Experienced and inexperienced U.S. travelers are victims of criminal scams and schemes in foreign countries.
(USA Today) Frequent business traveler Joyce Gioia knew she had been scammed when a server in a Beijing tea room handed her a bill for $82.89 in late March.
Gioia's walk from her hotel to the Forbidden City had been interrupted by two strangers — young Chinese women who asked whether they could practice their English with her over coffee or tea.
"Not wanting to be the ugly American and figuring I could learn more about their culture, I said, 'Sure,'" Gioia recalls.
Her friendliness turned to anger, though, when she saw the check and was told it included a room charge. It's a common scam, an official at her hotel later told her.
Gioia is one of many Americans who have been scammed or fallen prey to deceptive tactics when traveling abroad.
The scammers and lawbreakers don't often discriminate, targeting inexperienced travelers and some of the savviest, such as Gioia, a USA TODAY Road Warrior who stayed 29 nights in hotels abroad this year.
"Travelers are easy targets, because they are unfamiliar with the environment, lack awareness and are too trusting," says Chris Hagon, the president of Incident Management Group, a Florida-based security consulting company. "They have no advance information regarding the scam du jour."
The U.S. State Department has taken notice of many of the common scams and criminal tactics, and warns travelers to beware of them.
USA TODAY reviewed current safety information of the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs and found the following scams and schemes have been reported in foreign countries:
A common scam is to spray mustard or a similar substance on a traveler and offer to help clean the stain. A pickpocket or an accomplice then steals from the traveler.
Another scam is to entice a traveler into a bar known as a "wiskeria" with a flier
Unscrupulous vendors and taxi drivers sometimes pretend to help tourists review their pesos, then trade counterfeit bills for good ones.
Taxi drivers, especially at airports, sometimes target arriving travelers, refusing to use the meter or claiming they are a limousine and can charge higher fares.
Keep valuables next to you or in your lap rather than in a less-accessible area of a taxi. Ask the driver to remove the bags from the trunk before you get out of the taxi and before you pay, so the driver cannot drive away with your luggage.
Cab drivers, businesses and even ATMs have given people counterfeit currency.
Criminals pose as undercover police officers on the street and request to examine a traveler's money or jewelry, supposedly to determine if it is counterfeit. They then flee with the money or jewelry.
Americans have reported being overcharged by merchants on credit card transactions. Travelers should verify that charges are correct before signing for purchases. Keep all receipts, and check credit card accounts online to ensure proper billing.
Be alert for substantial overcharging by taxis. Some taxi drivers charge unsuspecting foreigners two or three times the standard rate.
Pickpockets are very active on the rail link from Charles de Gaulle Airport to central Paris and Metro Line 1. They may try to distract their target by making a disturbance, asking questions, or asking someone to sign a petition or take a survey.
In the Pigalle area, unsuspecting tourists have run up exorbitant bar bills and been forced to pay before being permitted to leave.
Americans have sometimes been victims of high-pressure sales tactics in Jerusalem's Old City and other tourist areas. Vendors have not disclosed the cost of an item and convinced the buyer — who is unfamiliar with the exchange rate — to unwittingly sign a credit card receipt worth thousands of dollars.
Travelers in Rome, Florence and Naples have been befriended by criminals and offered a drink laced with a sleeping drug. While asleep, the criminals steal valuables or commit sexual assault.
Three thieves may work together. One drops or spills something on the victim, a second assists the victim in cleaning up the mess, and the third discreetly takes the victim's belongings.
The U.S. Secret Service in Rome is assisting Italian law enforcement authorities in investigating an increase in ATM skimming devices. The devices are attached to legitimate bank ATMs and capture the account information stored electronically on a credit card's magnetic strip. The devices consist of a card reader installed over the legitimate reader and a pin-hole video camera mounted above the keypad that records the customer's PIN. The victim's information is sold, traded online or encoded on another card, such as a hotel key card, to access the compromised account.
Americans in Mexico have had their debit or credit card numbers "skimmed." An employee of a merchant or a bank copies the card number manually, with a magnetic stripe reader or with a camera at an ATM, then fraudulently withdraws money or charges the card.
Americans have become victims of harassment, mistreatment, and extortion by alleged Mexican law enforcement, immigration and other officials.
A common street scam is the "turkey drop." An individual "accidentally" drops money on the ground in front of an intended victim, while an accomplice either waits for the money to be picked up or picks up the money and offers to split it with the pedestrian.
The individual who dropped the currency then returns, aggressively accusing both of stealing the money. The confrontation often results in the theft of the pedestrian's money.
In airports, travelers have been targeted by a "friendly" stranger who asks them to watch a bag or a purse, then leaves. The stranger returns with someone appearing to be a police officer, and the bag may contain drugs or other illegal items. The perpetrators then extort money or other valuables to avoid hassles with the police.
Two or more thieves often work together and use distractions. A thief might wave a map in a target's face and ask for directions, "inadvertently" spill something on a target, help clean up bird droppings thrown at a target by a third accomplice, or drop coins or keys at a target's feet.
Some thieves have posed as plainclothes police officers, beckoning pedestrians from cars or confronting them on the street. They've asked for documents or to inspect their cash for counterfeit bills, which they confiscate as "evidence."
Good Samaritan scams are common. A thief diverts a driver's attention by indicating there is a flat tire or a mechanical problem. When the driver gets out to check the vehicle, the thief offers assistance, while an accomplice steals from the car.
Scams involving gems, city tours, entertainment venues and credit cards are common and often involve drivers of taxis and tuk-tuks (three-wheel taxis) who receive kickbacks or commissions.
Many companies that rent motorbikes, jet skis and cars require a passport as a deposit or collateral. If a rental vehicle is damaged, the company often holds the passport until payment for the damage. Many renters have reported they were charged exorbitant amounts, even when there was no visible damage.
Imposters pose as undercover police officers and demand cash for bogus minor offenses, including littering or not having ID documents.
At ATMs in busy areas, thieves use distraction techniques. They may wait until a PIN has been entered, then point to money on the ground or hand out a free newspaper. A colleague will quickly withdraw cash when the ATM user is distracted.