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15 Most Common Tourist Scams in Iran

Safety at Tehran, Hamedan, Isfahan, Yazd, Kermanshah, Mashad, Qom, Shiraz, Tabriz
Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Isfahan

Isfahan

 

Although not a particularly popular tourist destination historically, this has begun to change as more visitors are taking the opportunity to explore Iran.

Known for its soaring mountains where you can go skiing, there are also the famous bazaars of Tehran where you can shop for rugs and souvenirs.

Out of central hubs like Tehran, you can also visit famous oasis spots in the middle of the desert such as Garmeh.

Here, many visitors find that locals are friendly and welcoming to anyone who wants to explore this fascinating part of the world firsthand.

In fact, most visits are trouble-free, although you should still remain vigilant at all times.

Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Unofficial tour guide scam

Meybod-Yazd, Ancient Watermill

Meybod-Yazd, Ancient Watermill. Source: irantourismnews.com

 

How it works:

At the Kushkno Watermill in Yazd, you may encounter a young local who claims to be a student aspiring to be a tour guide.

He will bring you to the entrance to buy a ticket, and once in, he will try to oversell his tour package with overblown promises. Don’t fall for it.

Simply get the flyer available at the entrance for it contains all you need to know. Further, what this scammer does is simply read off what is on it.

 

What to do:

If you want a tour guide, only engage a licensed, reputable tour operator which you can find via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, etc can be found here – e.g. tour with best reviews Iran Adventure.
  • GetYourGuide: one of the largest platform of day tours globally.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

2. Tourist prices

Imam Square Bazaar

Imam Square Bazaar. Source: Greg Tebble / Flickr

 

How it works:

You will come across tourist prices in places such as the tourist bazaars around Imam Square in Ishfahan.

Many vendors will charge you a much higher price than the local rate, and if you accept the first price that they offer then you will be paying over the normal asking price.

 

What to do:

Haggling in Iran is expected which is why sellers usually price their items at double or triple the final price.

To find out what is a fair price to pay, you can do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff.

If you do not wish to bargain, alternative options are to:

  • Use local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Fixed price shops: slightly higher prices than average, but you won’t be ripped off.

 

3. Overcharging restaurants

Iranian cuisine

Iranian cuisine. Source: eater.com

 

How it works:

There are many ways you can be overcharged at a restaurant:

  • Shown tourist menus with higher prices; or not being shown any menu with the excuse that there is no English menu.
  • Hidden / small footnotes in another language about extra fees and charges.
  • Deceptive pricing based on weight.
  • Underweighing food items that go by weight.
  • Bringing food and drinks to your table which you did not order.
  • Not providing an itemized bill and adding items you did not order to the bill.

 

What to do:

Avoid restaurants promoted by aggressive touts.

Do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff on recommended places locals go to eat at.

Also, always check the menu carefully (prices, fine print), do not eat what was not ordered, and check your bill carefully.

Otherwise, you can also consider joining a food tour for an authentic, local food experience!

 

4. The short changing scam

Iranian Riel

Iranian Riel. Source: sputniknews.com

 

How it works:

A visitor being short changed is not widespread in Iran but it can happen in some tourist areas in Tehran such as local bazaars.

Scammers are counting on the fact that you are not familiar with the local currency and will hand back less change that you actually require.

 

What to do:

Always make sure that you count your change properly before you leave a cafe, restaurant, or shop.

Also try to familiarize yourself with the local currency when you arrive in Iran as this will make it easier for you to quickly spot if you have been shortchanged.

 

5. Pickpocketing

Iran crowded Mosque

Iran crowded Mosque

 

How it works:

Pick pocketing is a growing problem in Iran particularly in crowded areas frequented by tourists.

These include local bazaars and buses, and thieves will take the opportunity to get close to you and then steal your valuables from you.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelry / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they surround you and then work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

 

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. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry 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 safe, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables, etc.

 

6. Can I help you scam

Nagshe Jahan Square

Nagshe Jahan Square. Source: engl englhofer / Flickr

 

How it works:

Like in Morocco and Turkey, you may encounter this at the Naqshe Jahan Square which is also known as the Isfahan Royal Square.

There is an old man who will come up to you and ask if you need directions.

Should you ask about a place, even if it is just a few steps away, a large tip (e.g. a few hundred thousand Iranian Rials) will be asked for.

 

What to do:

In a foreign land, it is safer to solicit help than to receive unsolicited help sometimes.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Unlicensed taxis

Isfahan road, Iran

Isfahan road, Iran. Source: Navid / Flickr

 

How it works:

A big problem in Iran is the widespread fleets of unlicensed taxis that operate in tourist areas around Isfahan.

These are normal vehicles that masquerade as taxis and offer you a cheap fare.

When you get in the taxi, the driver may take you to a remote area and then rob you of your valuables.

This has also been a problem for visitors using motorbike taxis.

 

What to do:

Do not get into an unlicensed taxi, even if the driver is offering you a very low fare.

Take official taxis instead which are yellow and clearly marked.

It is best not to use motorbike taxis which are not clearly regulated.

 

2. Non-metered taxi scam

Iran Taxi

Taxi in Iran. Source: jamtraveltour.com

 

How it works:

Many taxis in Iran do not use meters although a rising number are switching to the meter system.

If you get into a taxi, even if they do have a meter, they will often not want to use it and will offer you a flat fare.

This will often be more expensive than if the driver had used the meter.

 

What to do:

If you want to use a taxi with a meter then only use an official taxi and speak with the driver before you get in.

Make sure that they will agree to using the meter in advance rather than waiting until the end of your journey.

However, sometimes not using the meter is inevitable, especially for remote routes where taxis are the only way of transport.

You can estimate the fair price of any route by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Snapp.

Take a photo of the car plate and also of the driver’s license in case anything goes wrong.

If all these seem like too much effort, you can consider arranging private transport through your hotel / hostel or through day tour platforms like GetYourGuide – e.g. Tehran airport transfer.

 

3. Long distance taxi drivers

Chalus Road

Chalus Road. Source: Ninara / Flickr

 

How it works:

Taxi drivers in Iran are often reluctant to use a meter and if they do they will look for a way to increase the fare.

This usually involves driving you all over town so that the meter keeps ticking over and you end up paying far more for your journey than you need to.

 

What to do:

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.

To tell if you have been taken for a ride, you can also estimate a fair price of any route by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Snapp.

If you want to seek recourse, take a photo of the car plate number and of the driver’s license to report to the cab company.

 

4. Theft on public transport

Iran Bus

Iran Bus. Source: KK70088 / Flickr

 

How it works:

Theft on public transport can happen, particularly on buses that are traveling in rural areas of Iran.

This is most likely to occur on long-haul trips when there is a high chance that passengers will go to sleep.

Thieves will then take the opportunity to steal your possessions when you are unaware of your surroundings.

 

What to do:

To make it impossible for thieves to steal your bags, here are some steps you can take:

  • Keep your bag on your lap / beside you instead of in the overhead compartment.
  • Should you wish to take a nap, make sure to use a TSA lock / cable lock / cable ties to lock your bag and to lock the bag to yourself / your seat.
  • Or simply get a lockable anti-theft bag that comes with a mechanism to lock to yourself / your seat.
  • Hide small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch.
  • Finally, get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) to cover loss of bags / valuables within.

 

5. Carjacking

Tehran Traffic in Azadi Tower

Tehran Traffic in Azadi Tower. Source: Franx’ / Flickr

 

How it works:

Carjacking is not common in Iran but it can happen in the south-east of the country in provinces such as Sistan and Baluchistan and in cities like Zabol, Zahedan and Mirjaveh.

Carjacking often happens when scammers flag down your car and pretend that they have an emergency.

They will then take the opportunity to rob you of your valuables.

 

What to do:

If you are driving in rural areas in Iran then do not stop even if you see someone who looks like they may need assistance.

Should you want to help, drive to a safe area and contact someone in authority such as the police and report the incident.

Also, always make sure not to leave any valuables exposed in the car:

Finally, get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft

Fisherabad, Tehran

Fisherabad, Tehran. Source: Michael Chow / Flickr

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is a growing issue particularly in places such as Javadieh, Shush, Robatkarim and Ambarnaft in Tehran.

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:

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:

  • Leave valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables.

 

2. Fake police

Tehran, Iran

Tehran, Iran

 

How it works:

Civilians impersonating police officers are a rising problem in Iran in places like Isfahan and Tehran.

In this situation fake police officers may stop you on the street and then ask to see your identity papers.

Usually they will say that they need to search you for drugs and will then accuse you of a minor crime which they will say can be settled with an on-the-spot fine.

 

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. Street money changer

 

How it works:

There are dealers on the streets who are willing to change money with you at a better rate as compared to official, licensed money changers.

However, what you get back may be counterfeit money.

 

What to do:

Stick to the official and licensed money changers such as at the bank kiosks in the airport, exchange offices or in hotels.

An alternative which you may want to consider to make your life in Iran easier, is to use a travel debit card, such as the Mah Card.

This is due to a couple of reasons:

  • As Iran is cut off from the international banking system, your international cards are not going to work here.
  • So, by getting a travel debit card, it will allow you to not have to carry large amounts of cash around and keep having to search for exchange offices to exchange them.
  • Even if your Mah Card is stolen, if you can block it early enough, a replacement card with any remaining credits in there will be reissued – this is a great help against thieves / pickpockets.
  • Note that there are also tourist cards from banks (e.g. Bank Melli), but they tend to offer poorer exchange rates.

 

4. Fraudulent online visa application agents

 

How it works:

For now, US, British and Canadian travelers wishing to travel to Iran have to engage an Iranian travel agency to arrange their trip.

However, there are online agents who claim to be able to either help you get a visa faster, or increase the chances of getting your visa approved.

What happens at the end of the day is, they will disappear with your money and you will not hear from them again.

 

What to do:

For US, British and Canadian travelers, you can find a trusted agency via online travel forums.

For other nationalities, there is no need to use an agent as you can apply for a visa easily via the Iranian embassy in your home country or on arrival in Iran.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be 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 and terrorism

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Iran

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Iran. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: low outside of hotspots. Watch out more for petty crime instead.
  • Hazards: n.a.
  • Hotspots: criminal groups in Southeastern region (drug traffickers from Afghanistan and Pakistan), ethnic conflicts in Sistan-Baluchistan and in borders with Iraq.
  • Terrorism: threat exists.
  • Civil unrest: large scale demonstrations sometimes occur.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, hotspots, travelling alone at night, and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Also stay alert during periods of religious significance such as during Ramadan.

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Avoid these areas:

  • 100km of Afghanistan border
  • 10km of Iraq border
  • Province of Sistan-Baluchistan
  • East of Bam and Jask, including Bam

 

2. Medical care

Milad Hospital

Milad Hospital. Source: khanehsazi.ir

 

How it works:

Medical standards are reasonable in major cities and basic in rural areas.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: dengue, chikungunya, malaria (outside major towns in south and west), Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, leishmaniasis, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis.
  • Animal borne disease: avian influenza, rabies.
  • Human borne disease: HIV.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), 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, polio, malaria (if spending a lot of time outdoors), rabies (if traveling outdoors or working with animals), yellow fever (if coming from somewhere with this).

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:

  • Earthquakes: in an active seismic zone.
  • Sandstorms: occur regularly.
  • High temperatures (above 50˚C): July to August.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports, weather forecasts and sources such as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System.

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.
  • Sand / dust storm:
    • On foot: wear a mask (or use shirt sleeve), cover eyes, seek shelter (building / landform / camel), high ground (if no lightning), don’t move through the storm.
    • In vehicle: if no visibility, pull off road, turn headlines, brake lights and turn signals off. If can’t pull off, keep lights on, move slowly and sound horn periodically.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Although road conditions are good and the highway is well developed, there is a very high rate of traffic accidents and fatalities, due to these factors:

  • Not adhering to traffic rules (e.g. traffic lights, signs, lane markings).
  • Aggressive driving, not yielding to pedestrians.
  • Poorly lit roads.
  • Driving without lights.

As for public transportation:

  • Rail is comfortable and punctual but limited and slow.
  • Other forms of public transport are limited.

 

What to do:

Make sure your travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) covers travel accidents.

Driving:

  • Arrange a rental car / private driver through your hotel.
  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

Public transportation:

  • Only use licensed taxis.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Police in Iran

Police in Iran. Source: sputniknews.com

 

  • Police emergency hotline: 110
  • Ambulance service: 125
  • Fire brigade: 115
  • Accident: 197

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