Protect Yourself From Scams and Pickpockets Overseas – Travel Guide
Any trip overseas can turn awry when you lose your belongings or worse when your items are stolen. Journeying into a foreign land also makes you vulnerable to trickery and scams by others who prey on tourists.
Prevention is always better than the cure, so recognising these situations before they take place is already half the battle won. Avoiding them will then allow you to enjoy the rest of your vacation worry-free.
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Where do scams happen and who are the usual perpetrators?
The answer is: scams and theft can happen anywhere and anybody can trick and steal from you. Children and the elderly have been known to be behind many scams and pickpocket crimes overseas.
What do they want to take from you?
Money is attractive but other personal items have become increasingly popular. Passports and identity cards fetch a high price on the black market and can be worth more than your whole vacation. With the 2nd best passport in the world, Singaporeans are even more vulnerable to identity thieves.
Losing your passport would also cause a great deal of inconvenience on your trip. Some countries don’t allow you to leave the country if you lose your passport and identity card. If the item has your photo and confidential information on it, it is on a pickpocket’s list of targets.
General precautions to take while travelling
Firstly, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself and your belongings when travelling.
Use locks on your luggage and backpacks
You may be wondering, what’s the point of a lock if thieves or pickpockets know how to break them. Although padlocks do not prevent theft fully, it may reduce the incentive for pickpockets or thieves. Breaking locks may take time and gather attention which may deter thieves who then look for other unsecured backpacks or luggages.
Be aware of your important belongings
This step applies even if you are not travelling overseas. Take note of your belongings every time you leave a place. Making this a habit could save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Never draw attention to yourself
Tourists are already easy to spot if they don’t speak the local language or dress very differently. Gathering more attention to yourself just makes you more easily spotted by crooks and scammers.
Carry important things in the front
Use a sling bag, belt or vest to keep your items within your line of vision at all times. Leaving things in a backpack that hangs behind you is highly discouraged. It is encouraged to bring as little as you can when you travel. Shed the unnecessary baggage. Bring only 1 credit card for emergencies, leave identity cards that are not needed at home and use e-tickets for everything if you can. A bulky backpack becomes an easy target.
Act blur, live longer
This helps in certain situations but is a general rule to keep out of trouble. Playing along with a ruse only emboldens the pickpocket or thief.
Infamous scams and tricks
Although the steps above can help protect you from tourist scams and pickpockets, it is best if you can recognise such situations when they happen.
For Singaporeans, Southeast Asia is a travel hotspot. Close, convenient and cheap. Sadly, theft and scams happen a lot in this region as well.
1. Motorcycle Snatch Theft
Scooters and motorcycles are popular modes of transport in Southeast Asian countries. You can zip around quickly on roads and squeeze through traffic jams. This also means thieves can easily zip away after stealing.
For this scam, thieves usually go around on motorcycles in pairs and grab handbags or bags off tourists walking along the road or riding on other motorcycles. The bolder ones use a penknife to cut the straps of bags to easily grab it off tourists.
- How to avoid: Carry your sling bag in front of you or away from the road. Using a hidden pouch works best.
2. Non-metered taxis
This is a common scam which still continues despite measures by authorities. Taxi drivers don’t have functioning meters and charge an exorbitant price. Some even have tampered meters which display a higher fare.
- How to avoid: If you live in a hotel, ask them to call in a taxi for you. Use ride-hailing apps if available and stick to the displayed price.
3. Motorbike scam
Be careful when you rent a motorbike from rental companies. In more extreme cases, there are people from the rental company who follow you when you ride the motorbike or find out where your accommodation is at. They then “steal” the motorbike from you with a spare key and then charge you for the missing bike.
In other cases, the rental company would point out damage on the motorbike which was not there when you rented the bike. This happens after they damage it themselves after you return it just to seek compensation.
- How to avoid: Take a picture of the bike before you return it. The more the better. To avoid all these scams altogether, search for reliable rental companies beforehand.
4. Jet Ski scam
This scam is similar to the motorbike one. You rent a jet ski and suddenly when you return it, there’s a dent or scratch which you need to pay for. The scammers in question have gotten really innovative by using water-soluble paint to cover already present dents or scratches.
After you’re done bringing it around on a ride, the paint washes off and ta-da, there’s suddenly a scratch.
Occasionally, the jet ski would be floating on the water when you want to rent it. Any damage that is on the bottom of the jet ski is concealed by the water and only apparent when you bring it to shore upon return.
- How to avoid: We recommend not renting a jet ski. The risk is too great. In some cases, the tourist police are in on the scam and pretend to help you to “reduce” the payment.
1. Bar scams
East Asia may seem relatively safe but there are still some bad apples here and there. We suggest being extra cautious when visiting a bar or a drinking establishment. And even more, if you fall easily for attractive girls.
One situation involves an attractive lady who will invite you to have a drink with her in a bar. Usually, she’s in on the scam with the bar. She drinks with you and tricks you into buying drinks for her. However, the whole time the bartender serves her non-alcoholic drinks so she remains sober. Meanwhile, you’re probably very drunk and not in control of yourself.
In your drunken state, they overcharge you without you noticing. At times, they force you to pay by credit card and charge a much higher amount than you expected.
- How to avoid: Go drinking with friends and people you trust. Going alone makes you an easy target.
2. Fake police
There have been cases of individuals dressing up as policemen. They stop tourists just to check if you have valid immigration documents. After making an excuse that you do not have the right paperwork, they bring you aside into an isolated area and then steal your passport or wallet with the immigration documents.
- How to avoid: Be well aware of your rights as a tourist or immigrant in that particular country. If you are not breaking any laws, do not give in to any of the weird requests. Only follow the authorities to a police station if there is an issue.
3. Drink spiking
This is similar to the bar scam but far worse. You may get your drink spiked in a nightclub or bar which causes you to lose consciousness. The perpetrators themselves then offer to help you back to your accommodation after you regain consciousness and then steal your valuables from your room.
- How to avoid: Never leave your drink unattended and always keep it in front of you. Go to nightclubs or bars with people you know and stick together.
1. Friendship bracelets
While you’re sightseeing, a wild stranger appears and asks if you want a friendship ring or bracelet. Once you say yes or express no apparent rejection, another wild stranger appears and ties a bracelet around your hand. You can’t wrestle your hand away and they suddenly demand an exorbitant fee for the bracelet.
If you refuse, more accomplices (usually burly) appear to pressure you into paying.
- How to avoid: Look out for people carrying yarn or colourful strings. Also, always say no to sudden requests from strangers. If it is a genuine request, you can always change your mind after and offer assistance.
2. Petition signing by children
It’s disappointing that children could be perpetrators of these scams as well. Children (usually girls) will approach you with a clipboard and pen, and ask for your signature for a petition. The “petition” is to bring your attention away from everything else as they try to grab your valuables from your pockets or bag.
These children usually operate in groups and will close you in from all sides. This is done on the assumption that tourists are hesitant to push away children.
- How to avoid: Be sure that all your belongings are not easily taken away while you visit popular attractions. When you see a child too young to be alone to be asking for “petitions”, walk the other way. Clearly say “no” when approached.
3. Hotdog Spill
This scam is similar to the “petition” one. Someone spills something on your clothes (most of the time it is mustard from a hotdog in their hand) and then offers to clean your clothing for you. While they “clean” your clothes, they try to snatch your wallet or phone.
- How to avoid: You may be infuriated by having your clothes stained but don’t accept help from the person. Reject their offer and move to a safer place to clean up and check that all your belongings are with you.
4. Slashing bag
There are many museums in Europe and it is easy to get lost in your thoughts while looking at paintings and sculptures. However, bold pickpockets and thieves take advantage of these moments and slash open bags of tourists to steal their belongings.
- How to avoid: Sling your backpack to the front at all times. If you find this troublesome, use a bag that is “slashproof” and has locks. You can find this easily in travel stores nowadays. If you’re not a fan of backpacks, you can use a money belt which is concealed under your outerwear.
This scam is common in the USA, especially at popular tourist attractions. A stranger approaches you with a friendly demeanour. The person will claim to be a rising musician and wants to share his music to get the word out by offering you a free CD filled with their music.
After you accept it, the person will then suddenly demand payment. If you refuse to pay, the “musician” will then create a scene and accuse you of theft.
- How to avoid: Do not accept things for free unless it is from a trusted establishment. If you see people giving out free CDs, just ignore them.
2. Cosplay and Character Photos
You may find many mascots, costumed characters or cosplayers along the streets near popular attractions. You may not be able to resist to take photos with them. The catch is, no photo is free and once the photo is taken, big and intimidating men surround you to pay up.
- How to avoid: Ask if the photo is free beforehand and if not, just walk away. If you really want to take photos with characters or mascots, just do so within theme parks which is a safer option.
3. Casino chips scam
In an establishment made to capitalise on greed, scams or thefts are bound to happen. The most common scam involves a stranger pleading with tourists to help cash in casino chips. For some reason, this scammer was barred from entering the casino but has a bag full of chips.
The scammer promises to give you a share of the chips if you help cash them in. However, to make sure that you’ll return with the money from cashing in the chips, the scammer will ask to hold your wallet or identification for you.
Unfortunately, you find out from the casino that the chips are fake and the scammer runs away with your wallet.
- How to avoid: Never accept weird requests from strangers. Especially so if they are not employed by the casino. We suggest winning your own chips which feels more satisfying.
4. Free Newspaper
People on the sidewalk may approach tourists and sell them newspapers. What they sell you happens to be free newspapers which you can easily get free of charge from other newspaper stands.
- How to avoid: Enjoy your holiday and don’t worry about catching up on the news while you’re abroad. If you’re on a working holiday and need to read the papers, we recommend getting one from a newsstand.
What should you do if you’ve been scammed?
Despite taking precautions, scammers and pickpockets may still outwit you due to a lapse in concentration or awareness. To err is simply human. Minimise your losses and respond to the situation quickly. Your personal safety should always be a top priority.
Important documents stolen
- If your passport or other confidential documents are stolen, quickly contact your embassy within the country. This is to ensure you do not get unnecessarily detained by authorities for not having the proper immigration documents.
- You can contact the tourist police to report a theft but also don’t forget to contact your insurance company. Sadly, the police may not have much incentive to pursue cases involving tourists unless it is serious or involves physical harm.
- If you lose your credit card, contact your bank immediately to block any future transactions.
Overcharged credit card transaction
- If you happen to be overcharged by a scammer when using a credit card, you can file a dispute with your bank. For some banks, they accept a dispute claim up to 60 days after a transaction.
Scams are always bound to happen no matter where you travel to but this should not deter your wanderlust! Prevention is always better than cure.
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