They asked me to travel the world for them, see the sights, sample the local customs; they said all they wanted in return was for me to take a few pictures. Sounded like my dream job. And then they mentioned that they'd also like me to get ripped off by as many people as possible along the way. There's always a catch.
I've just returned from 5 months travelling around the globe making Scam City for the National Geographic Channel. To make the show, I went undercover with hidden cameras to experience first hand the dark underbelly of tourism in 10 cities around the world, finding out who the street criminals were and secretly filming how they operated.
What I found was that tourists are easy prey for criminals. Statistics are notoriously difficult to compile because the vast majority of people who get ripped off don't take time out of their holiday to report, what is anyway often only classed as 'petty crime' with little chance of any comeback. But some must do because last year the police in Barcelona reported over 100,000 individual thefts. Figures for the UK show that pick pocketing rose 17% in the last 2 years largely due to the extra tourists who came to London for the Olympics.
• Buenos Aires Black Widow
One of the darkest scams I encountered was in a bar in Buenos Aires where I was quietly having a Martini. An attractive young woman took the stool next to me and we got quickly got chatting. Then she suggested we retire to my room.
Now, I knew something fishy was going on right away because I never get that lucky. I delayed while the crew went up to my room to rig it with hidden cameras. When she and I finally headed upstairs I opened a bottle of wine. It all seemed very pleasant until I went to the bathroom and received a text message. It was the director informing me that they'd just watched my 'date' slipping a white powder into my drink. We later found it was a benzoate that would have knocked me out for several hours. I went back and confronted her about what was going on. She denied trying to drug me initially but eventually came clean on the proviso that I didn't involve the police. These women are known as Black Widows in BA and they are known to drug and rob men travelling alone. On a good night she can go home with over a thousand dollars worth of cash, phones and laptops.
It was the director informing me that they'd just watched my 'date' slipping a white powder into my drink. We later found it was a benzoate that would have knocked me out for several hours.
• Bangkok Gem Scam
A must-see tourist stop in Bangkok is the temple at Wat Po. The scammers know this and take up positions 500m or so from the entrance. As you arrive they helpfully inform you that today the temple is closed (National Buddha Day or monks praying are common excuses) even though it isn't. The scam involves them offering to take you to see an alternative, which their tuk-tuk driving friend will take you to free of charge. It sounds great, until you realise that he's taking you to a few jewelers’ shops along the way, all of which sell overpriced gemstones.
• The Istanbul Fake Friend Scam
You'll never walk alone in Istanbul for long. The city is full of friendly young men waiting to be your new best friend. They'll approach you in the street or in a bar and welcome you to Turkey by buying you a beer. What could be friendlier? Then they invite you to another bar. The only problem is the drinks in that bar cost €100 each. When it's time to pay you're left with a whopping bill. Your new friend offers to pay half but of course the bar never charges his credit card. And after he's said goodbye he doubles back to get his commission.
• Las Vegas Accommodation Scam
The most creative scam I witnessed in Vegas was the accommodation scam. I rented a luxury condo that I found online. The website said it was right on the Strip, had great facilities, looked like a really swanky pad. I was sent pictures, a mobile phone number and paid $500 in advance via Western Union. On arrival, the hotel didn’t have my booking, the address wasn’t even a privately owned hotel AND my booking didn’t exist! This scammer – whoever he or she was - didn’t even need to be in Vegas to rip me off – they could have been anywhere and the money transfer was completely untraceable.
• Pick Pockets In Barcelona
In Barcelona, I infiltrated a gang of pickpockets to get an insider's view of how they work. These gangs have rules - never steal from locals and always work in crowded areas. That means they work the Metro during the day and the Ramblas at night. They target bulging back pockets and bags slung over shoulders. Their skill levels are incredibly high - undoing a bag zip while climbing a flight of stairs is no problem to them. Within an hour spent with my new 'friends' they had pilfered 4 wallets, a phone and a pair of reading glasses (I later made them give everything back).
• Mafia-Guided Tours In Rome
People often ask me what they can do to prepare before they leave to go abroad. Booking activities in advance is a great idea. If you're going to Rome for example, then you know that you're probably going to take in a tour of the Vatican or the Coliseum. Guided tours are lucrative business for scammers and many of the tour operators are even mafia-controlled. They charge a premium rate but your guide turns out to know less about Renaissance art than you do.
On several occasions genuine, bona fide, registered doctors suggested to me that together we could inflate my medical bills, and therefore my insurance claim, by adding treatments and drugs that I had never had
• Counterfeit Currency
Watch out for counterfeit money, especially if you venture outside Europe. Many tourist-facing businesses have become willing distributors and taxis are notorious for passing off fake bills in the change. The time to be on your guard is just after you've handed over the note. Try to resist looking out at the view when paying and keep your eyes on your driver - this is the prime time for them to make the switch.
• Rug Shopping In Marrakech
If you're off for a little winter sun in Marrakech this year then buyer beware. Here, you'll find a much sneakier example of the scammer in action. No trip to Morocco is complete without buying a carpet. The general buyers rule is the older it is, the more valuable. I discovered a rooftop factory bleaching rugs to make them look aged and these were being sold off to tourists as ‘antique’ for many times their real value.
• Rio Beach Scam
Rio is one of the sexiest cities in the world - and never more so than at Carnival time. Millions of tourists descend on the Brazilian city for the biggest party on the planet. And with so many tourists out reveling on the streets it’s party time for Rio’s scammers too. You’re not even safe from them on the beautiful beaches - a place where the scams are as colourful and creative as the surroundings. Who would have thought that by going to enjoy the sun at Copacabana Beach you could end up having your wallet buried in the sand while you're distracted with so much beauty?
One scam is for a team of crooks to work together - one distracts you while the other snatches your wallet from your bag and then buries it in the sand for retrieval later on. How many wallets are buried under the beaches in Rio, I wonder?
• Prague Clip Joint Scam
If you’re popping off to Prague for a city break or a stag weekend beware of the ‘clip joint scam’. It’s a scheme involving several parties who spilt the takings. Some of the city’s most popular bars have doormen who also moonlight as ‘gatekeepers’ for the city’s famous brothels masquerading as nightclubs.
On leaving the bar they direct tourists looking for female company to a special taxi whose drivers are also in on the scam. The taxi delivers the victim to a complete dive and rather than finding some female company, the unsuspecting tourist is faced with a gang of heavies who won’t let their victims leave until they pay for the privilege. This works well for the scammers as they know anyone looking for female company will be carrying lots of cash.
• Delhi Belly Doctors Visits
And yet, tourists are not always the victims of the scammers' crimes. One of the most shocking scams I uncovered was in Delhi. Initially, I'd been tipped off that many of Delhi's doctors have fake credentials and are in fact no more qualified than I am to prescribe medicine. However, when I toured around the clinics with the fake stomachache I'd perfected during my school days a shocking truth revealed itself - it's the real doctors you need to watch out for!
On several occasions genuine, bona fide, registered doctors suggested to me that together we could inflate my medical bills, and therefore my insurance claim, by adding treatments and drugs that I had never had. The cost for this unorthodox service? 50% of the profits. Of course, client confidentiality was 'assured' but if your insurance company catches you engaged in this kind of activity, then you'll need another type of professional altogether.
Every city has its scams and while many are common, some are unique and form part of the city's culture. As an outsider, you will always be a target for local criminals. So if you want to avoid getting scammed you need to do a bit of work and research a city before you arrive. But on the other hand, if you're looking to get scammed then it's surprisingly easy.
Scam City is on at 8 on the National Geographic Channel tonight- you can read all about it here
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