Whenever you travel, you risk falling victim to travel scams. That’s been true since Marco Polo, and while travel scams can affect anyone, knowing what to look for might help you avoid getting ripped off.
The First National Bank of South Africa recently named some of the still-prevalent travel scams that anyone can encounter during travel planning or on the road—from hidden fees to fake guides. Here are some of the most popular travel scams, and how you can defend yourself from them.
Travel Scams to Avoid
The Travel Scam: Bogus Travel Agents
FNB reminds you not to trust a tour operator or packager you don’t know and can’t track easily through public records—especially with a big payment. An even more worrisome version of this scam in the U.S. is fake versions of websites: You search for a hotel or tour and get through to what looks like a legitimate website from a known company. But it isn’t: It’s a copy-cat version run by a scamster who paid a lot of money for a good search engine position. At best, after you make a payment, the hotel will honor your reservation—but probably at a higher price than you should have paid. At worst, you get nothing.
The Defense: Take a close look at the website’s URL. Unsure if it’s right? Do a new search to find the company’s homepage and compare it to the first half of the link—any rogue characters, numbers, or symbols might mean it’s a fake. You should also never pay for a service via wire transfer, or any other irreversible money-transfer system.
The Travel Scam: Currency Short-Changing
A longstanding travel scam relies on tourists’ unfamiliarity with a foreign currency. This can take various forms: counterfeit bills, miscounting change, mixing smaller bills into what should be a pile of larger notes, etc.
The Defense: Get to know the bills of any country you visit, and limit the amount of foreign currency you exchange and have with you at any time. Get your foreign currency from an ATM, and put all your big-ticket purchases on a credit card.
The Travel Scam: Counterfeit Event Tickets
These days, high-tech forging can make almost any piece of paper or cardboard look authentic. Don’t buy a high-priced ticket (or even a low-seeming one) to a sold-out event from someone on the street or via an uncommon website. You might be turned away at the gate.
The Defense: Buy from an authorized source—the box office or an online dealer that’s a verified reseller.
The Travel Scam: Fake Guides
Have you ever been walking in a tourist-frequented area and had someone approach you offering to be your guide? Of course, you would have no idea in this situation whether this person has any useful knowledge of the city, but you may be coaxed into a nearby store that they claim offers the “best” prices on local specialties.
The Defense: Pre-arrange a guide through an official tourism office or a local travel agency so you can compare prices and know what you’re getting. I once arranged the best local guide I ever had through an American Express agency. A university history professor showed us the fantastic National Museum of Damascus in Syria.
The Travel Scam: Credit Card Fraud
The First National Bank also zeroed in on one of many potential credit card fraud risks: The familiar “verification call” gambit. In this travel scam, within a few hours of checking into a hotel, you get a call from someone claiming to be at the front desk to “verify” the details of the card you used. Of course, that caller is a scammer with no connection to the hotel who just wants to get your card data.
The Defense: In this and any other situations, be highly suspicious of anyone who calls you asking for credit or debit card information, no matter how plausible the excuse may seem. Tell the caller you’ll be right down to settle the problem, and instead call a known number, like the hotel, to settle whatever account is involved.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.