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Safety tips and scams to avoid for solo travelers

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It is certainly safer to travel with a group, but "dangerous" is too harsh of a word for solo traveling. Of course, you always have to make sure you're safe. However, if you have a little sane judgment, you will be able to protect yourself from most dangers.

Maybe most of this tips you already knew about, or read them before somewhere else.. but I think I have some unique ones. Anyway, I'll add my tips -- or rather, things I sometimes had to learn the hard way. This applies mainly to sketchy countries.

I wrote this thinking of my worst-case-scenario situations, so it's hyperbolic. It's not meant to paint whole countries as "this" or "that".

Strategies to help you avoid scams

  1. Don't carry a wallet. Put your money and ID in your pocket. It works fine. You don't need to carry your driver's license with you. People have tried to pickpocket/rob me four times (that I know about) over the years, but I wasn't carrying a wallet for three of them, so, problem solved! As Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, "What you don't possess, not even God can take away." If you're carrying your big backpack, put all your valuables hidden deep in the pack, and just have enough cash money in your pocket.

  2. Don't bring anything to bars you're unwilling to lose. When your go out at night, don't bring anything that you're unwilling to lose -- hats, wallets, watches, etc. You bring whatever cash money you think you'll need, put it in your pocket, and that's it. I've had a phone stolen/grabbed out of my hand mid call. Lost a few hats and scarves after hanging them somewhere. My rugby team in Ecuador was robber at gunpoint at a restaurant! ("¡Todos se tiran al piso!" I had left before that.)

  3. Cover your drink in bars. Living in South America, we were taught -- and it became clear to us -- to cover the rim of your drink with your hand (and always have it in your field of vision) when you're standing in a bar, etc. Bad actors will roofie the drinks of both men and women in a crowded place by surreptitiously reaching around when you're not looking or your drink is to the side somewhere. They're (usually) not trying to rape you, but rather to rob you, man or woman. You become much more pliable to suggestions when you're under the influence of roofies, and/or you won't remember who or what happened the night before. Multiple friends were (probably) roofied. A good way to tell is: Your memory is of having only one or two beers and you black out hard after that; and the next day your feel weird. I'm pretty sure I've been roofied at least 3 times, by breaking the next rule:

  4. Don't accept drinks from strangers. Don't accept drinks from strangers, even the nice person who's been flirting with you for a few hours. Or at least watch very carefully as they get it. I've heard that bartenders will work with lady hustlers and split the earnings -- the bartender roofies the drink behind the bar. Like, if you're at a table with someone you just met, and they insist on going to the bar to get more drinks, [RED FLAG]. Obviously, we can make judgment calls, but just be wary.

  5. Bag security. When you're sitting anywhere - restaurant, cafe, on the bus, etc -- have your purse/pack/etc. strap around your leg or some part of your body. It's the easiest thing: You're having a coffee at a cafe, some guy walks by, reaches over the wall, and grabs your purse and that's all she wrote. The stricter version of this rule is keep your bag on your lap: In some places, little kids will crawl on the ground and either quietly grab your bag, or will slice into it with a razor. I've heard that they do this on buses from the seat behind you.

  6. Keep your valuables on you when bussing it. When traveling on long-distance buses, don't put your valuables in the luggage that gets stored underneath. Those buses make multiple stops and you can imagine how easy it is to steal your whole backpack when they're loading and unloading people's stuff who are boarding at that stop. I get anxiety just thinking about losing all my cards, passport, clothes, etc. all in one fell swoop -- 300 kilometers ago. And yes, your big bag goes under the bus. Just take out the valuables and carry them with you in your seat.

  7. If you must, hide your passport in your hotel room, James Bond-style. When I was traveling in Iraq, I stayed in various hotels of varying levels of sketchiness. They didn't have safes or anywhere to lock with a padlock. I didn't want to carry my passport for fear of getting robbed in the street, and I didn't want the staff to steal it in the hotel room. I always bring duct/gaffer tape when traveling, so I try to find James Bond ways of hiding stuff in my hotel rooms. Like, tape your passport to the under-side of the toilet tank lid; or behind a painting, or pull out a dresser drawer and tape it on the inside of the back panel; or open-up the television (with your multi-tool that you should always bring) and keep the passport inside the TV. I do this with cash/cards too: Either hide them James Bond-style, and/or (maybe this is naive of me) split up your valuables and hide them in different places in your luggage so that if they find one stash, they might just walk away and not look for other stashes. I'll put money in my toiletries bag because it's an unlikely place, I suppose, to keep money. A better advice is, of course, to stay in better hotel with a safe.. but we all know thats not always possible.

  8. Write down your ho(s)tel address and other important info like phone numbers. Keep the paper in your shoe or whatever in case you get jacked so you can get back to your room at least.

  9. Don't exit a taxi first if you have luggage in the trunk. Wait for the driver to exit and pull out the bags. If you get out first, he could just drive off with your stuff.

  10. Keep receipts from border entry crossings in case they ask for them back when you exit.

  11. Don't ride motorcycles in Southeast Asia!

  12. Carry a secret wallet with backup money -- a flashlight with no batteries; fake lotion bottle; etc.

  13. When riding taxi's, make sure to ride in the passenger seat and open maps to pretend you're following the route so that they don't take the loooong way around.

Random scams and other criminal techniques.

  1. The "Ketchup" Technique: I was going to the train station in Buenos Aires in full backpack-traveller mode and someone tried the "Ketchup technique" on me. I randomly learned about the technique from a TV detective show once, so I was able to stop them. Someone surreptitiously squirts ketchup or some other thick sauce on your shirt. Someone else -- usually a kind-looking old woman -- comes up to you: "Oh, pobrecito! You have some stuff on your shirt. Let me clean it up for you." As your attention is focused on the woman cleaning your stain, the other fella is able to lift your wallet easily. Avoid this by following Rule #1

  2. The "Show Me Your ID" Technique: Someone who vaguely resembles an authority figure asks to see your ID. So you pull your wallet out, hold it in front of you to get out the ID, and the guy just grabs it and runs. In Tijuana, when I was 19, I was drunk and stupid and some guy lured me down an alleyway. He tried the "Show Me Your ID" technique. I didn't fall for it, so he pushed me against the wall, reached into my front pocket, and pulled everything out -- which happened to only be a fiver and a stick of lip balm because I followed Rule #1.

  3. The "I'm a Foreigner and I'm Stuck Here" Scam. This one is pretty obvious, but a talented con-man can trick you. I was in Costa Rica and this American guy approached me with this story: "My wallet & passport were stolen, so I got a new one at the US embassy, but they won't give it to me until I pay-up. My mom sent money via Western Union, but they won't give it to me without an ID." A Catch-22! I knew the embassy part was BS of course, and it was all unconvincing. But a talented con-man once scammed two hostel friends in Panama City. The Swedish one came to me one day, like, "I did a good thing today!" And he explained about how he helped this "American veteran" with money to get home. He even had my friend Skype with his "commanding officer" to verify it. I didn't really think about it at the time until... Another hostel friend came up to me, "I did a good thing today!" And he explained about how he helped this "American veteran" with money to get home. He even had my friend Skype his "commanding officer" to verify it. Immediately I was like, "OH SNAP! There's someone you need to talk to." We all got together, and I explained what I heard from both... Their faces looked like the first time a child learns about evil in the world.

  4. Panhandler Grabs Your Wallet. An aggressive, standing panhandler will jack your wallet when you take it out to give him money. Avoid this by following Rule #1.

  5. Express Kidnapping. This happened to my friend in Ecuador; we had been warned about it. You get in a cab... it seems sketchy... maybe he's going a weird route. He stops at a light and someone jumps in the back seat with a weapon. "We're going to an ATM and you're going to withdrawal as much money as possible." Avoid this by following Rule #1.

  6. Various Taxi Scams. Pretty much universal in developing countries.

    • Most common one is simply not turning on the meter and you "agree" to a price which is way higher than it should be, and which he usually increases at the end. Never agree to a ride without the meter on.
    • Second most common is going the loooong way, which is hard to avoid unless you live there and you know what's up. I've gotten into so many arguments with drivers going the long way.
    • Another one is meter-hacking: Either the meter has been messed-with, or the driver actively messes with it during the ride. In Belgrade this driver was pointing out landmarks; I'd look, and he would push a button on the meter each time. At the end the meter showed like $40 for a $5-10 ride. I was not having it, and we nearly came to blows until another Serbian came to my defense. I ended-up compromising on like $20.
  7. Fake price bar scams. See this story about bar scams in Tokyo: "They’re lured into an establishment by a street tout (kyaku-biki) and charged exorbitant prices by the operators, usually under the threat of physical violence if they refuse to cough up the cash... forcing them to sign credit card bills that can amount to tens of thousands of yen without even having to make the trip to an ATM." Whether it involves roofies or not, I've heard the more mundane version which is: You get a fake menu, order a bunch of drinks, and then they charge you from the real menu. Or there are hidden charges like, "You paid for the drinks, but you also need to pay for the table, son!"

  8. Child beggar mafia. I can't verify this, but I was told to never give money to child panhandlers in general because it's often a kind of child slavery working for their parents or some street corner mafia. Also they should be in school, but their parents make them beg. So my personal rule is: Never give money to children because that only encourages more child exploitation.