Watch Out for These Travel Scams During Spring Break

Over the next several weeks, tens of thousands of college students will be hopping on a flight for some much-needed sunshine during spring break—many of them heading to an international destination for the first time.

While young travelers might have high hopes for an unforgettable vacation, many scam artists in spring break hotspots also gear up for the annual rite of passage with the knowledge that students make for easy targets.

Whether you’re heading to the classic party destination that’s Cancun, Mexico, or spending your week off elsewhere, here’s the lowdown on what scams to watch out for during your spring break:

1. An official gives you a (fake) ticket for littering.

You’re walking down the street with friends, distracted by all the new sights, smells, and commotion. However, as you meander through the shop stalls, you’re unable to find a garbage can to throw away your empty drink bottle, piece of paper, or cigarette butt—or perhaps you spot one, but the bin is overflowing.

Tired of carrying the item, you place it in a pile. (After all, there’s litter everywhere!) Or, maybe you make a toss and just miss the can by a few inches. Either way, your trash is on the ground, and you keep walking… until a uniformed person whistles for you to stop.

The individual, who might be in an official uniform (common in Mexico) or just wearing camouflage (more likely spotted in Southeast Asia), explains that you’ve just broken the law by littering and will have to pay a fine.

As he writes you a ticket, he might even offer to lower your penalty if you pay in cash now. Don’t have the cash? He’ll likely walk you to the ATM. We’ve even heard of one traveler scammed by the fake litter ticket who was let off the hook in exchange for his watch.

The scam is, of course, that most of these individuals aren’t working in an official capacity and, instead, have purchased uniforms so that they can better trick unsuspecting tourists. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some reports of real police shaking down travelers for some cash with this fake penalty either.

Avoiding this scam is easy: Don’t throw your trash on the ground. Instead, whenever you purchase an item that you’ll be carrying around, such as a soda bottle, get a plastic bag from the cashier. That way, you’ll be less likely to tire of having hands full of trash.

  • Usually seen: On popular walking streets.
  • Most likely victims: Anyone who doesn’t properly dispose of their trash.
  • If it happens to you: First, pick up the offending piece of litter. If the person issuing your ticket can be identified as a real police officer, do your best not to pay on-site. Instead, ask where you can settle the ticket and be sure to write down their badge information. Usually, this will persuade them to “let you off with a warning.” If they’re in a generic uniform, do your best to shrug, appear as if you don’t understand, and walk away.

2. Border agents try to charge you an on-the-spot entry fee.

Traveling to more than one country during your spring break? If you’re hoping to avoid the hassle of another airport trip and, instead, cross a land border, be prepared for some confusion. 

Border crossings are already intimidating: Uniformed officials, some carrying semi-automatic weapons, patrol high chain link fences while tourists are shuffled into various lines, told to fill out forms, and asked lots of questions. Often, entire groups of tourists are milling around, unsure of where to go. The environment of confusion gives sketchy scam artists plenty of opportunities to convince travelers that they must either pay an exit tax or purchase a special visa to enter the next country.

These scams are hugely prevalent in Central and South America, with two versions that spring breakers might come across.

In one version, several men will catch your attention before the actual border crossing and attempt to convince you that you must purchase a visa before entering the next country. They may ask to see your passports, then hold your documents hostage until you hand over the cash. 

What’s important to note about this version is that the individuals won’t be sitting in the border agent booth, but will approach you while you’re still in line, and maybe even attempt to pull you aside to an area away from view.

Avoiding this version of the border crossing scam might sound as simple as researching what visas are needed ahead of time. However, even travelers who are in-the-know can feel bullied into handing over their passport to someone who appears official.

How can you avoid this version of the border crossing scam? Look up visa requirements for the country you’re visiting ahead of time by checking entry requirements as they pertain to your home country: United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia are a few.

However, this scam is so prevalent at the border between Chetumal, Mexico, and Belize that it’s almost become a legitimate tax. Even bus drivers will pull over to tell passengers that they must have $20 on hand to pay.

Unfortunately for those passing through Chetumal, the agents have become emboldened by the volume of tourists that readily hand over cash combined with a lack of action by local government. You can try to refuse, but some tourists have reported losing the face-off simply because border agents aren’t in a hurry to do anything else, and will sit there until you pay or turn away.

  • Usually seen: At land borders.
  • Most likely victims: Anyone holding a passport from a wealthy, Western nation. Those who don’t speak the local language and are unaware of entry requirements.
  • How to avoid it: When at a border crossing, be purposeful and prepared. Don’t keep your passport visibly in your hand, have a pen ready to fill out forms so you don’t need to ask anyone, and know the entry requirements ahead of time. Don’t hand your passport to anyone but the official agent. Also, prepare by searching for potential issues at whatever spot you expect to cross.
  • If it happens to you: If crossing between two Spanish speaking countries, you can try to be firm and say “No pagamos nada!” (We pay nothing!) and be firm. However, depending on how widespread the corruption, there’s a chance they may deny you entry until the fee is paid.

3. A stranger gets a little too close to your drink.

We’d previously written about the black widow scam when describing what tourists should watch out for when visiting Buenos Aires. Since, we’ve learned that the drink spiking scam we thought was limited to Colombia is becoming an increasing problem throughout Central and South America.

While watching out for strangers who attempt to slip something in your drink isn’t anything new—most colleges and universities already have campaigns to educate students on the dangers of drink spiking in relation to sexual assault—there are two notable differences that travelers to Latin America need to be aware of during spring break.

First, women aren’t the only ones who need to keep an eye on their beverage.

As we describe in the article linked above, men are also in danger of being approached by a flirtatious woman who forwardly asks to return with you to your hotel room. Once there, she slips something into your drink, you pass out almost immediately, and she takes everything you own.

There’s a different, and far more terrifying, drug used to spike drinks in Latin America.

The drugs most commonly slipped into drinks in North America are Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine. Tasteless and odorless, each substance has two things in common: the perpetrator must get them into your beverage, and once affected, you’ll fall into a deep sleep.

That’s not the case with Scopolamine, a powerful drug that it’s widely considered the most dangerous in the world because it completely eliminates your free will.

To get a dose of Scopolamine, otherwise known as Devil’s Breath or Burundanga, a scammer can slip some into your drink. However, this stuff is so potent that scammers can also simply blow a little into your face, and you’ll feel the effects in less than ten minutes. Women have also been known to stuff cotton into their nostrils, so that they remain unaffected, and place some of the powder along their upper lip, delivering the dose with a kiss.

Victims of Scopolamine report that they remained awake, alert, and talkative, meaning observers were unable to detect that anything was wrong. However, many state that they felt like puppets under the control of whoever dosed them.

In fact, someone under the influence of Scopolamine acts so normally that many report waking up to a completely empty room, only to be shown a security video by their hotel of them happily carrying out their own belongings into the waiting arms of strangers.

See Also: Don’t Panic: What to Do If You’re Robbed While Traveling

Many others on Scopolamine are brought to the ATM to empty their bank accounts. Scammers stand back off camera, so that cameras only show the account holder withdrawing cash—making it impossible to get a theft reimbursement from your financial institution.

If all that isn’t frightening enough, Scopolamine isn’t some designer drug that’s hard to get. It’s made from the seeds of pods that hang readily off the Brugmansia tree—or, as you might know it, angel’s trumpets. These woody trees with pendulous, trumpet-shaped flowers are native to South America, and can be found in pretty much every park and many yards.

Brugmansia treeImage via

However, criminals don’t even have to bother extracting the chemical. Pure, cheap scopolamine is spread throughout South and Central America from Ecuador, where the borrachero tree is harvested for medical purposes. That’s because the alkaloid is used legally in medicines across the world to treat everything from motion sickness to the tremors of Parkinson's disease.

If you’re interested in learning more about Scopolamine, Vice put together a two-part series.

  • Usually seen: In nightclubs and bars.
  • Most likely victims: Anyone drinking solo or in pairs.
  • How to avoid it: Keep a close eye on your drinks, don’t invite strangers back to your hotel, and pre-arrange check-in times with friends or family, so that they can act quickly should something go wrong.
  • If it happens to you: If you find that you have been drugged, call the police immediately.

Learn How To Keep In Touch While Traveling: When In Roam: How to Travel With Your Phone

Use Caution & Common Sense When Traveling

It’s easier to throw caution to the wind when you’re caught up in the fun of a spring break vacation. Spending all day partying on the beach, exploring new places, and going on adventures with friends can bring even the most sensible travelers to see the world through rose-colored glasses.

But travel blog posts and trip advisories are chock full of cautionary tales from those who fell for the above scams. To make sure that your spring break is memorable for all the right reasons, be sure to stay alert.

Related: Popular Travel Scams – Learn To Watch More Than Your Wallet!

Another tip? Don’t forget to consider travel insurance! For more than just missing your flight, travel insurance can help to cover the cost of any stolen items, medical emergencies, or cancellations. Learn more by reading “Choosing Travel Insurance That Keeps You Covered.”

And if you’re one of the thousands heading to Cancun, Mexico for spring break, be sure to brush up on the biggest ATM skimming scam used to fleece tourists in the region by reading “Tourist Scam Alert: ATM Skimming In Mexico.”

Want more helpful info to prepare for your spring break trip? Check out You’ve Been Packing Wrong All Along, 6 Awesome Tourist Activities That Cost Less Than 15 Bucks, and Vacation Shopping: How To Buy Only What You’ll Love.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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