There are a slew of synonyms for the word scam: bunko, con, trick, swindle, flimflam, kite, ramp, grift, fraud, shakedown, trick, twist, hustle, sting.
And with this many words for it, there are millions more ways to gull you. I’ve never been scammed for my life’s worth, but the sucker punch feeling stays with you. When I look at some of these pictures, I get a cringey feeling, thinking I made someone’s day by being taken advantage of.
I found Sicily, Morocco, Tanzania, and India to be the most swindly of all the places. I felt I could walk out of one scam and be hit with another. I met the most wonderful, kind people there, as well as Machiavellian charmers.
One of the most common scams I came across in Europe was “The Bracelet Scam.” There is the “Bindi Scam” in India, and one of the most aggressive was the “Henna Scam” in Morocco. Even the most seasoned travelers can fall prey to them.
***I wrote this article prior to the flood of bingy Netflix shows sensationalizing scam culture. Accepting that scam culture is here to stay is terrifying. Remeber there is kindness in the world, but be wary of anything that seems too good to be true and always allow yourself to say “NO.”
The Bracelet Scam
I will talk to almost anyone if they are polite. In touristy areas if a man would approach me alone, I would not have a problem having a chat. It is usually in a very public place where I do not feel very threatened, like the Eifel Tower, the Duomo in Milan, the Coliseum in Rome. Think major tourist destination where vendors are pushing fidget spinners and selfie sticks.
Now this may sound brash, but all the men that I met who pushed “The Bracelet Scam” were from Senegal. So here it goes, they walk up to you, start a genteel conversation “oh you are beautiful, where are you from? Are you enjoying fill in city name here…” As you engaged, they gently take your hand and slide a bracelet onto your wrist with an impossibly tight tie.
The first time this happened, I freaked out. Telling him to “Get it off me! Get it off!” Every time after, I’d simply tell them I am happy to talk, but I am not giving them money nor am I buying this bracelet. A few extra times for emphasis since I am not willing to propagate scams and they should take it off. Three times I have walked away with a pleasant encounter and a free bracelet. I clarified multiple times that I would not be giving them money nor will I be paying for the bracelet — if they choose to gift me a bracelet that is fine, but I am not going to allow them to sucker me into a situation that I choose not to be in.
The Bindi Scam
The “Bindi Scam” caught me off-guard. I was staying on Hippie Island in Hampi, India, when a young girl, maybe 8 years old, started hanging around and asking me loads of questions. I assumed she was the daughter of one of the employees of the guest house. She started playing with my hair and asked to do my make up and I had no problem playing into it. She had a tattered dress and a little purse with make-up and a paint set with a small brush. I closed my eyes waiting for the eye shadow and I felt a small wet dot on my forehead. When she finished, I had a rainbow above my brow line with the Bindi in the center. I checked out her work with a selfie of the two of us and then she hit me –200 rupees. That cheeky little bitch, I ended up giving her 50 and a scolding. Later that afternoon, I met up with some of the local guys I befriended, and they said “Oh, it looks like you met so and so, she suckers all the girls.”
The Henna Scam
The “Henna Scam” was in Marrakech. This city is teeming with scams: the snake charmers, monkey handlers, menu swapping, “escorting” you through the medina, and the Henna ladies. I was determined not to be a statistic, not to be an easy target.
I had a large woman grab my wrist tightly with her henna pen in hand. Instead of trying to negotiate or lure me over to her chair, she struggled to ink my hand before I could vigorously shake loose. If I want henna, it will be of my own volition in a henna café — never assaulted on the street. I have heard these ladies will start to paint and if you try to walk away, they will call for the cops to claim you are a thief — not paying for their hard work.
The Photo Scam
Watch out for this one in especially in Marrakech. Of course you want to take photos of the bizarre, the outrageous, the fascinating, however there are a number of ethical issues with these entertainers and the inhumane practices towards these animals. If you choose to take a photo, ask permission and don’t be bullied into paying for it after the fact.
The Traditional Masai Garment Scam
I was with a Tanzanian friend of mine and we headed out of Arusha to the reptile park, a Masai village, and the livestock trading post. I was having a chat with him as these ladies in the Masai village started layering heavy jewelery around my neck, draping me in heavy robes, then handed me a stick. I am standing dumbfounded by how quickly this all happened. He snapped a pic and I felt forced into a corner to give these ladies some shillings.
The Overcharge the Weary Traveler Scam
This is probably my favorite, the one I am most susceptible to. The one specific example — of buying a SIM card — I wrote about in Mzungu Tax(i).
These are common scams; thousands of unsuspecting tourists are suckered all over the world daily. It has happened to me; it will happen to you. These are just a few of the scams I have encountered, these don’t include the police scams, the taxi scams, the quick hands at the borders when exchanging currency scams, the highway robbery of overpriced goods or being cornered in a shop scams, the hash brownies that don’t work scams, being charmed by a generous gift then being told to pay scams. I consider myself a pretty clued in traveler, but that does not make me any less of a target or any less susceptible.
A few tips for when you get scammed & a few to try to prevent it:
1. Don’t engage. Shut down the conversation and walk away.
2. If a person shows you something interesting, don’t feel obligated to buy.
3. If something is wrong with food, drinks, not what you had ordered, misleading, send it back. Don’t be bamboozled into paying for something that you didn’t ask for.
4. Never feel obligated to do something you do not want to do.
5. You are a much easier target when you are alone. Make a friend.
6. Contact the authorities if you get really duped and file a police report
7. Take a step back and consider how important it is to find resolve.
8. Chalk it up as another bittersweet lesson in character building and laugh it off.
9. Talk it over with other travelers, so they can avoid being hoodwinked.
Is scam culture holding you back from traveling? Book a one to one coaching call where we can address your fears and come up with a plan to get you on your next adventure.