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Avoiding Scams
Avoiding Scams Against Travelers

Travel is one of the world's largest industries, and it is growing. Unfortunately, a related growth industry is ripping off travelers. For local scam artists, each new tourist season brings in a fresh crop of inexperienced travelers who have not yet learned the tricks of the road. Inevitably, some of them end up learning the hard way. Reading the following paragraphs is learning the easy way. First, divide up your valuables

So that you will have some identification and money left no matter which bag gets stolen. Go to a travel store and get a hidden money belt. There are many designs available, all of which work fairly well. Keep your passport and the bulk of your valuables there, and just keep enough money for the day in your pocket. In high crime areas, you might consider having one money belt, and one neck pouch or leg pouch. Dress as if you are poor.

You don't have to wear clothes with holes in them, but don't wear jewelry, fancy watches, expensive shoes, or upscale clothes. Try to blend in with the locals.

Fanny packs make you look like a tourist, and therefore a target. Day packs have a similar effect. Instead, try to find some local equivalent, often made of native cloth. Choose something modest. It is less likely to be stolen, and it will make a good souvenir. (Reverse psychology: wear a fanny pack, but don't keep anything valuable in it. If you get robbed, they will take the fanny pack, and your passport will be safe in your hidden money belt.)

Be on guard whenever you have luggage with you in public. While waiting in lines, stand on a backpack strap, or keep your bags leaning against the front of your legs. If they start to move, you will notice. When sitting down at an airport or train station, lock your bag to something immovable. If you are sleeping, sleep on top of your bag.

Look out for intuitive "red flags." Anytime a stranger approaches you with a story which involves giving him your money or possessions, no matter how sincere the stranger may seem, you should be very careful and very suspicious. Con artists can be quite convincing. It's their job. If you never give them anything, even "just for a moment," you have a much better chance of keeping what's yours.

Talk to people about current scams. Talk to hostel or hotel owners, tour guides, cabbies, and fellow travelers to find out what is trendy with local thieves.

Above all, be aware of your surroundings. Oblivious tourists are a thief's favorite mark. By being streetwise, watching things happening around you, dressing modestly, and keeping your belongings close to you, you will encourage most thieves to pick another target.

The foll owing are a few classic scams, popular with thieves the world over. If you run across a scam you think we should list, please email us at, or fax to (415) 552 1978.

The Metal Detector Hustle

Thieves working in pairs watch for good targets approaching airport metal detectors. When a good mark comes along (folks toting laptop computers are favorite targets), they wait until the victims place their bag in the X-ray machine. Then one thief cuts in line in front of the victim, sets off the metal detector, and causes a delay (and a distraction.) Meanwhile, the thief's partner waits on the other side of the metal detector, scoops the victim's bag up, and makes his getaway.

The Mustard Stain Trick (AKA the Bird Dropping Trick

In a crowded area, a person will brush his sandwich against you, leaving a blob of sauce on your clothes. He will apologize profusely, and frantically try to clean the stain. Meanwhile, his partner has made off with the luggage you put down, or picked your pockets. As a variation, sometimes they claim that a bird has soiled the back of your jacket. Defense: If someone starts cleaning a stain on you, aggressively hold onto your belongings, retreat, and clean yourself off in a less crowded spot.

Hotel room Break-ins

This tends to occur in Third World countries, especially in budget accommodations. The staff ensures that the hotel room is not secure, either because the windows don't lock, or the door has no lock, etc. When you leave your room, the thieves rummage through everything. Defense: Only accept a room that you have inspected and know is secure. Use the hotel safe to keep your major valuables. Keep your passport, etc. with you in your money belt, even when you go down the hall to shower.

The Sandwich

Used on crowded subways, and sometimes in other crowded places. As you try to get off the crowded subway, someone else will bump into you as he tries to get on. He pushes you into the person behind you, who is the pickpocket. Defense: Be on guard in crowded buses and trains. Keep your hands over your valuables, and don't let bumps and jostling deter you. If you feel a hand in your pocket, grab it if you can, and yell "Thief!" at the top of your lungs. Of course, it is better to know the local word for thief, but the English word is understood almost everywhere. And thieves hate attention.

Newspaper-bearing Pickpocket

Popular near major tourist sites. The thief pretends to be showing you a cardboard sign or a newspaper, and presses it up against you. As the thief talks, attempting to distract you, he or she is picking your pockets, using the newspaper to shield your view. Defense: maintain your personal space. Push the newspaper down, and retreat, while firmly saying, "No, thank you."

Mob Tactics

Especially popular in Rome, and increasingly common in the former Eastern Block states. A mob of children run up to a tourist, asking for change, or that you take a photo. As the kids tug on you, begging and pleading, several more are behind you, discreetly rummaging through your fanny pack and pockets. Defense: Again, be aware. If you sense you are being "mobbed & robbed," you have two unpleasant choices: fight or flight. Unfortunately, the mobs often choose targets that cannot easily flee, such as senior citizens and pregnant women. Choosing to fight is risky, and we cannot recommend it. But if you fight, find the leader (usually the oldest child), and hit him as hard as you can. Good luck!

Person in the Road

This is a particularly dangerous scam, and it plays on your good Samaritan urges. It usually happens on small highways in rural areas, and the target is (presumably wealthy) tourists in cars. A group of thieves creates a fake accident scene on the side of the road, often involving at least one victim who ends up sprawled out in the road, blocking your path. When the good Samaritan stops and gets out of his car to see if he can help, he is robbed of his possessions, his car, and maybe his life. Defense: you have to trust your instincts on this one. If it happens to you, try driving around the victim, slowly and determinedly, but leaving no doubt that you will not stop, even if people put themselves in your way. It is OK to break traffic laws if it means saving your life.

Car Jacking

This lovely scam is one of the most dangerous, and it is native to the USA. While you are stopped in a parking lot or at a traffic light, one or more persons approaches your car and orders you out. They usually have guns, and sometimes shoot without hesitation. Prevention: always have your keys ready before you reach your parked car. If you are nervous, ask a store clerk to accompany you out to your car. When stopped in traffic, always leave an escape space between you and the car in front of you. If things start to look suspicious, get yourself out of the situation, even if it means breaking a traffic law. This crime is most common in urban, inner-city environments. Defense: if you cannot instantly escape a car jacking, get out of the car immediately and tell the carjacker to go ahead and take it. These crimes happen very quickly. The best thing you can do is be aware of your surroundings, so you can avoid the crime before it starts. Another variation is "the bump:" when driving in a deserted area, someone hits you gently from behind. When you get out to assess the damage, one of the thieves hops into your car and drives away. Defense: Only get out of your car to inspect damage in a safe, well-lighted place. Lock the door behind you.

Rental Car Break-ins

Thieves in tourist areas know that rental cars are often full of cameras and luggage. Defense: minimize the signs that your rental car is what it is. If there is a rental car company sticker or license plate frame on the car, take it off as soon as you leave the rental lot. Do not leave maps or luggage visible in the car when you park it. And ask at your hotel where the safest places are to park. A Mexico City variation has spotters checking stopped cars for valuables, and marking good targets by sticking bubble gum onto the windows. At the next stop light, other thieves break the windows and grab whatever they can. Defense: Keep all valuables out of sight, even when driving the vehicle.

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