Southeast Asia is an interesting region to visit. It is comprised of countries that attract hordes of tourists due to their unique and fascinating cultures and friendly local vibe. The countries in Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Brunei – are generally safe to travel in.
But like any other popular travel destination, you will encounter individuals and groups who will try to scam you and run away with your money. Not everyone you will meet during you travels will try to rip you off. However, it is always prudent to be aware and vigilant. Keep one eye and perhaps a hand on your wallet while you enjoy and soak in the sights so scammers and petty criminals don’t ruin your otherwise lovely and exotic vacation experience.
If you do your research online, you will come across heartbreaking stories about how lovely senior couples lose all their hard-earned money to con artists, solo male travellers who were made to pay for hundreds of dollars’ worth of drinks in seedy bars, or unsuspecting tourists who had to pay overprized cab or tuktuk fares.
Thankfully, it will be quite easy for you to spot the touts and scammers amid a sea of genuinely friendly locals, that is, if you know the red flags to watch out for. So to help you with that, here are the most common scams in Southeast Asia along with some tips to avoid them.
The “give back” scam
Scams involving charities, young mothers, and very small children are common in Siem Reap, Cambodia. What’s different about this travel scam is that well-intentioned travellers may actually think they are contributing to a good cause. What usually happens is that you will be approached by beggars, usually mothers and school age kids with accompanying toddlers or babies, asking for baby formula. You will then ushered to a local store selling expensive milk powder. As soon as you leave, they will be re-selling the milk back to the store, receiving a commission from the owner.
Another variation of this scam involve “charities” asking you for donations on behalf of orphaned children when actually they are controlled by the local mafia. These local mafia even have kids begging for them.
How to avoid the scam: When approached by beggars for baby formula or asked to donate to certain charities, be firm in your refusal. If you really want to help, offer to buy these beggars food or water instead.
The “tourist attraction is closed” scam
This is one of the most common scams in Thailand. On your way to an attraction like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, you will meet a friendly local just before you arrive at the gates. He or she will try to engage you in small talk and tell you that the attraction is currently closed because it’s a holiday. The person will offer to take you to another attraction and hail a cab or a tuktuk whose driver most likely is an accomplice. On your way there, you will be forced to stop at souvenir shops and buy something of poor quality at an exorbitant price. In the end, you will have wasted a couple of hours and a considerable amount of money on useless trinkets.
Another variation of this scam is that a tuktuk or cab driver will approach you just outside your hotel or hostel. He will agree to bring you to the attraction but along the way, he will conveniently remember that it’s closed and recommend a much better attraction but will make a few stops at souvenir shops along the way, where shopkeepers will do their best to rip you off.
How to avoid the scam: For DIY tours, do your research in advance regarding opening and closing times of tourist attractions. List down the public holidays of your destination country to check if any coincide with your trip. It would also help to ask your hotel’s front desk regarding the best mode of transportation to take when visiting an attraction. Whenever available, it would be advisable to take the train or bus, or book a car through Grab or Uber. If you have to book a taxi or a tuktuk, book one through your hotel.
For hassle-free sightseeing, consider booking a guided tour through your hotel, travel agency, or through a reputable tour operator. This way, you don’t have to worry about which buses or trains to take but just travel to your destination in an air-conditioned bus or coach.
The “recommended by locals” scam
This is another scam common in Thailand and Vietnam. As you explore the city or enjoy a cool drink in a bar or restaurant, you will be approached by a local who will give suggestions on the best restaurants, attractions, and souvenir shops in the place. During your conversation, he will skillfully suggest a tailor where you can pick up a lovely suit for a reasonable price. Once you’re there, you will be pressured to pay in advance with a promise that your suit will be ready the day before leave. But when it’s time, you will be given a poorly made one and coerced to pay the balance or be reported to the local police.
How to avoid the scam: If you really need a suit, research online for reputable tailors who are highly popular among expats and foreign tourists.
The taxi/tuktuk scam
This is the most common scam in the region. This scam involves a taxi or a tuktuk driver who will convince you to hire his services for a very reasonable price. When you arrive at your destination, he will then argue that the prize you agreed to pay was in dollars, was a much larger figure, or that you were quoted a “per person” rate.
How to avoid the scam: To avoid being scammed, insist that cab drivers use a taxi metre or just go for reputable companies. In Ho Chi Minh City, most tourists recommend two companies – Mai Linh and Vinasun – because their drivers are honest and efficient. Watch out for taxis similar-sounding names. If making arrangements with tuktuk drivers, always ask for recommendations from your hostel or hotel and when agreeing to a rate, be sure to write everything down, down to the currency symbol.
The fake tickets scam
You might have heard of tourists who bought really cheap airline and bus tickets or tickets to attractions at unbelievably low prices only to find out they were issued fake ones. This is a common scenario in Southeast Asia.
How to avoid the scam: You don’t want fly-by-night travel agencies and tour operators to prey on you. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. When buying airline, bus, museum, and theatre tickets, only buy directly from companies, reputable travel agencies and tour operators, as well as authorized vendors.
The friendly porter scam
This scam is common in the Philippines. In this scam, a helpful local will try to get hold of your luggage the moment you leave the airport or bus terminal. More often than not, the guy you are dealing with is a porter waiting for a big tip. Now, this scam may seem harmless to you but when travelling on a shoestring budget, this will leave a gaping hole in your wallet.
How to avoid the scam: Do not let other people carry your luggage for you. If you don’t intend to hire the services of a porter, make them understand that you can carry your own bags and that you don’t have the money to pay them.
Credit and debit card skimmers
The tactics employed by scammers have become extremely sophisticated. It is now easier for them to steal your money and your identity through the use of ATM card readers and other skimming devices. To do this, they will usually enlist the help of waiters and store owners who will swipe your card on a skimming device. These devices allow them to clone your cards so they can access your bank accounts and make unauthorized purchases and withdrawals.
How to avoid the scam: If you have to use your cards, always use your credit cards because it is easier for your banks to detect fraudulent charges. If you must withdraw cash from ATMs in a foreign country, use the machines inside banks to ensure that no skimming device was installed. Additionally, remember to cover your hand when typing in your PIN number.
The “short change” scam
Beware when making purchases during your travels. Because even if you think you carefully counted the money you handed the vendor, he or she might claim you did not give the exact amount. A variation of the scenario is that if you don’t have the exact amount and only have large bills, he will try to shortchange you. Or, they might try to scam you by not putting all the items you paid for in your shopping bag. Say you purchased 5 souvenir shirts and instead of putting all 5 in the shopping bag before handing it to you, the shopkeeper will deftly drop a shirt or two on the floor without you noticing.
The “short change” scam can also happen at moneychangers where scammers will find ways to rip you off and not give the exact amount they owe you after you hand them your precious dollars.
How to avoid the scam: Be familiar with the currency. When transacting with moneychangers, immediately count the money handed to you and inspect if you were given the correct number of the right notes before leaving. When buying from shops and markets, always have smaller bills and coins with you so you can pay the exact amount for the goods you’re planning to buy. Also, double check your purchases before leaving a store or stall.
The fake police scam
As travellers, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of the law and want to cooperate with the local police as much as possible. Criminals and con artists, however, are not above impersonating a uniformed policeman in order to coerce you to give up your money and belongings. Beware of situations wherein cops will approach you telling you that they need to see your wallet, visa, and passport because they are investigating a case of fraud and counterfeit money proliferation. When you hand them your travel documents, they will tell you that there is something wrong with your papers and coerce you into paying a huge fine.
How to avoid the scam: Local policemen are not authorized to scrutinize your travel documents. If they insist that there’s something wrong with your visa, ask for their IDs, and offer to accompany them to the police department to settle the misunderstanding. Do not just hand them your original travel documents.
No matter where you’re heading, always be an informed traveller. Before you pack your bags and hop on a plane, do your research and equip yourself with as much information as you can. You many have heard of horror stories of tourists scammed and all their money and belongings stolen from them when travelling in Southeast Asia but don’t let that hinder you from having a wonderful experience. The region boasts amazing people and not everyone there is out to get you. In fact, only a very small portion of the population prey on tourists.
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By: Brendelyn Balaga