Travel In Depth

United States Travel Scam Statistics 2020


$175 million lost
73k fraud reports

53% of total losses

Source: 2019-20 Consumer Sentinel Report

Sections on this page
  1. Types of Travel Scams
  2. How to Beat Travel Scams
  3. Fallen Victim to Travel Scams?

Travel scams involve stealing from people either as they're traveling from one location to another or when they're on vacation. They work by taking advantage of the fact that travelers are often distracted, tired, have their guard down, or are not used to securing their possessions while on the move.

Many travelers, especially those on vacation, are understandably more focused on fun than security and may not be on the lookout for criminals. Others simply don't know what to look out for because the theft and scams common in their travel destination are so different than what are common where they come from.

While often mistaken for common pickpockets or crafty lone-operatives, Thieves are frequently part of larger criminal organizations, and these have robbed millions of dollars from unsuspecting travelers. For example, between January and March 2021 alone, travel-related scams cost victims $26 million.

Types of Travel Scams

Some of the most common travel scams involve pickpocketing and snatch-and-grab theft, someone claiming to find a gold ring, spiking your drink, and fake police officers.

Pickpocketing and the Snatch-and-grab

Pickpockets devise several ways to grab the personal possessions of travelers, making this one of the more common travel scams. They operate by either waiting for a moment when you're distracted or initiating the distraction themselves.

For example, when you're riding a crowded train, a pickpocket may stand directly next to you, and when the train shifts, may lean their body into yours, creating contact. Then, while you're distracted by their body hitting yours, they may grab your wallet or phone out of your pocket or purse.

Anytime you're on public transportation that stops multiple times, a thief may try to grab your purse, backpack, or bag as the train or bus is about to leave a stop. When the doors are about to close, the thief grabs your belongings and jumps through. The doors shut a moment later, and the vehicle pulls off while they run in the other direction.

"Finding" Your Gold Ring

At times, a scammer may approach you and claim they've found your gold ring. Even if you didn't lose one, you might lean in to inspect the shiny—yet fake—object. At this moment, the thief may try to steal something else from you. They may also try to demand a finder's fee if you claim it's yours.

Airbnb  Scams

Airbnb, a favorite travel booking site, has unfortunately made it easy for people to be scammed. Both homeowners and travelers share the same risk of losing their money to shady characters. 

Homeowners could be scammed by travelers who:

  • Make fake complaints about the property and ask for refunds
  • Fail to pay for their stay
  • Damage the property and claim the damage was already there

Travelers could be scammed by:

  • Scammers who create fake property listings (leaving you without your money and a place to stay)
  • Property owners who charge extra for damage you didn't cause
  • Property owners who request additional fees for no reason

Taxi Scams

If you've been overseas, you may have encountered a taxi driver that has tried some sketchy tactics to steal your money. For example, cab drivers may:

  • Overcharge you, banking on your lack of knowledge of how much the ride should actually cost
  • Claim their meter is broken, so they can charge you more than they should
  • Drive you "the long way" to your destination, resulting in a much larger bill

These travel scams are particularly common at busy airports, targeting new arrivals. However, you can avoid them with a little bit of preparation.

If you are staying in a reputable hotel, it is a good idea to contact them before you arrive and ask them about the best way to get to them and the approximate cost. Also, check the route using Google Maps so you can gauge the length of the trip and approximate travel time.

Finally, always use licensed taxis. If they tell you their meter is broken, politely decline and find another driver. Always be courteous but firm and speak up if you feel like something is wrong.

Motorbike or Jetski scam

This scam is most commonly reported in parts of Southeast Asia, where operators rent out equipment like jet skis or motorbikes to tourists. In some cases, scammers take your passport or driver's license as part of the deposit. Then, when you return the rental, the operator claims that you have damaged the equipment, and they pressure you into paying for the repairs.

This is a tricky one to avoid. If you get caught up in it, you may not have any other option than to pay up, particularly if the scammers start getting aggressive. The most important thing is never to hand over personal items like your passport, credit card, keys, or driver's license to someone you don't know.

Credit Card Skimming

Scammers use a "card skimmer" to steal your credit card information from the magnetic stripe on the back of your card. Skimmers can be attached to any credit card reading device (including ATMs and gas pumps) to harvest the data and use it to commit fraud. In the case of ATMs, scammers will hide a camera to record you entering your PIN.

Most credit cards now have a chip that allows contactless payment to "tap and go" instead of inserting your card into a machine.

If you have a phone or smartwatch with NFC, you can pay via Apple Pay or Google Pay which have additional security, so your data is not exposed. If you notice unusual transactions on your credit card, report them (and dispute them) to your bank or financial institution immediately. 

Free Public WiFi

Many of us need to be connected at all times, and many of the services that we use rely on an internet connection. Your cell phone service provider may allow international roaming when you are traveling. Alternatively, you could buy a SIM plan from a local provider.

Many of these plans will have restrictions on data and/or the cost of data is much higher. This means you might become more reliant on free public WiFi offered in places like airports, cafes, and grocery stores.

While it is tempting to quickly log in to check social media, read the news, check your bank account, or send a few messages to friends, it's not worth the risk. Scammers use many tactics, including hacking into the networks or creating similarly named networks to trick you into logging in, to steal your data (e.g., using a man-in-the-middle attack).

The best advice is: don't use public WiFi, but if you have to, you should always use a virtual private network (VPN), which will encrypt your data. 

Holiday Rental Listing Scam

We all want to find that dream holiday rental—booking can be competitive, and when you find a place you like, you want to lock it in before anyone else does. Scammers use a few tactics, including:

  • Creating fake listings
  • Hijacking a real listing and posting them on other rental websites with their contact details 
  • Hijacking the email account for the listing agent or property owner

It is probably a scam if they ask you to wire money for any upfront payment, like a security deposit. You can do a few things to check that the listing is legitimate, including:

  • Search other rental websites to see if the same property is available and cross-check the contact details.
  • Find the agent's details on the web and call their office directly to verify the listing.
  • Book through established travel booking sites and use their credit card facilities for payment.

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How to Beat Travel Scams

You can beat travel scams by making sure you keep your guard up while in public places, mainly when strangers draw close to you. You should also never leave your pocketbook or purse unattended or easily accessible by a thief. Any time a stranger approaches you, no matter the reason, try to maintain a reasonable distance between the two of you so they can't try to pick your pocket.

It's best to only carry the minimum amount of identification on you at all times, particularly because if a thief steals your ID, they could use it for identity theft. For example, if you don't need your driver's license, you can leave it in your hotel room, securely locked away.

Some other best practices to follow when traveling include:

  • Only carry the cash and cards you absolutely need. Try having as little as $50 or $60—or even less if possible.
  • Any time someone asks you for money, beware. While some people may be legitimate panhandlers or beggars, others can be thieves. If you want to give to beggars, it's best to carry a small amount of change in a side pocket that you can give over quickly without having to take out an enticing wallet or wad of cash.
  • Only pay using traceable methods, such as credit cards. 
  • Don't use public WiFi—if you absolutely need to use public WiFi, use a VPN.
  • Be wary of landlords who only give vague information or don't communicate well.
  • Do your research before traveling to avoid getting ripped off by taxi drivers.

Fallen Victim to Travel Scams?

If you've fallen for a travel scam, you should immediately report it to the police. Give as much information as possible, such as:

  • Full details of what happened (e.g., dates, times, locations).
  • The scammer's appearance, voice, and mannerisms as possible.
  • Contact information of the scammer.
  • All communication you had with the scammer.
  • Any websites you used.

Depending on how you were scammed, you should also consider:

  • Changing your passwords for compromised accounts (as well as accounts that share the same login)
  • Canceling your credit/debit cards
  • Regularly monitoring your credit/debit card statements and reporting fraudulent charges
  • Reporting the scam to the authorities (other than local police), especially if a website scammed you

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