Editor's note: Peter John literally wrote the book on travel scams. His latest, Around the World in 80 Scams, details the most common scams travelers need be aware of.
This is the first of five articles on common scams from which travellers often suffer. It deals with scams involving transport in some way. Scammers realise that travellers are particularly vulnerable while they are using public transport or taxis.
#1: Taxi Meter Scams
Like most people who travel at all, I have been ripped off by unscrupulous taxi drivers. I flew into Istanbul late one evening, and took a train from the airport to the tram which would take me to where I needed to go. The tram had stopped for the night, so I decided to share a taxi with two Scottish tourists who were staying near where I was. We hailed a taxi which took us to where we wanted to go. When it came to paying, however, the taxi driver showed me the meter, which demanded 28,000,000 old Turkish lira (28 new Turkish lira, or about $19). In fact, the first “2” was the number of the tariff, which was at night, and had nothing to do with the fare, so we only owed the driver 8,000,000 old Turkish lira (8 new Turkish lira ($5)).
His swindling did not end there, however. I gave him a 50 lira note, which he replaced when I was not looking with a 5 lira note, and he pretended that I still owed him 23 lira. It was not the most pleasant introduction to Istanbul!
Here are three common ways for taxi drivers to rip travellers off:
- Breaking the meter. Taxi drivers in poorer countries will often only announce that the meter is broken at the end of a journey, and take the risk that the tourist will refuse to pay.
- Changing the meter. One of the most common scams, and one of the most difficult to spot, is when the taxi driver simply changes the settings on the meter, so that it shows the higher night-time fare for day-time journeys.
- Fiddling the meter. The taxi driver can often change the rate at which the meter runs by fiddling with the meter itself, so that, instead of charging a fixed sum per kilometre, it will charge the same fixed sum per five hundred meters.
#2: Gassings on Overnight Trains
Sleeping travellers on public transport are vulnerable to anybody with no scruples and an eye on their property. A scam which has been reported on trains in Eastern Europe, Thailand and Italy, runs as follows:
- The criminal (or criminals) open the door slightly and feeds a tube attached to a cylinder of anaesthetic gas into the compartment.
- They turn the gas on, knocking the travellers out.
- They open the compartment door and rob their victims of whatever they are carrying.
- The victims will wake up a few hours later, with headaches but otherwise unharmed. They will notice that their valuables are gone, but without the slightest idea of what happened to them.
This scam has also been used by criminal gangs on truck drivers. Many large trucks have sleeping quarters in the cabs for their drivers, and when the driver tucks in for the night, the gas is piped in, and the driver knocked out. When he wakes up, his load has been stolen.
#3: Spiked Drinks on Public Transport
Traditions of hospitality, unfortunately, can be abused by criminals. Scammers pervert the practice of offering food or drink to strangers to drug their victims.
In 2009, sisters Sophie and Charlotte Tory, in their mid-twenties and from Britain, boarded a Summer Special train from Dehradun to Chandigarh at Haridwar. They accepted some tea from a stranger when the train approached Ambala, as did two Indian female fellow passengers on the same train. One of the Indian women called her husband on a mobile phone, saying that she had been drugged. Three of the four women were later found unconscious when the train arrived at Chandigarh, and all had to be treated in hospital, though they were subsequently released. The male criminals who had fed them the drugged tea were, apparently, never caught.
Scammers use several drugs, and some of them, if used in heavy doses, can cause permanent harm to the victims, or even death. Rohypnol, scopolamine, nembitol and benzodiazepine have all been used to drug travellers. By far the most common advice given to travellers is: do not take food or drink from people you just met.
#4: Taxi Mafia Scams
Many countries have taxi mafias of one type or another. They operate like this:
- The taxi drivers combine to form a mixture of a trade union and a cartel, designed to ensure that tourists have no choice but to use their services.
- They use intimidation or worse to make sure that no independent taxi drivers break their illegal monopolies.
- They can then charge very high prices, whether or not the fares are regulated, especially if local police are weak and/or corrupt.
- They often bribe the police to turn a blind eye to their activities. Sometimes, they have links with, or are part of, organised crime.
Several years ago, an Irish journalist, who attempted to expose shady taxi mafia practices in France, faced death threats and other forms of intimidation. The Frenchmen were using many scams to screw money out of their customers, so that the taxi ride from Nice to Monte Carlo cost more than the same journey in a helicopter. The journalist described the Nice taxi mafia as the worst in Europe. In many tourist resorts or towns around the world, the taxi drivers charge outrageously high fares.
#5: Thieving Baggage Handlers
Travellers must entrust their baggage to baggage handlers. At some airports, the baggage handlers are employees of the airport, whilst at others they are employees of the airline. Virtually every airport in the world has tales of theft by baggage handlers.
In December 2006, twenty airport baggage handlers in Paris were found guilty of baggage theft. In October 2007, nineteen more baggage handlers were found guilty of similar offences. The thefts covered a period during 2001 to 2003, when airport police saw 27 baggage handlers stealing from passengers’ baggage after viewing footage from CCTV screens in the airport terminal. Amazingly, the thieves, who plead guilty, defended themselves by claiming that stealing from baggage was common practice at the airport!
Since 2003, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), which screens checked baggage in the United States, has received more than 70,000 complaints about theft from suitcases. At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, the problem is so bad that baggage handlers were issued uniforms with no pockets, so they could not hide stolen items in their clothing.
Most baggage handlers are honest, but a sufficient number are dishonest that many regular travellers have stories of losing their property from their checked suitcases.
Stay tuned for Peter’s next article which will detail five common Internet scams!