Traveling is almost always fun and games — but anyone who's been ripped off on vacation knows it can quickly turn into a nightmare.
Unfortunately, while you’re enjoying your time off, lots of other people are working hard to scam you out of your money, your information and your time.
Sure, it’s a good idea to keep your wallet in a less-than-obvious place to thwart pickpockets, but there are so many other scams to watch out for these days. Thieves have gotten mighty sophisticated, doing everything in their power to shake you down without you even noticing.
You can avoid many travel scams by remembering the age-old adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Another good piece of advice? Just keep walking, even if a seemingly well-meaning person is trying to get your attention.
From high-tech hoists to classic ruses, here are 15 travel schemes you should be sure to steer clear of during your next trip.
Comedy Show Scams
When you’re visiting a big city, chances are you’re looking for entertaining ways to spend your evenings. You might be approached by someone offering to sell you (or even give you) tickets to a comedy show with some big-name celebrities.
But, when you arrive at the club, there are no celebrities to be found — only random, no-name comedians. Plus, there’s a two-drink minimum, so you feel stuck.
This comedy show scam is popular in places like New York City, where schemers stand in Times Square and try to get unsuspecting tourists to bite. Some scammers were even brazen enough to reveal their game to reporters for the “New York Times”: “Comedy Central taping,” one man shouted, even though this was a flat-out lie. “That’s how I get them to stop. I’m not saying it’s not dishonest.”
Fake Buddhist Monks Scam
This scam has received quite a bit of media attention over the years, even catching the eye of late-night host Stephen Colbert. Men with shaved heads and wearing orange robes have been seen impersonating Buddhist monks in New York City, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Toronto and other cities across the globe.
These fake monks typically offer a small token like a bracelet or a medallion to people passing by. When the unsuspecting traveler accepts this gift, the fake monk will ask for a donation. If the tourist does not comply, the fake monks may become aggressive and begin shouting.
Some people have become so frustrated with the fake monks that they’ve set up Facebook pages to warn others about the imposters.
Gas Pump Skimmers Scam
If you’re heading out on a road trip, you need to be careful every time you stop for gas.
Today’s criminals are impressively sophisticated, attaching high-tech credit card skimmers to gas pumps. These devices steal information from your credit or debit card, which essentially gives the criminals free rein over your bank account (until you realize what’s going on).
Skimmers are easy to spot, if you know what you’re looking for when you’re on the road. Look at the pump’s security seal — if it appears broken or tampered with in any way, find another gas station, recommends the Federal Trade Commission. Next, inspect the area where you insert your credit or debit card — there shouldn’t be any attachments or strange parts there. Authorities also recommend wiggling the card reader before inserting your card; if it moves, it could be a skimmer.
On a more general note, you are better off paying for gas with a credit card rather than a debit card. That way, the money doesn’t come out of your account right away and you can keep your PIN safe. You can also pay inside the gas station, using cash to be the absolute safest.
The Gold Ring Scam
The gold ring scam is fairly well-known by now, but that doesn’t mean even the savviest travelers can’t fall victim to it.
It generally works like this: you’re out walking around, minding your own business, when someone nearby bends over and appears to pick up a gold ring off the ground. They ask you if it’s yours and, when you decline, they offer to give it to you anyway (some scammers will ad lib a bit here, pretending to try on the ring and showing you that it doesn’t fit them). Next, they’ll put you in an awkward situation by asking for money in return for this gift.
Some scammers will simply take the money and run, while others will pressure you into giving more and more money to get them to go away.
Fake Petition Scams
While passing through a high-traffic area or an especially touristy site, you may be approached by a scammer asking you to sign a petition and make a donation.
Often, the scammer — who may pretend to be deaf — promises that the money will go to some noble cause. In reality, the money is going straight into the scammer’s pocket, and the charity never sees a dime. The petitions are typically in English, even in countries where people primarily speak some other language, because the primary target is typically Westerners.
Another variation of this scam: while you’re distracted reading the petition, the scammer or an accomplice grabs your wallet.
International Driving Permits Scam
If you’re traveling abroad, you may decide to rent a car. A helpful tool for this is an international driving permit, which translates your American driver’s license into 10 languages. This is not a replacement for your driver’s license, but a supplement that can make things go a little more smoothly if you get pulled over in another country.
Just be sure to keep an eye out for scammers, who will try to peddle fake documents.
The only places authorized to sell these permits by the U.S. State Department are the American Automobile Association (more commonly known as AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance, or AATA. You’ll pay less than $20 for your permit. If someone other than these organizations tries to sell you one, or you get a quote that’s much higher than $20, you’re likely the target of a scam (the Federal Trade Commission says scammers ask for $60 to $400 for fake permits).
An official permit is gray, has multiple pages and is stamped with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” on the front cover. It will also say AAA or AATA on the front cover. Anything else is a ripoff. If your license is suspended or revoked for any reason, you won’t be able to buy an international driving permit — anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to scam you.
The Broken Camera Scam
Watch out for this scheme at a touristy spot with a good view or photo-ready backdrop: the broken camera scam.
In this scenario, a friendly looking man or woman will approach you and ask you to take a picture using his or her camera. At some point during the interaction, the camera breaks and the scammer blames you (even though it was designed to break when you started handling it!).
The scammer will demand that you hand over money to pay for the broken equipment. Some may grab your wallet and run, while others will stealthily pickpocket you while you’re distracted.
The Closed Attraction Scam
While you’re riding in a taxi to a super popular monument or attraction, the driver informs you the site is closed — for lunch, for a religious holiday or for some other reason. The driver then offers to take you to some other spot instead, often one with a high entrance fee, or a gift shop where you feel pressured into making a purchase. Later, you realize your original destination wasn’t closed at all — you’ve actually been targeted by a scammer, who may get a kickback from his friends at these alternative destinations.
Of course, you can easily avoid this scam by doing a little homework ahead of time and looking up the site’s hours and planned closures online in advance.
The Shoes Scam
You might be wondering: what do shoes have to do with travel scams? Head to New Orleans and you may find out.
While walking around the French Quarter or Bourbon Street, someone may call out to you, “I bet you $20 I can tell you where you got your shoes,” or some variation of this phrase. If you bite, the scammer will respond with, “On your feet” or, “One on your left foot and another on your right foot.”
Another version of this scam involves the scammer saying they bet they can guess what street you got your shoes on (of course, the answer is the street you’re standing on at the moment). Because it was a “bet,” they’re going to demand payment from you. Your best option is to simply keep those shoes moving and continue walking.
The Mustard Spill/Bird Poop Scam
This scam is employed by pickpockets all over the world, so keep an eye out the next time you’re traveling in an especially popular area. Someone will tap you on the shoulder, pointing out that they accidentally squirted mustard on you or that you have bird poop on your shirt (whether that’s actually true or not). While you’re busy trying to wrap your head around this turn of events, the criminal or an accomplice grabs your wallet.
Another variation of this scheme occurs in some airports, where you might have your luggage stolen out from under your nose while you’re distracted by a similar trick.
Keep your wits about you and remember this sneaky little dupe; otherwise you could be in a world of hurt.
Vacation Rental Scams
It can be a mind-numbing process to look for a vacation rental on Airbnb, VRBO or similar sites. You scroll for hours, looking at photo after photo, trying to find the best nightly rate and the lowest fees.
So, imagine your pleasant surprise when you stumble upon a gorgeous vacation home that you can rent for a screaming deal.
Well, you’re in for a shock when you arrive and the people living in the home don’t understand why you’re there. Or, you arrive at your destination, only to find that the address doesn’t exist at all.
This is a version of the classic rental scam applied to vacation rentals. Here’s how it typically works. You find a smoking-hot deal on a vacation rental website, so you send the “owner” a quick note to reserve the place. The “owner” asks you to wire them money ASAP. You fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars in advance to pay for the rental, the scammer sails off into the sunset with your money, and you’ve got nowhere to stay.
Scammers might steal photos from an actual vacation rental and post their own advertisement. They might hack into an existing ad and change the email address to their own. Or they might simply make up a vacation rental that doesn't exist at all.
Bottom line: never wire money ahead of time. Look out for listings that have zero or very few reviews, or reviews that sound obviously fake. Do your best to get all the details of the listing up front, before you put down any money. And be sure to go through a reputable vacation rental website that offers protection against scammers. For example, when you book and pay for a vacation rental through Airbnb, you’re protected by the site’s “multi-layer defense strategy.”
The Front Desk Call Scam
This scam is incredibly sneaky, so watch out. When you’re sleeping peacefully at a hotel, you may get a call from someone claiming to be a member of the front desk staff. For one reason or another — maybe the hotel’s servers crashed, they say — they need you to read off your credit card number again.
Of course, it’s actually a scammer stealing your information. Many thieves make these calls in the middle of the night, when late-shift managers are more likely to connect their call, and victims are more likely to be groggy and disoriented when they answer.
If you get a phone call like this, you always have the option of walking down to the front desk to ease your mind — you’ll know right away whether it’s legitimate or not.
Pizza Flyer Scams
How could anyone take something as wholesome and delicious as pizza and turn it into a scam? It’s just not right. But, unfortunately, this scam is popular in places like Orlando, where theme-park tourists regularly fall prey.
They find a flyer for pizza delivery under the door of their hotel room. But when they call to place their order, scammers are actually just ripping off their credit card information. Even worse than that? No pizza ever shows up at your door (or, in some instances, a really crappy pizza shows up and your credit card still gets ripped off).
A 2018 forum post on TripAdvisor says the scammers use generic names like Italy’s Italian Pizza, Lombardi’s, Otto’s, Fresco and Pachino’s.
Free Or Deeply Discounted Trip Scams
There’s no doubt about it: getting a free vacation would make anyone’s day.
Unfortunately, there are very few legitimately free vacations these days, so if you get a phone call, text message or email that says you’ve won a free or deeply discounted trip, you’re likely being scammed.
The North Carolina Department of Justice warns that many less-than-honest offers provide very few details about the trip and use phrases like “major airlines” and “first-class hotels” without revealing any real company names. Another clue that an offer might be a scam: you’re required to send money ahead of time or hand over your credit card number to reserve your spot, before you get confirmation documents.
If you’re talking to someone in person or over the phone, be wary of anyone who pressures you into making an immediate decision about an offer, the department says. You should also steer clear of companies if you can’t confirm their street address, phone number or name.
Timeshare Resale Scams
Timeshares are a popular way for many people to travel — in fact, more than 9.2 million households in the U.S. own a timeshare or similar setup, according to the timeshare trade group the American Resort Development Association.
But, as with many popular trends, scammers have found their way into the timeshare world, too. One common scheme to beware of is the timeshare resale scam, during which a criminal will offer to resell your timeshare, for a fee.
The scammers will typically claim that they already have a buyer lined up for your timeshare — all you have to do is send them a wire transfer for several thousands of dollars to cover taxes, fees, closing costs and other items. Of course, there is no buyer lined up and by the time you realize you’ve been burned, the scammer is long gone and stops returning your phone calls or emails.
To avoid being scammed, the Oregon Department of Justice recommends doing a quick internet search of the reseller’s name (your state likely maintains a consumer complaint database like Oregon does, which is another good place to look). The department also suggests checking the reseller’s real estate license.