10 travel scams around the world – and how to avoid them

McDonalds deny rumours that Ronald McDonald has been implicated in scams and is under arrest in Panama. 

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

Brazil doesn’t have a monopoly on scams and the fact that the idea for this post occurred to me while in Rio de Janeiro is pure coincidence. Honest. This beautiful city is suffering from a reputation that is going to be hard to shake, but it is already infinitely less risky than it was even two years ago.

There was a time when crime was so ridiculously commonplace here that it gave rise to several stories – with their own elements of Carioca black-humour – that have become a part of Rio street-lore. One story tells of the armed gang that busted into a general store only to find that another gang was already in the process of robbing the place. Another tells of the carjacking incident where the thieves managed to navigate their stolen vehicle for just a few blocks before another gang held them up at a red light… and carjacked the carjackers.

Set out on your journeys with an open heart and you will find that independent travel is the best way of reassuring yourself that 99 percent of people in the world are actually good. On the other hand, many of the bad characters that are a part of any country will often gravitate to the places where naive tourists and backpackers gather. And they will do their best to come up with original scams and rip-offs. Here are a few of the most imaginative that we’ve heard of lately.

1/ Simple pickpocketing (worldwide)

A small boy runs along promenade being chased by two shouting men. It all happens so quickly that the boy has run past me before I can react. Recalling the look of fear on the boy’s face, I wonder in hindsight, whether I instinctively sided with his pursuers or with him. A seven-year-old boy down from the favelas doing the only thing he knows…how can we judge? He escaped along the sand while the men loped hopelessly after him. He wasn’t caught and will rob again. He’ll just make sure he’s smarter and faster next time.

TIP: If it can be avoided don’t carry more than you can afford to lose. Keep your valuables in different pockets and in pockets that are uncomfortable enough so that you are always aware of them. Don’t be paranoid and make yourself look like a victim, but be wary at all times of who is close to you. At night walk in the open (in the road if it’s quiet) to avoid “ambush” from doorways.

2/ Fake kidnapping (common in Brazil)

A frantic phonecall. A garbled cry for help. Then the cold controlled tones of the kidnapper’s voice: the threat, the ransom transfer details, the warnings of what will happen if the police are informed. Many people have paid huge amounts of money before the “kidnap victim” returns home from an uneventful shopping trip. These calls are very often no more than a random number dialed on the off-chance that the person who picks up the phone has a daughter/wife/sister who is out of the house. There never was a kidnapping and these scams are often run, so they say, from prison cells.

TIP: I know at least three people who have experienced this (one was on his way to make the payment when he bumped into his daughter), and apparently the initial phone call can be so scary as to be nightmare provoking. Fortunately, communications are now so good that people are able to confirm the whereabouts of their loved ones before they hand over the ransom.

3/ Trip-pocketing (probably international but commonly seen in Spain)

You’re walking down a crowded sidewalk and an unfortunate passerby fumbles his sunglasses (or keys, or a handful of coins) and drops them at your feet. You dance nimbly backwards, doing your best not to stamp on the sunnies. If you sense anything suspicious at all in the incident, it will most likely be towards the man in front of you… not towards the one you have backed into and who is now slipping your wallet out of your pocket.

TIP: Turn around to cover your back. And if you get a chance, stamp on the damn sunglasses… well, it’s the only revenge you will ever get because the moment everyone involved realizes that you are familiar with the scam you’ll be surrounded by innocent and offended-looking people.

5/ Bag switch (international but last tried on me personally a few months ago in Argentina)

A passerby stops at your coffee table to ask if this dropped object (a key, a piece of paper, a place mat even) is yours. He seems oddly confused and adamant that the object must be yours. As you discuss this with him you fail to notice that his accomplice at the next table has quietly slid your backpack back towards his own chair. He is sitting across the table from another man who now holds two backpacks. When they arrived at the table an observant witness might have seen two men carrying backpacks. When they leave the appearance will be the same: but one man will have two bags over one shoulder and the other will be carrying yours.

TIP: Be aware at all times of what is going on around you. Be wary of suspicious behavior (without being distrustful). And, most importantly, have your leg hooked through your bag’s strap so you can feel it move.

6/ Bus busting (endemic in Latin America)

I recently heard the story of the quick-thinking young woman who realised that the bus she was on was about to be robbed, and managed to hide her jewellery before the thieves reached her seat. Badly shaken, she gave up on her evening out and hopped on another bus heading in the other direction… only to realise that the bandits had also caught this bus and took full advantage of their second chance to rob her.

TIP: Carry a separate wallet with expired credit cards and a bunch of small notes. For many years I carried a substitute wallet with a stash of rupees to bulk it up and a 100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwe dollar note (guaranteed to raise pulses but actually worth a few cents). Unfortunately, nobody ever robbed me and I got tired of carrying it around.

7/ Razor bag (international)

This is a fairly uncertain robbery attempt, but one that means limited risk for the thieves. They simply slice your backpack with a razor and follow you to collect what falls out. This was so bad in South America years ago that backpackers were travelling with wire mesh inside their packs.

TIP: The wire mesh plan is inconvenient and rips your clothes. In any crowded place it is far better to have your pack swung around in front of you.

8/ Squirt attack (international)

Basically another diversionary pickpocket attempt. This time someone will have squirted or smeared some substance onto your pack. Most commonly it will be washing liquid or ketchup, but in one incident I heard of recently it was excrement. Somebody will alert you to the fact that you are covered in this evil gunk and might even help to clean you off. Be wary because your good Samaritan might very likely be the same person who is also going to help by lightening your load.

TIP: Be wary of any suspicious circumstance. Don’t react rashly or spontaneously and if in doubt head for a public area – a bar or café – where you can clean off without unwanted help.

9/ Sleeping beauty (international, but said to be common in the Thai islands)

The stories I heard were all of girls who had a holiday romance with Thai guys, but the relationship never got beyond the point of “light-hearted romance”. Some guys might see this as a slight on their manhood and – more importantly – damaging for their reputation in the eyes of their midnight-cowboy peers. On the last night that the girls were in the islands their drinks were spiked with drugs. The girls reported afterwards that they could understand everything that was happening but were unable to react.

This was the Thai guy’s last desperate attempt to “get lucky”, but fortunately the girls I heard about were with friends who looked after them – which is probably why you are reading about them. How many others have been through this and kept silent?

“Boa noite, Cindarella” [Goodnight Cinderella) is a drugging variant that is said to be a common robbery scam in which gay men are often the victim. They may be drugged either before or after sex and then robbed.

There have also been report from many places (South America and Thailand again) of travellers who were drugged on buses or trains and woke to find all their belongings had been removed at an earlier station.

TIP: Hard to guard against without seeming paranoid. Not every fellow traveller who offers to share their lunch on a train (this is common in SE Asia) is trying to drug you and you might miss out on a great experience by refusing. It’s vague but the best tip is often to go with your instincts.

10/ Fake notes (international, although I’ve heard of this lately in Argentina and – in a very imaginative system – witnessed it myself in Morocco)

Most travellers are aware of the importance of familiarising themselves with the banknotes and values as quickly as possible upon arrival a country. But even the most experienced can run up on problems in countries where currencies can change with surprising regularity. During the course of eight years when I returned fairly regularly to Zimbabwe, the currency there crashed from 8 Zim Dollars (against 1USD) to 15 trillion and Mugabe was frantically trimming zeros off his notes like fruit off a marula tree. You had to be sure you were getting the latest notes and not old devalued ones. Similarly, I arrived in Mexico just as the Peso became the Nuevo (new) Peso, and scammers on the borders were still selling the worthless old notes to unwary backpackers. Argentine taxi drivers are also said to be notorious for switching your good 100 Peso note for a fake.

TIP: Familiarise yourself with the currency. www.xe.com or the related app is one of the most useful sources of info you can travel with. Also, memorise the last four digits on the serial number of big notes before you hand them over.

Just to reassure you that it’s not all bad news and that the villains also have their bad days from time-to-time: just two weeks ago national Brazilian TV showed an incident where a – now famous – lookout man for a gang of bank-robbers accidentally shot himself in the foot in full view of the bank’s CCTV camera. Watch the video here.


Did you know… the majority of backpackers who get ripped off fall victim within 40 minutes of arrival in a new country. Mark Eveleigh has been a victim of more than a few of them over the years; here, written from experience, are his 10 key guidelines to avoiding the pitfalls and pungi-traps of your next destination.


  • Christine says:

    Then there’s also the visa-touts selling fake visas just before you get to the border post (got this at Thai/Cambodian border) and also in Thailand, scammers telling you a palace/temple is closed for lunch/prayers/whatever, but they’ll take you to another one for a fat fee. (Tip: The Grand Palace in Bangkok is open every day.)

  • Thanks for the comment Christine. Unfortunately the list is a long one and new scams will always keep appearing. For sure you also saw the ridiculously cheap tuk-tuk ‘tours’ (20baht for a day I’m told now!)…and you end up getting the hard sell at an endless series of jade/tailors/souvenir shops. The driver picks up his commission on everything you buy.
    We could have done a list here of 50 scams if we put our heads together.
    Anyone got another to add….?

  • Lucie says:

    wow, this is a scary list Mark…. one of main reasons I’m keeping my travels to South America on hold till the right time comes. I could also add long list of different scams, Egyptians in particular are experts… (maybe on similar level to Indians… where even simple Hello and offered handshake turns into paid massage)… Good luck on your travels !!


  • nomadicchick says:

    This brought back memories! In 2008 I told friends I was going to Brazil and shouldn’t they be excited for me? Uh, no. Even the well-travelled ones told me they would never go there alone. Me, being stubborn, went anyway. Guess they thought I’d be robbed, kidnapped or God knows what. This was when Copacabana was considered plum territory for thieves, among other evil acts. Glad to hear it’s a safe zone again. While there, I witnessed and heard many tales of pickpocketing. I was lucky or stupid – walking around alone at night in Ipanema – coming out unscathed. The only trouble that happened was after a party at a friend’s villa, an elderly Brazilian man decided to hop into my bed as I was falling asleep. Good thing the Portuguese word for ‘no’ is the same in English. I just yelped it with more intensity. Maybe if he had been younger and sturdier.. 🙂 A scam I remember from India is poo on the shoe. When you suddenly walk in dog poo and a person appears to help you ‘clean’ it off for a price. Oh, silly scammers.

  • It can be difficult south o’ the border Lucie but I would hate for our list to be a reason for someone not to come to South America. This region has a bad reputation (although the list – as you will have seen – is pretty much international). I’ve spent about 6 months in Brazil in the last two years without a single mishap. The trick is to trust people but just stay alert and go with your gut instincts.
    Glad to hear that you had similarly ‘uneventful’ experiences in Ipanema Nomadicchick. Glad to hear the old fella escaped more or less unscathed too. 😉
    Poo on the shoe in India…well, what can I say? As I recall poo on the shoe is a regular experience there.
    Thanks for your comments ladies.
    – ME

    • Hardeep says:

      Hi mark I am hardeep from India.i am in 9th grade and I love photography and to travel the world.can U please tell me a job that you do in which I can earn some money and travel and do photography.

  • Heather says:

    You really produced some terrific tips with ur article, “10 travel scams around the world
    – and how to avoid them – KitBaggers”. I will become returning
    to your site soon enough. Thank you ,Dusty

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