Travel Scams: What to look for and how to protect yourself – How my shoes kept me from being robbed

by | Mar 3, 2017

It can happen anywhere. You either aren’t paying attention, or you get confused, and in less time than it takes to take a deep breath, something is stolen or taken from your person. Travel scams can be avoided if you know what to look for, follow a few guidelines, and keep your common sense intact. My skills were recently put to the test. Thankfully, because of a few warning signs, I wasn’t robbed. This time I owe it all to my shoes.

How my shoes saved me from a travel scam

I was sitting in the aisle seat on the left side of the train with my bag on the window seat enjoying the Italian countryside.  A few stops into the train ride, a young woman sat down in the seat just across the aisle from me. “Scusi,” she said. I turned to her and I couldn’t believe what she wanted to know. She asked me what brand of shoe I was wearing and if they could be purchased in Italy. WHAT?!?

Through my sunglasses I studied this lady. She was dressed up in a way that wasn’t comfortable for her and she didn’t look right. She had no purse or bag of any kind. And then, she covertly motioned in the aisle with her hands, as if she was trying to communicate with someone without me seeing. I was suspicious. “This is my stop,” I lied aloud, as I gathered my stuff and tried to make it look like I was leaving the train. Predictably, she popped up and left the train before I could finish gathering my things. I was lucky I didn’t have to follow through — my stop was still several stations away. I looked around, trying to figure out if the partner had left the train as well.

Why alarm bells? Well, with just two questions she was able to figure out that I was American due to my brand of shoe (and my accent). Secondly, no self-respecting Italian woman would want to know if she could purchase a pair of Keens. Keens are functional. They are not cute. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Keens. But they are the furthest thing from fashionable Italian footwear. Moreover, she didn’t have a bag and she was signaling to someone secretly out of my line of sight. That all adds up to no good. My guess is that the partner would have tried to relieve me of my possessions when I disembarked the train.

I love them, but no self-respecting Italian woman is going to ask me about my sensible footwear.

Common Travel Scams

Partner moves 

If two heads are better than one, then you’d better believe that thieves think so too! These pilfering pairs will work in tandem, but you will typically only be aware of one of them. The first one — the “face man” — will talk to you, stumble into you, or simply distract you in a variety of ways. The second one — the one you never see — will sneak in and relieve you of your stuff when you least expect it. Just like the attempted Italian Keen job that I foiled with functional footwear.

Short change

If you have ever handled money as part of your job, you know that “short-changing” is a common scam worldwide. Scenario: You buy something that costs thirty dollars. You give the person a fifty dollar bill. Very quickly they tell you that you only gave them a twenty.  “See!” They will wave a twenty dollar bill in your face. If you weren’t paying attention, you would feel compelled to pay an additional ten dollars. You would have then paid sixty bucks for a thirty dollar item.

How do you avoid this travel scam? Say the transaction out loud and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Are you Snapchatting right now while money is being exchanged? Are you kidding me? No, just stop. Repeat out loud the change you expect to get back before handing over any bills. Example“The total is thirty dollars. I have a fifty dollar bill here, [waves bill]. Therefore, I will get twenty dollars back in change. Do you have twenty dollars?” [Advanced: “Go ahead and show me the twenty dollars right now.”] Wait for an affirmative response before releasing the fifty dollars. When you release, add the comment, “Here is a fifty dollar bill.” It sounds a little odd at first, but after you get ripped off once, you won’t mind the feeling. Trust me. I fell for this travel scam in Mexico while buying gasoline for a rental car.

The friendly local

Okay, not every friendly person in the world is a crook. But I find it amazing that I have met people in four different countries that have a cousin or a friend that lives in the same small town that I come from back in the states. Coincidence? No, it is just not true. This is an opening to invite you back to their shop. If all goes to plan, you will eventually buy an overpriced trinket. Or a carpet. I purchased a very nice “evil eye” charm in Istanbul because of this method many years ago. If talk of a shop doesn’t come up in conversation quickly, be very aware of your possessions because it is probably a distraction. On the scale of things, this is probably one of the least harmful travel scams out there. Unless you go in for the carpet.

Stay safe while you travel. Do you scream "rip me off?" How to avoid some common scams.

Common sense is the main deterrent to theft. Try not to flash six grand in Rubles like this jeans wearer.

Tips for theft deterrence

There isn’t a single precaution that you can take that will deter an extremely determined pickpocket, but the general goal is to avoid being an easy mark.

  • Leave the family jewels at home. If it can come off your body without losing a limb, question whether you need it at all.
  • Don’t keep all your money and credit cards in the same place. I split my money and cards into three locations and even those places change depending on my outfit or luggage. In particular, I usually keep my cash in my [REDACTED FOR SAFETY — THIEVES MAY BE READING THIS POST RIGHT NOW!]
  • Don’t leave your stuff alone. This might seem super obvious, but you would be surprised at how many bags I see left on park benches when the owner is out bagging a pikachu.
  • Listen to your gut. If a situation doesn’t feel right, you should probably leave. 
  • Zippered pockets are your friend. They are way harder to get into without you noticing.
  • Be extra cautious in crowds. You get bumped around constantly in crowds. Keep your hands near your valuables so you aren’t relieved of them.
  • Don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket. [Advanced: carry a “dummy” wallet in your back pocket with a few dollars in it and an old hotel key.]
  • Look out for other travelers and listen to any precautions you are given. Turns out there is a real reason why you shouldn’t use the ATMs on 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Ah-hem.

If you think about it, all of these are common sense tactics you might use to avoid possible scams back in your hometown. The excitement of travel and new destinations can dim your natural instinctive reactions. Learning and experiencing different ways of doing things is part of what makes travel exciting. Just because something is different doesn’t make it a scam. Keep an open mind and stay positive. Just remember to keep your wits about you. And for goodness sake, consider a sensible shoe.

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Travel scams are everywhere. It is up to the traveler to be aware of their surroundings and what steps to take to help prevent theft. Check out a few ways I keep my wits about me, and how my shoes saved me from getting ripped off.

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