21 Most Common Tourist Scams in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is known for its gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and its accessible location, and is a great place to visit in South Asia for anyone looking for a relaxing vacation spot. This country also has a reputation for being one of the friendliest places in South Asia and you can travel to cool hill stations as well as explore gorgeous golden beaches here. Some other highlights include the pretty tea plantations in Ella and delightful coastal villages such as Mirissa.

Despite being generally safe, Sri Lanka has a high petty crime rate, although this rarely extends to foreigners and violent crime against tourists is rare. However, there are still quite a number of tourist targeted scams you need to be aware of. Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

A. TOURIST ATTRACTIONS/ACTIVITIES

1. Cigarette scam

Galle Face Road

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This is a common scam that you are likely to come across around Galle Face Road.

A scammer will approach you and engage you in conversation. He will usually tell you that he works in some official capacity Sri Lanka. Also, he would love to tell you stories about the country and take you to parts of the city that visitors rarely get to see. However, he can’t take you to his office as it is too far away. Instead, he invites you for tea at an upscale restaurant or cafe.

During the meeting, he will order a packet of cigarettes along with a drink. The implication is that the visitor will pay the bill in return for  local knowledge about Sri Lanka. However, when the bill comes, it is extremely expensive as a result of the packet of cigarettes that has been added.

The establishment is part of the scam and deliberately inflates the price of the cigarettes and drinks. The scammer earns a commission for bringing you there.

Rule of thumb:

If you are approached in the street by someone who claims to be an official and who wants to tell you more about Sri Lanka, reject and walk away.

 

2. Tea shipping

Sri Lanka tea plantation

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Sri Lanka is famous for its tea which also brings with it a tea scam. In this situation, the scam takes place at a tea plantation or another venue where you get to sample some delicious tea.

Once you have tried the tea, a local will tell you that they can ship the tea to your home country in large quantities. They will offer a very low price to make it sound like a bargain and will claim you only need to pay export tax. Once you pay the tax and give the scammer your address, the tea never arrive as promised.

Rule of thumb:

If you want to buy tea or any other goods in Sri Lanka, it is best to do so in person while you are in the country. If you rely on someone to ship goods to your country after you have left, there is a good chance that you will never receive them.

 

3. Fake gemstones

A common scam in Sri Lanka (also in Thailand, Myanmar, etc) involves fake gemstones. A scammer will approach you and offer you the chance to buy some local gemstones at a heavily discounted price. These however will not be real – you will be buying fake goods which are worthless.

Rule of thumb:

If you want to buy gemstones in Sri Lanka then it is best to buy them from a reputable and licensed jewellery store. Also beware of any business selling gemstones at a discounted fee – if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 

4. Unofficial tour guides

There are many of these touts around, who will strike you up in a conversation and then offer to bring you around. They will claim that as a local, they can help you get “local” prices be it for transport, food or what have you.

Take up their offer, and you will most likely get ripped off by the tuk tuk driver whom they work in cahoots with, by being sent to a bunch of gemstone shops and places where they get a commission from.

Rule of thumb:

Firmly reject such unsolicited offers.

 

5. Spice garden scam

This is similar to the traditional Chinese medicine scam in China, where they bring in a phony doctor during the free tour to bring you around. They are shrewd salesmen and understand the principle of reciprocity. So they first try to make you feel as good as possible and give you something free here and there. It could be a free tour, free tea and/or a free massage. It is then human nature to want to return the favour.

Now that trust has been built up, the doctor will claim that you suffer from some ailments unknown to you. A lot of claims will be thrown about. For instance, they claim to be accredited by the government, or they have been cultivating medicinal herbs for 1000s of years, etc.

To help you, they will recommend some remedies and products which are essentially crap at inflated prices. Should you believe their nonsense and buy a product, do watch out for the credit card scam. There have been reports of these scammers entering a different amount and charging a lot more without you realizing.

Rule of thumb:

It is best to avoid spice gardens, or simply go for the free tour but not buy anything there. If you really want to get some spices, check out reputable shops which you can find through some online research instead.

 

6. Visa scam

There have been reports of extortion and inconsistent visa fees charged at Colombo International Airport when applying for a visa.

Rule of thumb:

Do your research of the process and fees, or simply apply online. Check out the official site for the correct fees to pay.

7. Safari scam

Sri Lanka safari

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Not technically a scam, but more a tourist trap. Do not book safari tours through a tuk tuk driver or a taxi driver. These drivers will demand a cut from the tour operator they send you to and so the price you pay for will be higher than market rate.

Rule of thumb:

Book through your hotel/accommodation or directly with the tour operator.

 

8. Fake disabilities beggar

Scammers often operate this scam in tourist areas and particularly target religious sites like temples. As you walk around the temple complex you will be approached by a scammer with a donation sheet. They will explain that they are collecting money for someone who has a disability. Next, they tell you a long story about how much the person has suffered and will often produce photographs as evidence.

They will then ask you for a donation for medical treatment for the disabled person. Reference to religious reasons why you should help, such as how you will get ‘good karma’ will also be made. This however is a scam. The scammer doesn’t even know the person in the photographs and the money will not be used to help the disabled.

Rule of thumb:

The best thing to do in this situation is politely decline and walk away. If you do want to donate to charity in Sri Lanka then choose a registered charity where you know the money will go directly to those who need it.

 

9. Teacher beggar

A less in your face beggar, the teacher beggar comes across as a respectable looking local, who approaches you on the street and introduces oneself as a teacher. He will say he is not after money, but would like to strike up a conversation to improve his English.

During the conversation, he will mention that the school he is working at is poor and in dire need for funds for books and equipment. He will then ask if you wouldn’t mind donating just a small amount.

Rule of thumb:

Firmly reject.

 

10. The place is closed

A common scam all over the world (e.g. India, Vietnam, Morocco, etc), this scam is usually carried out by taxi drivers or tour guides. It starts when you ask to be taken to a hotel or a specific business or cafe and the driver or guide tells you that it is closed.

They then offer to take you to another hotel/cafe/shop that they claim to know well, but are actually places where they get a commission.

Rule of thumb:

There is no way of knowing whether the venue you wish to visit is closed unless you go there in person. So insist that your driver take you there for you to see for yourself if they are telling the truth.

Another way to make it clear that you are not interested in a different venue is to say that you have already made a booking and paid full upfront.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. “Government” tuk tuk scam

You might find yourself befriended by a random stranger on the street, who mentions that there is some big ceremony happening not too far away. After a short conversation, a tuk tuk pulls up, and your newly made friend tells you that it is an official, government tuk tuk. They explain by pointing to a coin taped beside the number plate as proof.

Should you take up the tuk tuk’s offer to bring you to the ceremony, you will be brought to somewhere secluded and robbed. Or probably some shops along the way first where the driver gets a commission.

Rule of thumb:

There is no such official, government tuk tuk. Firmly reject.

 

2. Rogue tuk tuks

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Before taking a tuk tuk, first haggle the price way down, as their first offer is likely to be inflated. Even then, the rogue ones can simply demand another price halfway through (while stopping at a secluded spot for more leverage).

Also, there are cases of rogue tuk tuk drivers who do not return your change after payment and simply drive away.

Rule of thumb:

Always haggle first, do not pay until the trip is complete, and keep small change which you can pay with.

 

3. Non-metered taxis

Sri Lanka taxis

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This is one of the most common scams in Sri Lanka and is also widely used across Asia (e.g. Thailand, Indonesia, etc). When you get into a taxi the driver will tell you that the meter is broken and that it will be cheaper for you to pay a flat rate. This price will almost always be higher than if the taxi driver had used the meter.

Rule of thumb:

This scam is easily avoided as long as you make it clear you will only board if the meter is switched on. If the taxi driver refuses, simply find another taxi.

 

4. Non-direct routes

Many taxi drivers in Sri Lanka will look for a way to inflate their fare so that you pay more for your taxi ride. Common ways to do this include driving you on a longer route around the city. Or they could deliberately drive through a crowded area.

Rule of thumb:

Work out the directions to your destination before you set out. You could also ask hotel staff how long a ride should take to the place you want to go.

If you have a mobile phone with GPS use it to program the route in advance. During the trip, follow it to make sure that the driver is taking you in the right direction.

 

5. Fake travel tickets

This scam often takes place in travel venues such as bus or train stations.

When you arrive at the station to buy a ticket, you will be approached by a scammer who claims to be an official who works at the bus or train station. They will ask you where you want to go and tell you that you need to buy a ticket from them.

There are only two possible results. You either buy a fake, or pay an inflated price for the ticket.

Rule of thumb:

Only buy tickets from official bus or train counters. This may mean that you will need to queue, but it does mean that you will get a real ticket at the right price.

 

6. Corrupt traffic police

Many tourists in Sri Lanka rent a motorbike to get around and this is exploited by corrupted officials. Traffic police will often flag down foreigners and make up an excuse about some traffic violation. A fine paid on the spot will then be demanded.

Rule of thumb:

Do not break any traffic laws, carry with you a full driving license and wear a helmet at all times.

If you are stopped by the traffic police and asked to pay a fine for a violation you did not commit, ask to be taken to the local police station to settle the matter. Usually the traffic police will be very reluctant to do this and will let you go with a warning.

 

C. MISC

1. ATM fraud

By far the biggest problem that tourists face in Sri Lanka is ATM fraud. ATMs around Sri Lanka may be rigged so that they read your card details which scammers can use to withdraw money from your account.

Rule of thumb:

If possible only use ATMs in reputable places such as a bank. It is best to avoid using in other areas such as those located in mini-markets which are often rigged. Also avoid using at night.

 

2. Credit card scam

As mentioned earlier in the spice garden scam, victims of the scam have found themselves either double charged or overcharged. It could be as much as 10x easily from just by adding a zero behind a 2 digit number. However, this can happen anywhere, not just at the spice gardens.

Rule of thumb:

Use cash if possible. If you must, never let your card go out of sight to ensure that it is not copied, as it can be copied by simply swiping through a hand held device. Watch like a hawk how the charges are keyed in and inspect your receipt carefully.

 

3. Someone you should but don’t recognize

You might be approached by an overly friendly local. He looks at you like he has just saw an old friend, and claims that he has helped you in your hotel (e.g. preparing your room, etc). At this point, you will probably have a puzzled look which will upset him.

To help you feel better, he will ask if you can loan him some money. This is because he claims that the hotel has delayed staff payment for the month and he needs it urgently to buy food for his family. Or it could be any sob story reason. He also claims that the hotel will reimburse you for it.

Rule of thumb:

Ask him which hotel you stay at, and watch the scammer go away.

 

4. Pickpocketing

Pickpocketing is a problem in Sri Lanka particularly in crowded areas close to tourist attractions such as markets. Thieves will stand close to you and take items from your bag or wallet.

However, it can really happen in any situation, such as the one showed in the video above, should one be careless, or distracted.

Rule of thumb:

If you want to avoid becoming a victim, it is best to keep your cash safe and secure. Only carry small amounts of cash around with you. Avoid carrying the purse or wallet in the back pocket. Also, use a spare walletmoney belt or anti-theft bag to further protect yourself from pickpockets.

Further, keep most of your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead. Also, consider using hotel safety tools such as a hotel safe lock or door jammer to further strengthen the security of your hotel room.

 

5. Snatch theft

Snatch theft is a problem all over Asia (happens in Malaysia, Cambodia, etc) and is one of the more common problems that tourists in Sri Lanka will face.

Thieves on motorbikes will snatch your bag, wallet, phone, camera, or jewelry from you and then drive off. If you have a bag or camera with a strap that doesn’t break, this can be dangerous as you can be dragged along the road.

Rule of thumb:

Always carry your bag across your body rather than letting it hang from one shoulder. Make sure not to carry items like a mobile phone in your hand when you are walking. Also, always carry your bag so that it is facing away from the street. This will make it more difficult for thieves to snatch it from you.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Sri Lanka police

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  • Police Emergency Hotline:  118/119
  • Ambulance/Fire Service: 110
  • Tourist Police: 011 2421052
  • Police Emergency: 011 2433333

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2 Comments

  1. Supun

    Thank you for preparing this list.its all about using your common sense in such situations .Having pre -planned or pre-booked travel services can help such unpleasant moments ,having a official travel guide or driver guide throughout your travel can help .sleays look for reputed travel agents in Sri Lanka

    Reply
  2. Grayden

    Common sense advice that is usefull except for…. Usung a hotel safe. Have a look on utube and you may be surprised at how easily a hotel safe may be overcome. Of course, nothing is really safe if somebody really wants it so its all degrees of opportunity.

    Reply

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