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CONSUMER CORNER: Travel Scams- Alan Marx

iStock: dorian2013


You have to pay when you travel, but scams travel for free. What works for a con artist in one part of the world can easily jump borders and reappear any place else in a matter of minutes.

Today’s blog will focus on travel scams. My reason for choosing this topic is that I fell for one of these cons recently. I am writing with the hope that if you know what could be coming, it will not happen to you.

I did a quick survey of several well-known travel sites to see what schemes they are warning readers to avoid.


Scambusters ( warns about the vulnerability of cell phones through Bluetooth, the system that allows cell phones, tablets, and wireless headphones to connect with each other by using the “discoverable” mode.   If you leave Bluetooth activated, hackers can pair with your devices without your knowledge. Scambusters says they can steal your information, send messages, and install viruses. Scambusters recommends turning the Bluetooth feature off after you make your connection and using encryption software for all the sensitive data on your devices.

Scambusters also cautions about an airport scam when laptop computers are placed on the conveyer belt at security. The person in front of the computer owner triggers the metal alarm. By the time the owner gets through the line, the laptop is gone, taken by an accomplice of the person who set off the alarm. Scambusters advises not putting anything valuable through the scanner until you are about to go through the detector or, perhaps even better, having your travelling companion, if there is one, go through first and watch at the receiving end.

Finally, Scambusters warns against using laptops to log into free Wi-Fi sites at airports unless you are sure they are legitimate. There are dangers in using unsecured links, such as those of nearby computers, which may infect your computer with malware. One of the most insidious types of malware is key-logging programs, which can capture your personal information including your passwords.

Budget Travel

The Budget Travel website ( cautions about a pizza scam found in Orlando. Flyers with menus for pizza delivery were placed under the doors of hotel guests. When the guests placed orders, they were asked for their credit card numbers. The delivery number was not connected to a pizza parlor, but it was an operation run by identity thieves. Budget Travel says Disney World supported a law to crack down on the people handing out flyers, but the problem has continued.   Budget Travel recommends if you want pizza, ask for a reliable number from your hotel.

Budget Travel also warns about another hotel scam. You check into a hotel. In the middle of the night you receive a telephone call claiming to be from the “front desk.” The caller says your credit card was not accepted and asks you to read the numbers again. This scam is timed to hit you when you are half asleep, banking that you will give your credit card information by phone. Budget Travel advises you to hang up and call the front desk to be sure the request is legitimate.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves, the well-known travel author (, warns about pickpockets. They ply their trade in crowded spaces, especially in museums, at festivals, on public transportation, and even in churches. At the Louvre museum in Paris they became so common that the museum staff walked out in protest.

There are many variations to the pickpocket approach. As an example, Steves cites a scam in which an item is dropped in front of you, and when you bend down to pick it up, your wallet disappears. Other examples are a commotion that breaks out around you, an apparently elderly person who falls and appears to need your assistance, or a fake beggar who confronts you, all of which are designed to distract you while the pickpocket works.

Steves calls one the “Excuse Me Spill.” I encountered this scheme years ago while I was out for a walk with my college age nephew. I was several steps in front of him, and I had noticed a man and a woman walking behind us. The fact that it was a couple probably put both of us off guard. I turned when I heard their voices and saw them standing close to my nephew, pointing up and telling tell him in Spanish that a bird had messed up on his jacket. They were reaching out for him, as if to brush off the mess. Fortunately, they were not very good at their trade, and they left without getting his wallet. We quickly found out that they had squirted mustard on him as a distraction. As we walked further, we saw other people wearing mustard, but none of them had lost anything to the thieves. I later read that this scam was so common that perpetrators were known locally as “Mustard Banditos.”

In another variation one of my friends had a soft drink spilled on him on a subway. He immediately realized that his wallet was gone. He chased the thief and recovered the wallet, but that is not a prudent thing to do. It would be much safer to keep little in your wallet and instead use a money belt or a pouch under your clothing when you are traveling. Also, do not wear expensive jewelry or watches. A cheap digital watch will give you the correct time, and losing it will not cause you much grief.

Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet ( publishes an extensive set of travel guidebooks, including titles that cover many remote and exotic locations. It warns against credit card fraud, in which the scammer copies your information or runs the card twice.

In the U. S. we are accustomed to giving our credit cards to the waiter, who takes them to someplace out of sight to process them. In other countries, where chip and pin credit cards are the norm, the waiter brings a wireless credit card reader to your table and processes the card in front of you. The chip and pin approach is much safer, because just copying your information does not allow the waiter or the establishment to place false charges on your account. Unfortunately, the U. S. will not have chip and pin cards as the norm for at least one or two more years, but at long last the transition is underway. Some credit card companies now allow cardholders to request and receive chip and pin cards.

Luggage theft is another common problem. It can occur when someone offers to help you with your bags at an airport or bus station. Be wary of anyone who does not have an official badge, and even be cautious when there is an official-looking badge.

Many large airports have attended taxi stands. If you have any doubt about the amount of the fare, ask the attendant. Some airport attendants have brochures they will give you with approximate fares. There are countries outside of the U. S. where it is much safer to only use cabs that are called by telephone or radio. Restaurants in those countries will call for you. An alternative is to rely on cabs called by you hotel or by the doorman. Even in those situations, it is best to have the cab driver confirm the price in front of the doorman before your luggage is placed in the cab, especially if there is a language barrier.


The Reddit website ( has a story about a scam that is popular (with thieves, of course) in Budapest. A woman tourist was looking at a map on a busy street when an older man approached her and asked if she needed directions. She said she did not, but he started a conversation by asking where she was from. A second man wearing a blazer then approached, briefly showed an ID, and said he was with the Hungarian police. He said he was looking for counterfeit money and asked both of them to show their passports and wallets.   The older man complied, and the young woman showed her passport and a couple of bills she had in her wallet. Then the “policeman” wanted to look at their credit cards to see if they were fake. He told the older man to put his pin into a cellphone for verification. When he asked the young woman to do the same, she refused, telling him only an idiot would give out a pin on the street. The “policeman” then sent the older man on his way and told the young lady something like, "I know you're ok, I'm just trying to keep an eye on that guy. Have a nice day."

My Scam Experience

So, which one did I encounter? It was a variation of the Budapest scheme. To put it in context, these days when you travel you are often asked by other tourists to take their picture. They then hand you their camera or their cell phone. It happened once or twice a day on my last trip. The desire by tourists to keep a photographic record of where they have been has led to the invention of a strange device that we dubbed the “selfie stick,’ a thin pole that holds a smart phone or a camera about the length of a golf club away from the owner.

We were on our last day in a city, and we had tickets for a train that would leave in less than two hours. At 7 a.m. I went out on the street to get a cup of coffee. About 200 feet from my hotel, a young man asked if I would take his picture on his cell phone. He said he was a tourist from Bulgaria, so I tried to accommodate his request. I could not get his cell phone camera to work and was handing it back to him when two men in sports jackets moved in very quickly. While focusing on his camera, I had not noticed them. They flashed ID cards, claimed they were police investigating drug sales in the area, and demanded our passports and wallets. They searched the young man’s wallet in front of us, and then one of them examined the contents of my wallet while I watched. Of course, when I later checked the wallet my local currency, fortunately not very much, and a $50 U. S. bill were gone.

At some point while they were looking at my wallet I realized that it was a scam and that the young man was part of it. My thoughts at that point were that I could raise a fuss, but there were three of them. I did not like the odds, and I decided it was not worth getting into a street fight over the small amount of money involved.

I had actually read about this type of scam before I encountered it ( Unfortunately, that advance warning did not help until it was too late.

I probably was rude to many tourists for the rest of the trip. Every time I was asked to take a picture, I said “no” in a loud voice and moved away quickly. I am sure some of them reacted by saying “What the …?”


Travel should be a pleasure, but there are people out there who want to spoil your fun. Knowing what could happen is a good start on preserving your happy memories, but even if you know you can still be caught by surprise. The best advice is take little with you that you do not absolutely have to have when you travel, and when you are out on the street enjoying the destination, leave your valuables in your hotel room, preferably in the room safe if there is one. It is a lot cheaper to replace a Timex that a Rolex, and a diamond ring may have sentimental value that can never be replaced.


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