Earlier this spring, I watched a young, solemn man dressed like a Buddhist monk approach a tourist on the National Mall. He showed him a petition to build a temple and slid a bracelet made of prayer beads onto his wrist. The visitor was pulling money out of his wallet when I intervened and told him the truth: He had fallen for a scam.
When we are on our own turf, the scam artists are as obvious as that so-called Nigerian prince offering you a cut of his inheritance. But on foreign territory, we are more susceptible to deceptions. Maybe we are unfamiliar with the local customs and don't want to offend, or perhaps our jet lag has dulled our Spidey senses.
"This is a universal, global problem, especially in cities where you have crowds and people let their guard down," said Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department's managing director for Overseas Citizen Services. "People don't report it to the police or to us because they feel foolish and embarrassed."
Bernier-Toth, who has lived in Africa and the Middle East, can empathize with scam victims. She has been one herself - twice. In Johannesburg, she was withdrawing funds from an ATM when a man asked if she needed help. In a flash, he palmed her card, slipping past her friend who was posted as her lookout. The second time, she was in cab in Istanbul when the driver handed her out-of-circulation currency as change.
"I was schnookered," she said. "These scams are age-old."
To be sure, swindles occur all over the world, to every type of traveler. To reduce your chances of falling prey to unscrupulous types, Bernier-Toth offers this advice: "Be polite, but wary; trust, but verify, and just say 'No, thank you.' " Also, check the State Department's country information for alerts specific to your destination. For instance, for travel to India, the department warns, "Major airports, train stations, popular restaurants, and tourist sites are often used by scam artists looking to prey on visitors, often by creating a distraction."
To help you spot the hoaxes, we assembled 10 of the most common ploys around the world and offer tips on how to protect yourself from them. We also contacted the State Department and Global Rescue, a company that assists imperiled travelers, for a sampling of destinations where these scams frequently occur. Note that these swindles are on the milder side of the criminal spectrum, with the perpetrators essentially trying to steal or squeeze money out of you. They do not typically involve violence, though they can leave a dark bruise on your vacation - and your ego.