“No no no, no English no French no understand,” I told the person who tried to put a friendship band on my wrist in Paris, France. This is one of the most common holiday scam used on tourists, and it will cost the non-assuming tourists a whopping 20 euros or more. That’s plenty for a nice set lunch in Paris, you can enjoy a set lunch at a one Michelin-starred restaurant at just 35 euros.
If anything, the recent spat at Sim Lim Square shows that if this could happen in one of the safest country in the world, it could happen to any of us when we are traveling. The safe environment we have here in Singapore can make us vulnerable suspects when traveling abroad. Nobody likes to end a holiday on a bitter note, here are common holiday scams abroad and how to tackle them.
Sometimes we visit places where we look distinctively like a tourist, there’s no escaping. Scammers, con artists, swindlers, cheats, whatever you call them – it’s no secret they target tourists. Street cons come in different shapes and sizes. In Paris, there is the guy who tries to tie a string on your wrist or the fake art student who stops you at Montmarte and starts sketching a portrait of you before you even realize what’s happening. The oldest trick in the book, three-card Monte scam where you pick the king of spades out of three cards should be a dead giveaway scam but be surprised – we still see unsuspecting tourists who stop and place their bets in hopes of doubling it.
Tackle them! Walk around with an air of purpose. Street cons choose their target too. It is more probable they pick a single traveler who looks lost or evidently overwhelmed with the sights. That’s when these tourists have let their guards down, making them an easy target. When you cannot avoid looking like a tourist, then walk around with an air of purpose and look like you know where you are heading. I’ve traveled alone throughout Europe looking like I know where I’m heading (though I don’t sometimes) and never got stopped. And as always, just turn them down if approached or simply ignore and walk away.
Public transports, local attractions, crowded market places – these are where pickpockets often surface. If a student stops you to sign a petition, be wary even if you know not to sign anything and just want to listen to his/her cause of petition. This is when a group of students (or not) come around and snitch off with your valuables while you are distracted. I’ve heard from a fellow traveler in a youth hostel at Copenhagen where a group of east-European looking teenagers approached him and asked if he knows kungfu and likes Bruce Lee. They then proceed to show him a few kungfu moves and acting like Bruce Lee, just fooling around like teenagers would. Friendly? Not exactly. He only realized when he got back to the hostel that his wallet is missing. Remember these are well-trained con artists who know their wares well, they would make it off before you realize.
Tackle them! Be wary of your personal belongings and strangers striking conversation. Always place your bags where you can see them and don’t put all your valuables in one place. In crowded metros and buses, always hold your belongings close to you. I traveled with my girlfriends in Europe and whenever we board the local metro, we’d form a mini circle with our bags on the inside. Better to look silly than to get pickpocketed. And the golden rule still sticks, be wary of strangers and simply walk away if you feel uncomfortable.
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Dishonest Taxi Drivers
Arriving at a foreign land, most of us will probably take the easy way out and catch a taxi to the hotels. Errant taxi drivers are a common problem in many countries, even in Singapore. In China where taxis are very affordable, it is no secret that some of the drivers are less than honest. They will take you on joy ride or refuse to go by the meter. There are always touts hanging around airports, train stations or attractions, asking if you need a ride. If you are feeling adventurous, there is always the alternative of riding on a pedi-cab or tuk-tuk where you can agree on a price before riding.
Tackle them! Get a receipt or just refuse to ride. There is always an official queue for taxis in most airports, take those. Ignore touts even if the price seems cheaper, you’ll never know if there’s a catch. This may not be the best yardstick but hailing a taxi off the road is always better than hopping on one that has been parked for a long time (excluding taxi stands). Always go by the meter and simply refuse to board if the driver disagrees. A Shanghainese friend’s mother once told me to always ask for a receipt the minute I hop on a taxi – that will send a signal to the taxi driver that you know how the game is played here. In Shanghai, if a customer complains about an errant taxi driver, they are severely dealt with or even dismissed. Legal taxis in China always have a transparent box around the meter to prevent drivers from rigging it. If you have agreed on a price with the driver instead of a meter, be sure it’s per ride and not per person. And if the driver is too pushy and you feel uncomfortable, just walk away.
Holiday scams happen all the time and in every part of the world, even in the safest country. Being a cautious tourist will make you a lesser target. And if something unfortunate happens, remember to report this to the local authorities and get a copy of the report so you could claim from your travel insurer. If something about traveling has taught me over the years, for every bad/dishonest/rude person you meet, there is always another ten kind souls. Don’t let a bad experience write off your otherwise awesome vacation.