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

 

Image source: micato.com

 

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!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpockets and robberies

 

How it works:

Both pickpocketing and robberies are 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 also known as ‘strollers’.
  • 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.

 

What to do:

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

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

Make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get travel insurance so even if all else fails, you are still protected.

For robberies, it is wiser to prevent one than to fight back. If threatened, simply give up your cheap, spare wallet.

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

 

2. Fake tour guides theft

Image source: hesperosflown.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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 and avoid walking around at night or at dawn.

Finally, get travel insurance (monetary compensation for losses + medical coverage if any mishaps) and a money belt for sports / hiking to hide your valuables securely.

 

3. Beach thefts

Image source: goodfreephotos.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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 a portable safe or an anti-theft bag such as the LOCTOTE Flak Sack which can be locked and attached to immovable objects.

Another way is to use TSA locks or a padlock to secure your bag to an immovable object.

 

4. Drink spiking

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Do not accept any drinks that you have not seen made in front of you, or to leave it unattended.

Canned or bottled drinks are recommended as it is more difficult for someone to put a sedative inside.

Also, do not flaunt your valuables. Leave them in your hotel or hostel safe /apartment which you can further secure with hotel safety tools.

 

5. Currency switcheroo

Image source: fxexchangerate.com

 

How it works:

This is another very common scam globally (e.g. Chile, Greece etc) which can 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.

 

What to do:

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

Image source: capetown.travel

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

Image source: oceanopoint.it

 

How it works:

The pull over scam happens across South Africa and is prevalent in areas of Cape Town.

Such scams have also 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:

  • They pose as police officers and claim that there is a problem with your car.
  • Or they may pretend that you have damaged their car.
  • They may also appear to be in need of assistance.

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

 

What to do:

Do not stop if you see someone in another car asking you to pull over, especially 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

 

How it works:

This is one common scam in many developing countries (e.g. Argentina, Mexico etc).

When you arrive at the 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.

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

When using a check-in luggage, there are four key steps to protecting your property:

 

4. Bogus airport employees or helpers

Image source: johannesburg-airport.com

 

How it works:

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 demand a tip.

 

What to do:

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

Image source: mirror.co.uk

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Take care when driving in rural areas. If you see an obstruction in the middle of the road (e.g tires), drive around it and do not stop.

Also do not stop if someone tries to flag you down. If anyone tails you, drive to a safe place where you can alert the authorities.

When approaching a red traffic light, slow down but avoid coming to a complete stop so as not to get ambushed.

Ensure that your car doors are locked and windows are up.

Do not leave any valuables / items indicating that you are a tourist exposed in the car:

Also, use a cheap spare wallet with some cash inside which you can give up when faced with an armed robber.

Finally, get travel insurance for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any losses.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

6. Car crash scam

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

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 be grabbed.

Another scenario is where a thief acts as a beggar, and goes around different cars to beg like in the video above.

What he is trying to do is to spot any valuables in the cars. Once he does, he will do a smash and grab.

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

 

What to do:

Ensure that your car doors are locked and windows are up.

Do not leave any valuables / items indicating that you are a tourist exposed in the car:

Finally, get travel insurance for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any losses.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

When parking:

  • Leave your car in secure parking.
  • Or tip wardens to look after your car (e.g. at most supermarkets parking lots).

 

8. Train thefts and assaults

Image source: Wikimedia – Dewet

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

Image source: Wikimedia user Ebrahimabader

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

You can estimate a fair price of any route by checking with your hotel / hostel staff, using an online taxi fare estimator or with a taxi booking app.

In the cab, be very clear when communicating the destination you are heading to. More prominent landmarks around your destination can be mentioned.

During the ride, check your phone’s GPS to make sure you are headed in the correct direction.

Sometimes, drivers do take detours to avoid traffic jams, but that should not detract from the correct general direction.

 

11. Car window washer

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

ATM fraud is a common problem in South Africa and comes in many different variations.

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

  • Scammer #1 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, scammer #1 activates the cardless services option to lock up the card reader. This prevents the next user (the victim) from inserting his card.
  • The victim will now have problems inserting the card. Scammer #2 comes along to pretend to assist. What he actually does, is to swap the real card with a fake and to press cancel.
  • The fake card can now be inserted. Scammer #2 then leaves, and scammer #1 returns to “shoulder surf”, i.e. to see the PIN the victim types in.
  • Scammer #1 will have many opportunities, as the victim will be typing his PIN repeatedly in futile, as the PIN will not match the swapped card.

Another variation is where they rig the ATM to jam your card in the machine.

  • They do this by attaching a device that uses tape, wire or thread to trap your card.
  • When you first enter your PIN, a scammer will be nearby to see your PIN.
  • Once you are done with your transaction, you will find your card jammed.
  • Should you head into the bank to seek assistance, the scammer will “un-jam” the slot and escape 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.

 

What to do:

Avoid using ATMs at dark, secluded areas. Use only at controlled environments such as in banks.

Scan the area for suspicious looking characters and cover your PIN when typing it in.

Check the ATM for these red flags:

Also, 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

 

How it works:

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

You may be stopped on the streets and asked for your visa and passport. Should you show them, they will retained by the scammers.

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.

 

What to do:

If you have not obviously broken the law, be very skeptical when a “police officer” approaches you.

Three steps you can use to shake them off:

  • Verify badges and identification. Threaten to call the police hotline (end of this article).
  • Never give your passport if asked. Show only a photocopy of it.
  • If they want to fine you or check your bags, insist to only do so at a police station (use your GPS to find it or check with a local) with a lawyer or someone from your embassy.

Next, you should have hidden your valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

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

 

3. Corrupt police

Image source: thisisafrica.me

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

If you drive, follow all laws and make sure to bring your driving license along.

Hide your cash and valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This will allow you to negotiate the bribe down when you show that you have not much cash on you.

 

4. Fake tourist police

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

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 steal from youwhen you are distracted.

 

What to do:

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

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is a big problem in South Africa.

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

 

What to do:

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

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

 

7. Online scams

 

How it works:

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 that the hotel or tour company does not exist.

 

What to do:

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. Check 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.

 

8. Hotel theft

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

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 hotel safety tools.

 

9. Hotel credit card scams

 

How it works:

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 a scammer claiming to be calling from the front desk claiming a problem with your credit card.

He 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.

 

What to do:

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. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

                                                     

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Image source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: high levels of crime, especially after dark, though violent crime generally isolated to townships / remote areas.
  • Hazards: n.a.
  • Hotspots: threat of kidnappings along borders with Algeria and Mauritania.
  • Terrorism: return of South Africans who fought for Daesh / extremist groups may be a threat. In 2018, incendiary devices were found around Durban.
  • Civil unrest: protest marches and strike demonstrations do occur regularly.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, travelling alone at night, hiking alone, and don’t look like an easy victim.

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid the danger zones and demonstrations.

Areas to be vigilant at include:

  • Johannesburg: Berea, Hillbrow, Yeoville districts, Rotunda bus terminus.
  • Pretoria: Sunnyside.
  • Durban: city centre, beach front, Victoria Wharf.
  • Cape Town: path from downtown hotels to waterfront.
  • At night: Northern KwaZulu Natal, Zululand.
  • Attractions: Kruger Park, Table Mountain, Drakensberg Mountains, beaches.

 

2. Medical care

Image source: Katherine Muick-Mere

 

How it works:

Medical standards are good in the urban areas and around game parks, but limited elsewhere.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: malaria, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, chikungunya, malaria, Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, listeriosis, schistosomiasis, cholera, hepatitis, measles.
  • Animal borne disease: rabies.
  • Human borne disease: HIV, tuberculosis.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis B, malaria, rabies (outdoor activities, or working around animals).

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Rainy season: different times for different parts, can cause flash floods / landslides:
    • November to April: Gauteng and North West provinces.
    • June to September: South coast, Western Cape.
  • Bush fires: December to February in the Western Cape province which can spread very quickly due to strong winds.

 

What to do:

Check the latest media reports and weather forecast.

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting adequate travel insurance protection.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Although road conditions are generally good (besides in remote areas), the rate of fatal accidents is still high relative to Western countries.

Reasons include:

  • Poor adherence to traffic laws
  • Limited enforcement of traffic laws
  • Traffic lights out of order, insufficient lighting
  • Distracted driving, aggressive driving or driving under influence of alcohol

As for public transportation, both buses and trains report high numbers of crime, and past accident records indicate safety concerns with trains.

 

What to do:

Stay alert while driving, always wear seatbelts and keep doors locked and windows up.

Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance in case anything goes wrong.

Avoid taking public transport. Instead, ask your hotel or restaurant to arrange a taxi for you.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Image source: wionews.com

 

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

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