21 Most Common Tourist Scams in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka

Source image: grandsltours.com

 

Sri Lanka is known for its gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and its accessible location, and is a great place to visit in South Asia for anyone looking for a relaxing vacation spot.

This country also has a reputation for being one of the friendliest places in South Asia and you can travel to cool hill stations as well as explore gorgeous golden beaches here.

Some other highlights include the pretty tea plantations in Ella and delightful coastal villages such as Mirissa.

Despite being generally safe, Sri Lanka has a high petty crime rate, although this rarely extends to foreigners and violent crime against tourists is rare.

However, there are still a number of tourist targeted scams you need to be aware of. Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Cigarette scam

Galle Face Road

Source image: panoramio.com

 

How it works:

This is a common scam that you are likely to come across around Galle Face Road.

A scammer will approach and engage you in conversation. He claims to works in some official capacity and would love to tell you stories about Sri Lanka and take you to parts of the city that visitors rarely get to see.

However, he can’t take you to his office as it is too far away. Instead, he invites you for tea at an upscale restaurant or cafe.

During the meeting, he will order a packet of cigarettes along with a drink. The implication is that the visitor will pay the bill in return for local knowledge about Sri Lanka.

However, when the bill comes, it is extremely expensive as a result of the packet of cigarettes that has been added.

The establishment is part of the scam and deliberately inflates the price of the cigarettes and drinks. The scammer earns a commission for bringing you there.

 

What to do:

If you are approached in the street by someone who claims to be an official and who wants to tell you more about Sri Lanka, reject and walk away.

 

2. Tea shipping

Sri Lanka tea plantation

Source image: thebakersjourney.com

 

How it works:

Sri Lanka is famous for its tea which also brings with it a tea scam. In this situation, the scam takes place at a tea plantation or another venue where you get to sample some delicious tea.

Once you have tried the tea, a local will tell you that they can ship the tea to your home country in large quantities.

They will offer a very low price to make it sound like a bargain and will claim you only need to pay export tax.

Once you pay the tax and give the scammer your address, the tea never arrive as promised.

 

What to do:

If you want to buy tea or any other goods in Sri Lanka, it is best to do so in person while you are in the country.

If you rely on someone to ship goods to your country after you have left, there is a good chance that you will never receive them.

 

3. Fake gemstones and certificates

 

How it works:

A common scam in Sri Lanka (also in Thailand, Myanmar, etc), especially around the southern coastal tourist belt involves fake gemstones.

A scammer will approach you and offer you the chance to buy some local gemstones at a heavily discounted price.

These however are not the real, natural gemstones. They are most likely worthless pieces of colored glass passing off as a sapphire, or heat treated semi-precious stones that is worth 1/10 of the price..

These fakes will also come with forged “authenticity certificates”, so that is not a good way to verify.

 

What to do:

If you want to buy gemstones in Sri Lanka then it is best to buy them from a reputable and licensed jewellery store (e.g. Swarna Mahal , Zam Gems, Commonwealth Gem Company, Vogue, etc),

However, most importantly, the jewelers must be willing to accompany you to the Sri Lanka Gem and Jewellery Authority (SLGJA) in Colombo or Ratnapura to verify the gems.

This is a free service provided by the government to foreigners.

Beware of any business selling gemstones at a discounted fee (usually the small shops).

Also be wary of any gemstone that looks too flawless, as all natural gemstones have at least one or some form of impurity.

 

4. Unofficial tour guides

Source image: sundayobserver.lk

 

How it works:

There are many of these touts around, who will strike you up in a conversation and then offer to bring you around.

They claim that as a local, they can help you get “local” prices be it for transport, food or what have you.

Take up their offer, and you will most likely get ripped off by the tuk tuk driver whom they work in cahoots with, by being sent to a bunch of gemstone shops and places where they get a commission from.

 

What to do:

Firmly reject such unsolicited offers.

 

5. Spice garden scam

 

How it works:

This is similar to the traditional Chinese medicine scam in China, where they bring in a phony doctor during the free tour to bring you around.

They are shrewd salesmen and understand the principle of reciprocity. So they first try to make you feel as good as possible and give you something free here and there.

It could be a free tour, free tea and / or a free massage. It is then human nature to want to return the favour.

Now that trust has been built up, the doctor will claim that you suffer from some ailments unknown to you. A lot of claims will be thrown about.

For instance, they claim to be accredited by the government, or they have been cultivating medicinal herbs for 1000s of years, etc.

To help you, they will recommend some remedies and products which are essentially crap at inflated prices.

Should you believe their spiel and buy a product, do watch out for the credit card scam. There have been reports of these scammers entering a different amount and charging a lot more without you realizing.

 

What to do:

It is best to avoid spice gardens, or simply go for the free tour but not buy anything there.

If you really want to get some spices, check out reputable shops which you can find through some online research or from your hotel instead.

 

6. Visa scam

Source image: psimonmyway.com

 

How it works:

There have been reports of extortion and inconsistent visa fees charged at Colombo International Airport when applying for a visa.

 

What to do:

Do your research of the process and fees, or simply apply online. Check out the official site for the correct fees to pay.

 

7. Safari tour scam

Sri Lanka safari

Source image: talallahouse.com

 

How it works:

Not technically a scam, but more a tourist trap.

Do not book safari tours through a tuk tuk driver or a taxi driver.

These drivers will demand a cut from the tour operator they send you to and so the price you pay for will be higher than market rate.

 

What to do:

Book through your hotel / accommodation or directly with the tour operator.

 

8. Pickpocketing

 

How it works:

Pickpocketing is a problem in Sri Lanka particularly in crowded areas close to tourist attractions such as markets (e.g. Pettah Market in Colombo), as well as at busy transportation hubs and on buses and trains.

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

Once they mark a target, they will surround him or her and then work like this:

  • One will keep a lookout and block passer-bys from seeing the scene
  • Another will push or distract the target (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it)
  • A third will steal your valuable / slash your bag and then passes it on
  • The last will hide the loot under a jacket / items and then escapes with it

Do watch out for child pickpockets as well.

 

What to do:

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.

To make it impossible for thieves to steal from you, we recommend:

  • 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 securely in a slim fitting money belt or hidden pouch.
  • Store larger valuables in an anti-theft bag that is slash resistant and lockable. Keep it in front of you.
  • Keep most of your valuables in your hotel / hostel safe, which can be further secured with hotel safety tools.

 

 

9. Beggar with fake disabilities

 

How it works:

Scammers often operate this scam in touristy areas and particularly target religious sites like temples.

As you walk around the temple complex you will be approached by a scammer with a donation sheet. They will explain that they are collecting money for someone who has a disability.

Next, they tell you a long story about how much the person has suffered and will often produce photographs as evidence.

They will then ask for a donation for medical treatment for the disabled person. Reference to religious reasons why you should help, such as how you will get ‘good karma’ will also be made.

This however is a scam. The scammer doesn’t even know the person in the photographs and the money will not be used to help the disabled.

 

What to do:

Decline and walk away.

If you do want to donate then only donate to a registered charity.

 

10. Teacher beggar

 

How it works:

A less in your face beggar, the teacher beggar comes across as a respectable looking local, who approaches you on the street and introduces oneself as a teacher.

He will say he is not after money, but would like to strike up a conversation to improve his English.

During the conversation, he will mention that the school he is working at is poor and in dire need for funds for books and equipment.

He will then ask if you wouldn’t mind donating just a small amount.

 

What to do:

Firmly reject.

 

11. The place is closed

Source image: tripinasia.com

 

How it works:

A common scam all over the world (e.g. India, Vietnam, Morocco, etc), this scam is usually carried out by taxi drivers or tour guides.

It starts when you ask to be taken to a tourist attraction / hotel / specific business / cafe and the driver or guide tells you that it is closed.

They then offer to take you to another place that they claim to know well, but are actually places where they get a commission from.

 

What to do:

There is no way of knowing whether the venue you wish to visit is closed unless you go there in person. So insist that your driver take you there for you to see for yourself if they are telling the truth.

Another way to make it clear that you are not interested in a different venue is to say that you have already made a booking and paid full upfront.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. “Government” tuk tuk scam

 

How it works:

You might find yourself befriended by a random stranger on the street, who mentions that there is some big ceremony happening not too far away.

After a short conversation, a tuk tuk pulls up, and your newly made friend tells you that it is an official, government tuk tuk.

They explain by pointing to a coin taped beside the number plate as proof.

Should you take up the tuk tuk’s offer to bring you to the ceremony, you will be brought to somewhere secluded and robbed. Or probably some shops along the way first where the driver gets a commission.

 

What to do:

There is no official, government tuk tuk. Firmly reject.

Further, conceal your valuables securely in a money belt or hidden pouch and carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet.

This is so if you were to get robbed, you can simply give up the cheap wallet or the little cash in it.

 

2. Rogue tuk tuks

Source image: zafigo.com

 

How it works:

Before taking a tuk tuk, first haggle the price way down, as their first offer is likely to be inflated.

Even then, the rogue ones can simply demand another price halfway through (while stopping at a secluded spot for more leverage).

Also, there are cases of rogue tuk tuk drivers who do not return your change after payment and simply drive away.

 

What to do:

Always haggle first, do not pay until the trip is complete, and keep small change which you can pay with.

Again, we recommend concealing your valuables securely in a money belt or hidden pouch and carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet.

This is so if you were to get robbed, you can simply give up the cheap wallet or the little cash in it.

 

3. Non-metered taxis

Sri Lanka taxis

Source image: blog.srilanka-villa.com

 

How it works:

This is one of the most common scams in Sri Lanka and is also widely used across Asia (e.g. Thailand, Indonesia, etc).

When you get into a taxi the driver will tell you that the meter is broken and that it will be cheaper for you to pay a flat rate.

This price will almost always be higher than if the taxi driver had used the meter.

 

What to do:

This scam is easily avoided as long as you make it clear you will only board if the meter is switched on.

If the taxi driver refuses, simply find another taxi. Or do your research to know what is a fair fixed price to pay.

 

4. Non-direct routes

 

How it works:

Many taxi drivers in Sri Lanka will look for ways to inflate the fare so that you pay more for your taxi ride.

Common ways to do this include driving you on a longer route around the city. Or they could deliberately drive through a crowded area.

 

What to do:

Work out the directions to your destination before you set out. You could also ask hotel staff how long a ride should take to the place you want to go.

If you have a mobile phone with GPS use it to program the route in advance.

During the trip, follow it to make sure that the driver is taking you in the right direction.

 

5. Fake travel tickets

Source image: newsfirst.lk

 

How it works:

This scam often takes place in transportation venues such as bus or train stations.

When you arrive at the station to buy a ticket, you will be approached by a scammer who claims to be an official who works at the bus or train station.

They will ask you where you want to go and tell you that you need to buy a ticket from them.

There are only two possible results. You either buy a fake, or pay an inflated price for the ticket.

 

What to do:

Only buy tickets from official bus or train counters.

 

6. Corrupt traffic police

 

How it works:

Many tourists in Sri Lanka rent a motorbike to get around and this is exploited by corrupted officials.

Traffic police will often flag down foreigners and make up an excuse about some traffic violation. A fine paid on the spot will then be demanded.

 

What to do:

Do not break any traffic laws, carry with you a full driving license and wear a helmet at all times.

If you are stopped by the traffic police and asked to pay a fine for a violation you did not commit, ask to be taken to the local police station to settle the matter.

Usually the traffic police will be very reluctant to do this and will let you go with a warning.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we recommend concealing your valuables securely in a money belt or hidden pouch and only carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet.

This is so if the corrupted police officer still demands a fine (a.k.a bribe), you can simply give up the cheap wallet or the little cash in it.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is a problem all over Asia (happens in Malaysia, Cambodia, etc) and you have to be really careful. 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 / jewelry from behind you, 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 bag, wallet / purse or camera slung around the chair, or left on an adjacent seat are super easy pickings for thieves. The either steal it stealthily, or do a distract and grab.
  • Hotels are another as you will be carrying all your valuables out and are usually distracted while handling the registration process.
  • The seats beside a train’s doors are a great spot as well as the thief can time his escape perfectly just before the doors close.

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

 

What to do:

Stay alert at crowded places, and even at seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

  • Do not lay your valuables out on the table or expose them unnecessarily in public.
  • Keep your bags in your line of sight and as close as possible (e.g. on your lap when at a restaurant).
  • Ideally, use a money belt or hidden pouch to conceal your valuables securely.

 

While out walking / on a vehicle on the road or streets:

  • Watch out for motorcyclists who seem to tail you, especially if they have a pillion rider (accomplice).
  • 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.
  • Do not carry items in your hands such as a mobile phone when walking by the road or when beside the window in a car / bus.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off your body.

 

 

2. ATM fraud

 

How it works:

By far the biggest problem that tourists face in Sri Lanka is ATM fraud.

ATMs can be rigged with a card skimmer to capture your card details and a camera to capture your PIN.

 

What to do:

If possible only use ATMs in controlled places such as a bank. It is best to avoid using in other areas such as those located in mini-markets which are often rigged. Also avoid using at night.

Before using, look out 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.

 

3. Credit card scam

 

How it works:

As mentioned earlier in the spice garden scam, victims of the scam have found themselves either double charged or overcharged.

It could be as much as 10x easily from just by adding a zero behind a 2 digit number.

However, this can happen anywhere, not just at the spice gardens.

 

What to do:

Use cash if possible.

If you must, never let your card go out of sight to ensure that it is not copied, as it can be copied by simply swiping through a hand held device.

Watch like a hawk how the charges are keyed in and inspect your receipt carefully.

 

4. Familiar face scam

 

How it works:

You might be approached by an overly friendly local. He looks at you like he has just saw an old friend, and claims that he has helped you in your hotel (e.g. preparing your room, etc).

At this point, you will probably have a puzzled look which will upset him.

To help you feel better, he will ask if you can loan him some money.

This is because he claims that the hotel has delayed staff payment for the month and he needs it urgently to buy food for his family. Or it could be any sob story reason.

He also claims that the hotel will reimburse you for it.

 

What to do:

Ask him which hotel you stay at, and watch the scammer go away.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Sri Lanka police

Source image: sundaytimes.lk

 

  • Police emergency hotline: 118 / 119
  • Ambulance / fire service: 110
  • Tourist police: 011 2421052
  • Police emergency: 011 2433333

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7 Comments

  1. Supun

    Thank you for preparing this list.its all about using your common sense in such situations .Having pre -planned or pre-booked travel services can help such unpleasant moments ,having a official travel guide or driver guide throughout your travel can help .sleays look for reputed travel agents in Sri Lanka

    Reply
  2. Grayden

    Common sense advice that is usefull except for…. Usung a hotel safe. Have a look on utube and you may be surprised at how easily a hotel safe may be overcome. Of course, nothing is really safe if somebody really wants it so its all degrees of opportunity.

    Reply
  3. M

    Well, this actually discourages me to travel to sri lanka.

    Reply
    • Dave

      I wish I had read this before going to Sri Lanka as I ended up buying some questionable skin care remedies in a spice garden. However, the country is amazing and I will definitely go there again. My experience advice, if approached by a Tuk Tuk driver offering to take you somewhere then refuse. Always agree the price up front. If they divert to a gem stone mine, spice garden, River cruise just tell them you have already been there.

      Reply
  4. Yoosuf

    Relating to the tuk tuk scams, I’m a Sri Lankan myself and I never use tuk tuks parked by the side of the roads because they charge more than the regular tuk tuks which I could book via the mobile app. I always use Pickme which is not only cheaper but for tourists its also safer because of its GPS tracking, SOS alerts and in case of issues you can always report the driver to the headoffice where necessary action could be taken. Another option would be to use Uber which is also considerably cheap and especially cheaper than the road side tuks!

    Reply
    • Richa

      thank you really helpful info

      Reply
  5. Aruni

    Relating to the tuk tuk scams :- you can use uber in srilanka. Now they have introduced uber tuk. So if you wanna tuk you can hire a tuk for a reasonable prices.

    Reply

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