How to Handle Scams, Cons and Pickpockets

by Sandra Scott

During our 30 years of travel, my husband and I have been scammed and conned by the best. And just when we think we are aware of all the tricks, fakes and scams, it happens again.

Here are some of the top scams that hit travellers and tips for avoiding them.


Nothing starts a trip off on the wrong foot faster than a scam in the airport. Taxi touts are often waiting for arriving travellers as soon as they leave the baggage area. Touts offer great taxi deals that turn out to be not so great, and often end in a heated argument between the tout and the approved taxi drivers in the queue. We have learned it’s best to find the taxi stand, if available, and arrange transport at an airport-approved kiosk. If there is a meter, insist that the driver use it, or agree on a price before getting into the cab. If you feel something is not “right, ” write down the taxi number and the driver’s name.


Remember what your mother told you: “Don’t talk to strangers.” By nature, travellers tend to be friendly people who enjoy making acquaintance with local residents, something scammers take advantage of. We have fallen for this scam so many times. It usually starts out with, “Where are you from?” and the conversation continues in a mutually friendly manner, until our new friend wants to show us the local attractions. We have learned to say “No, thanks, ” and move on because the offer usually ends in a request for a “tip.” In Istanbul, we fell for such a scam. He said he would show us for free, and that he just wanted us to see his city. But, oh! He forgot to mention that the last stop was his “brother’s” rug showroom.


When travelling in the developing world, it’s hard to say no to beggars. But things are not always as they appear. It is best to avoid eye contact and not speak to beggars. Once the line of communication is open, you’re fair game.

Children are especially hard to ignore but they are usually part of a Fagin-like gang; they have an assigned territory, a daily quota, and don’t get to keep the money they obtain. We have tried to give food to obviously undernourished children begging in the streets, but often they have refused to take it. If you want to really help street children, make donations to reputable local agencies that provide services directly to the children, their families and other needy people in the community.

It’s also important to note that monks do not beg for money or ask for donations to a charity—if you see one who is, remember that he is probably an imposter. You can make donations directly to temples or monasteries.

Gems and Money

Buying “gems” on the street and beach that are “guaranteed” to be real are most likely fakes. If you are in the market for real gems, go to a reputable dealer and get a certificate of authenticity. Money changers on the street have many sly ways of exchanging your money into local currency, leaving you with fake bills or short-changing you. Go to a bank for the best rate, and research the rates ahead of time. When making any transaction, be sure to take your time and count your change. Don’t hesitate or be embarrassed to speak up if you think there has been a mistake.


We’ve all been warned about pickpockets, especially in subways, train stations, and around crowded tourist attractions, but pockets still get picked. Don’t carry large sums of money. The back and side pockets of men’s pants are perfectly designed for easy pickings. Zippered pockets are best, but only work if you remember to close them. I was coming out of the subway in Madrid and a man asked me to help him locate a place on a map. Meanwhile, his buddy was trying to get into my purse, which was zipped tight. I missed my big chance to cause a public scene by screaming “thief!” Don’t be afraid to publicly announce there’s a thief in your midst.