Don’t get caught out by these sneaky travel scams

Travelling Well | Michael Gebicki | Posted on 31 October 2019

10 of the top travel scams to watch out out for when travelling.

Scam artists have been lying in wait for hapless travellers since the year dot. There are said to be enough “pieces of the true cross” on which Christ was crucified to rebuild Noah’s Ark, and if anyone offers to sell you a “Rolex” for $100 or less, keep walking. As the number of tourists has proliferated, so has the number of scamsters, and the various ways they have devised to part you from your cash. Some you can see straight through, others are subtle, convincing and devious, and you’ll probably be kicking yourself long after you’ve been fleeced. Despite the snares, the pleasures of the world far outweigh the pitfalls. And with some research and planning before you set off, you'll be alert. These are 10 of the top travel scams to watch out for in 2020.

Man waiting at currency exchange booth

Be savvy about where you exchange currencies.

10 travel scams to watch for

Fake visa sites

Several countries including the USA, Canada and India now offer e-visas or visa waivers, which you can apply for online. That’s convenient, and a win for travellers, but it has also opened the door to scam visa websites. While they look like the real deal, these websites add a hefty fee to the cost, usually around $100. There’s one easy way to tell the fakes. If the URL, that’s the website address in the box at the top of the website, has a “.com” in it, that’s a commercial website, not the official one, and you’ll get hit with extra charges if you proceed. The government website will usually contain either “.gov” or else “.go” in the URL – if you see a co or com, then steer clear. To be on the safe side, use the Australian government’s smart traveller website ( to check out the visa requirements for your destination country, then click straight through to the official embassy or consulate which will have links to legitimate online visa applications.   

Tea Time

A young woman approaches, tells you she’s studying English and asks if you’d be kind enough to help her practise? Perhaps over tea at a nearby cafe? You agree, tea comes and you chat until eventually she leaves you, and then the bill arrives. It’s surprisingly large, perhaps several hundred dollars, and although you may dispute it your bargaining position is not strong. This particular version is exclusive to China but there are variations all around the world, whether it’s a nightclub in Spain or a bar in Istanbul. It’s almost exclusively men who are targeted, and young and attractive woman as the bait.  

Count your change 

You’ve paid for an item with cash, watched the seller count out the change but when you walk away you’re short a note or two. You’ve fallen victim to sleight of hand, but if you go back to confront the scammer it’s already too late, he’ll turn the tables on you. Stand at the counter when he hands you the cash and do your own count, any funny business and you’ll know straight away.  

Fake wifi 

There’s every chance you’ll come across a free, unsecured wifi network when you’re away from home, and beware. If you use one of these sites, whether you’re online with a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, there is a potential for hackers to see what websites you're visiting and your passwords. Hackers will sometimes establish a free rogue wifi network for the purpose of harvesting users’ data. Airport terminals or anywhere else travellers congregate with time on their hands are especially vulnerable.  

The commission rort 

At the end of your day tour, your guide ushers you into a shop. Lights and air conditioning come on, the assistants bustle around assuring you that this is a government approved shop and everything is hand-made in their own workshop. There might even be one on the premises. Almost certainly, your guide will get a cut of anything you buy and the merchant inflates the price to cover the cost. The base figure is 10 per cent, but it can run to 35 per cent. While it might sound unfair, the amount that most tour operators pay guides is negligible. Only by delivering tourists to merchants who pay them commission can a tour guide earn enough to support a family. At the end of the day, it is your decision to buy. 

The surprise package 

You’ve bought a set of crystal glasses but when you get home, two are different. Whether it’s a bracelet, a pashmina shawl or a carpet, watch as it gets packaged up to make sure it’s what you paid for. If you're having it sent to your home address, snap photos of the item before wrapping as well as the final package. Beware of “designer” labels at a knockdown price. The world is full of Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci sunglasses that aren’t the real thing.  

Your lucky day? 

“Monsieur/Madame, I think you dropped this?” You’re in Paris, a pedestrian stops to pick something up as you pass by and voila! It looks like solid gold. It might even have a hallmark to prove it. “Surely this must be yours,” says your not-so-good Samaritan. If you play along and express surprise and delight at its swift recovery, the finder will ask for a reward, and make it pretty obvious you won’t get away without paying. While it might look like gold to a casual eye, the ring is brass, and worth about 50 cents. Other European cities have their own specialty scams. 

Elaborate temple in Thailand

Beware the temple donation of doom.

Yellow taxi drives along busy street in Philadelphia

Don't let a dodgy taxi driver hail on your holiday parade.

The temple takedown

“Thanks for visiting the Temple of the Mother Goddess, can you please leave a donation?” The priest who has just taken you around is showing you a visitors’ book. Alongside the names and country of origin is the sum each has donated, and the figures are celestial. This is intended to guilt-trap you into parting with something similar, but there’s no need. If you offer a far more modest sum, the priest will most likely snap the visitors’ book shut, or suggest you add a zero to the amount you’ve actually donated when you write in the book.

Commission-free currency exchange 

Beware of currency exchange booths that advertise “commission-free” exchanges. In any cash exchange the crucial question is how much local currency am I getting for my Australian dollars? The merchant might not be charging you a commission, but if they’re manipulating the exchange rate in their favour you’re getting less than you should. Check the true conversion rate on the website or download the xe app.  

Taxi traumas

You’ve just arrived in a new city and you’re taking a taxi, but the driver hasn’t turned on the meter. You might remonstrate, but the driver fobs you off. When you get to your destination the fare is astronomical. You could have taken a limo with a motorcycle escort for less. In Western Europe or North America your taxi will have a meter and the driver will use it. In many other parts of the world, ask the driver how much the fare is going to be before you set off. If he indicates the meter, you’re okay. If not, negotiate. Another facet to the taxi driver scam, you might have given the driver a €50 note. You’d swear it before a judge but now he’s holding up €10 saying that’s what you gave him, and it’s short. Try saying whatever you’re handing over, “This is 50 euros, okay?”

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