Scam Watch: Double Agents, Drugs and Dodgy ATMs

Watch out for these scams in Laos, Egypt, India, Italy, Cambodia and South East Asia.

Imagine your travel budget as being a big plastic bottle of water. Now imagine that every time you spend money it is equivalent to taking a swig out of your bottle. You need to drink to survive, but you are always careful about just how much you drink, because you really want to make it last. This is fine until the tourist traps and scams come into play. Imagine they are equivalent to someone purposely putting little pin holes in your bottle causing water to leak. Sometimes you can prevent this, and sadly sometimes you cannot. The important thing to realize is that there will always be someone trying to drain your liquidity… so beware not to be a tourist sucker!

Now every true Brokepacker knows that a dollar spent is a dollar closer to having to go home so when it comes to maintaining your travel longevity, you don’t want to be caught out on a silly tourist scam. I suggest every unseasoned traveler reads the following examples of common tourist scams so as to avoid falling into the same traps! These are based on true stories, and so viewer discretion is advised.

Laos: Dodgy ATMs

When backpacking I have established the same rule about ATMs as I have with the beautiful women I meet along the way… “always be cautious where you are sticking it in.” I have on a few occasions used an ATM that would charge my debit card for the amount she requested, but alas, not dispense any cash. Apparently this is quite common and a known scam in Laos. I guess this could happen to anyone, anywhere but if possible I would strongly recommend checking with your hostel first where there are safe ATMs.

India: Tourist Paparazzi

While on holiday in India you will likely be followed by hordes of tourist paparazzi. This will at first feel flattering, but soon it will become annoying. You will be followed. You will be handled. You will have happy snaps taken of you. You will (most certainly) be approached to buy the photos. They will be Insistent. You will be made to feel that if you don’t buy them now their family will die immediately and the entire world will end…and then you WILL be sold. The amount you give slowly dwindles as you become desensitized to this but it is  quite literally difficult to get away. The good news is that you can bargain the price down.

Italy: Romance & Roses

I’ve seen The Sopranos, Goodfellas, and Godfather part I, 2 and 3, so I really should have seen this scam coming. Everyone knows Italians as being pioneers of organized crime, but not nearly enough credit is given to Italians for owning the romantic tourist scam space as well. I think they ought to make a film about it.  If you're walking around with a girl near anything remotely romantic like The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps or pretty much anywhere in Venice they'll try to sell you roses - rather, force you to buy roses. They're really sneaky. They'll come up to you, put a bunch of roses in the girl's hand saying they're free then come back with friends to demand money from you - often excessive amounts. You’ll be looking somewhere else, look back and she's got a fist full of roses and some guy will start hassling you for money. They won’t take them back either. There are only 2 ways to get out of this. Option 1 is to put them on the ground and walk off. This can still lead to further dispute, so I personally prefer option 2, which is nips the issue in the bud from minute one. All you need to do is to say to anyone who hands you flowers “no thanks… we have already had sex.” This works like a charm but you may want to make sure whomever you are with has a sense of humor!

Egypt: Water Fees

Not so much a scam as a bit of cultural shenanigans in many restaurants- table water restaurants is free, and is served even if you don’t ask for it. The catch is that at the end of your meal, you are charged by the glass. Few people in fact are aware that the ancient pharaohs amassed their fortunes through this mechanism. You have been warned!

Cambodia: Travel (Double) Agents

My mate Nick needed to get on the next plane out of Cambodia, but was told by local travel agent he needed to pay an extra 200,000 Cambodian Riels ($50 AUD) because there were only first class tickets left. He paid the amount only to find the plane didn’t even have first class. Thankfully he believes in equality and wouldn’t have it any other way.

South East Asia: Drug Ransoms

Drugs are bad. Do not get involved. Especially not in South East Asia where there is capital punishment. However even the most innocent, squeaky-clean person can be set up and ransomed. This is on the more serious side of scamming and there have been reports in certain parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines where individuals have been unwittingly placed in the possession of drugs and then reported to the police. They are then ransomed for a fine. Of course the drug dealers get a cut of this, and are almost certainly given their drugs back to catch the next sucker. No doubt this happens in a lot of places around the world, so do your best at all times to watch nobody tampers with your possessions. You may also find it in your best interests to cooperate and chalk the scam down to a bad experience.

There are some things that you just can’t help and it is no point on letting these put a damper on your trip. Accept the experience. Accept that it is most likely just money that you are losing and at the end of the day, in the greater scheme of things it really doesn’t matter all that much. For serious scams and theft I can’t recommend having adequate travel insurance highly enough!

Behind the Backpack

Kevin Lippy and Dean Ginsberg are broke backpackers who decided to start a website called which is all about discovering the best ways for backpackers to maximize their experiences within the limits of their budgets! They live and travel by the principle that every single dollar saved is a dollar that can contribute to another experience, another adventure and ultimately another day.

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1 Comment

  • lauren_watson said

    Someone skimmed my ATM card while I was in Russia and have since lost $1600 in ATM fraud. Careful guys - always check the machines. It's easy to let your guard down as you get more into the groove.

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