Avoiding Scams while Traveling Part 1: Distraction Scam

Scammers, thieves, and pickpockets will often make a dramatic distraction to capture your attention so that they can more easily rob you. For example, a fist fight might break out right in front of you, a group of children might surround you, begging you for money, or an older woman might fall over.

It’s difficult to tell if these crises are real or just a ruse to draw your attention away, but when you know this method is used, you will be more vigilant when things like this happen. If something unexpected transpires right before you, be alert and aware of what is happening. Usually, but not always, they work with an accomplice, and many of their tricks are plied on the streets of vacation resorts, where unwary and, often, tired travelers fall victim.

Here are a few examples of common types of distraction scams:

  • Charity worker scam. A charity worker with a clipboard approaches you and asks you to sign a petition. While reading the documents on the clipboard, their accomplice is picking your pocket. This can also be done with a map under the ruse of asking for directions.
  • Crowded metro scam. A group of people or young children crowd into an already busy metro or subway car. They crowd around you and distract you, steal your wallet and then jump off before the doors close.
  • The “Friendship” Bracelet: A vendor comes to you and aggressively invites you if you help him with a “demonstration.” He proceeds to create a friendship bracelet right on your arm. When completed, he asks you to pay a premium for the bracelet he created just for you. And, since you can’t easily take it off on the spot, you feel obliged to pay up. (These distractions by “salesmen” can also function as a smokescreen for theft — an accomplice is picking your pocket as you try to wriggle away from the pushy vendor.)
  • The bird poo scam is a common one in South America. The scammer will sneak up behind you and squirt some white goo that looks like bird poop on your shoulder. A friendly and helpful person will stop you and warn you about the stain, providing tissues to clean yourself with. You will be preoccupied with trying to wipe off the “poo,” and while you are not looking, a pickpocket will quickly nab your belongings.
  • Pass the wallet scam. The crooks stand at the top of a busy escalator, forming a backup of people trying to get off. Someone behind you swipes your wallet and hands it off to someone on the opposite escalator, making it nearly impossible to pursue them.
  • Help me scam. Somebody drops something, like a handful of papers, in front of you. Someone else steals from you as you stoop to help them pick it up. This doesn’t mean you should never help someone; just be aware of your belongings as you do.
  • Talkative Cashiers scam. The shop’s cashier seems to be speaking on her phone when you hand her your credit card. But listen closely, and you may hear the phone’s camera shutter as she takes a picture of your card. Unbeknownst to you, they have your credit card details and can exploit this to make online purchases. Make sure you set up OTP when using your credit card to see if someone randomly uses your card.
  • The Broken Camera scam. Everyone is taking pictures of a renowned sight, and somebody comes up with a camera or cell phone and asks that you take his picture. But the camera or cell phone doesn’t seem to work. When you hand it back, the “tourist” fumbles and flops it on the ground, where it breaks into pieces. He will either ask you to pay for repairs (don’t do it) or steal your wallet while you are leaning over to pick up the broken thing.
  • Room “Inspectors” scam. A knock at your door and two men assert to be the hotel’s room inspectors. One waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you’re distracted, the first crook slips in and takes valuables left on a dresser. Don’t let people into your room if you weren’t foreseeing them. Call the hotel desk if “inspectors” suddenly turn up.
  • Phony Police scam. Two thieves in uniform — posing as “Tourist Police” — arrest you on the street, show you their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Never give your wallet to anyone. Call for help or tell them they must file this with other authorities.

There are a lot of different scams in the world, and the ones above are prevalent. So here are some tips to consider:

  1. For anything bank or online transaction related, make sure you take precautions with phishers. Always have two-factor authentication (2FA) when logging in to sensitive applications. 2FA prevents using their compromised credentials since these alone are insufficient to gain entry.
  2. Just know to be slightly wary and use your judgment on those who approach you out of the blue.
  3. It’s hard to tell if these situations are real or just a ruse to draw your attention away, but when you know this technique is used, you will be more observant when things like this happen. If something out of the normal happens right before you, be alert and aware of what is transpiring.
  4. Scammers will guilt trip you to make you feel like you have accomplished something wrong when you don’t do what they want. Don’t buy into it- just walk away.
  5. One of the most important things to remember when traveling is to listen to your intuition and rely on your gut. You’ll see that alarm bells go off in your head when something someone is telling you just doesn’t make sense or sounds too good to be true. Listen to those alarm bells and approach each circumstance with some healthy skepticism.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to or trust anyone you meet on your travels! Being open to meeting new people and making friends is essential; your exchanges with others will be some of your unforgettable travel experiences. The key is to be informed beforehand, take what people tell you with a grain of salt, and use your intuition in each situation.

If anyone tries to scam you on one of your travels, share here, and we would love to know about it so we can avoid these mishaps!