In the movie "Catch Me If You Can," Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of Frank Abagnale Jr., a scam artist who claimed to be a airline pilot and lived a gilded life roaming the globe under numerous aliases and funding himself through a check-cashing scam until caught by Tom Hanks in the role of FBI agent Carl Hanratty. Most scams that prey upon travelers aren't nearly so elaborate or dramatic as the real-life story of Abagnale. The scams we see typically employ simple distractions, thefts and basic fakes—although how basic the fakes are depends on the scam.
Fortunately, you're a seasoned traveler who stays up on the common scams and ploys perpetrated on the gullible. Below are seven scams that occur at hotels, restaurants and tourist sites—all of which you're about to be too smart to fall for:
Matthew Kent, the general manager for the Best Western in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and the president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association-Space Coast Chapter, was the victim of scam artists. More accurately, his hotel guests were.
THE SCAM: “Someone else set up a website, and the rogue URL was almost exactly the same as the actual hotel’s URL,” he said.
The fake site the scammers created was set up “with our photos, our verbiage, etc. People were using that site to make bookings. They were then showing up expecting rooms that they didn’t have because they had made the reservations—and given their money to—this other site.”
AVOID: Kent suggests being very careful about making reservations online. If you do make reservations online, he said it’s best to go directly through the hotel’s website and not a third-party booking site.
“The people at the hotel are more knowledgeable about the property and what it offers. And if you have to leave early or make a cancellation, it’s a lot easier to get a refund than having to go through Priceline or Orbitz or a site like that,” he said.
THE SCAM: Someone slips a flier or menu for a takeout restaurant under the door. The guest calls in an order and pays via credit card. The catch is that the restaurant doesn’t exist, and now the scammer has the guest’s credit card number.
AVOID: Consumer Reports suggests that guests check with the hotel and go online to verify that it is legitimate, and if you do place an order, insist on paying upon delivery.
Front Desk Calls
THE SCAM:A hotel guest gets a call from someone saying he is from the front desk and that there is a problem with the guest’s credit card. The guest gives his card information over the phone, and is then told everything is OK. Guests usually discover when they go to check out that the front desk never called.
AVOID: Never give credit card information to anyone who calls your hotel room; go directly to the front desk if you receive that call.
THE SCAM: People receive a postcard offering a free trip if they attend a sales pitch at a local hotel. Joining the club can cost thousands of dollars, and sometimes the scammers will even offer a “deal” by lowering the price.
AVOID: Check out the company online with the Better Business Bureau and other reputable sites to see if the offer is legitimate. Common sense, however, usually prevails–if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The Messy Job
SCAM: On the street, in an airport or just about anywhere, the perp “accidentally” squirts a condiment on you. He then tries to help clean up the mess while an accomplice walks off with your valuables.
AVOID: If you are in an airport or have just arrived somewhere with your luggage, always place your bags between your legs, whether you’re sitting or standing. If someone makes a mess on your clothing and offers to clean your wardrobe, it’s usually best to just walk away.
THE SCAM: It is perhaps the oldest and still the most prolific scam. These people usually operate on busy public transportation or in popular tourist sites. Sometimes it will be kids, using cardboard or a clipboard (with a petition for you to sign) to obscure your view while they fish in your pockets or bags. Other times, a fake beggar will ask for money, giving a nearby accomplice a chance to see where you keep your wallet. A local might give you a warning about active pickpockets in the area and tell you to check your wallet and phone. He then notes where you keep these items for snatching later.
AVOID: Be on the lookout for people shoving clipboards and such in your face to obstruct your view. Keep your wallet and phone in your front pockets because pickpockts usually go for back pockets. Never keep valuables in backpacks or purses that leave easy access for other people. Finally, never show your valuables to anyone you do not know.
The Security Switch
THE SCAM: Before you walk through the metal detector at airport security, a person from behind cuts ahead of you. As he tries to walk through the metal scanner, the alarm rings and the line comes to a halt. It seems he has “forgotten” to remove his keys and loose change. Meanwhile, an accomplice has gone through ahead of you and is picking up all your stuff from the conveyor belt and leaving with your laptop, watch, wallet and other valuables.
AVOID: Do not place your tray of valuables on the X-ray machine conveyor belt until you are ready to walk through the metal detector, and keep an eye on your belongings as they come out the other side.