International travel – especially solo international travel – can be intimidating, and it doesn’t help to think about all the many scams that con artists try to execute on vulnerable travelers. Whether you are traveling solo or with a group, it can be very helpful to face this anxiety head-on. Rather than ignoring the fact that there are people who will try to take advantage of you during your travels, it’s best to think proactively about how you can prevent yourself from becoming a target. I hope that these tips will provide some advice on making yourself a less desirable target to many scam artists.
Never Accept Anything from a Stranger
If someone tries to hand you something on the street, don’t take it. This might sound obvious, but it’s our natural response to reach out and take something that is held out for us. While often this is an innocuous brochure or flyer for local tours, this can also be the start of the scam or a simple rouse to get you to stop in place long enough for a pickpocket to hit.
Instead of accepting something held out to you, either keep walking with your eyes ahead, or, with awareness of yourself and your belongings, place your hands out of reach (such as in your pocket or crossed over your chest) and just use your eyes to look and confirm whether it is a promotional brochure or something else. Beware of both your curiosity and your empathy, while neither is a bad thing, be alert for scammers attempting to prey upon them.
Beware of both your curiosity and your empathy, while neither is a bad thing, be alert for scammers attempting to prey upon them.
Practice maintaining a neutral facial expression in public. Never show confusion on your face, and minimize your reactions to strangers speaking to you. This was incredibly difficult for me when I first moved to an urban area, but after a few months, it became clear how much easier it was to move in large crowds by simply focusing in on getting to my destination, with awareness but disinterest in what was going on around me,
For both scammers and pickpockets, a moving target is harder to hit. Often, scammers approach from directly in front of you, hoping to get you to stop. Anticipate this, and do not stop moving. Keep walking forward, and if your way is blocked, sidestep and continue on your way without stopping.
One common scam internationally is a rouse in which an individual stops you long enough to slip a bracelet or ring onto your hand, and then demands payment by aggressively stating that you agreed to purchase when you allowed them to place the jewelry on your body. Scams like this one, and many others, can’t get started if you keep moving.
Headphones – Turned off!
Headphones or earbuds are a great way to reduce your vulnerability to scammers as a solo traveler- most scammers won’t bother with a target that can’t hear them.
Just remember to keep your earbuds turned OFF or disconnected in places where you are entirely comfortable – this way others will assume you can’t hear them, but you’re still able to be fully aware of your surroundings.
Use nonverbal cues
Nonverbal communication offers us the option of being able to refuse to engage without having to converse. I know travelers who have learned sign language for “I can hear you but I don’t want to talk to you,” as a way to defer unwanted or manipulative conversation- while respecting the origin of the sign language (you can learn how to spell this message out here – and learn some basic sign language in the process).
Short of learning official sign language – which does vary from culture to culture by the way – you can also communicate disinterest with nonverbals. Occasionally when I am approached- by a person who is holding nothing in their hands- I hold my palm up in a “stop” gesture as I continue walking.
Often, a forceful no is actually an effective deterrent! While many personal safety tips advise complex evasion or avoidance, just about all humans learned from a young age to be disoriented by a loud, firm, and angry “NO!” – Thieves and scammers included. While it might not completely dissuade their advances, a loud “no,” draws the attention of persons nearby and will take scammers by surprise – buying you a second or two to exit the situation and walk away swiftly.
IF YOU ARE LOST
if you find yourself lost in an unfamiliar city, especially if they’re crowds OR if there are no other people around (such as late at night) do not simply stop and stare down at your phone trying to orient yourself. This posture indicates your vulnerability. Instead, either keep walking until you see a safe storefront you can enter or place your back against a wall or building so that you have a full view of what is going on around you and your bag is protected.