Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel

In last week’s post, Paul tells the story of losing $75 to a scam in the Dominican Republic.  This week, he draws some lessons from the experience.

Many travelers express concern about getting ripped off while traveling.  Unfortunately, for many in our age group, this fear keeps them from traveling … or from being as adventurous as they might be.

While it’s important to recognize the risks while traveling, it’s easy to scare oneself.  In over four decades of travel, we’ve suffered perhaps half a dozen losses, and a few more attempts.  What little we have lost was a small price to pay for the stories we acquired in return.  Almost surely have we missed a greater number of positive experiences due to over-caution.  We continue to seek the middle ground between being open to everything, and being “open season” for crooks abroad.

Everyone's selling something.  Are you buying?

Everyone’s selling something. Are you buying?

To put our $75 loss in perspective, it was the price of a tour.  To a minimum wage worker in the DR, it was a week’s wages.  Still, it seems unfair to the Dominicanos who stick to less lucrative but legal work.  Moreover, no one likes to feel he’s been taken, including Paul.

A little caution goes a long way towards avoiding a rip-off.  Knowledge of common cons can be helpful as long as it doesn’t frighten more than enlighten.  Check out WikiTravel’s “Common Scams” and Rick Steve’s “Tourist Scams & Ripoffs”.  Maybe you can spot the one that hooked Paul.

Understanding the psychology behind a successful scam may also help you recognize one more easily when you’re the intended victim.  This article from FraudAid lays out some of the basics.  Paul uses it to deconstruct his own experience with the one that got him – and the earlier scam, as he was struck by the common patterns in two very different cons forty years apart.

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

We think Paul takes secret delight in his vicarious connection with some of the great scams of Hollywood – like “The Sting” or David Mamet’s quirky “The Spanish Prisoner” – even if he was cast in the role of the Mark.  This dictionary of Scoundrel’s Slang may be helpful in understanding his analysis of the events described in last week’s post.  (You may want to reread the story first.)  At each step, Paul the Mark identifies what he might have done differently.  Here’s the rest of the Grifter cast:

  • The Outside Man, or Roper:  the young “father” with the sick baby
  • The Inside Man:  the shopkeeper whose shop was closed
  • On the Wall:  the young boy, on the lookout for the Bluecoats and other interference

As described by FraudAid, the first step is for the Roper to identify the Mark.  Since Paul was a Camera Hugger and traveling solo, he was an obvious choice; had Cheryl been with him, he likely wouldn’t have been a target for that con, although there are other cons designed for couples.  The Roper now has to determine the Mark‘s personality profile and identify what motivates him.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket's delight.  But that's no excuse to miss out.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket’s delight. But that’s no excuse to miss out.

In this case, Paul’s desire to converse in Spanish came through early on.  This put him at a disadvantage; had the con been going down in English, Paul’s “spidey sense” might have triggered earlier.  Operating in a second language can make it harder to pick up subconscious cues.  The Roper also counted on the Mark‘s desire not to look like a “rich tourist” by admitting he couldn’t have recognized any of the security guards from the hotel if he met them on the street.  Had the Mark asked, “Which hotel was that?”, it could have thrown off the con, although a skilled Roper could have recovered.  Before long, the Roper had determined that the Mark‘s wish to help a young family was the psychological persuasion that he needed.

What Paul could have done differently:  taken over guiding the script.  Assuming he hadn’t dismissed the request out of hand, he could simply have asked how much the young father needed and lent or given it to him right there.  Possible savings: $70.

During the second step of the con, the Roper‘s job was to make the Mark dependent upon him in some way.  One way he did this was to throw the Mark off balance.  He did this by quickening his pace to the point where the Mark had part of his attention just on keeping up.  Getting the Mark into unfamiliar territory was also designed to increase his sense of being linked to the Roper.  At the same time, the Roper continued unrelated conversation designed to mitigate any unease the Mark might feel about what was happening.

What Paul could have done differently:  trusted his unease at walking so quickly.  When he noticed that he was feeling rushed, he could have stopped, re-asserted his own agenda, and walked away if there had been any resistance.  It might have been a good time to switch to English.

The final step of the con was the Sting.  Once the Roper arrived at the closed shop with the Mark in tow, events moved swiftly.  Within a minute, Paul found himself staring at the Inside Man‘s $60 receipt with his mouth hanging open … considering his dwindling options.  Chances are the Grifters would not have resorted to violence, but they probably counted on the Mark’s discretion overpowering his valour.  They would have known he’d resist losing face, a motive often more powerful than the fear of death.  Who knows what strategies they might have planned to mollify the Mark if he hadn’t chosen to Cop a Heel?

What Paul could have done differently:  done an about face at the decisive moment.  Paul’s intuition was definitely ringing alarm bells as he stepped through the shop door.  It would have been uncomfortable to have chilled at that point and turned back, but it would have been the wiser course.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early.  The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early. The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

The more general lesson is that our own personal weak points will determine what cons we’ll fall for, and what we need to be vigilant about.  Paul knows that he’s a sucker for a good cause, and is always looking for second-language opportunities when he’s on the road.  He is often less assertive than might be good for him.  His primary personal lessons for avoiding cons:  “Trust your intuition!  Don’t be afraid to assert your own agenda!”

Knowing yourself and knowing the cons can help you feel more comfortable while traveling.  Just don’t let it stop you.  Travel involves risk, as does everything worthwhile in life.  We have friends who lost their entire retirement nest egg to an investment scam from the comfort of their own home.

Seeing Paris' Latin Quarter with a "Discover Walks" local can make it safer

Seeing Paris’ Latin Quarter with a “Discover Walks” local can make it safer

“The best revenge is living well.

If you do get conned, it’s best to remember that Spanish proverb.  Resorting to violence as this young woman did could make a bad situation much worse.

For further reading:

What’s your best advice on avoiding trouble on the road?

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9 thoughts on “Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel

  1. hbolstler

    The formula is familiar – nearly got scammed right in my living room by someone purporting to be from gmail with a scare story about a virus I’d been invaded by! You’re not safe anywhere.

    Reply
      1. Loca Gringa

        DR is an experience, that is for certain. If you are gringo, and here to be gringo simply means, foreigner. You may have a tint to your skin, but the minute you open your mouth to speak you are betrayed. That makes you a target.

        To locals and some expats, we foreigners are the “haves” and they are the “have nots” and many believe they are entitled to what we PERSONALLY have and are not afraid or ashamed to take what they want.

        Resorts want you to stay on their property, use their tour operators etc. In part revenues, in part safety.

        Where you need to be street smart at home wandering around, here you need to be that times 10 and let that street smartness trickle into dealing with people. Face it, at home you would never enter a dark alley with two strangers, why would you in another country, where you don’t even speak the language. Predators come in all shapes, sizes, both sexes, and AGES!

        That being said, I would be remiss if I did not convey that there are many many wonderful people here. You will not find a warmer culture. Moving from a touristy area to a regular old hood was the best thing I ever did for myself here. There are still predators, but not in the same context,

  2. Pingback: Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi | No Pension, Will Travel

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