19 Most Common Tourist Scams in Malaysia

Safety at Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Kuantan, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Malacca, Miri, Cameron Highlands, Langkawi, Penang, Redang, Tioman
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.

 

Kuala Lumpur skyline

Kuala Lumpur skyline

 

Malaysia, along with Thailand, is one of the most popular travel destinations in Southeast Asia.

You can visit beautiful beaches, enjoy some of the best diving in the world, spend time exploring vibrant metropolis like the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, commune with nature in spots like Taman Negara National Park and explore the amazing street food scene in hubs like Penang!

However, with the influx of tourists, both tourist targeted scams and petty crime have been on the rise as well.

So read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpocket

 

How it works:

In crowded areas such as Petaling Street or Jonker Street, shopping malls (e.g. Ampang point, Sunway Pyramid), train, bus, or train stations, pickpocketing can be a big problem.

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

 

2. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is a huge problem in Malaysia.

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.

 

3. Flower sellers

Image source: randomrepublika.com

 

How it works:

This is a particular problem in Kuala Lumpur in popular nightlife areas such as Changkat Bukit Bintang.

Flower sellers are usually children who will ask you to buy their flowers at an inflated price.

They often work alone late into the night and have to give all the money they earn to a parent or guardian.

Thus by buying, you will not be helping the children directly.

Many visitors, understandably, feel sorry for the children. However, by helping, you are actually encouraging such acts.

Many of these sellers are child refugees and risk penalties if they are caught by the Malaysian authorities.

 

What to do:

It is not helpful to buy flowers from young children in Malaysia, as this will cause more harm than good since the practice is illegal.

As such refuse and walk away. If you want to help, donate to an established charity instead.

 

4. Fake monks seeking donations

Image source: star2.com

 

How it works:

This is a scam that has gone global (e.g. China, UK, Australia, etc).

In areas frequented by travellers, particularly nightlife spots in Malaysia, it can be common to see monks soliciting donations.

In reality, real monks do not ask for money in Malaysia.

They may sometimes try to convince you of their credibility by offering you a cheap amulet or small medallion in return for a donation.

It is very unlikely however that any money you contribute will actually end up at a licensed monastery.

 

What to do:

‘Monks’ soliciting alms can be quite persistent although usually not aggressively so.

So make it very clear that you do not want to make a donation and walk away.

 

5. Spiked drinks

Image source: hype.my

 

How it works:

There is a rising problem in Malaysia with drink-spiking. This can happen to both male and female patrons in some bars and clubs.

Men or women will offer to buy visitors a drink which has been spiked with a sedative.

When the tourist feels dizzy or unwell, the scammers will offer to help them back to their hotel room.

They will then take the chance to rob the visitor of their valuables while they are unconscious.

 

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 / hostel / apartment safe which you can further secure with hotel safety tools.

 

6. Fake goods

Image source: thestar.com.my

 

How it works:

Malaysia is a shopping haven and often you can get some great bargains.

However, if the price looks too good to be true then it probably is. This is because many markets and indoor arcades across the country sell fake goods.

These can take the form of branded clothes, watches, perfume, jewellery, and electronics such as mobile phones.

As you would expect for the price, they are usually very low quality and do not represent good value.

 

What to do:

If you are getting a branded item for a very cheap price, especially from an unlicensed venue like a market, then it is most likely fake.

Instead, it is best to shop at malls or go directly to a licensed retailer.

Ask your hotel / hostel staff for recommendations, or do some online research.

If you do not want to go through the hassle of researching, other options available include:

  • Using local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Shopping tour through Klook (best day tours platform in Asia): get a professional guide to bring you around.

 

7. Fake electronics street touts

 

How it works:

Around the Petronas Twin Towers and the KLCC shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, you might find yourself approached by a street tout.

The tout will offer you an expensive electronic item (e.g. iPhone, Samsung phone, etc) at a very cheap price.

He will claim that he has won it, as such he is willing to sell at a cheap price as he has no need for it.

Or he could claim that he has just bought it but unfortunately his mum has fallen sick, and so he require funds for a surgery.

Should you test the item, you will find that the quality of the product is lacking. This is because it is a cheap China made knock off.

 

What to do:

Firmly decline. If something is too good to be true, it is.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Smash and grab car robbery

 

How it works:

For those who are driving rental cars in Malaysia, do be wary.

There have been reports of robbers coming up to a victim’s car, smashing the window, grabbing your valuables and then making off with them.

Three seconds are all they need, as shown in the video above.

 

What to do:

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

Do not 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 loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

2. Non-metered taxis

Image source: klia2.info

 

How it works:

All taxis in Malaysia are supposed to be metered and haggling is prohibited.

In fact, most taxis actually have a sign on them that tell you that they must use the meter.

However, many taxi drivers will still try to haggle for a flat rate which will usually be higher than the meter price.

 

What to do:

Before you get into a taxi, make sure that you ask the driver to turn the meter on.

If they refuse or try to bargain by offering a flat rate, you can simply decline to get into the taxi.

Also, use official taxi counters at venues like airports, train stations, and malls, as you can buy a taxi coupon and pay the correct upfront fare.

 

3. Long taxi routes

 

How it works:

If the driver has agreed to use the meter they may try to add to the fare by taking you on a longer route.

Or they may deliberately drive you through crowded areas which will take longer.

 

What to do:

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

  • With your hotel / hostel staff.
  • An online taxi fare estimator.
  • Taxi booking apps like Grab.

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.

 

4. Fake tickets

Image source: lewisthelion.com

 

How it works:

This can happen for any ticket, such as a ferry or bus ticket.

It could be sold by a guesthouse owner or street tout who offers to get the ticket for you at a very cheap price.

However, once you pay and arrive at the bus or ferry terminal, you will find that the ticket is fake. In fact, the company has no record of your booking.

This means that you will have to pay again for another ticket, or travel another day if there are no more tickets left and spoil your plans.

 

What to do:

It is always better to buy a ticket for any kind of transportation at:

  • A licensed retailer.
  • Directly from the ferry or bus company.
  • Platforms of day tours like Klook (best in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and vehicle transfer with best price guarantee).

 

5. Unsolicited tours

Image source: klcityguide.my

 

How it works:

This is often a scam offered by taxi drivers, particularly outside the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

In this scenario you ask to be driven to a destination and the driver will ask if you would like a tour of the city for a nominal fee.

If you agree, he will drive you to a range of destinations that you may or may not want to go to.

These places usually have little cultural or historical interest and will usually be shops, factories, cultural villages, or restaurants where the driver gets a commission.

Often the sellers at these locations will be very pushy and will pressure you to buy something.

 

What to do:

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, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Klook: best platform of day tours in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and vehicle transfer with best price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operator: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

If you are taken to any places that you don’t want to visit, politely ask to be taken to your next destination.

Also, don’t feel pressured to buy anything there.

 

6. Hotel suggestions

Infinity pool in Malaysia

Hotel infinity pool in Malaysia

 

How it works:

This usually happens when you take some form of transportation and ask to be dropped off at a specific hotel.

The driver will tell you that it has recently closed or that it is fully booked. Or the driver could tell you that it is very dirty or crowded and that you won’t get good service.

The driver then offers to take you to a better place that he happens to know. This place will be where he gets a commission from. It will also likely be a low quality place with an inflated price.

 

What to do:

Sometimes a hotel may well have closed but the only way to be sure is to insist on going there anyway.

Another way is to tell your driver that you have a reservation and have already paid upfront.

Either, only book your hotel direct or through legitimate portals such as

  • Agoda: leader in Asia with the best selection and rates generally.
  • HomeStay: if you are up for getting genuine insights of Malaysia by staying with a local host!

 

7. Motorbike rental

Image source: motorcycle-usa.com

 

How it works:

One of the easiest ways to get around in Malaysia is to hire a motorbike or scooter. This is particularly true in areas such as islands like Langkawi, the Perhentian Islands, or Tioman Island.

If you park your bike however or leave it outside overnight then you may return to find that it has been stolen or damaged in some way.

This is often however a scam organized by the person who rented it to you.

They will then ask you to pay a large amount of money to fix the damaged motorbike, even if it wasn’t your fault.

 

What to do:

Only rent a motorbike or scooter from a reputable establishment – check online travel forums or with your hotel / hostel staff.

Also ensure that you have insurance which will cover you in the case of an accident or loss of the bike.

If you are renting the motorbike overnight then make sure to park it in a secure area. This also applies during the day time.

Further, you can consider securing your bike with a sturdy padlock that cannot be broken without special cutting tools.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Unauthorized credit card transactions

 

How it works:

One of the rising scams in Malaysia involves unauthorized credit card transactions.

Visitors will receive a fraudulent SMS to their phone informing them that there has been an unauthorised transaction.

It could be a few hundred or thousand Malaysian Ringgit from their credit card.

The scammers then provide a number to call. If you do so, they will ask for your banking details in order to use your card to take money out of your account.

 

What to do:

Should you receive this kind of message then call your bank and speak to them directly. Do not call the number provided.

 

2. ATM skimming

 

How it works:

Generally, ATMs can be rigged in two ways.

First, the card skimmer and pinhole camera / keypad overlay set up:

  • A card skimmer is installed over the card slot to capture your card details.
  • The pinhole camera / keypad overlay is used to capture your PIN.

Second, the card trap:

  • The card slot can be rigged with cheap tools to trap your card.
  • When your card is stuck, someone will come over and tell you that if you retype your PIN, your card will be unblocked.
  • Obviously, your card will still be stuck, but the scammer will now have seen your PIN.

Should you head into the bank / somewhere to seek help, the scammer will unblock your card and escape.

 

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, look out for red flags of a rigged ATM and cover your PIN when typing it in.

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.

 

3. Gambling invitations

Image source: wandermuch.com

 

How it works:

Male travellers are often targeted, usually along crowded streets and markets.

You are first approached by someone posing as a friendly local. He asks where you are from, then mentions that he has a relative heading to your country.

If you can go to his place and provide some advice to his relative, he will offer to bring you around the city.

Once you reach his place, you will find his family or friends playing a gambling game such as poker or blackjack. You will be encouraged to join in and play for money.

Often this scam starts slowly and alcohol is provided to impair your ability to pay attention. You will definitely lose as the group is in cahoots.

They will then demand that you pay up and will become aggressive if you refuse.

 

What to do:

If you are asked to go someone’s house or join any kind of gambling game, firmly refuse.

 

4. Fake police officers

 

How it works:

This has become a common scam in recent years (also common in many countries such as Morocco, Brazil, Indonesia, etc) and perpetrated by individuals who are not even from Malaysia.

This often happens in tourist areas. Scammers pretending to be tourist police will show you a fake form of identification and ask to search your bags.

They will then find some reason to accuse you of a violation and demand you pay a fine on the spot.

 

What to do:

Firmly reject any offer to go someone’s house for tea, or anywhere an overly friendly local may suggest.

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.

 

5. Fake WiFi networks

 

How it works:

Be wary of fake WiFi networks in Malaysia which have become a problem in recent years.

In some areas you may be offered the chance to join a free WiFi network but this is a haven for online hackers.

Another variation is scammers setting up a “fake” WiFi network with the name of the shop / tourist attraction it is at to mislead users.

The network will not be secure and your information will be able to be read by the scammers.

 

What to do:

If you are in a hotel, restaurant, or other venue with WiFi, make sure to ask the staff for the official WiFi connection.

Also make sure to protect and encrypt your own information.

If you are using a connection in a public place (e.g. bar or cafe), try not to input details such as credit card information.

 

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: possible but not common. Look out for bag snatching and petty crime.
  • Hazards: eastern Sabah where the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group is in the business of kidnaps for ransom.
  • Hotspots: as above.
  • Terrorism: over 150 supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group have been arrested since 2014 so safety should not be taken for granted.
  • Civil unrest: demonstrations may occasionally occur.

 

What to do:

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

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid the entire eastern portion of Sabah (from town of Kudat to Tawau district).

 

2. Medical care

Image source: Wikimedia – Chongkian

 

How it works:

Medical care is good in the larger cities in Malaysia, but may not be so elsewhere.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, malaria, chikungunya, and dengue.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, hepatitis, cholera, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis.
  • Animal borne diseases: rabies.
  • Human borne diseases: hand, foot and mouth disease, tuberculosis.

 

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, Japanese Encephalitis (if visiting rural farming areas), malaria, rabies (if outdoor activities in remote areas).

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.

Activities:

  • Avoid swimming in freshwater sources (lakes, rivers, ponds).

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes: may occur (e.g. Sabah in 2018, Mount Kinabalu in 2016).
  • Rainy season: October to February, seasonal storms may cause flash flooding or landslides.
  • Haze: June to October, due to forest clearing fires in Indonesia.

 

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:

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture; expect aftershocks.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Road conditions are generally good in peninsula Malaysia, but not so in East Malaysia.

Some hazards to look out for include:

  • Aggressive motorcyclists who weave in and out of congested traffic
  • Narrow and winding street roads
  • Flooding during rainy season causing roads in low lying areas to be inaccessible

Other transport concerns:

  • There have been a number of fatal overnight bus crashes.

 

What to do:

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

Driving:

  • Use a legitimate booking site (e.g. AutoEurope – over 60 years of operations, super reliable with best price guarantee).
  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

Other transportation:

  • Choose reputable operators for overnight buses.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Image source: kinibiz.com

 

  • Emergency (which includes police and ambulance services): 999 / 112
  • Fire and rescue department: 994 / 112
  • Tourist police hotline: 03 2149 6590
  • Tourist information: 03 2164 3929

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7 Comments

  1. Adrian Van Drunen

    Received scratchies in the post from Malaysia (Sure Love Tourism) saying I have won second prize of US$190000. I am in Australia and All looks very legitimate however seems too good to be true.
    Do you have any reports that indicates this may be a scam?
    Thanks in advance Adrian

    Reply
    • Yus

      This is definitely a scam.. believe me..

      Reply
  2. Yus

    I am Malaysian.. please please please stay away from taxis.. grab and uber services are more trustworthy..

    Reply
  3. David Field

    Received scratch cards from Sweetest Gift Holiday, one of which showed second prize of US $ 190,000. I was sure that this was a scam and did not respond.

    Reply
  4. Stephanie Lee

    These are some very helpful tips for tourists, thank you so much for sharing! It’s sad that people love to take advantage of tourists, becoming the victim of a travel scam can really ruin your vacation…

    Reply
  5. John Pugh

    Received a nice brochure with two scratchies and US$200K to look forward to from Malaysia. Web address doesn’t seem to exist at ampanghilltravelling dot com – smells fishy. Is this as it seems?
    John – Australia

    Reply
  6. Simon

    Wonderecotourism…received 2 scratchies as above won $200k US..Know it’s a scam…..just putting it out there.. Nov 2018

    Reply

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