Avoiding Scams And Thieves While Traveling Abroad

Flickr user Modenadude

My wife and I had just left the Musee D’Orsay when a young woman came running up to us clutching a ring.

The pretty brunette spoke in halting English, saying she saw it drop to the ground as we walked by. After a quick scan of our fingers, we told her we weren’t missing any rings, but she placed the ring in my hand and insisted we take it for friendship. Before my heart could swell with the joy of international love and brotherhood, she then asked for money for a cup of coffee. At that point, I realized it was a scam and handed her back the ring, which she no doubt tried to foist onto another hapless tourist couple.

While our stay in Paris was overall a wonderful experience, criminals threatened to put a damper on our trip. Before our flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, we would be accosted by other scam artists several more times, and my wife was pick-pocketed on the Paris Metro. Luckily the hipster shorts I bought in a Parisian boutique were so tight, I could barely get my fingers into my pockets, let alone a common thief do the same.

Unfortunately, theft and scams are all too prevalent in most major metropolitan areas. Staff members at the Louvre actually went on strike for a day earlier this year, protesting the unsafe working conditions caused by thieves and scam artists. Bob Arno, co-author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Crime While Traveling, estimates about 70 percent of Barcelona tourists will be approached by a street criminal; of those incidents, about 33 percent result in the loss of valuables.

According to the US government, Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome, Amsterdam and Naples have the highest number of scam artists looking to take advantage of naïve or distracted tourists.

Travel expert Rick Steves recently noted some of the most common international travel scams and ways tourists can avoid them. Other advice to consider:

  • Forgo purses or strapped bags in favor of body wallets or buttoned pockets.
  • Leave fancy jewelry or expensive watches at home. Don’t flash expensive electronic equipment –- particularly iPhones, thieves love them –- around. Have the number for the local police department saved in your phone.
  • Keep your passport and other important documents in the hotel safe, after you’ve scanned or photographed them and saved them in a file-sharing app or program like Evernote or Dropbox.
  • Stay alert. While you might be tempted to buy that second bottle of wine after dinner, realize drunk tourists are easy targets.

What are your tips for staying safe abroad?

San Francisco Hotels Ripping Off Stranded Travelers?

san francisco golden gate bridge
Jeff Gunn, Flickr

Hotels in the San Francisco area have come under scrutiny for price gouging following the Asiana Airlines plane crash on Saturday.

Thousands of flights were postponed or cancelled following the tragedy, leaving many travelers stranded in the city. Apparently, the sudden surge in demand for hotels led many establishments to up their prices – in some instances, dramatically so.

According to an NBC News report, mid-range hotels in San Francisco (which typically charge around $100-200 per night) were listing their rooms for ten times the usual rate. One example included a Best Western hotel, which had bumped its sticker price from $149 to a whopping $999 for a one-night stay.When later probed about the sky-high room rate, Best Western claimed that the advertised rate was a “mistake” and told Hotelchatter that no guests were actually charged the $999 rate. Instead, they were charging $309 versus the usual $149 rate.

NBC found many other hotels in the city were also charging significantly above the usual tariff.

We want to know, have you seen or been asked to pay an exorbitant price for a San Francisco hotel room following the plane crash?

The Kimchi-ite: Seoul Offers Rewards To Report Taxi Drivers Who Rip Off Tourists

Last week, the Seoul city government announced a plan to offer up to a 500,000-won (USD $456) reward for anyone who has information on taxi drivers that rip off foreign tourists.

While charging more than the standard metered fare is against South Korean law, sometimes taxis can forget this, in additional to other rules. Red lights get run, taxis find themselves going the wrong direction on the road to save time and meters are accidentally not turned on and the final prices are made up on the spot, slightly inflated.

It isn’t uncommon to find taxi drivers walking around tourist hot spots late at night, such as near Seoul Station or in the foreign district of Itaewon, hounding tourists and locals alike for their business. Many ask tourists where they want to go and offer a price upfront, off the meter. This upfront price is almost always more expensive than what the actual metered rate would have been. If you try to barter with them, or insist they just use the meter, they will often retort back that it is late and you are unlikely to find any other taxis (often said while they are standing directly in front of a dozen other taxis). They take advantage of the fact that many tourists don’t know average fare for their destination and are willing to accept whatever a cab driver tells them.There have been a number of times when I was coming home long after the subway stopped running and was confronted with these cabbie solicitors. The first time I encountered this situation, I naively took one up on his offer. After my next weekend adventure out on the town, I decided to flag down my own cab from that same spot. My metered fare ending up being less than half the price of that previous, un-metered trip. Ever since then, I mostly ignore the solicitors, sometimes asking them for a cheaper fare than the average, but they always turn me down.

It’s good to hear that the city is trying to curb this lax attitude towards the law. It’s a little concerning that this reward system may only apply to foreign tourists that are ripped off, but hopefully it will benefit tourists and locals alike in the future. It will without a doubt give me one less headache on my journey home from a late night out. Hopefully this new measure is enforced and the hotline to report overcharging is published in every Seoul guidebook.

You can report these fraudulent taxi drivers by calling Seoul Information’s “Dasan 120” hotline. Just dial 120 from any phone in Seoul and report it to the multi-lingual staff.

Be sure to check out more Korean bits on Korean culture from “The Kimchi-ite” here.

[Photo Credit: Jonathan Kramer]

Yelp Uses Public Shaming To Dissuade Fake Reviews


Yelp


While social travel review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor can be helpful for trip planning, one constant criticism is how easily it is for business owners to write or pay for fake reviews of their establishment to boost its rating. In Yelp’s latest effort to discourage this kind of manipulation, they will be publicly shaming these businesses by displaying warning signs to readers (shown above).

The travel site is putting on their detective hats and watching for suspicious activity by business owners. For example, if many reviews are being submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address, this can be an indicator. Once they find these “rogue solicitations,” they warn users. According to Digital Trends, the alert will stay active for 90 days and will be removed after this period, as long as the business quits gaming the system.

“We want to make sure consumers are making informed decisions,” said Eric Singley, Yelp’s VP of Consumer & Mobile Products. “Yelp’s automated review filter is working around the clock to flag these types of biased reviews, and we believe that you deserve the right to know when this type of activity is taking place behind the scenes.”

Although this new idea has only been in place for a couple days, it’s already working. For example, a Texan business owner who had purchased 200 positive online reviews was caught in Yelp’s filter due to its overly “impressive results.”

Mr. Singley notes that, while Yelp does have to be aware of these scams, for the most part their travel community is full of honest business owners.

For more information, check out Yelp’s official blog post on the new initiative.

[Image via Yelp]

Five chilling facts about Cyber Monday Shopping

cyber mondayOkay, your goal should be NOT to conform to what you see below. The travel industry, riding something of a recovery this year, is set to come out with some solid sales on Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year. So, as you click among hotel, airline and online travel agency sites, it will pay for you to be aware of the biggest risks you face.

Despite the many risks associated with online shopping – and the fact that they have been shoved in the public’s face since the early days of internet commercialization – people still roll the dice with their financial security. When you get excited about cheap tickets or a real bargain on the excursion of a lifetime, take a moment to make sure you aren’t getting scammed. Your savviest purchase may be the one you never make.

So, what are the risks? Let’s take a look at five scary facts from web security firm Webroot:1. Don’t trust page one: a high placement in Google search results shouldn’t be a sign of trust. According to Webroot, 59 percent of survey respondents trust the results they get in the first few pages, up from 39 percent last year. Unfortunately, this placement is “a target for malicious links.” Interestingly, the number of people using search engines is falling: “48 percent of online shoppers frequently if not always use search engines to find gifts online, compared to 52 percent in 2009,” Webroot reports.

Solution: Watch brand. If you recognize the company’s brand, you can be more comfortable with the purchase. Also, watch where the link sends you. For an extra layer of protection, enter the company’s address into the browser yourself instead of clicking the link in Google.

2. Risky wifi behavior: 18 percent of shoppers are likely to use public wifi for holiday shopping, Webroot reports, up from 12 percent in 2009. This can be risky, especially with 23 percent of respondents feeling comfortable using free public wifi.

Solution: Do your online shopping at home or at work. Stealing wifi from your neighbor so you can toss your credit card number onto the web is probably pretty stupid.

3. New site, new password: are you planning to jump on a deal from a company you haven’t used before? Well, this is the point of many of the Cyber Monday travel deals you’ll see: companies want to lure you away from your ol’ stand-by sites. Do take advantage of the hot promotions, but be smart. Using the same password everywhere is like hiding a house key under your doormat.

Solution: Use a new password every time you create an account with a travel website. Also, be one of the 72 percent of online shoppers who uses a “complex” password – i.e., a mix of letters, numbers and symbols.

4. Social should be personal: 26 percent of respondents to the Webroot survey indicated that someone else had used their social media or email accounts to send friends messages in their names. With travel companies increasingly turning to social media platforms to market their deals and bolster their brands, expect a lot more interaction this year … which brings hefty doses of risk with it.

Solution: Take a look at your sent messages from time to time, and look at your Twitter stream from the perspective of another user. Make sure you recognize everything you’re putting out into the world.

5. Look for safety: 52 percent of Webroot’s respondents don’t check to see if a site uses SSL, and 50 percent don’t look for the padlock in the lower right corner of the web browser. This is like not twisting the doorknob after you lock it.

Solution: pay attention to where you make purchases online. In addition to getting comfortable with the company website, you also want to be aware of the security in place. If something feels off, play it safe: don’t buy. No deal is worth the consequences of risky online purchasing behavior.

[Via Insurance Information Institute, photo by InfoMofo via Flickr]