Here are just a few of the lovely tricks that sneak thieves and con artists have waiting in store for you in several of the well-travelled places you may visit. It is hilarious reading, but no fun when it happens to you. Be aware and you will be safe.
Sneak Thieves (Lessons from the Peruvian Experts)
You are lying down resting in a park. (This is just an invitation to thieves in any city). Your day pack is firmly under your head. You are thinking about your friends back home. Suddenly something strikes you on the leg. “Hey look out! Oh sorry!” A couple of kids nearby are playing, and their ball had hit you. No problem. You lay back down. Your bag is gone! You spin around, but the entire park around you is empty. Your bag has disappeared into thin air! You turn back and the kids are gone too.
You are sitting on a bench, or leaning against a low wall, waiting for a bus, or a friend. Your bag is right beside you where you can see it; your hand is resting on it. A man in a suit walks along in front of you, stuffing something into his pocket. A 100-peso note flutters to the ground right in front of you as he walks off. You reach down and grab it, calling out to him. Forget the rest of the story, your bag is already gone!
You are on the train. You have stowed your bag safely over your head and just ahead of you, where you can see it. At the next station, a few people get on. Then, just before the train pulls out, several men come running through the car shouting loudly and waving their arms. They are pushing each other around, yelling frantically, and pointing out the other side of the train. The car is in an uproar. You stand up to get a better look. The men disappear as quickly as they appeared, as the train is pulling out of the station. You guessed it, your rucksack is gone!
You just arrived at the airport. You haul your rucksack out of customs and set it on the ground in front of you while you dig out a map or guide book. Fine so far. Now you go to put your rucksack on your back, but in order to do so, you must set down your day pack. You set the day bag down beside the rucksack and hoist the rucksack up across one shoulder. When you turn back again, your day pack is gone! The airport is full of people but you see no one with your bag, no one running, and no one very near you. You shout out, and people just stare at you, wondering what is wrong. Welcome to the Third World.
Con Artists (con men, confidence tricksters)
I don’t think I could begin to tell you all of the con artist’s tricks and ploys that you may be confronted with. They make up new ones every day. They usually involve you going to someone’s house, going into an alley, getting into a car or bus with someone, or paying some money right there on the street. Some are just very good hard-luck stories to illicit money from you. They can be as intricate as taking you on a lovely outing into the countryside (where you are robbed), joining a friendly poker game (ditto), or being rousted by phony policemen.
The best way to avoid being conned is never to talk to anybody, anywhere. As a more reasonable alternative, be very cautious of anyone who approaches you in a city, or tourist centre. If you suspect that it is a ruse, walk away. Don’t accept invitations in questionable situations, or in areas where confidence men abound. Sometimes people will claim to recognize you from another place where you have probably been (the airport or a popular resort). Since local people “all seem to look alike”, you pretend to remember them to avoid being rude. Now you are “friends” and they invite you to their home. Don’t go.
Many con artists, and also hard-sell vendors, will play on the Westerner’s aversion to being rude. They will manoeuvre you into a situation where you cannot avoid doing what they want you to do without appearing to be very rude to them. Learn to be rude! These are strangers whose only business is to rob or extort money from you. Walk away and ignore them.
Some countries and some cities are worse than others. Some are almost free of con artists! Ask other travellers. There are always new scams around and travellers will be sure to have the latest horror stories to warn you in advance. Get the lay of the land before you decide to be a trusting soul.
Watch for the street or sidewalk artists with the huge chalked picture of the Mona Lisa at their knees or on easels. Notice their studied faces, how they hold the coloured chalk just so. With great deliberation, they add a few strokes here, maybe just a touch there. Then they sit back and look at the work with what is clearly an artistic spirit. If any street performers deserve some of your money, surely it these people, the true and pained artists. What a sham. Once you know what’s going on, it’s incredible to watch these people. If you get up early enough, you’ll see them arrive. They bring the Mona Lisa rolled up under their arm. They lay it out in a prominent place on the sidewalk and then tape it down. Then they sit by it ALL DAY with that incredibly good suffering-artist look, always about to add a little colour here or there, pausing, considering, choosing another colour etc. Perhaps they do deserve your money for being such great fakes, but certainly not for being artists.
Help my luggage was just stolen!
A short, tanned, flustered woman with sunglasses and a big birth mark on her face approaches you and asks desperately if you speak German. Even though you say “no, not really” or can even manage “nur ein bissen”, she manages to convey to you that her bags have just been stolen. Her papers are gone and she has no money whatsoever. She’s a tourist and she needs to go to the police. She’s very polite and perhaps somewhat dishevelled. She says “entshuldigen” (excuse me) after every sentence and is generally very apologetic. You know about the Mona Lisa Scam, but this woman is in a desperate position and really needs your help. The right thing, the good thing, the Christian thing to do is to give her some money, maybe all your money.
In reality, she’s lying! This is just a scam to take money from westerners. These scam artists can always be found in tourist areas with that worried just-robbed look, wandering the streets: in search or her recently lost baggage, or yet another gullible tourist? You be the judge.
The most common con is really a sleight-of-hand trick, and it is performed to virtuosity by bogus black market money changers on the streets of cities all over the world. You probably owe it to yourself to learn a humbling lesson from these experts at least once, but don’t try it with any more money than you would burn. There are probably at least a dozen different sleight-of-hand tricks that can be executed when changing money. I don’t know them all, but I will warn you that if you get yourself into this situation, you will very likely come out a big loser.
You can avoid it by never changing money on the street, and by always asking around among other travellers where they have successfully changed, and what the rate is. If there is a black market, you can usually find a shop where the transaction takes place on the premises, preferably right up front. This is safer because the shopkeeper (was that guy really the shopkeeper?) has an address, and he can get into trouble. Street urchins disappear into thin air before you realize you have been ripped-off.
If you know someone who changed in that shop yesterday, you should feel safe about it today. There are a few countries, like China, where the exchanges usually occur on the street. In this case, ask around to see if it is trustworthy, or go with someone who can identify honest changers, or use the bank. Always have the money you want to change separate and handy. Never show your wallet and certainly not your money pouch when changing money on the black market. It sounds obvious to me, but I’ve seen travellers doing it.
I say if there is a black market, because dishonest money changers do not gain their profits by virtue of the black market rates. They make their my money by cleverly stealing it from you! It should be a big tip-off to you when someone offers you a rate far above either the official or the black market rate. They just want to get your attention, and they will go even higher if you ignore them. Like many con artists, they play on your greed.
The usual trick is to short-change you. Say the real black market rate is 20. They offer you 25. You get greedy and head off into an alley with them. When you count the money they give you, it is the equivalent of only 22. You complain and give the money back. But you are greedy, so you give the money back. They re-count it, add enough money to the top to make it right, and give it back to you as you hand over your pounds. Alternatively, if you have already given them your money (you might as well have flushed them down the toilet!) you will then have an argument, and they end up giving you back your dollars.
The first case is actually better, because you at least will have been given some local money, although what you were handed, just before they disappeared in five directions, was only equivalent to a rate of 12 or 15! The hand is quicker than the eye. Perhaps you would like to see a card trick?
In the second case, just as your money hits your hand again, someone will shout that the police are coming, and the transaction is foiled as every one stuffs their own money in their pockets and runs for it. Back at your hotel, you reach into your pocket and pull out the worst possible excuse for a Xerox copy of a £50 note You now have no local money, and that crumpled piece of paper in your hand is worth nothing more than as a very poignant souvenir. Welcome to the club!
In a few countries, foreigners, and even locals, are occasionally drugged in bars, buses, and other places. You wake up 24 hours later with nothing but a headache. This happens to very few people, but it does occur.
If you avoid the environments of sleazy bars in Manila, Bangkok, and several other places, you have avoided most of the danger. Even then, you just need to exercise some care. Get in the habit of never leaving a partially full drink unwatched on the table when you go to the toilet. Bottled drinks are safer, especially if you watch them being opened. Again, you shouldn’t have to worry about your food or drinks being drugged in most situations, and in most places. But when you get out on the road and hear some of these wild stories, you won’t be able to say, “Wow, Andy never told us about that!”
There have been wild reports of entire buses being drugged by a vendor who passed down the aisle giving free samples of his sweets. Even the driver was drugged in this popular horror story. Still, people do get drugged on buses in a few locations (southern Thailand, Indonesia, Lahore, and Peru that I have heard of). If someone hands you a hunk of her greasy tamale, it is probably as safe as the grease, but if someone pulls out a sweet and offers it to you, it is just a good policy to refuse, unless you are quite familiar with the safety of the country. If they become very insistent, you should definitely refuse.
You are most likely to be drugged (and it is still not very likely) by a con artist who has already lured you away to a private location. In this case, you are already about to be robbed, so whether or not they drug you in order to do so is just a matter of their personal style.
The Booster Bag.
This bottomless bag fits over luggage, shopping bags and purses. Inside hooks grab the bag and the thief walks away with your luggage or purse. It is most frequently used at airports, bus/train stations, hotel lobbies, lines to use the telephone – in general, places where travellers tend to set down their bags.
The Identical Bag Scam.
You’ve probably seen a take-off on this in the movies. The thief has luggage that is identical or similar to other luggage, places it next to the bag of an unsuspecting traveller, and when no one is looking, walks off with the traveller’s bag, leaving his empty, identical one behind. A good way to avoid this is to mark your luggage in some unique way, either with tags, tape, or other means.
Someone collapses, is hit by a car, or flees an abuser. The decoy either flees to you or the crowd eases you to the down person. After much commotion, the crowd dissipates or you ease away – minus your money. The intent is to create jostling, noise, and commotion while you get pickpocketed. A friend who travels frequently (and knows better) was recently relieved of his bills from one front pocket, and his wallet from the other front pocket, and didn’t realize it until 10 minutes later.
Snatch & Run.
On foot, bike, motorcycle, or car. Targets are handbags, earrings, necklaces, shopping bags, watches, cameras dangling on their strap – anything that can be yanked off.
Back Home Boy.
Yes, unfortunately, crooks go on vacation. They meet somebody from back home. Defences go down and so does the scam. Usually, it’s robbery (mostly from hotel rooms). Solution: don’t allow others access to your room – and if you go to theirs, watch what they put in your drink!
Seat & Counter.
Signing traveller’s checks at a counter? Putting a bag under your seat (which can be accessed from behind)? Beware. Watch your belongings wherever you go!
Hold My Bag?
Objective is either to gain your confidence (eventually they’ll be holding your bag) or create a fall guy. The latter is particularly nasty. Hundreds of North Americans are in foreign jails because they had someone’s bag (containing drugs or contraband) or because they allowed others access to their bag and something was planted. Don’t take anyone else’s gifts through customs for them. Don’t watch a stranger’s bag while they go to the bathroom. Don’t ask someone to watch your bags.
The Push Me Pull You
This age old scam works like this. You are waiting at the airport, train station or subway platform and you have your luggage at your side. Two crooks approach you, one on each side. The first one picks up one of your bags and runs in one direction. You then take off chasing the crook leaving the other bag behind. The first crook then drops the bag he picked up and runs away. When you get back you find the other crook has picked up your other bag and fled. Always leave your bags in front of you at all times. Never leave bags on each side of you
Someone walk up behind you and says you dropped your wallet. You quickly stop feel for yours and say “It not mine.” This was all a set up. The crooks were just looking for you to feel where your wallet was so they can target you later.