26 Most Common Tourist Scams in South Africa

Safety at Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Soweto, Stellenbosch, Knysna, Sandton, Hermanus, Bloemfontein, East London, Plettenberg Bay, Franschhoek, Somerset West, Centurion, Nelspruit, George, Randburg, Camps Bay, Mossel Bay, Umhlanga Rocks, Hoedspruit, Hout Bay, Ballito, Midrand, Oudtshoorn, Pietermaritzburg, Kempton Park, Bloubergstrand, Paarl

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South Africa has some of the most stunning landscapes on earth and is the perfect destination for the adventure of a lifetime.

The wild natural beauty, legendary safaris, colorful cultural fabric, tumultuous history and vibrant nightlife are all bound to excite!

However, South Africa does have a high crime rate, with violent crime particularly prevalent around the townships.

Thus, it pays to be really vigilant when in South Africa. Read on to learn how you can protect yourself!

Contents

 

A. TOURIST ATTRACTIONS / ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpockets and robberies

Pickpocketing is rife in South Africa particularly at touristy areas such as parks, shopping malls, on major transportation routes and out on the streets.

It gets worse in townships such as Hillbrow and Berea in Johannesburg where crime rates are high.

You may be approached by small children or elderly beggars who will ask you for money. They are known as ‘strollers’ in South Africa.

While you are distracted talking to them, an accomplice will pick your pockets.

For robberies, it can happen anywhere, though there is a higher probability around secluded places or at night.

One common set-up is that of a robber tailing you to an ATM, a money changer, or your accommodation and then robbing you at knife-point.

Rule of thumb:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done in a crowded environment.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

This is because once you are targeted, you will almost definitely lose your valuables in a split second.

If you are approached on the streets, make sure that you secure your valuables / don’t leave them in your back pocket. Firmly reject if asked for money.

Also, it is helpful to use a money belt or hidden pouch and a sturdy anti-theft bag that is slash resistant with a locking system instead of keeping money in your back pocket. Carry your bag in front.

For robberies, it is wiser to prevent one than to fight back.

Avoid carrying valuables out – keep them locked securely in your hotel’s safe, or hidden in your money belt / hidden pouch. Do not dress like a tourist and do not flaunt your wealth.

Also, avoid moving around at night, which is when crime rates spike. If you do, try to do so in groups.

Finally, consider getting a cheap spare wallet to give up if threatened.

 

2. Fake tour guides theft

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This is a common scam especially in developing countries (e.g. Egpyt, Indonesia, etc).

You may find touts offering to give you a tour of the trails around Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Some of them however are fake and work with thieves. Should you engage their services, they will rob you on the trails around Table Mountain.

Besides table Mountain, there have been reports of assault at the Drakensberg Mountains in the Royal National Park, KwaZulu-Natal Province as well.

Rule of thumb:

Engage a guide through a reputable tour company if you would like one.

Else, if you decide to walk on the trails around Table Mountain without a guide, try to do so only as part of a group.

Also, avoid walking around at night or at dawn.

Finally, it is a good idea to consider investing in a money belt for sports / hiking to hide your valuables securely.

 

3. Beach thefts

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Beach thefts are common in Durban and take place when you leave your items on the beach to go swimming.

There is also the risk of being robbed on beaches in South Africa after dark.

Rule of thumb:

Do not leave any valuables unattended on the beach in South Africa.

Also try not to walk alone on beaches at night and if possible, travel in a group.

An alternative is to use an anti-theft bag such as the LOCTOTE Flak Sack. The bag acts like a portable safe and can be locked and attached to immovable objects.

Another alternative is to consider using TSA locks or a padlock to secure your bag to an immovable object.

 

4. Drink spiking

Drink and food spiking is a common scam in South Africa and can be very dangerous.

Scammers will give you food or drinks which have been drugged and will make you lose consciousness.

Once you are unaware of your surroundings, the scammers will offer to take you back to your hotel but will use the opportunity to steal from you.

Rule of thumb:

Do not accept drinks or food from someone that you don’t know.

If you are in a nightclub or bar, make sure you see all the drinks being prepared in front of you.

An alternative is to go for bottled drinks, which are more difficult to spike.

 

5. Currency switcheroo

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This is another very common scam globally (e.g. Chile, Greece etc). This scam happens in bars, restaurants and shops.

When you pay for an item, the cashier may drop any cash received and then switch the notes as they pick the money up.

They will then claim that you have underpaid and will ask you to top up the remainder.

Rule of thumb:

Count the money out as you hand it over to make it clear you know how much money you are handing over.

Also, do get familiar with the South Africa currency – the Rand.

 

6. Tourist prices

In many places in Cape Town you will come across inflated prices for tourists.

This can happen at tourist attractions or in restaurants or shops.

Sellers will often inflate the prices to either double or triple the normal price for locals.

Rule of thumb:

If you are shopping in a market then it is considered normal practice to bargain.

Also try to get a sense of the general prices of goods in South Africa. If unsure, you can do some research online or simply check with your hotel / hostel.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Pull over scam

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The pull over scam happens across South Africa and is prevalent in areas of Cape Town. For instance, such scams have been reported at places such as Greenpoint, Salt River, Seapoint, Mowbray, and Observatory.

As part of this scam you will be pulled over by scammers in another car. There are various excuses that they may use.

For instance, they pretend that they are police officers or that there is a problem with your car. They may also pretend that you have somehow damaged their car or they may appear to be in need of assistance themselves.

Once you stop, they will take the opportunity to rob you.

Rule of thumb:

Do not stop if you see someone in another car trying to pull you over, particularly at night.

Instead drive to the nearest safe place and alert the police if you find them continuing to come after you.

 

2. Fake airport taxi drivers

This is one problem many developing countries face (e.g. Argentina, Mexico etc).

You will find fake taxi drivers around all the major airports in South Africa.

When you arrive at an airport, you may be greeted by a smartly dressed local who offers to drive you into town for a cheap price and will take your bags for you.

What really happens is that instead of taking you to your destination, they will drive you to a remote location and rob you.

Rule of thumb:

If you are approached by a local offering you a cheap fare, you should be very hesitant.

Stick to the official taxis in airports that can be booked via a taxi counter.

 

3. Luggage theft at airport

The main airports in (e.g. Cape Town International Airport) and Johannesburg (e.g. OR Tambo International Airport) are known for luggage thefts, same as in the Philippines.

Once you check your bags in, or wait to collect them when you arrive, baggage handlers will go through the contents and remove any valuable items inside.

Rule of thumb:

If you are flying either into or out of South Africa, it is best to use a luggage plastic wrapping service.

Also, do not leave valuables in your check-in luggage. Keep them concealed securely with you, either in an anti-theft bag or a RFID blocking money belt / hidden pouch.

To deter thieves from meddling with your check in luggage, consider using an additional TSA lock, luggage strap, or a cable tie.

Note that even with these, your check in luggage can be broken into. The point is to deter thieves, as they rather target other luggage without these extra layers of protection.

 

4. Bogus airport employees or helpers

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This scam often takes place in the same aforementioned airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

As you are walking through the airport an “official looking” helper will appear. He will offer to carry your bags or show you where to go if you are lost. Some will even ask and grab your bags at the same time.

Once they have helped you, they will expect a tip.

Rule of thumb:

If someone approaches you in the airport and offers unsolicited help, this is probably the beginning of a scam.

Politely refuse any help and walk away.

 

5. Carjacking

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Carjacking is a common problem across the northern parts of South Africa (e.g. Johannesburg, Pretoria) and especially in rural areas at night.

Sometimes scammers will set up fake checkpoints to stop drivers, or they will pretend to have a problem such as a flat tire.

Another twist on this scam is to place debris in the middle of the road. When you get out to move the debris, the scammers will rob you, often at gun point.

Rule of thumb:

Take care when driving in rural areas. If you see an obstruction in the middle of the road, such as tires, drive around them and do not stop.

Also do not stop if people try to flag you down. If you find anyone tailing you, drive immediately to a safe place where you can alert the authorities.

It is also important to lock your car doors and to keep the windows closed especially when driving at night.

When you see a red traffic light upfront at night, slow down but avoid coming to a complete stop as you may get ambushed.

 

6. Car crash scam

This is one scam that has become increasingly prevalent, with most cases reported at Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Although locals are the ones targeted, tourists can get caught as well.

The point of this scam is for the scammer to get into a car accident, and claim for damages from the victim’s insurance company that are much higher than it actually is.

If you are a tourist without insurance coverage, they will demand cash from you.

Note that there are scenarios where there has been no crash. However, the scammer might have been using an already damaged car and will accuse you of damaging it.

Rule of thumb:

Be aware of the common set ups below and always maintain a safe distance from other cars.

The first is the swoop and squat / forced rear ending.

There will be a car moving slowly in front of you (car A), causing you to slow down as well. At this point, a car behind you (car B) will now overtake both you and car A.

Once he does so, car B will cut into car A’s lane and brake quickly in front of car A. Car A will have to do an emergency stop, hoping that you crash into him.

The second is the false merge.

As you try to merge onto the main road, a scammer on the other side will give you a friendly wave to merge first.

Should you do so, the scammer will accelerate, causing you to crash into him.

 

7. Smash and grab / car thefts

You may see smash and grab robberies at traffic lights / roads with slow moving traffic, particularly in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria.

As you pull up to a traffic light, a thief will either run or drive up to you and smash your windows. Any valuables in sight will then be grabbed.

Another scenario is where a thief will act as a beggar, and go around different cars to beg like in the video above. What he is actually trying to do is to spot any valuables in the cars. Once he does, he will do a smash and grab.

Besides smash and grab robberies, there are thieves who wait for you to get out of your car. They then use a blocking device. i.e. If you were to lock your car by remote, that signal will be lost and your car will not be locked without you realizing.

Others will roam carparks at night, looking for exposed valuables to steal.

Rule of thumb:

Do not have any valuables in sight when driving. Also, make sure to put anything that makes you look like a tourist (e.g. maps) away.

Do lock all doors and close all windows of your car.

After locking your car, always double check that it has been locked by pulling on the car’s handles.

Ideally, leave your car in secure parking. Also, at most supermarkets parking lots, there are people (sometimes wearing orange vests) who will help look after your car.

Engage their services and tip them (5-10 Rand) when you are done with your grocery shopping.

 

8. Train thefts and assaults

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This usually happens when thieves either wait for you to fall asleep and then steal your bags from the overhead bins.

Or they could simply cause a distraction. An example would be a scammer pretending to drop a drink on you when walking down the aisle.

Once you are distracted, an accomplice will steal from you.

Be wary especially on the route between Johannesburg and Pretoria, as well as when on the commuter trains in Cape Town.

Rule of thumb:

On trains, place your luggage next to you rather than in the overhead compartments.

Also make sure to stay vigilant. If you notice a disturbance in the aisle then immediately secure your valuables.

Ideally, use a money belt or hidden pouch to conceal your valuables securely. You can also use an anti-theft bag that is slash resistant and lockable to an immovable object.

If your bag does not have a locking system, you can get a TSA lock or padlock to secure it to an immovable object

When travelling to Cape Town, it is recommended to travel in a first class cabin in the day and in a group.

 

9. Non-metered taxi / meter is not working

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Official taxis in South Africa have meters, although drivers may try to convince you otherwise.

They may claim that the meter isn’t working, or that it will be cheaper for you to pay a flat rate fare.

This will almost always be more then the metered price would be.

Rule of thumb:

Always insist on using the meter right at the start. If the driver refuses to use the meter then it is best to simply look for another taxi.

Alternatively, find out the approximate cost of routes you are looking to take.

Some online research, an online taxi fare estimator, or simply checking with your hotel / hostel staff will do the trick.

 

10. Long taxi routes

Taxi drivers in South Africa often prefer to ask you for a flat rate fare in order to earn more money.

If they do agree to use the meter, they may drive you all over town in order to add to the fare.

Rule of thumb:

If possible carry an offline GPS system with you that will allow you to monitor the taxi route.

Let the driver know that you are doing this.

That way they will know that you will be aware if they are deliberately taking you on an unnecessarily long route to your destination.

Knowing how much a fare should roughly cost will help as well.

 

11. Car window washer

At a junction / car park, you may encounter a stranger who springs out of nowhere and starts wiping your car’s windscreen.

Once they have wiped the windscreen a few times, payment will be demanded.

Rule of thumb:

Firmly reject right at the start.

If you allow them to continue washing, they will hound you aggressively if you do not pay.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. ATM scam

ATM fraud is a rising problem in South Africa and comes in many different forms.

The first variation is also known as the “card-card” or card swapping scam.

The first scammer will pretend to use the ATM. What he is doing however, is to use the ATM mirrors to scan for victims.

Once a victim is marked, he activates the cardless services option to lock up the card reader. This prevents the next user (the victim) from inserting his card.

Now that the card slot is blocked, the victim will have problems inserting the card. The second scammer now comes along and pretends to assist. What this scammer actually does, is to swap the card and press cancel.

The fake card can now be inserted into the ATM. Scammer #2 now leaves, and scammer #1 returns to “shoulder surf”, i.e. to see the PIN the victim types in.

Scammer #1 will have many opportunities to see, as the victim will type his PIN repeatedly, as the ATM rejects the PIN as it does not match the swapped card.

Another variation is where they rig the ATM to jam your card in the machine. They can do this by attaching a device that uses tape, wire or thread to trap your card.

Then, when you first enter your PIN, a scammer will be nearby to monitor and memorize your PIN. Once you are done with your transaction, you will find your card jammed in the machine.

Should you head into the bank to seek assistance, the scammer will now “un-jam” the machine and run away with your card.

A third variation is where thieves install a card skimmer or ATM mounted card skimmer to capture your card’s details.

They also install a camera or use thermal imaging attachment on their smartphone to capture your PIN. This is because when you type your pin, you leave behind a thermal signature.

A fourth variation is where a scammer acts as a fellow ATM user / bank client.

This person’s role is to spot anyone who withdraws or is carrying a large amount of cash.

Once he spots a victim, he will communicate this to his accomplices, who will shadow the victim and strike at the right time.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid using ATMs on the streets, especially if you spot any suspicious characters loitering around. Instead try to use ATM machines in controlled environments such as banks during the day.

However, you still have to remain alert. Do not allow anyone to help. If anyone does help and you face problems with your card, cancel it immediately.

Also, before using an ATM, examine it to check if any of these red flags exist.

Finally, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet.

That will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

2. Fake police

Like in other countries (e.g. Italy, Malaysia, etc) South Africa has a problem with fake police impersonating real police officers.

You may be stopped in the street and asked for your visa and passport. Should you show them, they will retained by the fake police officers.

They will then accuse you of a minor violation and ask you to pay a fine. As they have your passport, it can be difficult to refuse.

Rule of thumb:

If you are approached by someone purporting to be a police officer, first demand to verify their identification (both police and personal identification) and threaten to call the police hotline (at the end of this article)

Also, do not give them your passport. Instead, carry a photocopy of your passport to hand over if asked to produce this on the street.

You should also not pay a fine on the streets, either to a fake or a real police officer. If they still insist on you paying a fine, ask to go to the nearest police station.

It is illegal even for real police to collect a fine on the streets. They have to bring you to a police station or magistrate’s court and issue you a receipt.

However, do not take their lead as they may bring you to a secluded spot. Instead, check Google Maps or with a local who happens to pass by.

In such cases, it is also useful to have a cheap spare wallet with little cash inside for daily transactions, while the rest of your valuables are hidden securely in your money belt or hidden pouch.

This way, the scammers might simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash on you.

Even if not, you can simply give up that wallet or the cash in it with minimal loss to yourself and save a ton of trouble.

 

3. Corrupt police

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You may also encounter corrupt police who accused of you some infraction for a bribe.

One such hotspot where these scammers operate is near Kruger on the Panorama route.

Tons of tourists pass by this route as it allows access to the Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes.

Rule of thumb:

Advice as per above (same as for fake police).

 

4. Fake tourist police

This is a twist on the above scam and involves being approached by people pretending to be tourist police.

Rule of thumb:

Tourist police do not exist in South Africa.

As soon as anyone identifies themselves as a ‘tourist police’ officer, you know this is a scam.

 

5. A destitute motorcyclist / sob story scam

As you are walking on the streets, you may be approached by a local holding a bike helmet looking very upset.

They will tell you that their bike has run out of gas and they don’t have any money to refill it.

If you ask to see the bike, they will claim to have left it far away when it ran out of gas. They will come across as very distressed in order to elicit sympathy from you.

In reality however, there is no bike.

Another variation is simply that of an injured beggar. Some may simply be begging for a living, while others may have an accomplice ready to strike when you are distracted.

Rule of thumb:

If you are approached in such a situation then be mindful that it is probably a scam. Firmly reject and walk off.

 

6. Snatch theft

Snatch theft is a big problem in South Africa.

There are endless variations. One such is thieves on motorbikes driving up to you and snatching your valuables from you.

This can be dangerous as you can also get dragged along the road at the same time.

Another variation is that of a simple snatch of your phone or bag from behind you or from your table, and then running into a getaway car to escape.

Restaurants seem to be a favourite place for these thieves, as victims are usually in a relaxed state.

A third variation could be a thief snatching your valuables through a car / bus window, like in the video above. It will be difficult to catch him, as your car / bus would not be able to reverse into oncoming traffic.

A fourth spot for thieves are at hotels. This is because you will be carrying all your valuables out and are usually distracted while handling the registration process.

A fifth variation is at the nightclubs and areas around, where tourists either do not keep their valuables in their line of sight are too drunk to be aware of their surroundings

Rule of thumb:

Take care when walking around South Africa, particularly in isolated areas at night or in townships which have a high crime rate.

Do not lay your valuables out on the table or expose them unnecessarily in public. Always keep your bags in your line of sight and as close as possible (e.g. on your lap when at a restaurant).

While walking alongside the road and at traffic junctions, watch out for motorcyclists who seem to tail you, especially if they have a pillion rider (accomplice).

Ideally, carry your valuables in a bag across your body with a cross body anti-theft bag, away from the road / windows of your car / bus.

Further, consider investing in a money belt or hidden pouch to conceal your valuables securely.

We also recommend using a cheap spare wallet that you would not mind losing. It may also deter thieves from targeting you, as they think you do not have anything valuable.

Finally, do not carry items in your hands such as a mobile phone when walking by the road. Also, do not wear obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off your body.

 

7. Hotel theft

Even leaving your valuables at your hotel may not be safe, as there are cases of hotel breaks in / thefts.

Rule of thumb:

Safely secure any valuables in safekeeping facilities such as the safe in your hotel.

You can even take your hotel security up a notch by using a hotel safety lock or door jammer.

 

8. Online scams

South Africa is notorious for its online scams which may happen to you before you even arrive in the country.

A common scam is a hotel or a tour company with an online presence. If you make enquiries, they will email you offering a steep discount but ask you to send money to a foreign bank account.

When you arrive in the country you will find out that the hotel or tour company does not exist.

Rule of thumb:

Do not book a hotel or tour online other than through a trusted and reliable booking agent.

If possible do not transfer large sums of money in advance of your trip.

Also, do conduct some extensive due diligence, especially if the sums involved are large.

You could check out online reviews, or make phone calls to trusted third parties to verify the authenticity of the service provider.

For instance, you could check out the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata), which is a database of registered travel agencies and travel advisors.

You could also grill the service provider on more details of the service provided.

If it is for an accommodation, you can even use Google Street View to check if the address / photos differs from the listing.

 

9. Hotel credit card scams

This is a very common scam globally and hotels across South Africa are not spared as well.

You will get a phone call late at night from the front desk claiming a problem with your credit card.

The staff member will then ask for your full credit card number and security code to verify your payment.

They are relying on the fact that you are tired, or were probably asleep when they called, in order to trick you into giving up your credit card details.

Rule of thumb:

Never give your card details to anyone unless this is for official reasons.

Also, be especially cautious if you receive a late night phone call at your hotel.

If you receive such a call, tell the staff that you will only deal with it in person at the reception in the morning.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

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  • Police Emergency Hotline: 10111
  • Ambulance Service: 10177
  • Cell phone emergency (note: you will face an automated menu first): 112

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