Travel Scams I

Most of the people we meet while traveling are friendly and generous and often curious, helping us find that landmark we were looking for or asking us questions about our travel. There are people who are less scrupulous, however, and we do have to be on the lookout for scams targeting tourists. We've had a few encounters that are noteworthy. This blog post is about one potential scam that took place back in September in Japan, which will help give context for a future post on India.

A crane at sunset in Kyoto, Japan

Scams a Plenty

As a traveler, especially in nations much less developed than the United States, it is common to be quoted a higher price for good or service than a local would pay. Unless the price is absurd, we will haggle and then agree to a price that we know is likely a little higher than a local would pay, but the cost to us is marginal and we accept paying a little more as a “tourist tax” of sorts that we are happy to pay coming from a wealthy country. We chalk this slightly higher pricing scheme as a cost of travel and are generally not referring to this practice when we talk about tourist scams.

Tourist scams as we refer to them are much more sinister, orchestrated plans meant to part you with your money. One of the most common scams in China and parts of Southeast Asia is called the “teahouse scam.” In this scam, a young local will approach you and start talking to you in English. He or she will say that they are a local student and that they noticed you were a tourist and start talking to you about whatever local site you are visiting and local life. They will thank you for talking with them so that they can practice their English. As the conversation continues, they will invite you to a local teahouse to talk more.

After sharing tea for some time, they will excuse themselves to the restroom and disappear just as an unreasonably expensive tea bill arrives at your table. The teahouse staff will be on hand to make sure you do not leave until the bill is paid. You can expect that your “friend” will be returning to the teahouse at a later time for his or her cut.

Other simpler setups exist where a person will approach to talk to you while their buddy swoops by to pickpocket your valuables. Knowing these tactics has meant that Kelsi and I are always aware when we interact with people, but we know that most people aren’t scam artists and we assume that people are genuine with the best of intentions when they approach us… all while being extra aware of our valuables and surroundings while we talk with them.

We were never faced with the opportunity to fall victim to the teahouse scam in China, but we did have one experience in Japan that set off our internal scam alarms.

The Rock Garden in Kyoto

The Rock Garden of Kyoto

Back when we were in Japan, we stopped at the famous Rock Garden in Kyoto. (Side note: Kelsi and I weren’t really that impressed with the site. If you visit Kyoto, we think you can skip it.) After passing through the gate with our ticket and walking into the garden, we were almost immediately approached by a young man, likely an older teenager, asking us if we wanted a free tour of the garden. We could see that there were four other teenagers standing off to the side behind him, shyly watching us with interest from across the path. They were giving tours, he explained, to practice their English.

Kelsi and my scam radars immediately went into alert. The young man approaching us used several highly suspect words – student, practice English, free. We looked at each other, attempting to give silent messages to the other that we were dubious of the offer. As the man’s friends approached and surrounded us to show us informational fliers about the Rock Garden, I let my hands drop to my sides to obstruct my pockets in case any of the “students” had an ulterior motive.

Still, despite being odd, Kelsi and I want to assume that most people we meet have the best of intentions. We took a moment to consider the situation.

Reasons it could be a scam:

  • Many scams start with someone wanting to practice their English
  • Giving out free tours at a site is pretty unusual, even in Japan where people have been very friendly and helpful. Normally free tours would be advertised on a sign at the ticket booth or gate and we saw no sign.
  • “Free tours” often end with a demand for a tip
  • They were a group of people that came up to us as soon as we entered the garden, catching us right away after the ticketing booth before we had a chance to gain our bearings
  • We were approached by a Japanese person. In Japan, it is very out of character for a person to approach you and begin speaking to you out of the blue.

Reason it probably wasn’t a scam:

  • We were in Japan where scams are much more infrequent that other travel destinations
  • We had seen zero pushy vendors or other people in your face wanting something from you. Scams like the teahouse scam usually in areas where people regularly approach tourists.
  • The fliers that the “students” held actually looked like information packets about the Rock Garden
  • The first student insisted twice that the tour would be free
  • The students seemed genuinely shy and nervous and we would expect people to display confidence during a con (although it could be a ruse, of course)

So, Dear Reader, what do you think? Was this a scam or not? Should we have followed this group of "students"?

A rock in the famed Kyoto Rock Garden

Given the factors listed above, Kelsi and I decided to make sure our backpack was locked and my pockets secure and to take the free tour.

It turns out the students were 100% honest.

They gave us a 25 minute tour that was actually pretty cute. They were all high school students in an English club and their club had organized this project so they all could practice their English. Nervous, most of them read to us from their flier word for word as we walked through the garden and laughed self-consciously when they mispronounced a word. A few of them talked to us about where we were from and our travels. One of them told us excitedly about her good friend who was doing a semester abroad in Boston.

At the end they thanked us for our time and asked if they could take a photo of us as the club was taking photos of all the tourists they guided. We got a photo for ourselves as well. As we left, we saw them join a big group of students also from the club and the club president waved and thanks us for our participation. They also wanted photographs with us before we left, and we obliged.

There are travel scams out there and hucksters that are waiting for the tourist to come by to make a buck. A concern that I know some people have about traveling is all the ways that scam artists will try to take advantage of them. And that’s a real risk. But most of the people you meet on the road aren’t that way. Sometimes a free tour so a student can practice her English is exactly that – a free tour so she can practice her English. We might get burned sometime by assuming the best of intentions, but if we had been too cynical we would have missed this neat travel experience.

We have had other encounters that have put our scam sensors on high alert. Expect more tales to come.