Most travelers don’t expect scams to start until they step outside the airport.
After all, airports are tightly controlled spaces, chock-full of security, where nary a bag can be left unattended without raising suspicion.
However, airports are also spaces in which thousands of stressed out people are corralled together, often attempting to follow unfamiliar rules while keeping a watchful eye on multiple items, information signs, and restless children—essentially, the perfect environment for a scammer to catch you unaware.
Here are five scams to watch out for the next time you find yourself in an airport:
Airport Scam #1: Thieves Target Your Valuables at TSA Security Checkpoints
You’ve set your laptop and other electronics in a separate bin, taken off your shoes and placed all of your belongings on the conveyer belt to be scanned. Even your wallet and passport are off on a ride of their own.
This is a regular annoyance of air travel. However, it can start to feel uncomfortable when there’s a hold up that causes your belongings to sit unattended, or at least away from your watchful eye, for more than a brief moment.
“It’s ok,” you might tell yourself. “The agents will watch out to make sure nothing is stolen.” It turns out that might not be the case.
There are two types of scams that occur at security checkpoints. The first is an orchestrated attempt to separate you from your belongings by a pair of scammers.
Here’s how the security line scam often goes down: Unknown to you, one scammer is several persons ahead in line, and goes through security without a fuss. The person directly in front of you won’t have such an easy time.
While you’ve gone ahead and put all your items in their proper place, emptied your pockets, and laid out your laptop, the person in front of you appears to have forgotten every single rule. They’ll hold up the line with a metal bracelet, something in their pocket, shoes that have yet to be removed—you name it.
In the meantime, your items have already passed through the X-ray and are waiting to be collected on the other side. While the person directly in front of you continues to hold up the line, their buddy on the other side quickly pillages any valuables within reach, including laptops, phones, and passports.
If being preyed upon during the single, worst moment of travel wasn’t awful enough, then hold onto your hat, because the second version of this scam involves the agents themselves.
The ABC News 20/20 video above shows a sting operation in which a reporter purposefully leaves an iPad at a security checkpoint. An agent seizes the opportunity and takes the tablet, not knowing that its movements will be tracked by an app.
The segment follows up two weeks later, at which time the TSA agent denies having taken the iPad, even though the tracking app clearly shows it’s still located at his home.
Granted, theft by a TSA agent is more a crime of opportunity than a pre-planned scam. However, at the time of ABC News’ report in 2012, over 381 TSA agents have been arrested for theft, which indicates this problem occurs frequently enough to cause concern. You can check an up-to-date and comprehensive list of TSA agent crimes here.
How Can You Avoid Having Your Belongings Stolen at the Security Checkpoint?
1. Place your hand in front of your foremost bin until the person in front of you has been cleared. If questioned, insist that you and your hand luggage pass through security at the exact same time. Finally, ensure all of your valuables are present when you walk away from the security screening point.
2. If you fly more than once or twice a year, consider applying for TSA PreCheck. Doing so does require a background check, a 10 minute, in-person interview, and $85.
But, if approved, a TSA PreCheck membership gives you five years of going through security without removing your shoes, laptops, liquids, belts, or light jackets.
Airport Scam #2: Some Free Wi-Fi Costs You Your Data’s Security
Many airports offer free Wi-Fi connections for the public to access the internet while waiting for their flight.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns that hackers are have come up with ways to take advantage of this convenience by setting up fake Wi-Fi connections designed to steal your personal information and files without you even knowing.
Hackers can set up peer-to-peer hotspots anonymously, and then lure unsuspecting travelers into logging on by naming the network simply “Free Airport Wi-Fi” or a similarly innocent-sounding name.
Travelers who expect free airport Wi-Fi often don’t give generically-named connections a second thought. The connection will allow you to surf the internet as expected, but you’ll be accessing it through the scammer’s own computer.
Meaning that any information you enter, including passwords, credit card information, or account numbers are visible to the scammer and can be stolen.
If your computer is set to share files, the scammer can even steal entire documents (including the one you might have naively named “Passwords”) right off of your system.
The problem of fake airport Wi-Fi connections isn’t uncommon, either.
Officials in Atlanta, New York LaGuardia and Los Angeles airports have all reported the existence of ad-hoc networks advertised as free Wi-Fi connections.
According to the BBB, an investigation revealed that Chicago O’Hare had 20 ad-hoc networks present that were potentially designed with the intent of hacking into unsuspecting users computers and networks.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Rogue Ad-Hoc Networks Designed to Steal Your Information?
1. Protect your information by turning off automatic connections and file sharing.
2. Never perform any online banking or even shopping while on public Wi-Fi. Also, consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that secures traffic between trusted computers via a process of encryption.
3. Additionally, do your due diligence to research whether any airport has free Wi-Fi, and what it’s called, before your trip. You can do this by visiting the airport’s website, or, if you’ve already arrived, ask for confirmation of the network at the airport’s information desk.
Airport Scam #3: Currency Exchange Booths Can Shortchange Travelers
From the moment you step off the airplane into an airport and walk down to baggage claim, you’ll see currency exchange booths.
It’s generally accepted that these pop-up shops don’t offer the best rates, but travelers don’t expect airport currency exchangers to be a point of outright scams.
What to watch out for at airport currency exchange booths?
Don’t believe signs that boast “0% Commissions.” Consider that any currency exchange has to cover the cost of business, and if they’re not charging commissions, they’re more than likely decreasing the rate you get on your exchange.
Even if you find the proposed exchange rate acceptable, be sure not to blindly trust the calculator being used to add up the cash that you’re owed. As the above video shows, scamming unsuspecting travelers at a currency exchange booth can be as simple as switching a few buttons.
How to Protect Your Cash During a Currency Exchange?
1. When it comes to getting good exchange rates, your best bet is to avoid airport currency exchange booths altogether. Exchange money at a bank or reputable currency exchange near home to have enough cash on hand immediately after landing.
2. Need more cash? Head to an official bank at your destination, as ATMs often offer a better rate of exchange than booths.
3. If you do need to exchange cash for local currency, search for a Western Union or other authorized service and be sure to double check their totals on your cell phone’s calculator to ensure you’re not getting short-changed.
Airport Scam #4: Airport Pay Phones Can Cost an Arm and a Leg
Despite your best efforts to ensure your cell coverage will work internationally, sometimes you land to discover that you don’t have service. If you’re out of options to connect and need to reach someone at home to check in, the payphones lining the terminal wall might seem like an easy solution.
These phones take credit cards as payment and, while their rates might be posted, travelers rarely give them a second glance. After all, when you’re desperate to make a call, it’s easy to just assume that the total fee won’t be that much.
So, you enter in your credit card information and make your call—only to later find fees upwards of $20 or $40 appear on your monthly bill. Of course, there’s no way to dispute the charges without calling a foreign telecom company, which hardly seems worth the trouble.
How to Avoid Paying Outrageous Fees at an Airport Pay Phone?
1. If you simply have to make a call and can’t get connectivity with another device, this is one instance where heading to a currency exchange booth for some cash isn’t a bad idea. It’s better to eat a flat fee at a booth than to enter your credit card number into a random pay phone hoping that goodness knows what charges don’t pop up in the future.
2. If none of the pay phones accept cash, consider popping into one of the airport shops to pick up a local SIM card—generally these don’t cost more than $10. While you might have to pay for international rates, local SIM cards are almost always prepaid, so that there are no unexpected charges.
Airport Scam #5: Phony Airport Officials Attempt to Get Your Attention
When arriving at a foreign airport, travelers tend to be hyper aware of the rules to avoid any potential trouble. Scam artists wearing fake uniforms prey on a traveler’s sense of insecurity with local customs and regulations with a range of ulterior motives in mind.
In our review of The Resort at Pedregal, in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, we share how one of HighYa’s own co-founders was approached by a would-be scammer donning an official-looking uniform who, after attempting several methods to keep the conversation going, launched into a pitch for tourist activities.
» Related: Tourist Scam Alert: ATM Skimming In Mexico
Getting cornered by a fake officer whose intent is up selling vacation packages isn’t the worst that can happen, either. The Daily Mail reports on scammers who work in teams of three or more to “frame” unsuspecting travelers.
The scenario works like this: The first of scammers approach a traveler with an offer to sell something vaguely illicit. Before the tourist even has a chance to decline, two “officers” appear, flashing badges, and demanding to see a wallet or passport so that they can document your apparent crime.
Once the mark becomes sufficiently afraid of repercussions, the fake officers will offer to let them off the hook just this once—for a cash payment, of course.
How to Avoid Falling Prey to Fake Police Officers or Phony Airport Officials?
1. Scammers tend to target tourists who look lost, or are stopped long enough to be approached. To avoid being targeted altogether, know where to go ahead of time, and walk to your destination purposefully, avoiding eye contact by looking straight ahead.
2. If you are approached by individuals in a uniform or with badges, keep your valuables close to your body and don’t show them anything. If your persistence doesn’t shake them and they insist on continuing to interact, head towards the airport’s security checkpoint or a police kiosk for assistance from an actual official.
Remember to Keep a Watchful Eye When Passing Through Foreign Airports
Whether it’s a currency exchange booth attempting to skim the cash you’re due or a tag-team of airport scammers stealing belongings at a security checkpoint, even the most seasoned travelers can be an easy target when in unfamiliar surroundings.
Remember that while tourist scams might be organized, they also depend on opportunity brought about by traveler’s trusting nature, their lack of local knowledge, and their desire to get the best deal.
Minimize your risk by keeping your passport secure, your belongings close to your body, and walking with an air of confidence.
To avoid being scammed at the airport, you don’t have to know every trick in the book. Instead, you can avoid most scams simply by not being the lowest hanging fruit.
More on Travel Scams:
- Shopping for Jewelry Abroad? Here’s How to Avoid the Fake Gemstone Scam
- The 4 Most Popular Tourist Scams In Rome