42 Most Common Tourist Scams in USA
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Canyons, glaciers, deserts, rainforests, beaches, cities, skyscrapers, towns, music, Hollywood, you name it, the USA has it. As one of the world’s superpowers measuring 3000 miles wide comprising 50 diverse states, Uncle Sam has an astounding list of experiences to offer to make your holiday the trip of a lifetime.
However, with the third largest population in the world, the USA is also home to a multitude of criminals and scammers who have a vast array of creative tricks to catch you off-guard. Check out this article to learn how to protect yourself on this trip of a lifetime!
A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES
1. Music artist
A scam that is common in New York City (Times Square especially or the Las Vegas strip), you might find an overly friendly guy who approaches you and offers you a free CD to check out his music, and that you would be doing him a huge favour if you were to accept it and play it in your country. Some would even autograph as a show of sincerity.
Should you accept the CD, you will then be asked for payment. If you refuse, the scammer will refuse to take back the CD and make a scene by claiming that you have stolen it. Some would even have a gang of accomplices surround you and pressurize you into paying.
Rule of thumb: there are actually legit sellers, but to spare yourself the trouble, spot these sellers from afar and avoid them
2. Fake takeout menu
This is an easy scam to fall for, as it looks so believable. As the name suggests, these scammers will slip fake takeout menus under hotel room doors. Should you order through the menu, the scammers will get your credit card information and you know what happens next.
Orlando/Disneland seems to be the hotspot for this crime, and despite efforts by the authorities to clean it up, the scam still exists, probably because it is an easy and lucrative one for the scammers.
Rule of thumb: double check with the hotel reception before ordering, or order room service instead
3. Hot dog mustard scam
This usually happens in crowded places, where a man eating a hot dog (a mustard tube in a bun actually) “accidentally” squirts mustard over you. He will help to clean you up, forcefully even if he were to reject his help, as this will allow his accomplice the time and space to make off with your luggage or your valuables.
Rule of thumb: keep your bags close with you and be wary around those eating a hot dog in crowded places (airports and malls largely) if possible
4. The three card Monte scam
Also known as the shell game (see Germany), this game involves the showing and then shuffling of three cards (e.g. 2 black, 1 red) and you have to guess which card is the odd one out. Guess correctly and you can double your money.
The scam is perpetrated by a group of scammers – there will be one dealer, two to three in the crowd acting as onlookers, one playing the game and one on the lookout for the police.
This game seems easy but it is a game where it is impossible to win, because the dealer uses a sleight of hand trick to swop the card. If you were to see anyone winning, that is likely the accomplice, to tempt tourists into thinking that it is easy to win.
Watch out for those accomplices acting as onlookers, as they will pressure you into playing or intimidating you into staying. Some may even steal your valuables when you are distracted.
If you’re interested, here’s a video exposing how the scam is done:
Rule of thumb: give this set up a wide berth – it’s impossible to win
5. Ferry to Staten Island/Fake tickets
Found on most tourists’ list of things to do, a trip on the iconic ferry to Staten Island is a great way to see New York’s harbour. You might find street hawkers pushing these tickets at any price – but thing is, you do not have to pay to get on board!
Besides the Staten Island ferry ticket, there are other “fake” and overpriced tickets sold by unlicensed groups. For instance, the infamous SJQ Sightseeing tours scammers who wear dark blue vests with those words, sell new Statue of Liberty tickets for $80-100, reused Statue of Liberty tickets and even Battery Park entrance tickets for $20 when entrance is free!
Do beware of these crooks who operate around lower Manhattan!
Rule of thumb: do some research before buying these tickets
6. Casino theft (different variations)
There have been reports at female toilets in the casinos where thieves reach over the stall and grab handbags/purses off the door’s hooks
Besides outright theft, there are indirect ones where scammers prey on your inattentiveness. For instance, a scammer might purposely drop some money on the floor and ask if those are yours. Once you are distracted, the scammer’s accomplice will swoop in and steal your bucket of coins or tokens.
As for casinos with coinless machines, these scammers will target machines with high credit, distract the victim, and someone will swoop in to cash out the machine by pressing the button to print out the redemption ticket and running off with it.
Rule of thumb: try to keep your valuables near to you if possible
7. Can you help me cash out my chips/can you help me?
This can come in many variations, but one common one is near the casinos, where the scammer will say a sob story such as: “I was winning lots of money, but the casino accused me of card counting and threw me out. I didn’t even get a chance to cash out of my chips. I have 10k worth of it now, can I pay you $500 to do it? However, for me to trust you, can you let me hold your wallet so that I can exchange it back with you once you cash in those chips?”
Those are obviously fake chips but there are still tourists blinded by greed falling for this scam.
Other variations of this could be for instance, being robbed/pickpocketed and needing some money for transport to the hotel/police station, asking you to buy a jewellery which is obviously fake at a high price etc.
Rule of thumb: never leave anything valuable in your car, or in spots of the car which is visible.
8. VIP pass scam
You will find VIP passes being promoted nearly in all casinos or strip corners in Las Vegas. This pass, which may come with a free drink or expedited entry, doesn’t actually work as well as it is advertised. The free drinks which many of these passes are usually limited to a certain time and expedited entry doesn’t work if the club is full, which defeats the purpose of the pass in the first place.
There are even fake passes being sold, so do be wary of that. One way out is to buy it at crowded areas or where there’s a police presence, and get the promoter’s name and mobile number.
Of course, there are legit VIP passes, but be prepared to spend more, and also take the risk of being rejected by the club hosts and employees who claim that these are fake. This is because the host/employee do not take a cut of the profits of the pass, the promoters who sold it to you in the first place did. Just pass your pass to the cashier.
Rule of thumb: do your research before getting such passes
9. Street cards/escort cards in Las Vegas
These cards are given out on the strip, with each card showing a prostitute on it and the price of that prostitute. Note that the fee shown on the card is for the prostitute to show up, anything else comes up extra charges.
And if you do not know, prostitution here is illegal. As such, they usually use fake pictures and aliases – so the person who turns up is not going to look like the one on the card! What’s worse, because prostitution here is illegal, the person who turns up is more likely to be here to rob you, instead of engaging in any sexual activities, so think twice!
Even for those who, they are likely to rip you off and are unlikely to have went through any health check ups.
Rule of thumb: don’t act on these cards but if you do, be prepared to pay out of your pocket, or head to the legal red light district
10. Free meal
This scam occurs at the casino – you might meet an attractive stranger, who will try to hit it off with you. Once trust is established, he/she will claim that he/she has just won big at the casino, and offers to treat you at some expensive restaurant. Should you accept, halfway through the meal, your new found friend will excuse himself/herself to the bathroom and not come back.
Rule of thumb: reject such offers – if something is too good to be true, it is
11. Taking photos with TV/movie characters
You can find tons of these characters on Broadway, such as spiderman, Elsa from Frozen, Ironman, etc. Key is if you were to take photos with them, be prepared to pay a tip, or be hounded or even attacked.
Rule of thumb: if you must, either pay or take a photo from afar without them realizing it
12. Restaurant gratuity/double tip scam
It has been reported that restaurants at Times Square have been charging customers double the tip, by adding an additional gratuity on the bill. For those who are lucky, you might get a waiter who tells you that you don’t have to leave a tip at the end.
Rule of thumb: go through every restaurant bill carefully
13. Shake my hand and pay me $x to let go
As the name suggests, there have been reports (e.g. at Union Square) where a guy may randomly come up to you holding a box of candies to shake your hand. Once you fall for it, he is not going to let go until you pay $x for the box of candies he is holding.
Rule of thumb: spot these scammers from afar and reject when approached
14. Fake monks
These scammers, dressed in orange robes, go around tourist attractions offering golden medallions and greetings of peace in exchange for donations to help some temple which they are from. If you refuse, they will turn aggressive and hound you, or snatch the medallion back as a last resort.
But that’s not all, if you’re unlucky, the fake monk might not be the only one hounding you.
Rule of thumb: spot these scammers from afar and reject when approached
15. Fake Las Vegas sign photographers
At the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, you will find many official-looking photographers ready to help you take a photo. Note that there are no such official jobs around and these scammers will help you a photo first and then hound you for a tip.
Rule of thumb: just ask a fellow tourist for help in taking a photo
16. Fake charity peddlers
There have been many reports of these scammers who will tell you all sorts of stories at the Times Square of New York – they represent homeless people working for the Time Square news/they are helping people living in poverty in Africa/they are saving endangered animals from extinction etc. To up their game, they come armed with fanciful brochures and postures.
Once you are hooked, they will ask you to sign on a form and to make a donation.
Rule of thumb: if you really want to donate, go online, search for legit, registered organizations and you can do your part for the world
17. “Free” comedy show scam
In New York, there have also been reports of this scam, where scammers hand out free comedy club (e.g. Broadway Comedy Club) entrance tickets, and claim famous comedians such as David Letterman or Jimmy Falon have previously performed at these clubs.
Should you go, what you will find is an old, rundown bar, where you will be forced to buy two drinks at the minimum. You should still count yourself lucky at this stage as for the unluckier ones, they might even haven been scammed into paying for the “free” ticket and lied to that the drinks are free!
Rule of thumb: again, do your research online and avoid buying tickets off these street seller
18. Slot machines at Las Vegas McCarran International airport
This is not technically a scam per se, more a tourist trap, but it should not come as a surprise, that the slot machines and video poker machines have a lousier rate of return! It has been reported that these machines only return roughly 85%, compared to the 92% at the casinos in town.
Rule of thumb: avoid playing here
1. Overcharging/fake airport taxis
Like many other countries globally, beware of drivers soliciting for customers away from the official queues. They will usually charge a higher fixed price, or might have a crooked meter, either way, you have to be prepared to spend more, unless you know the market price and can negotiate with the driver a fixed fee before the trip.
It can be worse though, if the driver is a fake taxi driver! He will probably drive you somewhere deserted and demand a huge fee, or even rob you of your valuables.
Rule of thumb: stick to the official taxi queue or use Uber; if you are rushing for time, make sure that the cab’s number and company are visible on the outside. For long routes, have a rough price and route in mind.
2. The runaway taxi driver
There have been reports of taxi drivers coming out of the cab to help you with your luggage in the boot, but missing one or two small/insignificant bags on purpose and then quickly driving off before you realize in Las Vegas , so do watch out. Other cities where this scam has been reported: Atlantic City, Nevada, Maryland, New Orlenas, Baltimore, Louisiana, etc
Rule of thumb: before getting onto a cab, take note of the driver’s name, car plate number and the taxi company. When alighting, be sure to account for all your luggage in the boot, especially if the driver seems to be in a rush
3. The “longhaul” taxi driver
As the name suggests, the long-haul cab driver takes you on a longer route than required to earn more fare off you. This is an prevalent practice especially by the Nellis and Desert cab drivers in Las Vegas. This is because the distance between the airport and the strip is pretty short, so the driver brings you along a longer route to earn extra fare.
These cab drivers are smart – they test you by asking if this is the first time you have been to Vegas. If you say yes, you will find yourself heading down South through a tunnel which can add up to $10 to the fare.
Rule of thumb: say this is not the first time you are in Vegas and to go by the Swenson and Tropicana way. If the driver refuses, you can refuse to pay and threaten to report him to the Nevada Taxicab Authority’s 24 hotline at 702-668-4005
4. Taxi driver’s advice
In Las Vegas especially, do be wary of your cab driver’s advice. Some will advise you that the place you are not going is not good/over-commercialized/over hyped and that as a local, you knows of a better place. Most likely that place is an establishment he gets kickbacks from.
Also, if you are travelling as a single man, shady cab drivers will invariably recommend you a massage parlour or stripjoint. Avoid at all costs as these are likely unregulated and you might be at the mercy of shady criminals.
Rule of thumb: take cab drivers’ advice with a pinch of salt
5. Taxi “arranger”
There have been reports in Miami some years back where scammers at long taxi queue would claim to help you get a cab for $20 which will go towards your fare. This is obviously a scam yet there are some tourists who do still fall for it.
Rule of thumb: Ignore these offers
The pedicab is just like the cyclos in Vietnam and tuk tuks in Thailand, a scam waiting to happen, a scourge of the road. Their pricing system is tricky (think hidden charges in extremely small font) and complicated and you won’t know the final price till the end of your journey, which will be much more than what you expect.
This exists as legally, they can charge whatever they want, as long as it is stated on the card they show to you.
Rule of thumb: avoid at all costs
7. Subway theft – pickpocketing/razor slits
There have still been reports of criminals using a razor knife to cut through your bag to steal valuables, do be wary especially if the subway is crowded and try to stay awake if possible.
Rule of thumb: carry your bag in front of you if in a crowded subway and stay alert
1. Crocked ATMs/Card skimming
Card skimmers can record your card details, your PIN code and send all these information wirelessly (text message/Bluetooth) so it’s a real threat to be aware of! Some telltale signs are a glue residue around card reader, loose parts of the machine or if some suspicious items are placed on the machine which could be used to house a camera. Also, if you see something protruding or not fixed tightly , that should be a clear red flag to use another ATM.
Also, there have even reports of robbery at these machines, so do stay on the lookout.
Rule of thumb: if possible, try to only use ATM machines inside banks, and avoid those in dark streets and at tourist attractions.
2. Public WIFI cyber thief
There have been many reports where users of free WIFI in public places have had their data/identity stolen.
Rule of thumb: Use hard-wired connection instead of public WIFI, though if you really must use public WIFI, avoid logging into personal accounts such as emails or bank accounts. Also,
- Verify the network name (some hackers set up working WIFIs with similar names to the bar/place you are at to use their WIFI, where they can track your data)
- Only visit the site if it has https:// in the link address, as this means that the communication between your computer and the network is encrypted and can’t be read by a third party
- For those willing to pay for security, use a VPN service. The VPN acts as a physical barrier between your computer the web, and it will encrypt your communication before sending ito the web
- However, note that even encrypted information can be decoded, so be wary of what sites you use/what information you enter
3. Room service
Room service charges are usually charged to the credit card on file with the hotel, if the staff demands cash when delivering your food, double check with the reception.
Rule of thumb: Double check with the reception if asked to pay cash upfront for room service
4. Fake front desk phone calls
There have been many reports of this in Georgia (and also all around the country), where scammers using smuggled phones act as fake front desk personnel, calling guests in the wee hours of the night/morning requesting for credit card information, with the reason that the hotel’s computer system has crashed or that there is an error with the number, and this does catch a number of sleepy guests off guard.
Another convincing variation is that the scammer is calling just to verify your card details on record. He will provide the last 4 digits of your card, which is obviously wrong, and when you point out the error, he will act confused and ask you to read the entire number.
Rule of thumb: do not provide your credit card details over the phone no matter the occasion; cut the phone and report to the hotel’s staff
5. Beggars with babies
It was reported in 2014 that there was a group of women who spent long hours out on the streets begging, using babies/toddlers with signs claiming that they are jobless and hungry. They would work in shifts, trading the babies/toddlers to the next women on the shift.
Rule of thumb: ignore (they could easily get government services but chose not, as they prefer cash) to discourage such actions
6. Selling free newspapers
Could you imagine, people selling free newspapers just to earn a penny in New York City? It does exist, and some even tell you outright that is a free newspaper, but they hope you can tip them for their service, which will go towards some charity or non-profit organization.
Rule of thumb: this is not exactly an expensive lesson since these newspapers are offered at dirt cheap prices, unless if you happen to like a cheap thrill, then go for it!
7. Candy boys
You will find these candy boys on the New York Subway. They will approach you to buy some chocolate/candies, and claim that they are fundraising for their basketball team/charity. They will even show you some papers of details of their team, and how they just need to bit more money to get gear for themselves, and try to evoke your sympathies.
What really happens is that these boys will be passing a cut of the proceeds to a neighbourhood wholesaler rather than any basketball team/charity.
Rule of thumb: it’s up to you to choose whether you would like to buy these
8. Metrocard scam
There have been reports where people pick up abandoned cards usually with little value left in them and resell them for a higher price, while claiming that is actually a “discounted” price. In fact, a homeless man has made over $20,000 just from reselling these cards.
Note that it is illegal for anyone besides the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to sell these cards.
Rule of thumb: only buy your transportation cards from the authorized MTA dealers
9. Smash and grab
There have been reports of scammers hiding in street corners where there are long red lights. They wait for rental cars and once they spot a potential target, they will look inside to see if you have left anything in the back seats. If you have, they would, as the name suggests, smash the windows, grab your stuff and make off with it.
Rule of thumb: Be careful of these around tourist areas and the business districts in Hawaii.
10. Timeshare scams
How it works over here is that you will find well dressed salespeople offering you free/discounted tickets to tourist attractions, but with the catch that you have to attend a timeshare sales pitch. What happens next is that you will be subjected to high pressure sales techniques over the course of the next two hours to commit, be it a full purchase or even a paid trial.
Rule of thumb: do not bother partaking in timeshare sessions
11. White van speaker scam
This is a really old scam that still exists, targeting both locals and tourists. The scammers, working in groups of around 3, will be wearing a company uniform and driving their van around. They would approach you and explain that due to some corporate error (e.g. over-order by client; system error, etc), they are now left with many speakers which they need to clear soon, which they are able to offer you at lower than retail prices if you are interested to buy.
Should you reject the offer, that’s when the high pressure sales tactics will come in. They will bombard you with fancy looking marketing collateral, technical jargon, hound you if you try to leave and finally, lower the price significantly.
Rule of thumb: reject such offers – these are poor quality speakers
12. Watch my place at the bar scam
This is a very simple yet ingenious scam. A girl might chat you up at the bar, and then leave her bag there and ask you for help in looking after it, as she is going to get a drink/going to the toilet. She heads over to the bartender, orders a drink and then calls/waves at you. Should you wave back, you have just acknowledged to the bartender to put the drink on your tab.
Rule of thumb: it’s alright to meet new people in the bar, just be wary of such situations
13. Victim turned robber scam
This can turn out in many variations, for instance, the scammer might approach you in a dark street and ask you for help as he has just been robbed. Should you take your wallet out, the scammer’s accomplices will appear out of nowhere and snatch it away.
Besides wallet, it can be anything, such as needing a phone to make emergency calls as the scammer’s phone has just been stolen, or simply asking what time is it and requesting for you to check your phone, etc.
Rule of thumb: always beware of such “sob stories”
14. The bump, drop and spoil scam
Similar to the earlier scam, this can occur in many variations, one of which is the scammer will knock into you and drop a pair of broken glasses, then claiming that you have broken it. They usually do this in a crowded place as it is easier to execute, and also easier to intimidate you by claiming loudly with an accusatory tone that you have broken the item.
Rule of thumb: when caught in such a situation, ignore walk off or accuse the other guy of bumping into you and threaten to call the police to mediate, that usually solves the problem
15. Italian suit scam
This is one that also happens in Italy, and it goes like this – a scammer will happen to be lost and approach you for directions to the airport, as he is flying back to Italy. Should you help him, he will thank you, make some small chat and then offer you some suits at a low price as he has too many of these and he would like you to have it as appreciation for your help.
Rule of thumb: these suits are mere thrift store stuff and not worth the few hundreds the scammer will demand, ignore
16. “Dynamic” prices hotdog/food carts
Beware of those food carts on the street which do not post their prices. Often times, they price discriminate and charge tourists/foreigners a higher price. If you smell something amiss at the price they offer, simply walk away and the price offered will immediately drop.
Rule of thumb: buy from stalls with the price displayed or simply walk away if charged an exorbitant price
17. Hidden “resort fees” at hotels
For many hotels along the Las Vegas strip and even some in New York, they charge customers a “resort fees” in addition to the advertised room rate. This leads to a very misleading industry practice, where shady hotels charge a low advertised fee and hit you with a high “resort fee” once you are down at the hotel and it is too late to turn back.
Some of these hotels further benefit by separating this resort fee revenue from the normal revenue and not paying tax on the former.
Rule of thumb: do your research online – here’s a list of hotels which charge and also those which don’t, but as we don’t have control over that site, it’s always better to double check in case that page is not updated. If you were to asked to pay, here’re three steps to avoid paying that charge
D. GETTING HELP
1. Emergency numbers to call
All emergencies: 911
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