If you travel, they will scam. It’s unavoidable. Wherever you go, you will encounter people doing their best to separate you from your money. And if you stay on the tourist loops, especially in countries like Thailand or India, you will be hard pressed to have an encounter with a local who doesn’t have an ulterior motive, a motive we English speakers call “your wallet.”
So what can we do? Well, if we recognize the scams for what they are, we can simply walk away. For those who have been traveling for a while, this is easily accomplished; but for those new to traveling, spotting a scam can sometimes be a little tricky. Obviously—that’s why they work. So I’ve decided to make a short list of some of the more common ways to tell when someone is being less than honest.
1. People are being friendly
I know this sounds cynical and I know that many places exist (most rural areas in fact) where people will be friendly out of curiosity or good nature, but if you find yourself in a touristy area and people are being overly friendly, you are about to be separated from some money. Now obviously this is only true for some of you.
Most of you have suddenly, overnight, developed an irresistible charm and charisma, the kind of personality that makes everyone in the street stop and flash a huge smile in your direction, greet you with a big wave and call you their friend, which naturally entitles you to heretofore unheard of discounts on all their products, but especially this completely useless, unidentifiable, made-in-China knickknack.
That’s most of you. But just stop and consider for a moment that you might be one of the very few who hasn’t suddenly morphed into Brad Bitt or Angelina Jolie and keep your guard up accordingly.
2. A Relative for All Needs
We’ve all had this happen; your newly developed charm has led you into a ‘friendly’ conversation with a ‘friendly’ local. At some point, the course of the conversation magically shifts to your plans for the immediate future and, in an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, your new ‘friend’ just happens to have eight different relatives, all of whom operate a business and each of those eight businesses provides one of the eight products or services in which you’ve just expressed an interest.
Your ‘friend’ is not your friend and none of those business owners are relatives; they do, however, pay your ‘friend’ a commission for bringing you in. You can still go along, just know what you’re getting into (I’ll go over why I think it’s better to not go along at the end of this post).
When you’ve suddenly ‘made new friends’ like the one in the example above, take note of their English; often it’s very good, but even if it isn’t (and many times it’s downright horrible) they will use it very confidently. That is a big red flag.
The average person in most foreign countries does not speak perfect English and is somewhat shy and reluctant to use it, no matter their language skills. So if someone approaches you speaking very confidently and in a way that suggests they’ve had this same conversation a thousand times before, you might want to find a new conversation partner.
There are basically two possible reasons for this person’s interest in you: either they want your money or your English. The first is self-explanatory, the second is actually the worse of the two possibilities.
Everyone who’s traveled for a while has met the “English chaser;” these are the people who seemingly spend all of their free time looking for opportunities to practice their English on native speakers, despite many of their victims being anything but, often only speaking a few words of English themselves—but a white face is a white face.
This might sound like a good way to get to know some locals and learn a bit about their culture and you might even enjoy this exchange the first few times, but after having the exact same conversation for the 124th time, you really begin to wish you were being scammed instead. So basically, if anyone comes up to you and starts a conversation sounding like they’ve done this quite a few times already, act like you’ve never heard a word of English before in your life.
4. Act Now or Forever Regret It
You’ve just arrived at the bus station after waking up at 5am and dealing with an annoying taxi driver to get there. The day has barely begun and you’re already exhausted. All you want to do is get tickets on the next bus, fall asleep in your seat and wake up at your destination.
But suddenly you’re swarmed by 20 screaming locals, all pulling and tugging you toward a waiting bus while frantically gesticulating and hopping around like mad. From their wildly shouted snippets of broken English you piece together that this bus will leave in exactly 2 minutes, the next one won’t leave for three weeks, a typhoon is fast approaching, the nearby volcano is about to erupt and local scientists have done what no one else has been able to pull off and predicted a large earthquake for later that afternoon, so you really should GET ON THIS BUS RIGHT THIS MINUTE OR DIE!
Or you could just wait for the next one ten minutes later—your choice. Whenever people start getting frantic while talking to you, they are artificially ratcheting up the pressure and when they are giving you a ‘LIMITED TIME ONLY!’ to act, they are lying. Just leave.
5. Stay Home
I wasn’t sure if I should include this, but let’s face it; this is the advice given and taken by the majority of people. And never going anywhere happens to be the only surefire way to avoid being scammed overseas. But is it worth it? Most people seem to think it is. Obviously I disagree and I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you would disagree as well.
One argument I often hear is that you shouldn’t worry about getting scammed out of a bit of money—it’s usually not an overly large amount to us, but it can do quite a bit for a local. That’s true, but the person scamming you is not your average local. The scammers are actually quite well off, relatively speaking.
And when you give in and reward their dishonesty, that kid standing nearby notices. He sees the honest people around him sleeping on a filthy street at night and he sees the dishonest ones sleeping on a slightly nicer street; he puts two and two together and realizes, as so many others have, that crime pays.
That’s the reason—you’re the reason—why certain areas of certain countries, like Thailand or India, give you the impression that absolutely everyone is out to separate you from your money, by any means necessary.
So the next time a bunch of vendors are pushing their products in your face and gushing over the high quality workmanship of the humongous Chinese sweatshop local artisan, take a look around and find the old woman sitting quietly on the curb in front of her shop and buy something from her instead.
And when 15 tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers swarm you, offering the absolute finest in 45-year-old-motorbike-with-a-poorly-welded-on-rickety-metal-attachment local transportation experiences, look across the street and find the old guy sitting quietly in his tuk-tuk, waiting for miniscule local fares instead of going after the lucrative scam-a-tourist fares and get a ride with him. And tip him.