Top 5 scams to watch out for when backpacking

Travelling across Asia can be so much fun. With so many glorious beaches on which to relax and so many bustling cities to explore, you would be forgiven for thinking that all you had to do was just turn up and have the time of your lives! But it’s not that simple. For a start, there are conmen and even organisations out there that want to con you out of your hard-earned travel money. And some of the biggest and most common scams are listed below, although it’s obviously not a comprehensive list.


5. The Malaysian taxi driver scam

Although not a scam in the true sense of the word, many backpackers to Kuala Lumpur have all reported that it is basically part of the game to get ripped off by these taxi drivers. Most of them do not run a meter unless you protest with them beforehand, and even then they will try to tell you it is broken. The reason for this, of course, is to overcharge you extortionately when you arrive at your destination. Always demand the meter to be on before you get in!

Welcome to Cambodia!
Welcome to Cambodia!

4. The Thai-Cambodia border crossing scam

This scam isn’t such a bank-breaker but will certainly damage your pride. Backpackers beware when crossing the border, don’t try and cheat the system and skimp on the price. Many shops and travel agents will lure you in saying, ‘you make visa here, cheap and easy!’ These false claims will be proven untrue when you reach the official immigration control and other backpackers are paying half the price. Both on the Thai and Cambodian side there are known to be corrupt officials, who may ask for bribes for you to pass through. Some travellers even have their passports confiscated here, so remember to show them a photocopy of your passport, not the real thing, if they ask for it!


3. The Siem Reap baby milk scam

Every night, well-intentioned tourists fall for this scam, thinking that the $30 canister of formula they are buying is going to feed that drowsy baby, allowing both she and her caretaker to head home. Unfortunately, that’s not really what’s going on. All of the formula that’s purchased is promptly returned, with the proceeds being split with the store (Huy Meng Minimart on Sivatha Boulevard at the bottom of Pub Street is a favourite). Local expats speculate that the baby-beggars are run by a mafia of sorts. If you get a cup of coffee on Pub Street in the early evening before sunset, you’ll see seven or eight young women descend on the street at the exact same time, each of them carrying a bleary-eyed baby slung to her hip, many of them blowing cigarette smoke in their faces. Women don’t always carry the same baby, indicating that the babies are merely rented or borrowed for the night. Many of the babies are carried by older children and the babies are uncharacteristically docile. Some of the little girls who ask for your money can get aggressive if you refuse.


2. The Ko Phangan Full Moon Party drugs scam

The “Bangkok Hilton” is not a place any backpacker wants to spend the night, however, tuktuk drivers and shop keepers alike know the power of persuasion. As they tempt you with drugs to ‘heighten your Full Moon experience’ or ‘chill you out’ on a beach somewhere, they will also be striking up a convenient conversation. “Where you stay? Ahh my brother stay there too! What room? Ahh you neighbours!”. This is of course usually an elaborate lie, which will then give him the ability to tip off the police as to where you and your drugs are staying. Then comes the ominous knock on the door, search of your room and ultimately, handcuffs. If you end up being sucked into this scam then there’s very little way out. My advice? Avoid drugs all together, as drug related offenses in many countries in Asia (including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam) carry the death penalty, and whether the law would choose enforce it or not – is it really worth the risk?


1. The precious gemstone scam

The gem scam has got to be the most talked about scam in Asia. It is on most travel forums and there are warnings about it in the Lonely Planet guides. After all the publicity, it is hard to believe that someone would be gullible enough to fall for this one, but they do! Most common in India, and in particular Agra, the gem scam begins when you are befriended by a local. After gaining your trust they offer you a business deal and an opportunity to make a lot of money through investing in a precious cargo of jewels. The locals explain that their gemstones are worth a lot of money if sold in another country, but that they themselves cannot afford the high taxes to export them out of India. However, if you were to buy them for a ‘cheap’ price, you can export them easily under your duty free allowance and then sell them on at a huge profit! The scammers will assure you that once you arrive in the airport of your destination, an agent will meet you and help you to sell the jewels for quadruple the price. Mostly, they want an upfront payment for the gems, but sometimes they ask for a ‘financial guarantee’ of a credit card number and signature (as you are carrying the gemstones for them and are under great trust not to steal them!). Obviously, there is no ‘partner’ at the airport to meet you and the precious stones turn out to be coloured plastic glass. Meanwhile, your travel budget has been cut short or your credit card swiped. What a surprise! Wanting to make fast money out of some kind of deal in Asia can never go right…

Travelled across Asia? Ever been the victim of a scam? Do you think a certain well-known scam should be included in a list like this?


9 thoughts on “Top 5 scams to watch out for when backpacking

  1. The taxi scam can go the other way though. In Hanoi, my friends got in a taxi, and the driver agreed to use the meter, however, it went up at such a speed that the end date was well over double what it should have been!


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