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Op-Ed: Travel scams to avoid in 2016

I intended to use Costa Rica’s bus system to navigate the country since the landmass is relatively small, and a bus can transport me from one end to the other in half a day. But I wasn’t prepared to handle a bus strike the first day of my trip. There were still a few buses running, but not the one that I previously mapped out on Google Maps before leaving home. With dwindling sunlight and fruitless wandering, I turned to a nearby cabbie for help. My Spanish is elementary at best, but between his broken English and my limited Spanish skills I discovered there was a connecting bus in San Ramon that could take me to my destination, La Fortuna. However, San Ramon was 60 kilometers away and he told me the last bus for the weekend left in an hour and a half.

Within minutes, the overly-nice cab driver talked me into a flustered, confused state where I agreed to let him drive me an hour so I don’t miss the last bus and get stranded in San José, which meant wasting the money I’d already spent on lodging in La Fortuna. And he was also courteous enough to call and secure me a ticket on the bus.

I eventually arrived at the bus depot, and then the cabbie asks for 60,000 colons for the ride and the bus ticket. Begrudgingly, I notice the cabbie doesn’t have a running meter so I can’t verify the charge. Not knowing what else to do I paid him, which was more than half of the money I brought with me for the entire trip. And here’s the extra kicker: the bus ticket turned out to be fake and unnecessary, so I had to pay the bus fare, too.

Because I failed to negotiate a rate beforehand, and didn’t do adequate research on the local scams, I walked out of that cab ride spending $90 too much.

Cabbies taking advantage of foreign travelers happens everywhere. And scam artists, pickpockets and bold thieves are on the lookout for easy prey. But if you educate yourself on the rising schemes you’ll possibly encounter in 2016, then you’ll be better prepared to avoid them.

The Chatty Cashier
In the United States, it’s uncommon to see cashiers talking on their cell phone while ringing up your order because it’s considered rude behavior. But overseas—particularly in Barcelona—the customer might be the last thing a cashier pays attention to. Instead, the cashier might be using their phone conversation as a cover, and instead they’re taking photos of your credit card number for their own use.

It’s hard to determine whether a chatty cashier is actually on the phone, or just waiting for an opportune moment for credit card theft. The only absolute way to avoid this scam is by refusing to do business when the cashier is on the phone, or using cash. But if you use cash, be sure not to become a victim of the classic slow count and switcheroo scams.

The slow count is when the cashier or bank clerk is painfully slow when counting back your change. They’ll count aloud every bill and coin, take random long pauses, restart the counting process and try to distract you with chitchat. These scam artists hope you’ll grow impatient, swoop up the cash in front of you and then head out. Patience pays off here — literally.

The switcheroo is another scam that relies on a tourist’s impatience and unfamiliarity with foreign currencies. The clerk starts with the slow count and then drops your change, replacing larger denominations with smaller ones that look similar. It’s easy to get frustrated and walk out with whatever change the cashier hands you, but you’ll be safe if you learn what the local currencies look like and take the time to count out any money they give back.

Chinese Tea Ceremony
For the last several years, one of the most common scams in Beijing and Shanghai is the so-called “tea ceremony scam,” and it shows no signs of stopping. The scam is simple to execute, and the scammers prey on the curiosity of Westerners. The routine starts with a young, friendly group of Chinese students, who ask tourists if they can practice their English skills during an authentic Chinese tea ceremony. The kids are subtle and try to be as genuine as possible. If you agree, they’ll take you to a tea parlor that they are partnered with, and order various teas for you to try. And before you know it, the bill comes and you’re looking at paying a few thousand yuan for the experience, which is much higher than market price.

But if you’re savvy and not afraid of public attention, then you can sometimes get most—if not all—of your money back, according to a Lonely Planet forum. The trick is knowing exactly which tea shop you were scammed in, where it is and who the scammers are by name. Then try to locate a police officer, head back there and raise ruckus. The officer likely won’t help you, but you will be safer with their presence. Find the person who scammed you and demand your money back. Don’t be afraid of making a scene with boisterous bursts of verbal accusations, and don’t stop until they succumb to your request. If they refuse to return the money, threaten them with bad publicity. Warn that you’ll post pictures of the business and its staff online to warn future travelers away. The travelers in the Lonely Planet forum say this method eventually works, although it may take about half an hour.

Front Desk Credit Card Theft
During a family trip to Cozumel, Mexico, my parents’ credit card information was stolen. As it turns out, they became victims of a very common, incredibly subtle scam. Imagine that you just arrived to your hotel, and late that night the phone rings. It’s the front desk, and apparently there’s a problem with your credit card on file, so they need you to repeat that number or provide a different card.

Unfortunately, that phone call is not from the front desk. It’s somebody who has access to your room’s phone number and uses late-night grogginess as an opportunity to steal your credit card number. Unlike other credit card scams that target travelers, the thieves are relying on your guard dropping because the call sounds believable. There are other variations of this scam that often use food delivery flyer to get your credit card number. This problem is especially prevalent in amusement park hotels.

Avoiding this scam is simple, but a bit tedious. Never provide your credit card number over the phone when you travel. If you receive a call like this then hang up and dial the front desk. Confirm that it was them calling, and then go down in person to confirm the credit card on file. And for delivery, check with the front desk to see what vendors they recommend.

Philippines Bullet
Out of all the scams on the list, this one is the most dangerous. The charade takes place in the Philippines, and gained notoriety at Manila airport in October. Scam artists are dropping bullets into passengers’ luggage as they go through airport security. The targeted passengers are then being extorted by security for hundreds of dollars. If they refuse to pay, the security officers are allegedly threatening passengers’ with detainment or arrest, with the charge of possessing illegal ammunition, according to TIME.

This is a difficult scam to stop as a traveler because security naturally has access to your luggage during screening. The solution passengers developed is to make the process of breaking into luggage unwieldy and time consuming. They’ve began saran-wrapping their entire backpacks and suitcases to prevent outside tampering.

Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino boxer and member of the country’s House of Representatives, is offering free legal services for any victims of the bullet scam.

Security Line Chaos
Overzealous airport security measures can be great opportunities for scam artists. While we’re stuck waiting in line to be patted down and go through various screening machines, our luggage is sitting unattended on a conveyor belt. And it’s easy enough for a duo team to snatch your bags. The scenario plays out like this: You’ll load your carry-on bags into the x-ray screener, but before you can walk through the metal detector somebody who makes a fuss about being in a hurry jumps in front of you. But wait, he forgot to take off his metal jewelry and belt, and he didn’t empty his pockets. All while he makes a scene about forgetting these extra steps, his partner grabs your bags and walks away to a different terminal.

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