10 Scams Targeting Tourists in Asia


Traveling in Asia is out of this world. The culture is alien, and the food is far removed from what people eat in the west. And no, we’re not talking about fortune cookies (which were actually invented in San Francisco). And of course, there is so much more to Asia that’s incredible to explore. When you’re overseas getting lost and rubbing elbows with the natives, it’s the best way to experience new cultures… but it also opens you up to scams as some of these same locals try and suck out the hard earned cash from your money belt.

10. Buy Baby Formula for Mothers’ Kids

In many countries, there is real poverty that is present everywhere – even around many tourist hotspots. Tourists are usually savvy about avoiding giving money to beggars as they are likely professionals or being exploited by others into begging. Understandably, foreigners still want to help, especially when it comes to young children. So when they are approached by a poor mother who refuses money but rather asks them to buy baby formula instead, they jump at the chance because “it’s for her baby! Not for drugs!” Right? Wrong.

The whole baby formula setup is a scam. The baby formula is indeed purchased, often at inflated prices, and handed over to the mother but as soon as the generous tourist rounds the corner the mother returns it to the store for cash. In worst-case scenarios, the child is rented by the poor “mother” and often drugged to be quiet and cute.

9. Tigers be Trippin’ at the Tiger Temple

In Thailand there existed the Tiger Temple – a magical place where some of the most dangerous predators on the planet, Indochinese Tigers, lived peacefully in harmony with people. Its slogan was “You too can partake in the harmony”… for a price. Tourists handed over huge amounts of money to get that perfect picture of them posing with, or even touching, the giant tigers. The mystical orange-clad monks claimed that only through their care were the animals peaceful.

This tiger utopia was all lies. The only reason the very big predators weren’t ripping open the throats of every tourist nearby was that they were drugged into a stupor, so high they could barely move. When the Zoo/Temple was finally raided in 2016, Thai authorities found dozens of lifeless, plastic wrapped tiger cubs in huge freezers. Other finds of animal horns and pelts implied that some sort of trade in illegal animal parts was ongoing by the so-called altruistic monks. Facing these charges, the tiger center shut down, but it is due to reopen under a new name.

Much like the old temple, the new temple will merely be a tiger circus. Tiger shows in Thailand and throughout the world should be avoided. Senior wildlife advisor at World Animal Protection, Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, says that “Tiger farms have nothing to do with conservation – they just bring extreme suffering to these wild animals whilst living in appalling conditions… These venues need to be stopped in their tracks.”

8. Border Crossing Scams

On many of the borders in Asia there are fees as you attempt to cross. On the Thai-Cambodia border, there is an entire industry of people who try and insert themselves between you and the border officials for one of these fees. They will make all sorts of claims, including that you need help to fill out forms (you don’t they have simple English forms), or that you can visit a special store to fast-track your VISA (you don’t just walk 100 meters to the border yourself).

Do your research for the borders you will cross and be prepared for what you do and don’t have to pay.

7. Drugged in Japan

For travelers, Japan is one of the safest countries in Asia and the world in general. Its capital, and the largest metropolis in the world, Tokyo, was also ranked the safest in the 2015 Safe Cities Index. Of all the special districts that make up Tokyo, Roppongi is one of its larger entertainment centers. Catering to foreigners and the large amount of American military personnel stationed in the country, Roppongi is also one of the rowdiest places to party. But with Tokyo being such a safe place, people tend to let their guard down.

Recently, aspiring criminals have been taking advantage of this. Hundreds of men report being approached by gorgeous women who offer them drinks that are, unbeknownst to them, spiked. Flattered at this hospitality the men agree and down the drink only to wake up the next day passed out on the street without their belongings and thousands of dollars in credit card charges racked up on their accounts. The problem got so bad that the US embassy in Japan had to issue an alert for the district.

6. Closed Attraction Scam

This scam is common throughout Asia. A tourist armed with a map or Lonely Planet guide will be walking down the street on their way to a local famous attraction. A helpful local will come and ask where they are going. Excited to be interacting with the locals, the visitor will say they are going to such and such attraction. The helpful local will then explain that the attraction is actually closed that day, or under construction. But don’t worry – there are many other temples that are close by and off the tourist track.

The tourist will thank the local for their valuable advice and visit these other “undiscovered” hotspots of culture, which more often than not turn out to be gift stores or high-pressure kitsch shopping areas where people are pressured into buying crap. Always check yourself to see if the temple or attraction is indeed really closed.

5. Tea Ceremony Scam

At popular tourist spots in China and southeast Asia, local young people (usually cute girls) will greet tourists and strike up conversations. They will make a bond and offer to show the tourist the local sites under the guise of practicing English or training for a future tourism job. The tourist will be excited at experiencing authentic culture with some really nice people, and the young “students” will charm their way into their confidence and once trust has been gained suggest going to a tea ceremony shop (some places it will be craft beer, or just any bar). The traveler agrees, thinking, “how much could a few drinks of tea/beers be? Pennies? Or a few dollars at most.”

Then, after an elaborate demonstration of tea or local beers or crafts, they are given a huge bill amounting to hundreds of American dollars. At that point, you’re trapped. You can and refuse to pay but police will be called and most likely side with the owner. Be suspicious! Ask up front how much things will cost.

4. Win a Free Prize … to Listen to a Hard-Sell for Timeshares

This is one of the most common scams in the world, as illustrated by the video above. Timeshare companies around the world have notoriously offered “prizes” or “free holidays” to unsuspecting people who didn’t even know they had entered a contest. When they show up to claim their prize, they only have to listen to a quick 90 minute (which is really often as long as six hours) hard-sell for timeshares. When they finally get through this ordeal they find that the prizes they were promised are non-existent or have so many hoops to jump through that the prize isn’t worth it.

These scams have moved to Asia, where groups of young locals will approach tourists with scratch tickets. When scratched, the unsuspecting visitors “win” a prize or holiday package… if they sit through a hard-sell sales pitch.

If they do get the timeshare, customers are often locked into contracts that are incredibly hard to break and they pay huge annual maintenance costs even if they don’t ever visit.

Now there is a new double-dip scam where companies guarantee to get the customer out of the timeshare agreement for a small fee of a few hundred dollars. Then when once the money is handed over, the very official sounding company disappears off the face of the earth.

3. Credit Card Number Scams

These take many forms, but when you’re on vacation perhaps the most common is the fake wakeup call. This is where someone will call pretending to be from the front desk, asking for your credit card details and more of your personal information. Another common method is the card skimmers at ATMs that not only get your number, but your PIN, too.

Always look around for people watching you type in your PIN or trying to help you with the ATM. The only thing they’re trying to help you with is expediting the loss of money from your wallet.

2. Bird Poop Scam

Common throughout the world, as well as Asia, be on the lookout for the bird poop people. Visitors will be walking around, checking out the sites of a new city, when all of a sudden a “bird” will empty its bowels upon them. It turns out in many cases, this is really just a scammer behind you squeezing goo onto your head and backpack. The bird poo is probably just mustard and food coloring but it looks real enough.

Embarrassed at the sudden presence of the poo, tourists will gladly welcome friendly locals that magically appear with moist toilettes or a water bottle to clean the poo off. While the visitors are focused on the poo, the helpful locals will help themselves to whatever they can pickpocket from your person.

1. Orphanage Scams

Recently it has become common to integrate more socially responsible activities into trip itineraries. Instead of days of drinking on the beach, people are opting for a trip to support a local arts program or conservation effort. In this vein, an entire industry for visiting orphanages has been created. On the surface it seems like a good idea; the children get to experience adult figures in their life while at the same time experiencing different cultures. The money the tourists pay or donate helps cover the children’s cost of living.

As the orphanage industrial complex evolved it morphed into basically a zoo for children or a cat cafe for babies. Instead of the local community adopting the children into their families, the orphans are forced to stay in the orphanage, and some aren’t even orphans. Instead, they are kept there for the sole purpose of attracting more paying tourists. This creates a cycle of exploitation that would horrify the foreign visitors if they knew about it. Also, while it feels good to hug a child and walk away, the rotating door of loving strangers can actually harm the vulnerable children’s developing mind.

Jon Lucas covers WW1 live, 100 years ago. You can follow the action on Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram.

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