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Here are just a few of the
lovely tricks that sneak thieves and con artists
have waiting in store for you in several of the
well-traveled places you may visit. It is
hilarious reading, but no fun when it happens to
you. Be aware and you will be safe.
Sneak Thieves (Lessons
from the Peruvian Experts)
- You are lying down
resting in a park. (This is just an
invitation to thieves in any city). Your day
pack is firmly under your head. You are
thinking about your friends back home.
Suddenly something strikes you on the leg.
"Hey look out! Oh sorry!" A couple
of kids nearby are playing, and their ball
had hit you. No problem. You lay back down.
Your bag is gone! You spin around, but the
entire park around you is empty. Your bag
has disappeared into thin air! You turn back
and the kids are gone too.
- You are sitting on a
bench, or leaning against a low wall,
waiting for a bus, or a friend. Your bag is
right beside you where you can see it; your
hand is resting on it. A man in a suit walks
along in front of you, stuffing something
into his pocket. A 100-peso note flutters to
the ground right in front of you as he walks
off. You reach down and grab it, calling out
to him. Forget the rest of the story, your
bag is already gone!
- You are on the train. You
have stowed your bag safely over your head
and just ahead of you, where you can see it.
At the next station, a few people get on.
Then, just before the train pulls out,
several men come running through the car
shouting loudly and waving their arms. They
are pushing each other around, yelling
frantically, and pointing out the other side
of the train. The car is in an uproar. You
stand up to get a better look. The men
disappear as quickly as they appeared, as
the train is pulling out of the station. You
guessed it, your rucksack is gone!
- You just arrived at the
airport. You haul your rucksack out of
customs and set it on the ground in front of
you while you dig out a map or guide book.
Fine so far. Now you go to put your rucksack
on your back, but in order to do so, you
must set down your day pack. You set the day
bag down beside the rucksack and hoist the
rucksack up across one shoulder. When you
turn back again, your day pack is gone! The
airport is full of people but you see no one
with your bag, no one running, and no one
very near you. You shout out, and people
just stare at you, wondering what is wrong.
Welcome to the Third World.
Con Artists (conmen,
I don't think I could begin
to tell you all of the con artist's tricks and
ploys that you may be confronted with. They make
up new ones every day. They usually involve you
going to someone's house, going into an alley,
getting into a car or bus with someone, or
paying some money right there on the street.
Some are just very good hard-luck stories to
illicit money from you. They can be as intricate
as taking you on a lovely outing into the
countryside (where you are robbed), joining a
friendly poker game (ditto), or being rousted by
The best way to avoid being
conned is never to talk to anybody, anywhere. As
a more reasonable alternative, be very cautious
of anyone who approaches you in a city, or
tourist center. If you suspect that it is a
ruse, walk away. Don't accept invitations in
questionable situations, or in areas where
confidence men abound. Sometimes people will
claim to recognize you from another place where
you have probably been (the airport or a popular
resort). Since local people "all seem to
look alike", you pretend to remember them
to avoid being rude. Now you are
"friends" and they invite you to their
home. Don't go.
Many con artists, and also
hard-sell vendors, will play on the Westerner's
aversion to being rude. They will maneuver you
into a situation where you cannot avoid doing
what they want you to do without appearing to be
very rude to them. Learn to be rude! These are
strangers whose only business is to rob or
extort money from you. Walk away and ignore
Some countries and some
cities are worse than others. Some are almost
free of con artists! Ask other travelers. There
are always new scams around and travelers will
be sure to have the latest horror stories to
warn you in advance. Get the lay of the land
before you decide to be a trusting soul.
Watch for the street or
sidewalk artists with the huge chalked picture
of the Mona Lisa at their knees or on easles.
Notice their studied faces, how they hold the
colored chalk just so. With great deliberation,
they add a few strokes here, maybe just a touch
there. Then they sit back and look at the work
with what is clearly an artistic spirit. If any
street performers deserve some of your money,
surely it these people, the true and pained
artists. What a sham. Once you know what's going
on, it's incredible to watch these people. If
you get up early enough, you'll see them arrive.
They bring the Mona Lisa rolled up under their
arm. They lay it out in a prominent place on the
sidewalk and then tape it down. Then they sit by
it ALL DAY with that incredibly good
suffering-artist look, always about to add a
little color here or there, pausing,
considering, choosing another color etc. Perhaps
they do deserve your money for being such great
fakes, but certainly not for being artists.
Help my luggage was just
A short, tanned,
flustered woman with sunglasses and a big birth
mark on her face approaches you and asks
desperately if you speak German. Even though you
say "no, not really" or can even
manage "nur ein bissen", she manages
to convey to you that her bags have just been
stolen. Her papers are gone and she has no money
whatsoever. She's a tourist and she needs to go
to the police. She's very polite and perhaps
somewhat disheveled. She says "entshuldigen"
(excuse me) after every sentence and is
generally very apologetic. You know about the
Mona Lisa Scam, but this woman is in a desperate
position and really needs your help. The right
thing, the good thing, the Christian thing to do
is to give her some money, maybe all your money.
In reality, she's
lying! This is just a scam to take money
from westerners. These scam artists can
always be found in tourist areas with that
worried just-robbed look, wandering the streets:
in search or her recently lost baggage, or yet
another gullible tourist? You be the judge.
The most common con is really a
sleight-of-hand trick, and it is performed to
virtuosity by bogus black market money changers
on the streets of cities all over the world. You
probably owe it to yourself to learn a humbling
lesson from these experts at least once, but
don't try it with any more money than you would
burn. There are probably at least a dozen
different sleight-of-hand tricks that can be
executed when changing money. I don't know them
all, but I will warn you that if you get
yourself into this situation, you will very
likely come out a big loser.
You can avoid it by never
changing money on the street, and by always
asking around among other travelers where they
have successfully changed, and what the rate is.
If there is a black market, you can usually find
a shop where the transaction takes place on the
premises, preferably right up front. This is
safer because the shopkeeper (was that guy
really the shopkeeper?) has an address, and he
can get into trouble. Street urchins disappear
into thin air before you realize you have been
If you know someone who
changed in that shop yesterday, you should feel
safe about it today. There are a few countries,
like China, where the exchanges usually occur on
the street. In this case, ask around to see if
it is trustworthy, or go with someone who can
identify honest changers, or use the bank.
Always have the money you want to change
separate and handy. Never show your wallet and
certainly not your money pouch when changing
money on the black market. It sounds obvious to
me, but I've seen travelers doing it.
I say if there is a black
market, because dishonest money changers do not
gain their profits by virtue of the black market
rates. They make their my money by cleverly
stealing it from you! It should be a big tip-off
to you when someone offers you a rate far above
either the official or the black market rate.
They just want to get your attention, and they
will go even higher if you ignore them. Like
many con artists, they play on your greed.
The usual trick is to short-change you. Say the
real black market rate is 20. They offer you 25.
You get greedy and head off into an alley with
them. When you count the money they give you, it
is the equivalent of only 22. You complain and
give the money back. (One acquaintance of mine
actually took this money, stuffed it in her
jeans and walked off, making 10% over the real
rate and leaving the changers dumbfounded!) But
you are greedy, so you give the money back. They
re-count it, add enough money to the top to make
it right, and give it back to you as you hand
over your dollars. Alternatively, if you have
already given them your dollars (you might as
well have flushed them down the toilet!) you
will then have an argument, and they end up
giving you back your dollars.
The first case is actually
better, because you at least will have been
given some local money, although what you were
handed, just before they disappeared in five
directions, was only equivalent to a rate of 12
or 15! The hand is quicker than the eye. Perhaps
you would like to see a card trick?
In the second case, just as
your dollars hit your hand again, someone will
shout that the police are coming, and the
transaction is foiled as every one stuffs their
own money in their pockets and runs for it. Back
at your hotel, you reach into your pocket and
pull out the worst possible excuse for a Xerox
copy of a $100 bill! You now have no local
money, and that crumpled piece of paper in your
hand is worth nothing more than as a very
poignant souvenir. Welcome to the club!
In a few countries, foreigners, and even
locals, are occasionally drugged in bars, buses,
and other places. You wake up 24 hours later
with nothing but a headache. This happens to
very few people, but it does occur.
If you avoid the
environments of sleazy bars in Manila, Bangkok,
and several other places, you have avoided most
of the danger. Even then, you just need to
exercise some care. Get in the habit of never
leaving a partially full drink unwatched on the
table when you go to the toilet. Bottled drinks
are safer, especially if you watch them being
opened. Again, you shouldn't have to worry about
your food or drinks being drugged in most
situations, and in most places. But when you get
out on the Road and hear some of these wild
stories, you won't be able to say, "Wow,
Randy never told us about that!"
There have been wild reports
of entire buses being drugged by a vendor who
passed down the aisle giving free samples of his
sweets. Even the driver was drugged in this
popular horror story. Still, people do get
drugged on buses in a few locations (southern
Thailand, Indonesia, Lahore, and Peru that I
have heard of). If someone hands you a hunk of
her greasy tamale, it is probably as safe as the
grease, but if someone pulls out a sweet and
offers it to you, it is just a good policy to
refuse, unless you are quite familiar with the
safety of the country. If they become very
insistent, you should definitely refuse.
You are most likely to be
drugged (and it is still not very likely) by a
con artist who has already lured you away to a
private location. In this case, you are already
about to be robbed, so whether or not they drug
you in order to do so is just a matter of their
The Booster Bag.
This bottomless bag fits
over luggage, shopping bags and purses. Inside
hooks grab the bag and the thief walks away with
your luggage or purse. It is most frequently
used at airports, bus/train stations, hotel
lobbies, lines to use the telephone - in
general, places where travelers tend to set down
The Identical Bag Scam.
You've probably seen a
takeoff on this in the movies. The thief has
luggage that is identical or similar to other
luggage, places it next to the bag of an
unsuspecting traveler, and when no one is
looking, walks off with the traveler's bag,
leaving his empty, identical one behind. A good
way to avoid this is to mark your luggage in
some unique way, either with tags, tape, or
Someone collapses, is hit by a car, or flees
an abuser. The decoy either flees to you or the
crowd eases you to the down person. After much
commotion, the crowd dissipates or you ease away
- minus your money. The intent is to create
jostling, noise, and commotion while you get
pickpocketed. A friend who travels frequently
(and knows better) was recently relieved of his
bills from one front pocket, and his wallet from
the other front pocket, and didn't realize it
until 10 minutes later.
Snatch & Run.
On foot, bike, motorcycle,
or car. Targets are handbags, earrings,
necklaces, shopping bags, watches, cameras
dangling on their strap - anything that can be
Back Home Boy.
crooks go on vacation. They meet somebody from
back home. Defenses go down and so does the
scam. Usually, it's robbery (mostly from hotel
rooms). Solution: don't allow others access to
your room - and if you go to theirs, watch what
they put in your drink!
Seat & Counter.
Signing traveler's checks at
a counter? Putting a bag under your seat (which
can be accessed from behind)? Beware. Watch your
belongings wherever you go!
Hold My Bag?
Objective is either to gain
your confidence (eventually they'll be holding
your bag) or create a fall guy. The latter is
particularly nasty. Hundreds of North Americans
are in foreign jails because they had someone's
bag (containing drugs or contraband) or because
they allowed others access to their bag and
something was planted. Don't take anyone else's
gifts through customs for them. Don't watch a
stranger's bag while they go to the bathroom.
Don't ask someone to watch your bags.
The Push Me Pull You
This age old scam works like
this. You are waiting at the airport,
train station or subway platform and you have
your luggage at your side. two crooks
approach you, one on each side. the first
one picks up one of your bags and runs in one
direction. You then take off chasing the
crook leaving the other bag behind. the
first crook then drops the bag he picked up and
runs away. when you get back you find the
other crook has picked up your other bag and
fled. Always leave your bags in front of
you at all times. never leave bags on each
side of you
Someone walk up behind you
and says you dropped your wallet. You
quickly stop feel for yours and say "It not
mine." This was all a set up.
The crooks were just looking for you to feel
where your wallet was so they can target you
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