Thursday, November 8, 2012

Eight holiday scams and how to avoid them


Visa stamp in passport (© Getty Images)
It’s a jungle out there. For all the beaches and basilicas you might see, going on holiday to foreign lands risks all manner of currency cons, pretend policemen and pilfered passports. The sensible just stay in Britain, and rent a bungalow in Bognor. But if you’re determined to head abroad, then at least be vigilant. Here are eight of the commonest tourist scams – and how best to sidestep them:
The speedy visa
It seems a pain to apply for a visa for the likes of Burkina Faso, Borneo or Bolivia in advance, so you decide to get one on arrival, which the guidebook promises is possible. However, when you come to the gates, Carlos the Customs Officer gives you two options: a ‘speedy visa’, for which pleasure you pay an extortionate charge (payable to Carlos, please), or a normal one, for which you need to wait. And wait. And wait…
Solution: Get your visa sorted in advance, and make sure you do so via the relevant country’s embassy. Resist using agencies or third-parties; they generally charge high fees.
The tour rep with an agenda
Often witnessed in souks, one of the oldest ruses in the scam book sees guides take you into shops run by their friends, and pressure you into a purchase – it’s in their interest, as they’ll get commission. Or, a variation on this, recommending a restaurant run by their brother, mother or twin sister’s aunt’s boyfriend’s neighbour.
Solution: Always be wary when a guide suggests you enter a place of business, and remember you’re the boss: if you want to buy or eat somewhere else, you darn well can.
The currency conners
Learning a foreign currency can be difficult. Swindlers can take advantage of naivety in various ways: a corrupt cashier providing the wrong denomination of notes, a shopkeeper lopping off a zero or a barman giving you, say, Czech koruna (50 to £1) instead of Polish zloty (six to £1). Watch out too for retailers billing you in sterling rather than the local currency, and applying their own exchange rate; suffice to say, they don’t use’s latest figures.
Solution: Be alert, and learn the local currency quickly, including recent exchange rates. Only change money at the most official-looking places, and never accept sterling abroad.
The early-morning reception call
Here’s how this one works: very early in the morning, after you checked in late the night before, the hotel reception rings up; they forgot this when you arrived, but they just need your bank details for security reasons. You mumble them out, and then return to your forty winks. They, meanwhile, make an early start on the year’s Christmas presents.
Solution: Be vigilant with details, and say you’ll pay cash for any charges, please. At the end of your stay, ask for an itemised bill. You’ll be amazed how often this request leads to the receptionist realising that they’ve made a mistake.
Taxi (© Getty Images)
The illegal taxi
If you think British taxi drivers are a rip-off, wait until you meet some of their equivalents abroad. The problem always stems from bogus cabs; often these look like the genuine article from the outside, but quickly reveal themselves not to be so. You might be ferried to completely the wrong hotel, so another taxi can ‘rescue you’ for a prohibitive fee, or charged far too much in the absence of a meter. In the worst cases, you’ll be driven up a dim side-street and efficiently relieved of all valuables.
Solution: As best you can, ensure the cab is official; the driver should have ID and a meter. Attempt to arrange a fee upfront if possible, but don’t pay until you’ve reached your destination. Try not to put any luggage in the boot – it’s amazing how often those keys can go missing…
The not-so-complimentary nibbles
Ah – everyone loves some free bread or olives between a meal. It’s the sign of a good restaurant, don’t you think? A nice free appetiser bef… what? What’s that? It wasn’t free after all? It’s on our bill? They’ve charged how much?
Solution: Easy – learn the local word for ‘free’, point at said aperitif and ask the local Manuel just how complimentary these pre-dins snacks really are.
The fake policeman
This classic involves a man in plain clothes approaching you and claiming to be a policeman. Thus follows an elaborate explanation – a hunt for a suspect; a local crackdown on counterfeit currency – of why he needs to see your passport, wallet or both. Hand them over, and he’ll just be back in a minute…
Solution: Ask to see identification in the first instance. If money or a passport is demanded, rather than refuse, suggest you do it at the station (although don’t accept a lift) or say you’ve left both at home.
The damaged hire car
At the airport, you check in your Renault 19 and it’s all smiles at the car hire desk. But, back home, your credit card bill a few weeks later reveals that the car-hire company’s charged you a Ferrari’s worth of pounds for alleged damages that you know are made up.
Solution: The easiest way out of this hole is to avoid it altogether. Mark any damage before you hire the car and take photographs afterwards. Always ask for an official ‘all clear’ receipt when returning the car.

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