Sid Kirchheimer’s guard is perpetually up — and it reaches its zenith when he travels. As the author of the book “Scam-Proof Your Life” and the “Scam Alert” columnist for AARP, Kirchheimer strives to stay a step ahead of would-be thieves. Tourists, he said, are particularly vulnerable to crooks.
“If there is a criminal element out there, they’re going to prey on you over a local because when you’re traveling you’re out of sorts,” he said. “You don’t know what to do.”
When he is on the road, Kirchheimer takes strides to prepare for the worst. Consider his wallet bluff. Kirchheimer has heard many stories of tourists walking around at night and getting mugged. So he takes the advice he learned from a former pickpocket, and carries what he called a “throwaway wallet”: an old wallet that he has filled with plastic hotel room keys, which resemble credit cards, and a few bucks. “So when you get held up, you give them that wallet,” he said, adding that, thankfully, he has never had to use the decoy.
Jovial and down-to-earth, Kirchheimer seems more a realist than a paranoiac. As someone who lives in a tourist-heavy area (Florida) and who has interviewed the scammers and the scammed for more than a decade, he is seasoned in deceptive practices, and has plenty of advice for travelers. He, along with two other scam experts, shared some common cons and tips to avoid them when on the road.
The airport scam. If someone at the airport asks you to watch their luggage or purse for a few minutes, think twice, said Uzma Javed, a citizen services specialist in the State Department’s Office of American Citizen Services, which assists U.S. citizens living and traveling overseas. After the owner leaves the bag behind, a police officer may appear and say the bag has been stolen. In the ruse, the police officer proceeds to open the bag, “And then the bag has drugs in it or some type of illegal item,” Javed said. “Then the police officer will extort them for money and say, ‘Hey, if you don’t want to go to jail, give me this much money.’ ” She said it is a deceit that her office frequently hears of taking place in Russia.
The hand-off scam. If a stranger tries to hand you something unexpectedly, do not take it. Javed said that she has been approached multiple times by people overseas who present her with an item and, when it is in her possession, demand money in exchange for it. She said it happened in Paris: someone walked up to her, grabbed her wrist, put a friendship bracelet on it and then demanded money. In Venice, she said the same thing happens with flowers: people walk up to tourists, hand them a flower and then demand cash. “They’re not really big scams, but they’re some of the types of things that folks do encounter,” Javed said.
The taxi scam. The taxi driver “long haul” is nothing new: a driver takes passengers on the scenic route, which costs more than driving from point A to point B, or the driver manipulates the meter and charges far too much. Peter John, author of “Around the World in 80 Scams: An Essential Travel Guide,” which was inspired by his encounters with travelers who had been fleeced, offers this common-sense advice: “With taxi drivers, look like you know where you’re going, even when you don’t.” That tip applies to general tourist behavior outside of cabs, as well, John said. “Don’t look lost when you walk around. Don’t too obviously consult a map for ages,” he said. “It’s not so much trying to avoid looking like a mark, it’s trying to avoid looking like a foreigner.”
The jewelry scam. Beware any souvenirs you buy, particularly jewelry or other items that come with a sales pitch trying to convince you of their value, John said. He said that in India and Thailand, jewelers will often approach tourists and offer to sell them gems. “They say here are some gems, if you take them home you’ll sell them for 10 times what we’re going to sell them to you for,” he said. “And they turn out to be glass.”
The money-changing scam. Another common con: manipulating an exchange rate and short-changing a visitor, in hopes they will not notice. “Know the exchange rate and work out in advance how much you should get,” John said.
The takeout menu scam. Do not trust any takeout menus put outside or under your hotel door. Kirchheimer said that in Florida, where he is based, con artists will deliver menus advertising pizza or Chinese food. When a visitor calls the number listed to place an order, they will be asked for their credit card number. “They say they’ll deliver within 30 minutes. You never get your food and they’ve got your credit card,” Kirchheimer said.
The vacation-rental scam. Planning to stay in a house you found online? Make sure that house actually exists, Kirchheimer said. A few years ago, he said he saw a rental ad for an address near his neighborhood. He did an online search and found the address was actually for a vacant lot. “If you’re renting, Google the property address, see if it exists and see what else comes up,” he said. “If it comes up as a RE/MAX website and the house is for sale, well, it’s not for rent.” He said scammers will lift descriptions and photos directly from real estate sites and then list them on Craigslist or elsewhere, taking travelers’ money and offering them no place to stay.
The parking lot scam. If a person seems like he or she is being overly helpful, look out, Kirchheimer warned, especially if you are in a parking lot in Florida, where rental cars are frequent targets. The grift goes like this: A person parks and goes into a store. While they are inside, a con artist punctures their tire or dismantles a spark plug. The driver returns to find the damage. That is when the same con artist approaches and, like a good Samaritan, says, “I can fix that for you.” When the work is done, Kirchheimer said, the hustler will demand cash for the work.
Pickpocketing. Be skeptical of distractions around you. A person’s goal could be to divert your attention, by, say, bumping into you and dropping something or asking you to sign a petition. While you are focused on that person, his or her partner stealthily steals your wallet. Kirchheimer said you can protect against pickpocketing by protecting your valuables. Men should carry their wallet in the breast pocket, if possible. “If not,” he said, “wear tight pants.” Women, he said, should divide up their belongings, keeping a credit card in the wallet while placing others in their make-up bag or another spot.
Despite having been duped himself while traveling the world, John, author of “Around the World in 80 Scams,” is quick to point out that the possibility of getting hustled should not be a deterrent to travel. “If you worry too much about this stuff, then you’ll never go anywhere or enjoy anything, and you’ll miss out on a lot of unique experiences,” he said.
He added, dryly, “Don’t be too paranoid, enjoy your trip and remember you can be robbed at home as well.”
To learn about the latest travel alerts and warnings, visit the State Department’s website travel.state.gov. Victims of crime overseas should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Silver is a freelance writer and author of “Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago.”
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