With over a third of Aussies (36%) nervous to travel out of fear of being conned while overseas, travellers are being warned to stay vigilant and get clued up on the types of travel scams out there and how to avoid them.
In 2017, we conducted an independent survey from a nationally representative panel of 1,500 Australians to reveal the different types of cons travellers have faced or heard about overseas. 1
Common travel scams according to Aussies
- 57% of Australians have reported seeing counterfeit goods being sold to holidaymakers,
- 56% have seen or heard about tourists being overcharged by taxi operators,
- 47% have seen fake charities and beggars asking for money,
- 45% say they have seen unsuspecting tourists being pickpocketed on their travels,
- 22% have witnessed or know about schemers putting something into someone’s hand before demanding money
- 14% have heard about or know about overseas rental car companies charging exorbitant fees for damage to a vehicle.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade received over 2,500 theft reports from Aussie travellers in the three years to June 2018.2 The top five countries for scams where tourists reported the most thefts, were Spain at number one, followed by Italy, Mexico, Thailand and Japan.
Money expert at comparethemarket.com.au Rod Attrill said travellers should learn about common travel scams and how to spot them to avoid being fleeced while holidaying.
“Millennials make up almost one-fifth (18%) of the 10 million Aussies who make the leap across the ocean every year. But sadly, half of those aged 25-34 are discouraged from international travel because of scams,” Rod Attrill said.
“That’s why travel insurance is crucial when heading overseas, as it can help cover some financial losses resulting from cons, theft and other mishaps. However, it’s important that travellers read their Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) to find out exactly what‘s included and excluded in their policy as well as any cover limits.”
“Lastly, travellers should also stay vigilant when they touch down back home and get itchy feet. In the last three years, Aussies lost $206,151 collectively to travel prize scams,4 whereby fraudsters trick consumers into handing over their credit card details to claim a free or discounted holiday,” explains Rod.
10 common travel scams around the world
Unlicensed cabbies often gather at airport arrival terminals and tourist hotspots to trick you into using their taxi service. They promise to charge a flat-rate fee instead of a metered fare to get you from A to B, but in reality you’ll be charged a vastly inflated fare for your ride.
How to avoid it. Don’t hail a cab from the street as that’s when you can encounter corrupt cabbies looking to make a quick buck. If you need to go somewhere, ask your hotel or a reputable establishment to call you a taxi. Also, try to only catch a cab from taxi ranks which display official signage.
Diversion and pickpocketing scam
Scammers target you in tourist hotspots, using different ploys like asking for a signature on a petition for a good cause or ask to take a photo, to divert your attention from your valuables like your wallet, phone and passport. This allows pickpockets to swoop in and rob you of your possessions. Other distract-the-tourist tactics include passers-by squirting a liquid, condiment or fake bird dropping on you before offering to clean up the splotch, an elderly person falling over, or someone dropping a wallet and accusing you of pocketing the contents when you pick it up.
How to avoid it. Be aware of your surroundings at all times and be extra vigilant in busy or high-traffic areas. You should always treat any unusual distraction as a potential pickpocketing attempt. Keep all your valuables away from prying eyes and secure in hard-to-reach places; in small pockets of your backpack, for example.
Counterfeit currency scam
Dodgy currency exchange booths exchange your money for counterfeit currency or fake notes. There are also instances of merchants, taxi drivers and ticket agents giving back change in counterfeit money.
How to avoid it: Before you travel anywhere, familiarise yourself with the local currency and sense check how much things cost in your destination. Also, only exchange money through legitimate providers like banks or foreign exchange offices at airports and hotels.
Massage and tea ceremony scam
Schemers lure you into an establishment for a massage or teahouse service after which you’ll be presented with an exorbitant bill and not permitted to leave the premises until the bill is paid. You could also be taken to a café or bar by a local who wants to “practice English” where you could be pressured into buying something. Some travellers can be threatened with physical violence and assaulted.
How to avoid it. Don’t accept unsolicited invitations from anyone you don’t know while travelling. If you do want to book a massage, teahouse service or other activity, you should only organise it through your hotel or a reputable provider.
The gift scam
A woman puts a lei around your neck, a man in Buddhist monk dress ties a bracelet around your wrist or a stranger hands you a ‘gift’ of some sorts. It’s nice but a simple thank you won’t cut it. The so-called gift-giver will demand money in return for their donation and may cause a scene if you don’t cough up.
How to avoid it. Don’t accept unsolicited gifts from strangers while travelling. If you suddenly find yourself with a bracelet around your wrist or else, kindly give the item back along with a “no thank you” and be on your way.
Damaged vehicle scam
You hire a car, watercraft or scooter while holidaying. But, when you return the vehicle, duplicitous transport operators from the rental company accuse you of having caused damage to it and demand money for the repairs. The damage could be real but it’s unlikely you were responsible for it and in some extreme cases an employee of the rental company may have trailed you and damaged the rental when you weren’t looking.
How to avoid it. First, check online reviews for any rental company you’re thinking of hiring from. Take photos of the vehicle before you decide to rent it and leave the premises. If an argument ensues when you return the vehicle because of so-called damage or else, contact the police or Australian embassy. It’s also important to ensure your travel insurance covers you for recreational sports and rental vehicle excess.
Major events and accommodation scam
Fraudsters are known to exploit the high demand for accommodation and tickets for major sporting events or popular festivals by setting up fake websites advertising “cheap accommodation deals” for a certain period or scalped tickets for popular events.
How to avoid it. Always check that you’re using a reputable website when looking at accommodation and ticket options and use common sense; if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
The shell game scam
This is a classic street corner con. A game maestro challenges you to place bets on where a shell or ball will land once it’s been shuffled around between three or more identical cups, face-down on a hard surface. Accomplices acting as tourists will guess correctly or the ringleader may allow a few punters to win, but eventually the scammer will remove the ball or shell so that you can’t win or will pay the “winners” with fake money.
How to avoid it: Don’t watch or indulge in street corner games.
The “helpful” stranger scam
A good Samaritan volunteers to snap a photo of you and your friends in front of a landmark. You gladly accept the offer and hand over your camera or smartphone but before you know it, the “helpful” stranger has disappeared with your items. Another common con is when a local offers to help you use the ATM and palms your bank card at the same time or pickpockets you.
How to avoid it. Never hand over your camera, phone or any valuable items to strangers, as benevolent as they may seem. Also, don’t let anyone approach you while you’re using an ATM.
Credit card skimming scam
This is one of the more common cons where scammers use card skimming devices, fitted onto ATMs or at the point of sale in stores and petrol stations, to copy the information from the magnetic strip of your credit or bank card. Your bank card details can even be skimmed from inside your wallet.
How to avoid it. Always check the card reader of any EFTPOS machines or ATMs and protect your PIN at all times. Also, beware of any shop assistants wanting to swipe your card out of your sight or in a second machine.5
How to protect yourself against out-of-pocket costs if you’re scammed overseas
1. Watch your alcohol consumption
Most travel insurance policies have a blanket alcohol exclusion which may extend to scams. If you’re pickpocketed at a bar or nightclub for example6, your insurer could have grounds to void your cover if it found you were too intoxicated to take due care of your belongings.
2. Check your coverage for property hired or loaned to you
If you borrow a camera from a friend and a stranger offers to take a photo for you on your trip before disappearing, you could be left to foot the replacement bill, since some insurers may not cover loss or damage to hired or borrowed equipment. That’s why it’s crucial for anyone who takes out travel insurance to check their PDS cover and any exclusions.
3. Ensure you’re covered for every country you’re visiting, including layovers
If you’re skimmed by a dodgy taxi operator from the airport7 on a stopover in Hong Kong but your travel insurance only includes coverage for Europe, you may not be covered for that loss or any other event or emergency for that stage of your journey.
4. Don’t forget to extend your cover
If you’re swindled by a merchant who overcharges you, after you decide to take a few extra days to travel around Thailand8, but forgot to request a cover extension from your insurer, you could lose that cover for the entirety of your journey, not just the part of the trip you forgot to tell your insurer about.
5. Be wary of financial collapses and fake advertisements
If you book tickets to a theme park for the kids and the establishment goes bust, you may not be reimbursed for the cost of the tickets as most travel insurers don’t offer cover following the bankruptcy of service providers. On top of this, if it turns out the attraction advertisement was a hoax too9, your travel insurer will most likely not provide cover either.
“The good news is that most travel insurers cover losses resulting from misplaced credit cards and fraudulent use of cards if it is reported to the police and other relevant authorities within your insurer’s prescribed time limit, usually in 24 hours. Travellers still unsure about what type of travel insurance they need to protect themselves overseas should research and compare their options through comparison services such as comparethemarket.com.au,” says Rod.
What to do if you’re scammed overseas
If you’re conned while travelling you should report the scam to the local authorities as soon as possible. You should also let your travel insurer know of the incident at the earliest opportunity. Don’t forget you’ll need to provide supporting documentation like a copy of your police report, when you submit a travel insurance claim.
Most travel insurance companies have 24-hour assistance centres you can contact from anywhere around the world in case of emergency or if you require urgent assistance.
Sources Survey conducted by Pureprofile (December 2017).
[2, 3] Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade-Consular State of Play (2017-18): https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/our-services/consular-services/Documents/consular-state-of-play-2017-18.pdf
 Australian Competition & Consumer Commission-Scam statistics travel scams (2017-2019): https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/about-scamwatch/scam-statistics?scamid=11&date=2019
[5, 6, 7, 8, 9] Smartraveller- Scams (July 2019): https://smartraveller.gov.au/guide/all-travellers/avoiding-danger/Pages/scams.aspx