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3 Common Scams to Recognize Abroad

Elizabeth Esparza, senior program manager on our International Safety & Security team, highlights common scams to look for when traveling abroad.

At some point during your travels, if it hasn't already happened, you may be scammed. It happens to the best of us. There are millions of scams to be wary of, but watch out for the following three in particular.

Request from a Kind Stranger

I was recently standing at the Cambodia Angkor Air desk at the Ho Chi Minh City airport, waiting for someone to find my reservation and hoping that I wouldn't miss the last flight to Phnom Penh. A frantic woman approached me, explaining she was in charge of a group of children, had just flown in from Phnom Penh, and had accidentally taken the passport of a child now stranded in Cambodia. She asked if I would be willing to take the passport back with me.

Never, it bears repeating, NEVER agree to transport packages, envelopes, suitcases, or anything not belonging to you, for a stranger. You could become an unsuspecting smuggler or mule. If you have two hours to spare, watch the movie Brokedown Palace to see what happens to Claire Danes' and Kate Beckinsale's characters after falling for an attractive drug smuggler in Thailand. If you're caught smuggling anything illegal, local officials won't care that you were scammed into the situation.

It should go without saying, but I wouldn't even touch the envelope the woman was trying to hand me. I have no idea what was in it, but I'm extremely confident that there wasn't a stranded child in Cambodia waiting for his passport. So what did I do? I started laughing. I tend to laugh at inappropriate times—it's an issue I’m working on. I turned to look around to see if anyone else had been close enough to witness the encounter. In the time it took me to do that, the woman disappeared. If you find yourself in a similar encounter, say no and walk away.

This Round Is on Me

Be mindful of your bar tab, and try to pay for each round individually.

You're overseas and meet a gorgeous local at a bar, or you end up at a bar of his or her choosing. Next thing you know, your new friend is gone, and you owe the bar an exorbitant bill. Don't have a credit card? Don't worry, the scammers may even take you to an ATM to get the money you owe.

Men tend to be the most common target for this scam. I've heard of situations where the victims pay the bill, sometimes in the thousands, just to remove themselves from the situation. If you're at a bar, ask for the cost of a drink before ordering, each time. Or pay for each round individually. I know this sounds paranoid, but I've seen and experienced enough in my travels to know better.


Be careful what and when you share on social media and with whom.

Keep in mind that your travel could make your family back home susceptible to a scam. In what is commonly referred to as the grandparents scam, a con artist calls your family pretending to be you and asks for money. They make your family believe it’s an emergency and ask for the money to be sent through Western Union. Usually, the level of information that can make this type of scam possible is readily available online.

So, what can you do to try to protect yourself from this type of scam?

  • Limit the amount of information you put on social media.
  • Don't post in real time and tag your location (i.e. #latergram should be your rule of thumb when posting photos).
  • Use strict privacy settings on social media.
  • Keep in touch with your family.


If you've been scammed while on a Harvard-related trip abroad, let us know so we can provide you with the proper support. While abroad, contact International SOS, our 24/7 global emergency response program, at +1-617-998-0000 or through the Assistance App. You can also contact International SOS after the fact. Learning about your experiences helps us educate future travelers.

Before you travel, research your destination thoroughly. The following resources can help: