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Mike Yardley: Trending Scams Targeting Tourists

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Friday, 11 March 2016, 2:16PM
Don't get caught out by these travel scams! (Photo Supplied)
Don't get caught out by these travel scams! (Photo Supplied)

Pack a little common sense and your travel smarts to prevent being taken for a ride when tripping overseas. A healthy dollop of cynicism goes a long way, too. As a wide-eyed visitor in a foreign land, the last thing you want is to fall prey to the professional opportunists seeking to fleece you.  The basic precautions apply universally: don't accept a lift from drivers in unmarked taxis offering rides from the airport, only use ATMs in busy, well-lit areas... and so on. But beyond the brass tacks, it’s the sneakier travel scams that can see the unsuspecting traveller coming unstuck.

Even the most seasoned, battle-hardened globe-trotter can fall victim to a well-executed hustle - particularly when your jetlag-addled guard is down. And there’s certainly no end to the ruses and rackets running rampant in the world’s top tourist haunts.  On a recent stop in Shanghai, I experienced first-hand the “Tea Ceremony Scam” currently running riot across the city. Thankfully, my instincts told me something was fishy before it was too late. But here’s how it plays out.

Aimed at tourists eager to experience something typically ‘Chinese’, the tea scammers are particularly active in Beijing and Shanghai. The scam usually involves several young women who present themselves as “students” when approaching tourists. What starts as small talk, soon leads to the tourist being invited to partake in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. You’ll taste about eight different teas, in a closed room, in a backend alley teahouse. Initially you’re told the ceremony will be inexpensive, only to be stung with a $400 bill. I know a very experienced New Zealand travel agent who got duped by this, just last month.

But it’s during a grand tour of Europe, that Kiwis are more likely to brush shoulders with the scam-bag brigade. From bogus cops in the Czech Republic to highway pirates in Italy, travel scams sweep Europe in ever-changing guises, in addition to the opportunist street thieves. French police estimate that 75% of pickpockets on the Paris Metro are controlled by an organised Eastern European gang, using 12-16 year old girls. These girls are trained in theft and instructed to tell police that they are 12 years old if caught, to avoid criminal prosecution. Apparently they’re instructed that their daily pickpocket target is 300 Euros, to avoid being beaten or raped.

Global insurer, AIG, has compiled a hot list of the most widespread scams currently targeting tourists in Europe, based on various alerts issued by law enforcement agencies. Some scams target your valuables, while others are designed to shame you into coughing up cash. Most trips of course pass without incident, but it certainly pays to be alert and aware of what’s trending. It’s the old saying - forewarned is forearmed. Right?. Here’s eight of the biggest scams bearing down on Europe right now.

1. False Petitions. This is insidious. Watch out for young children approaching you with a petition from an established charity, often claiming to be deaf and dumb. Don’t be sucked in. Just walk away, keeping your valuables secure, and report the kids to the police. The scam is prolific in France.

2. Tyre puncturing. 'Highway pirates' operating in Italy work by discretely puncturing tyres and shadowing drivers until they stop, according to AIG. They then pose as good samaritans, robbing you in the process. Avoid trouble by locking your vehicle, never leaving valuables on display, and being wary of strangers offering help with flat tyres, particularly between Naples and Sorrento.

3. Counterfeit money. Street money changers and taxi drivers are notorious for deliberately passing counterfeit money to tourists in Hungary, AIG says. Only use reputable establishments for currency  exchange.

4. Bogus Cops. An ongoing scam playing out in the Czech Republic, this involves victims being approached by someone offering something illicit, like a marijuana joint . A bogus police officer will then suddenly appear and demand to see your wallet and passport. Call their bluff by offering to accompany them to the nearest police station.  

5. Fake Entry Fees. This crazy scam is playing out on the Spanish/Gibraltar border. Scam artists go from car to car with fake IDs, requesting a cash 'entry fee' to drive into Gibraltar. There is, of course, no charge to enter or leave the British territory.

6. Distraction scams. Rife in busy restaurants in the Netherlands, this scam involves diners being approached by thieves posing as if they are looking for a friend. While distracted, they or an accomplice flogs your possessions. Avoid the scam by being mindful of your possessions, and alerting staff to any suspicious activity.

7. Rings and Bracelets. The Gold Ring Trick is a notorious gypsy scam in Paris. They will ‘coincidentally’ spot a dropped gold ring on the ground, as they pass by you. They will ask you if it’s yours , and when you say no, they’ll offer it to you as a gift. If you accept, the gypsy will then hound you relentlessly for money, in exchange for their gesture. And in case you’re wondering those rings are just low-grade polished brass.

Don’t be fooled by the friendship bracelet scam either, which is predominantly peddled by North African gangs in Western Europe. When approached, they’ll ask you if you’d like a friendship bracelet. Say yes and they will tie the string so tight around your wrist or finger, that it’s impossible to remove. Then, they’ll demand money from you. The more ruthless ones will gather some accomplices to intimidate you into submission. Some will justify it by saying it’s from the church, a gift, or a local souvenir as they demand €20 in return.

8. Phony taxi drivers. Poland apparently leads the stakes in mass-reports of this dodgy practice. Unregulated taxi drivers lurking around airports, train stations and tourist attractions, claiming that their meters are broken, before overcharging customers. Only use official taxis, which will display rate cards.

Finally, some scams can stiff you before you even leave home.  A classic case in point is the scam that has snookered untold travellers when applying for ESTA clearance under the United States Visa Waiver programme.  The official application procedure only costs $14, but a profusion of lookalike websites have been established which charge the applicant substantially more than that, euphemistically described as a handling fee, to skim a fast profit.  Many travellers are misled into thinking they are on an official U.S. government website, given the way it’s dressed up. The only official website for ESTA applications is this one. https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/ The following website , which charges a massive handling fee, is not!  www.esta.us

Have you come across a nasty or crafty travel scam lately? Feel free to spill the beans.

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame. 11.20am

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