Legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn once said, “Traveling carries with it the curse of being at home everywhere and yet nowhere, for wherever one is, some part of oneself remains on another continent.”
Author Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote, “Travel is very useful and it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.”
And criminals everywhere take one look at the tourist’s camera and wide eyes and offer their own quotable quip: “Check out the easy pickings!”
Exploring new cities and countries can leave you open to exploitation; you don’t know the customs or the culture, after all, and some criminals thrive off of targeting tourists. Dealing with a stolen wallet or fraudulent charges on your credit card can bring a little “disappointment and fatigue” right into your trip—quel tragique.
The bottom line is, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
With a little help from a few travel experts and the U.S. Department of State, we found a few ways to avoid this fate and protect ourselves before our next little jaunt.
1. Beware of strangers bearing money.
One of the most common scams tourists will encounter is what the Department of State calls the “turkey drop”—and in this case, you end up the turkey.
It all starts when you notice a dropped wallet on the ground, cash peeking out of its folds. Maybe it’s even just a big wad of cash. Anyway, suddenly a stranger will appear, pick up the wallet and ask if it’s yours. They might even toss it to you; the goal is to get you to touch or hold the money.
That’s when the scammer’s accomplice appears on the scene. “That’s my wallet!” they claim. Then they accuse you of trying to steal it. At that point, the scammers join forces against you. There are several variations of this endgame. In the first, the strangers threaten to hand you over to the police if you don’t bribe them handsomely. In the second, they demand that you show your money to prove you didn’t steal theirs. The second your wallet is out in the open, they grab it and run.
In another variation, another “tourist” gets involved.
“Right beside you, another tourist notices the same thing,” says Sorin Mihailovici, founder of the online fraud detection site Scam Detector. “You look at each other, like, “Oh, someone dropped some money!” The other person recommends splitting the money and sharing it. A couple of minutes, the guy who lost his money is right beside you with two or three other guys, and he’s asking for the full amount.”
The moral? Kevin Brosnahan, press officer for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, tells FashionBeans, “The bottom line is, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
Actually, that advice is pretty good for right here at home, too. The best thing to do in these situations is to simply walk away. It can be difficult when cash is involved—but an unlikely influx of cash should be more of a red flag than anything else.
2. Don’t mess around with locking up your belongings.
When you arrive at your destination and have some time to kill but you really don’t want to carry all your heavy bags around, you can almost always find some kind of storage locker system in a train station or mall. These are often a cheap and convenient option for tourists to store their bags while exploring before getting checked into a hotel or on a layover between flights.
If you need to use a storage locker, make sure to pay for one on your own. Scammers have a “key scam” system that’s all too easy to fall for.
Mihailovici explains that scammers attract targets by taking their belongings out of a locker right as you’re walking up. Then they offer the locker to you like it’s a random act of kindness. You go for it, thinking it’scheap and convenient—the folks here are so neighborly! The scammer might explain that the key is a little wonky, but it’s nothing to worry about.
Mihailovici describes what happens next: “This scammer, who’s also acting like a tourist, he says, ‘Oh, these are tricky to work with, it’s not going to lock.’ He gets the confidence of the traveler, hands him the key, then locks the locker…which means he changes the key within a second. Tourist looks away, looking at different thing. Scammer changes key, traveler goes into the city, only to find that locker doesn’t open.”
If they do manage to get the locker open, they’ll find it empty, their luggage gone for good. Unfortunately, you can’t always trust “random acts of kindness.” Sometimes they’re actually random acts of theft.
3. Never walk away from your bags—ever.
Almost all scams meant to target tourists are rooted in someone trying to “do the right thing.” While the targeted traveler thinks they’re helping someone, the scammers strike. The “wallet drop” is a perfect example.
Mihailovici describes the con. It all starts when a stranger drops a wallet visibly in front of you in a train station or other public place. You’re sitting there with all your bags, but you can’t let this fellow walk away without his wallet. So you pick it up and chase after him. You hand back the wallet, the stranger thanks you, and you run back to your bench—where all of your luggage is nowhere to be seen. An accomplice has made off with all of your stuff.
Despite the bad news, there are ways to protect yourself and your belongings.
While it can easily feel like danger is lurking around every corner when you’re traveling, don’t let these examples keep you rooted to one spot. There are plenty of ways to keep your bags and yourself safe while traveling. All it takes is some planning and self awareness.
“[Travelers are] focusing on relaxing, they’re not putting their brain at work,” says Mihailovici. “Their brains are not really trained to actively think with wisdom when the scams happen … That’s why so many travelers fall victim…People don’t have their typical personalities when they travel.”
Lewis Sage-Passant, a former British military intelligence officer who is now the director of travel security firm HowSafeIsMyTrip.com, shares his tips to help avoid being a target of tourism crime.
“Don’t display your wealth,” Sage-Passant tells FashionBeans. “This is critical everywhere, but in developing countries travellers can be perceived as being wealthy from a very low threshold. Even a broke student backpacker from the U.S. or UK looks fabulously wealthy in southeast Asia.”
Sage-Passant recommends blending in as much as possible. Sometimes, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, but in that case he advises trying to “look like an expatriate or frequent visitor.” That might boil down to simply walking with confidence and feigning indifference to your surroundings. In other words, you might have to leave the camera in the bag and practice a little restraint when it comes to selfies.
Where you store your cash also makes a big difference in whether you get targeted or not, Sage-Passant explains.
“Use under-shirt pick-pocket wallets, and keep your daily cash separate from all of your travel money,” he says. “If you pull out a huge roll of notes for every small purchase, you increase your chance of being targeted.”
Sage-Passant even recommends carrying a “decoy wallet” if you’re entering an area known for its pickpockets. Get a cheap old wallet and fill it with expired credit cards and a small amount of cash. If someone tries to mug you, hand them the fake wallet, while your real nest egg remains hidden beneath your shirt.
Preparation is the key to safe travel.
“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety of U.S. citizens overseas,” Brosnahan says. The agency has a vested interest in educating tourists before they set foot on the airplane. They operate several resources travelers abroad can use to reduce the chance of something going awry on a long vacation.
The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety of U.S. citizens overseas.
“Preparation and research is the first thing to start with,” Brosnahan says. The Bureau of Consular Affairs updates their website frequently and shares alerts and warnings for travelers on Twitter under the handle @Travel.Gov; be sure to check these sources out while you’re buying your ticket.
The next step is to sign up for the BCA’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP. Through this free service, U.S. citizens can share their travel plans with the nearest U.S. Consulate or Embassy, which will then keep the traveler updated on safety issues in the country they’re exploring. Enrolling in STEP could become a life-saving decision in extreme situations.
“Perhaps there’s a natural disaster in the area, or there’s a terrorist attack or other type of emergency,” Brosnahan explains. “We’ll send out alerts.”
Be aware of the surrounding, who’s around you, and what they’re doing.
It’s not a bad idea to keep the Department of State aware of your location when you travel abroad, but you’ll also need to apply a little old-fashioned common sense to steer clear of scams.
“Be aware of where you are,” Brosnahan says. “Be aware of the surrounding, who’s around you, and what they’re doing.”
In the end, staying safe while you travel abroad isn’t so different from avoiding crime in your very own neighborhood. Don’t carry too much cash. Don’t leave your things unattended. Leave the jewelry at home.
“[It’s] these kind of normal, common-sense tips that we would say for everyone traveling,” Brosnahan says.