Vacationing this winter? How to avoid common travel scams


Last week, Airbnb announced it’s cracking down on fake accommodation listings in an effort to stop scammers in their tracks.

The company said it has removed 59,000 fake listings and prevented another 157,000 from joining the platform this year, and it plans to use AI to help verify listings in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France and Australia starting early next year, with more countries to be included later in 2024.

But accommodation scams are not the only way travellers are being duped out of dollars these days; there are several other common traps tourists face when heading abroad.

Travel insurance provider InsureandGo has analyzed some of the most common scams encountered by tourists in 2023, digging into the self-reported traps identified by travellers who shared warnings on Reddit’s travel boards.

The company found that taxi driver scams and “free” gifts scams were the most popular, followed by restaurant overcharges, pickpocketing and ruses conducted by “friendly” locals.

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Considering many of us are a bit rusty at travelling thanks to the years-long pandemic that’s kept us closer to home, here’s a deeper dive into some these scams, and how you can avoid them.

The scam: Taxi drivers

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According to InsureandGo, the most reported scams to plague travellers often happen right at the beginning of their journey and involve folks who are supposed to get them to their destination.

Some cabbies are accused of taking off with your luggage before you get in the car, while others will take longer routes, claiming certain streets are closed to drive up fares.

Other drivers will take advantage of unfamiliar tourists by charging them a higher rate than local residents, or they’ll claim an attraction is closed and bring them to alternative attractions that are overpriced or much busier.

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How to protect yourself

Always head to the designated taxi stand at an airport or terminal and only accept a ride from an official taxi provider or reputable ride-share company.

Confidence is key when interacting with taxi drivers. Even if it’s your first time visiting a city or country, never admit you are new in the area.

It’s also helpful to establish an agreed-upon fare and route with a driver before you head out and if you notice the meter is not working, opt for a different vehicle.

Click to play video: 'The most common tourist travel scams'

The most common tourist travel scams

The scam: “Free” gifts

While the “free” gift scam takes many shapes, InsureandGo found that the struggling musician and friendship bracelet scams are the most frequently reported.

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In parts of North America, street musicians will offer tourists a free CD of their music, only to lay on heavy guilt after the gift is accepted, and further cajole the tourist into a monetary donation.

In other parts of the world, scammers will often approach travellers with a charming token, like a friendship bracelet or piece of local craftwork, only to then demand payment once the gift is accepted.

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How to protect yourself

The best way to avoid the “free” gift scam is to politely and firmly decline any offers that seem too good to be true, whether it be in the form of a physical object or offers to show you a local shop, restaurant or bar.

It helps to know some simple phrases in the local language if possible, as scammers may be less likely to pester someone if there is clear communication.

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Above all, keep a cool head and don’t escalate the situation. As soon as someone approaches you, say “no thank you” and keep moving.

The scam: The kind stranger

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Travelling to a new country or city instantly makes you a bit more vulnerable, but it’s important not to let down your guard when it comes to overly friendly locals.

Travellers to China, Japan, Turkey and other countries have encountered friendly local residents who convince tourists to have a meal with them under the guise of practicing their English or learning more about the visitor’s country.

The local will then take the tourist to an eatery away from the main streets, eat and drink with them, before pulling a dine-and-dash of sorts and leaving their companion to foot the bill.

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Other “friendly local” schemes involve demanding payment after doling out unsolicited travel advice or directions, pickpocketing someone during a friendly encounter, or offering to help at an ATM to avoid local bank fees, only to steal your banking information.

How to protect yourself

While interacting with local residents can be an enriching part of any vacation, remain wary of anyone offering their help out of the blue. Don’t stray far from populated areas with anyone you don’t know, don’t reveal your bank card or pin number to anyone else, leave your valuables at home and head to an official tourist kiosk or information centre if you need help with your itinerary or directions.

The scam: Deceptive wi-fi and fake charging ports

Everyone loves free wi-fi, especially when travelling, where data can get expensive or you’re facing a limit on how much data you can use per day.

Joining a free wi-fi might be putting your information in the hands of hackers, who set up hotspots that allow them to easily compromise your computer or phone, as well as steal personal information like credit card numbers.

Additionally, not all USB charging hubs are created equal and scammers are increasingly setting up fraudulent charging stations in an attempt to “juice jack” — that is, when their cables install malware onto your device in an attempt to steal your personal information.

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How to protect yourself

When logging into wi-fi, check with employees in the store, restaurant or public area to verify the correct network and login details. Menus and official signs can also have this information printed on them, too.

While airport kiosks are generally safe for charging a device, because they’re contained in a restricted location, you should always use your own cords and wall adapter for charging your phone in a public place. It’s also handy to invest in a portable battery bank if you anticipate needing to charge your phone while on the go.

The scam: The over-charging restaurant

When visiting European countries, travellers are increasingly reporting scams that involve mandatory high tipping on restaurant bills, having items added to the bill that they never received, or charging outrageous prices for simple items, like a glass of juice.

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In some locations, too, people say they’ve been scammed by menus that list their prices per weight as opposed to the whole dish, meaning they are billed for a serving three or four times the amount it was listed for.

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How to protect yourself

First off, if you don’t see a price listed on a menu, ask your server. Learn about the tipping culture of the area you’re travelling to, and ask the restaurant staff if the tip is included in the bill.

It is also good idea to do your research and look at other traveller reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor.

Finally, leverage translation apps on your phone to decipher items on a menu or bill, ensuring there are no hidden costs or unwelcome surprises when your meal concludes.

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No. 1 tip: Research is your friend

Before you set out on a trip, make sure you do your research — scams included. Popular online review sites will point you in the direction of legitimate businesses and attractions and, almost as important, share stories of scams common to certain areas or places to avoid.

Always make sure took keep your valuables stored somewhere safely, have a purse or bag that securely closes and is not easy for a passerby to get into.

Be confident in your travel plans, take your time to safely solve any problems that might arise and stay aware of red flags.

When all else fails, investing in traveller’s insurance can often make the difference between a stressful or relaxing holiday.

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