of course, the man moved in quickly and wiped the pants clean of the mustard and his colleague’s wallet!

As horrible as it sounds, your best advice to avoid these is to doubt everyone. I should have finished my transaction before talking to “granny” and Tom should have thanked them and moved onto a more secure place to clean up their pants. Such schemes depend on distraction, and often involve a team of people. When approached by a party you don’t know, be on your guard.

Bait And Switch

Hotels and car rental agencies tend to be some of the leading contenders. The classic scam lures you in with an impossible or bargain basement price, and when you attempt to complete the transaction—shazam, the deal is no longer available. To be fair, this is much less frequent in the internationally branded hotels, but it still happens with alarming frequency.

Two weeks ago, Jacquie Whitt, the Director of US Operations for Adios Adventure Travel in Virginia Beach was returning to the US with a student group from Peru. A visa issue ensued (the travel document, not the credit card) and one student was denied boarding to return. Jacquie and the student were quoted a $179 rate for a Five-Star hotel near the embassy. “We flagged a taxi and used our last bit of cash to drive to the hotel, arriving at midnight. At the front desk, the hotel agent told me the $179 room was no longer available, but she did have a luxury suite open for $655.” Ultimately, Jacquie and her student spent the night in a neighboring hotel for $179.

Often times, car rental agents and hotel clerks will tell you that your reserved car or room is not available but there is an upgrade available. Sometimes that is true; but often the agent is looking to earn a commission on your naiveté. Stick to your guns and demand a no-cost upgrade or to be “walked” to a competitor.

There is no law that says you have to be a victim. Complain at the time and voice your displeasure. You rarely need to accept the switched offer. Often when someone realizes you are prepared to walk away completely, the deal will miraculously re-appear. Of course, the best defense is having a confirmation in writing if possible.

Public Transportation

Public transportation is fertile breeding ground for travel scams. Buses, planes and trains are crowded with strangers and taxis are gone once they have turned the corner.

In many destinations, taxis are not regulated so it is important to agree on a price up front. But if you are in a regulated area, don’t let your guard down. Brian Ghidinelli recalls encountering a cab drive in Costa Rica who had a rigged meter, and an official looking fare card. His $2 ride ended up costing him $20. Brian suggests “getting several taxi drivers and asking them all how much it’s going to be and turn them against each other to get a lower, more realistic price.”

When it comes to taxis, do your homework and know if the destination regulates taxis and if so, how to recognize them. Never be afraid to ask how much it will cost and hold the driver to his word as long as it is reasonable. On public transit, it is best to keep your belongings with you; and if not possible, keep them in clear sight and keep them locked.

Overhead storage can also be a prime target. How many times have you tossed an unlocked suitcase in an overhead bin on an airplane and dozed off? Thieves will target these bags and unless you know who else is sharing your bin, you really have no idea if someone is looking through their bag or yours. Brian also fell victim to a scam on a bus. It was standing room only and the thief gradually jostled his bag to a position where he could grab it and exit the bus before anyone knew any better.

While these three scams tend to be the most prolific year after year, a renewed warning is always in order. But keep in mind that these are only the top three and you are likely to encounter scam artists, new scams, and variation on the old ones everywhere you go.

Got a travel problem, complaint or gripe?  Let us see if we can be of assistance.  Send us an email to ombudsman@travelhoppers.com!

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About the author: John Frenaye

John has been in the travel industry since 1997 and held many roles including agency owner, member of the ASTA Communications Committee, Board Advisor to iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, and an MSNBC.com travel columnist. Throughout that time, he has amassed a a level head for solving problems and a sizable "rolodex" for getting the attention of the right person to solve your travel woes. Please feel free to email him or visit his site.

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