From staged fights to hidden fees to flimsy souvenirs, Singaporeans should keep an eye out for these travel scams.
With travel season right around the corner, all the tourists – and scammers – are coming out of the woodwork. Now you may be familiar with all the old school scam methods, but don’t forget criminals learn. Here are the updated versions of scams, be they new or modified:
The Dramatic Fight
This scam plays on the human love of drama, and typically happens in crowded tourist spots.
Imagine you’re in a tourist-heavy area, like Times Square in New York, or Taksim Square in Istanbul. You hear a lot of shouting, and then a scuffle breaks out between two people. It’s a fight that gets some attention – perhaps a catfight between two scantily clad women, or something unusual like an old man beating up a much younger one.
It’s YouTube worthy stuff, so a lot of tourists – maybe you included – take out your phones and start filming. Once it’s over, you put your phone in your pocket, and you realise your wallet’s gone.
Pickpockets have learned that, in an age when people love to record drama on their phones, it’s easy to create distractions. While their accomplices put up an act, whole teams of them go to work on your valuables.
So if you’re abroad when you see drama brewing, keep a hand on your wallet and walk away.
Zero Commission Moneychangers
This scam is particularly prevalent in Eastern Europe, due to lax government regulations.
With this scam, money changers advertise a zero per cent commission rate. You go in and change your money, thinking it will be cheaper – but when you check, you realise that you were charged 30 or 40 per cent more for the currency exchange.
That’s when the money changer points out that they have zero per cent commission, but there are added service charges (which are mostly made up, such as a convenience fee for being in the hotel).
If you demand your money back, things can get downright unpleasant; expect threats and verbal abuse. In some states, the police are in cahoots with the moneychanger, so don’t expect help even if you call the authorities (you might be the one arrested, if they accuse you of causing trouble).
The first time you use a moneychanger, exchange a small amount first, to see if they’re honest. Don’t hand over an entire wad of bills. Also avoid changing money with people who hang around outside the money changer, offering a “better” rate – many of them are just trying to use fake currency.
Most shops prefer if you don’t touch the merchandise, unless you’re going to buy. But a scammer’s shop may operate differently.
The moment you walk in, the shopkeeper is shoving all sorts of things in your hands. Jewellery, plates, wooden knick-knacks, etc. You’ll be told how rare and valuable these things are, but they’re actually junk.
Fragile junk, to be precise. The items are designed to break easily in your hands. Once that happens, the shopkeeper will feign outrage, and demand you pay for it.
This is accompanied by threats to call the police, and the scammer may enlist the help of “bystanders” (really their accomplices) to pressure you. A usual tactic is for one bystander to play the good Samaritan, and appear to try and defend you.
This good Samaritan will eventually coax you to “be nice”, and encourage you to defuse the situation with a small payment.
Vacation Clubs (Instead of Time Shares)
By now, most people know better than to buy timeshares. These are essentially prepaid vacations, which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. The only use is that, when you visit, you can stay in certain hotels or use certain amenities at discounted prices.
However, timeshares are difficult to offload (you have to sell your timeshare to someone else to get your money back), and there’s little you can do if the vacation spot proves disappointing.
Now for a time, it was thought that timeshares were dying out. They weren’t even on the CASE list of top complaints last year, despite their being on that list almost every year. Unfortunately, it’s not because they’ve gotten better, or because there’s fewer of them.
It’s just that many timeshares have rebranded, and now call themselves vacation clubs or holiday clubs. Not only does this help them find new victims, they may have re-named and restructured themselves to avoid the five-day cancellation period.
(There is usually a cooling-off time of at least five days, when you can back out of timeshare contracts. But as they’re a “vacation club” and not a timeshare, they may argue that this rule doesn’t apply to them).
Different name, same nonsense. Avoid these like the plague.
This is the updated version of an old scam, which is just to sell stolen or pirated goods on the street. It’s increasingly common in Western European cities like London and Paris.
During the street auction, there’s apparently fierce bidding for someone’s cast off goods. These can include artwork, watches, tablets, smartphones, etc. However, a large number of the bidders are just accomplices. Their job is to drum up excitement, and ramp up prices.
If you join the bid and “win”, you’ll soon find that whatever you bought is broken, or some sort of knock-off. If the item happens to be stolen, you could be in big trouble; some tablets and smartphones have GPS trackers, that will lead the former owner to your hotel room door (probably with the police in tow).
It’s best to avoid buying anything on the street. Stick to stores, where you can get also proper receipts.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.