How to Avoid Holiday Travel Scams

by Lark Gould 
Posted Nov 24th 2010 09:00 AM


how to avoid travel scams

sashafatcat, flickr

There's always a chance that something will go wrong when you travel. Remembering the bag of gifts, your the passports and tickets, the right bottle of pills, even the dog sitter's phone number can reduce mishaps, of course. But what about the things that aren't on your checklist, like theft, grifts, assaults, and cons.

Before heading to the snow-covered highlands or sandy, sunny lowlands this holiday season, it's best to be aware of the vacation experiences not to have.

"There's really nothing new under the sun. It's about travelers not paying attention to their stuff or their environment," says Kevin Coffey, an active police detective with a side career lecturing about travel scams to corporate travelers and meeting planners. "During the holiday season travelers are particularly vulnerable. They have packages and money and stressful time commitments and distractions, and crime artists pray on that. It's easy for thieves to blend in and mark their target during these times, and there is a smaller chance they will get caught."

Have you ever been the victim of a travel scam?
Yes, some of them are really sneaky.1 (50.0%)
No, I'm extremely cautious when traveling.1 (50.0%)
While being vigilant is one tact, being organized is another. Coffey suggests reconfirming flights and flight times before leaving, getting to the airport early and not stuffing your carry-on bags with too many items -- especially presents, as these will only have to be unwrapped anyway.

For consumers who get taken by travel agents who are not really travel agents or tour companies that disappear and close up shop in the middle of the night, travelers should check their state and local legislation. California has a Seller of Travel law that offers its citizens some protection from loss, if the tour or ticket was purchased from a registered, in-state travel company. A fund bolstered by fees paid by California travel agents and tour companies offers a system of restitution for travelers qualifying in cases fraud or mishap (there is a $50 deductible).

But the best advice belongs to common sense: check the company out before paying money; always pay with a credit card; allow plenty of time for decisions and don't respond to pressure tactics.

Here are 10 common travel scams to watch out for:

1. The Travel Agent
This scam has been around since the mid 1990s and offers would-be travelers agent credentials for the price of about $500. The credentials are supposed to bring incredible hotel and cruise discounts and a host freebies just for being a part of this bogus "agency." But the days of agent comps are as gone as brick-sized cell phones, and the only benefits here might be the jazzy sales motivation talks and the monthly newsletter.

2. The Free Trip
Whether you have won a trip to some island in the Bahamas or a gate pass to Disneyland just for clicking a pop-up box, chances are you will be asked to fork over $100 for an "admin" fee for a trip that does not exist.

3. The Up-front Cash-out
This really did happen -- to a Los Angeles Times travel editor. The editor had wedding plans set for a spot on the island of Oahu. However, a few weeks before the wedding she had to change venues and found, through research on the Internet, a perfect place near the original spot. She contacted the leasing agent, who asked her to quickly wire the funds -- nearly $5,000 -- to the venue "owner's" bank account in Texas, as time was short. After wiring the money, the soon-to-be-married travel editor requested the accompanying papers -- which never came.

4. The Front Desk
This con has been showing up a lot recently and almost happened to this writer as well. You're in a foreign hotel after a 20-hour plane flight and finally asleep in the horizontal position when the phone rings. It's the front desk and the clerk needs to confirm your credit card and expiration date. In the middle of a travel coma you concede to the request and wake up to find there was no such call from the administrative clerks at the front desk.

5. The Lady with the Baby
This happens in Europe more often than you would think: a woman carrying a baby in a blanket walks toward you and suddenly tosses the child into your arms. Nearby partners in crime grab your purse, wallet, camera, whatever can be snatched in the confusion and run away, leaving you to care for the doll or log you just caught.

6. The Newspaper in Your Face
Kids pass you in a riot of laughter, conversations and newspapers. While waving the newspapers in your face to block your vision and disorient you, the cagey youths run through your pockets and grab your bag -- and everything else they can grab.

7. Five for Fifty
This bait and switch is common in Turkey where the denominations in question look similar, but it is certainly duplicated to perfection in other destinations as well -- including the cash register at your local 7-11. You get into a cab, get an estimate for a fare, and pay the fare when you get there with a 50 note, which the driver drops and exchanges for a five, exclaiming that you gave him a five, not a 50.

8. The English Student
One of the most rewarding experiences of travel is spontaneous interaction and adventures with local residents. Indeed, this writer has discovered hidden dumpling houses in Shanghai, friendly hookah dens in Sana'a, even bohemian coffee houses in Addis Ababa with the help of friendly locals -- often students -- who want to practice their English. But chances are you will be paying for dinner for your host and several of his friends in the transaction, and even buying his family a few bags of groceries while you are at it.

9. Waiting for the Bus
Whether your adversaries are on bicycle, running through a crowd or offering a friendly dose of help in a bustling bus station, it's your bags they want -- not your smiling face. A common scene has travelers waiting for their ride on a street in Barcelona as thieves on bicycles grab a purse from a woman nearby. She screams. The travelers drop their bags and run after the purse-snatchers while cohorts in the shadows run for the bags. Similarly, you are struggling with your luggage at a train or bus terminal. A nice guy insistently offers a hand to help and helps himself to your belongings.

10. The Cut and Roll
This classic comes from Kevin Coffey: You are on line at the security gate at an airport. Suddenly, two people cut in line. One goes through the body scanner, while the other causes a stir with watches and pocket electronics that buzz and beep and hold up the line, making it impossible for you to go through at the same time as your carry-ons or even see what is happening on the other side. Meanwhile, the second guy picks through your handbag and tray and disappears into the terminal -- and out -- with your cell phone and your wallet.

Filed Under: Tips & Tricks, Holidays

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Bob Booker

Yes, old P.T. Barnum was right. There are new fools born every minute. They also vote, breed and reproduce to keep the cycle going. There are no free lunches, folks.

December 10 2010 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Number one thing to look out for - BED BUGS! They lurk in cabs, buses, planes - especially luggage compartments. After several friends came home with bed bugs I went searching and found the greatest product - effective and safe. It is called Greenbug for People. You spray it on yourself and your belongings and it repels bed bugs! When I get to a hotel room, I inspect and lightly spray each linen layer on the bed plus under the headboard with Greenbug for People because it kills bed bugs and creates a barrier where bed bugs can't get to me. On the way home, I spray myself and luggage again and I can say that after many, many travels, I am bed bug free. I got it online at

December 10 2010 at 1:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
J. Loyd

While walking near the Eiffel Tower we noticed some people selling bottles of water. When you would buy a bottle, the seller would appear to open the bottle for you. We did not buy any of their water. Upon walking farther, we did notice some of the same sellers filling used water bottles (taken from trash)
with water from hoses used to water plants. If you bought it you were drinking after people that may have colds or worse. If you buy any bottles make sure you open them yourself...

December 10 2010 at 11:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was boarding a subway train one morning in Barcelona when someone jostled me. I thought nothing of it, but then a man seated near the door pointed to my back. There was something like hand lotion dripping down my coat. He offered me a tissue as I took off my jacket and set down my bags near my seat. At the next stop, which came quickly, another man grabbed my bag and started out of the door. Fortunately I was right behind him and he dropped it. The first man continued to offer "assistance" but then an English speaking woman who observed the incident came up to ask if I knew the man. She said he was working with the one who snatched my bag. The scam was described on posters and TV announcements to alert the public she said. The man immediately became angry and accused her of racism (he looked Arab, and was clearly not Spanish). Even as the whole thing took place I did not realize all of the connections until the kind woman warned me. I keep my bags close and tighly held at all times now, and walk with speed and confidence that I believe causes thieves to choose another victim rather than me. I never stop for people asking questions or offering me anything. Every American I met in Barcelona had a story of being robbed or scammed in various ways.

December 09 2010 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"and crime artists pray on that"

Oh, come on, doesn't anyone edit these articles????

PRAY on that?????????

Don't you mean PREY on that?

December 09 2010 at 7:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So glad I've never felt the need to travel!! However, one must be on guard at ALL TIMES, like when you're at a local shopping mall or even the grocery store; pickpocket scum of the Earth are everywhere, period.

December 09 2010 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On a trip to Hawaii, we went to bed early as we were jet lagged by the time difference. My mother, cautious by nature, had insisted that we put the chain on the door. Good thing, because someone who had a key tried to come in that night. If we'd been out, we'd have been robbed. The staff at the front desk just sort of shrugged when we told them that someone with a key had tried to come in. After that, we were sure to take all our valuables everywhere with us. Anyway, I always use all the extra locks/chains on hotel/motel doors.

December 09 2010 at 6:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Cynthia's comment
Been there!

I have relatives that were robbed blind in Hawaii. I have no desire to go to such a place that doesn't care if you get robbed... It's awful! Paradise my butt.......keep it.

December 09 2010 at 7:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We were in Rumania and while staying at the hotel,we were told not to drink the water and they gave us bottled water for which we paid for, later while walking around the hotel sightseeing, we watched the waiters filling the water bottles from a hose

December 09 2010 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We were in Madrid, some years back taking a cab to a flamenco show....On the way my wife was making small talk with the cabby in Spanish...when we got to the show, in the dimly lit cab, I gave the driver a large bill ,at the time ,in pesetas(before the euro) , about $50-75 The cabbie was very personable !

I wanted to get some smaller bills for change & tips etc. The driver gave me the correct amt. BUT, when we went inside to pay the show admission, I gave the clerk the change from the driver and he immediately exclaimed the the bills were COUNTERFEIT !!

IN the light of the theatre, I could see that they were fake!! I lost about $30-$40 to the cab driver!! Of course, I neglected to get the license of the cab, before I realized and all the cabs at that time were all white! Anyway how could I prove anything....what a "dumb American I was !!

December 09 2010 at 5:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In many countries one must be careful of students wanting to practice their English. But not in China, at least in my experience. There was always one at your elbow if you looked even partly confused. In every case they were helplful and generous. I remember one young woman in a provincial city who helped my wife find a store selling silk. The young lady grew impatient with the taxi driver she had hailed for us. He couldn't understand her directions, so she abandoned her lunch on the curb, jumped in and went with us, paying the cab fare when we arrived. She then spent over an hour with us, translating as my wife bought what she was looking for, then as we toured a neighborhood of marvelous shops. As we were ready to depart, I tried to give her enough money - just enough to cover her two cab rides. She refused it, saying, "Can't we just be friends?" I shall never forget her.

December 09 2010 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill's comment

A sweet story with a happy ending but seems to be the execption rather than the rule. I would urge a certian amount of caution whenever and wherever you are traveling. You don't want to miss out on the kindness of someone with a good heart being hospitable but be ready to react forcefully if they try to harm or rob you.

December 10 2010 at 7:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply