It was pure chaos. Shuttle drivers, taxi drivers, porters and travelers were everywhere. You could barely move without bumping into someone as we stepped off the plane in Dakar, Senegal. It was four in the morning, but you would have thought it was the end of day rush in midtown New York. We eventually found our driver, or rather, he found us. After asking him to show us his ID to prove he was, indeed, the one sent by our hotel to pick us up, we followed him through the madness to his unmarked, un-branded van, which resembled every other van parked outside the airport. Two years later, I met Toby, whose mother and sister were kidnapped in one of these same vans by an abductor posing as a shuttle driver. That could have been us.
Tourist traps can be much more mundane than a kidnapping, so we are going to look at three of the most common traps that travelers fall into overseas, how to identify and most importantly, how to avoid them.
How to identify and avoid:
Police: Do some research beforehand to see if the area has a history of law enforcement impersonation. Often it will be in the form of fake checkpoints on the outskirts of town or fake tourist police in the city. Uniforms and behavior are big tip-offs: Look for ill-fitting, dirty or wrinkled uniforms, badges or other insignia made from plastic instead of metal and every law officer should have a radio - if not, you should be suspicious.
Guides: Look for an authentic badge and be wary of any guide who only takes you from shop to shop.
Drivers: In most of Europe and North America, taxi drivers should not approach you; however, in much of the rest of the world this is not the case. I suggest coordinating with your hotel or hostel for a ride to pick you up at the airport. Reconfirm this with the hotel the day before you travel, as I have stood at the airport more than once because someone forgot about me.
How to identify and avoid:
The distraction: This can be a woman with a baby, a team where one individual bumps into you, or jostles you while their companion takes your wallet or other valuables. I have also been warned of pickpockets in West Africa who use a syringe filled with acid that they spray on the bottom of your pocket, allowing the wallet to drop to the ground. Avoid this by not making it clear where your wallet is, using under the clothing pouches or clothing with built-in hidden pockets and by never putting all your cash and cards in the same pocket. I also practice scanning around instead of being drawn into a loud noise or a commotion.
Other Common Scams
The Turkey Drop: You find a bag of cash on the street or metro and… typically an individual will show up with an official looking accomplice at the exact moment you come across the bag, then demand a fine for attempted theft or some other invented charge.
Striking gold: A stranger who finds a ring or necklace on the ground, asks if it is yours, then proceeds to verify its worth (a mark or stamp of some sort) and offers to sell it to you.
Street exchangers: Almost universally illegal, exchanging cash from someone standing in the street is never a good idea. Besides arrest, you set yourself up for poor exchange rates, counterfeit bills and being shortchanged by the vendor due to “poor counting skills”.
Poor counting skills: Pretending you gave them a lower denomination as they make change, sometimes employing sleight of hand as they swap your bill for a smaller one as “proof”. Announce the denomination of the bill as you hand it over to avoid this one.
Ebony and Ivory: Many artisanal villages will showcase “ebony” carvings - if the carving is real ebony, it will be expensive. Very expensive and very heavy. Rub the wood to see if the color comes off and look for shoe polish cans. Ivory is illegal to harvest and export - but there are multiple other natural materials to watch out for as well: red coral from Algeria or Morocco, seashells from Tanzania or Djibouti. Be aware that the object you are buying may not make it home if customs officials find it in your bags.
The two individuals mentioned earlier in this post came out unscathed. However, they, like many others, show up at unfamiliar airports across the globe ready for an amazing trip and end up in nightmare scenarios. There is a lot you can do to avoid this, but sometimes you will end up in unfortunate situations; it is at these moments that you will be glad you insured your vacation with RoamRight travel insurance.
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