Identifying Scam Artists Around the World

The primary rule of travel, as immutable as the laws of physics, can be thus rendered: wherever there are tourists, there will be hucksters.

They misdirect you to bad attractions. They over-charge your for services or souvenirs. They convince you that the fake artifact you just bought was in fact a great bargain.

Hucksters are trust hackers. Lacking any kind of credibility, they gain your trust by making you think they're doing you favour, or that they're your newest best friend, effectively hot-wiring your skepticism.

Often their tricks are age-old sales gimmicks. Other times they are more sophisticated psychological sleights of hand. Everywhere I go, I always let myself get taken by one of them – in a controlled manner, where I lose little or no money – to learn their methods.

Protect yourself by knowing how they get you:

The Time Crunch

Example: "But my exhibit is only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Tomorrow is Friday. It's your last chance."

You see this all the time on TV: hurry while supplies last. This is a limited-time offer. It creates a sense of urgency by making something seem scarce. But if there's money to be made everyday, who would be stupid enough to limit the flow of customers?

The Inside Information

Example: "You're going to the art market? It's very nice. But there's this little art shop just down the street that no one knows about with really nice original works."

Right. He's telling this to you and only you because you're so darn special. But it's a trick that works: gaining trust by making you think you're getting exclusive local advice. But this is often someone paid by a shop-keeper to direct tourists to his store, which may or may not be authentic. That's your call to make.

To make matters simpler, only trust info from people who don't profit directly from tourism, like pedestrians and shopkeepers that serve locals.

The Fake Saviour

Example: "Have you heard of the tapestry mafia? They make fake tapestries with bad dyes that fade with time. Make sure you go to a legit dealer. There's one right over there…"

Hey, this guy just saved you from buying a fake. He must be trustworthy. Go ahead, take his advice and stroll right into the tapestry mafia's headquarters. A classic bait.

The Ego Stroke

Example: "Most tourists just go to the palace. But I can tell you're a real traveler. I think you'll like to see this historical old house instead."

What amazing powers of insight this guy has. He has known you for 20 seconds and knows you're not like those mindless tourist lemmings. Right. You and everyone else he meets.

The Misunderstood Pariah

Example: "So many people who come here try to negotiate a lower price like I'm selling souvenirs. They don't realize this is master craftsmanship."

It may be master craftsmanship, but that doesn't stop him from trying to sell it way above market value. He's appealing to your compassion by faking intimacy. Help this poor, struggling artist pay his bills by getting royally ripped off.

The Guilt Freebie

Example: "I just spent 15 minutes showing you how my people create this unique art form. For your enjoyment, please step into my gift shop."

Ever feel the urge to buy the full product after tasting a sample at the supermarket? It's called the reciprocity urge. It taps into the instinct to return a favour, a reaction baked by evolution to keep societies inter-dependent and at peace with each other.

You didn't force this guy to show you anything. You don't have to give anything back. 

Behind the Backpack

Roberto Rocha traded a job in technology journalism to a one-year world trip, surrounding himself with fruits and nuts instead of Apples. He's originally from Brazil but has settled in Montreal, Canada , where, miraculously, he still prefers soccer over hockey. He lives and travels with his girlfriend Bianca. 

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1 Comment

  • Fly Boy said

    During my 20 year Navy career, the hucksters were simply called Heyjoes. As soon as the anchor dropped and the first boat arrived ashore, hordes of "fixers" would gather yelling "Hey Joe" to any sailor that would listen. Tour guide, restaurant critic, personal driver, shopping specialist... whatever you needed the heyjoe would provide. Remarkably they all speak the same language whether in Athens, Rio, Subic Bay, Yokuska, Marseilles, Alexandria, Karachi, or Naples... And all can be categorized using your groups.

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