Updated on February 22, 2021 by Asher Fergusson
After living in India for a while, it becomes apparent that scams are everywhere. Although, in my experience they are the most common in big cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai. Even from the moment you get out of the airport you may be hit with people trying to scam you as “the unsuspecting tourist”.
Below I list some of my experiences, top tips and the 27 most common things to look out for.
Top 15 list of biggest tourist scams in India
1) Pretending to not know your hotel: Drivers will commonly pretend that they have never heard of your hotel even though it is one of the most famous hotels in your town! A helpful way to overcome this is to know where your hotel is in relation to the airport or train station etc. The reason they do this is because they would prefer to take you to another hotel where they get a commission for bringing them business. Another way to overcome this problem is to have your hotel pick you up. This is generally significantly more expensive but can be worth it to avoid the hassle.
2) Saying your hotel has moved or closed: A similar tactic is to say that your hotel has closed or moved and then take you to a slightly differently named hotel where they get a commission. Again, know the address of your hotel and have their phone number handy in case you need to have them explain directions to the driver.
3) If you’re lucky enough to encounter an elephant, expect scammers nearby: I was stopped for lunch when this amazing Indian elephant (pictured) strolled by. I had never seen one this close so I naturally was drawn to it. When my friend took this photo of me the elephant owner came running, yelling and asking for 100 rupees. If you want to take photos it’s fine but expect someone will want a handsome tip. You’d be best to agree on the price before taking the photo. It shouldn’t be more than 10 or 20 rupees.
4) Fake train ticket or “information offices”: In both Delhi and Mumbai I have heard of or seen fake train ticket stations and tourist information offices. Both of them seem to be a front for the mafia! The way to know they’re fake is that everything looks dodgy, there are no computers (or not many), no proper desks and they tell you that all trains or hotels are fully booked out due to some event. This is why it’s important to have a phone and ideally one with Internet so you can easily cross reference their bull $@#!
5) Gifting you something then asking to be paid: A common place for this Indian scam is around the temples and holy rivers. For example a child or “holy man” will tie a string around your wrist or put a red dot (tilak) on your forehead and then ask for 50 rupees! If someone tries to gift you something be sure it is actually a gift and not a scam.
6) Asking for you to pay again at the hotel: If you stay at an “el cheapo” hotel, then upon leaving after you’ve already checked and paid for your stay, they may ask you to pay again!! To avoid this happening (especially with anything prepaid) keep your receipts to prove you’ve already paid.
7) Beggars may put their hands in your pockets: I guess this isn’t really a scam but it’s worth mentioning. I was crossing a busy street where there was median strip in the middle of the road. On this strip was literally a pack of beggars. I got to the middle but then couldn’t proceed due to traffic. All the beggars who were quite dazed and confused suddenly jumped to their feet and started grabbing at my bags of shopping and even putting their hands in my pockets. Luckily I had my [easyazon_link identifier=”B005IUBUKQ” locale=”US” tag=”1331-ipl-20″]passport pouch[/easyazon_link] under my shirt so there wasn’t anything for them in my pockets. I then ran to the bank where there was an armed guard to let me in but refused the beggars…
8) Children wanting pens and beggars wanting milk: As a tourist you will be asked for money from beggars. I highly recommend that you completely avoid giving money to them (they have usually made it their “profession” and paying them keeps them in business). Maybe because of tourists not paying them, there is a tactic to ask you to buy them milk from the nearby shop to feed their baby. Similarly, kids may ask you to get them pens for school. In both cases they have an arrangement with shop to return the item for cash after you leave!
9) Young beggar girl with a baby: Another beggar tactic is to have a 12 year old girl carry a 6 month old baby while the 12 year old gestures for you to feed “her” baby. The truth of the matter is that it almost always isn’t her baby and the reason they do it is because they’ve learned that they make triple the money if a young girl carries a baby. Don’t fall for this ploy.
10) Tampering with food or drink: It is really unfortunate but sometimes shop keepers with refill bottled water with tap water and then glue the lid back on! For this reason, it’s super important to always inspect bottled water before purchasing. Another common practice almost ubiquitous throughout india is cutting milk with tap water. I’ve also heard that water melons are sometimes injected with sugar water so that they are heavier and therefore more valuable. Lastly, there are stories of people putting drugs in food items and then offering it to tourists on a train for example and then stealing all your bags. The moral of the story with all these horrible scams is to be extra careful around eating and drinking and only go to trusted vendors or restaurants and never accept food from strangers.
11) Count your change – carefully: Always. No matter who you are dealing with. The train station, the travel agent, the veggie wala, the shoe shine boy, the bank… anyone can make a “mistake”. And when you show them that their calculations were off, you will be greeted with a look of astonishment and amazement. And suddenly they locate the missing bill – in their lap or on the floor! Use the calculator on your cell phone if you buy more than a few items. That alone will deter most miscalculations.
12) “Sunscreen” may not actually be sunscreen: In Kerala, I was on the beach when a local vendor offered me some “Banana Boat” sunscreen for 20 rupees. I didn’t have any with me so I thought, “better this than getting sun burnt…” The outcome? It was baby lotion!!! And I got terribly burned! Moral of the story, bring your own sunscreen that you can trust.
13) Any kind of performer will expect a tip: At the Kumbh Mela in 2013 I saw so many amazing spectacles including this snake charmer (pictured). When I took this photo he wanted rupees. Beware of any performers like this as they will certainly demand money whether you liked their performance or not!
14) Broken meter in the taxi: Usually this happens in Mumbai, or occasionally other big cities where they are required to use meters. The driver will say something like, “meter is broken, sir”. Then you can say you’ll tell the police and most often the meter will magically work again. Also showing the driver a map on your phone or in hand will make them be more diligent and go the shortest route. Taking the longest route possible is another scam tactic in order to make a few extra rupees.
15) SIM cards for your phone might not work: It’s quite difficult to get a SIM card in India and typically involves a lot of paperwork and other hassles. If you don’t fill out that paperwork but someone sells you a SIM, there is a good chance it’s a used or defunct card that simply won’t work. You’re best to go to an official main office from one of the carriers and do all the arduous paperwork and get an official SIM card that will work until it’s been inactive for 3 months and then they’ll promptly cancel your service.
12 other tips to avoid being scammed in India
Below are more general tips for minimizing the chances of being ripped off or caught is some kind of elaborate tourist trap.
1) Watch out for the mafia
Two of my friends got out of the train station in Delhi late at night. They flagged down a “normal” looking auto rickshaw and then headed to their hotel. First the driver “couldn’t find” their hotel and proceeded to take them to another “hotel” which was fully booked. My friends even spoke to the “hotel” who confirmed that it was completely booked out. They were then taken to the “tourist information office” which confirmed that all hotels in Delhi had no vacancy because of the “Kumbha Mela” which was happening in another state. My friends were like, “this doesn’t make any sense of course there are hotels that have vacancies!” The people at the “office” said, “no sir” and instead they recommended that they get in one of their “taxis” right now and do a tour of Rajasthan. My friends said, “no way, can we speak to your manager”. Then the head (drugged out) mafia guy came out and explained that this whole thing was a scam. He said, “since I like you, I will get you a hotel.”
Moral of the story, watch out for the mafia!! If something is fishy then it probably is a scam or trap. Do your research and have your wits about you especially around train stations and cheap hotels. Also having a cell phone (with working Internet) can be invaluable.
2) Have good travel insurance for India
These days I won’t do any international adventures without having good travel insurance. But I especially think it’s important for India travel because you need to “expect the unexpected” and have peace of mind that you’ll be taken care of no matter what happens. Read my full article about why you need travel insurance HERE.
3) Taxi and auto rickshaw drivers are notorious scammers
As you can see from above, the drivers are some of the biggest scammers in India and are often linked to other more elaborate scams, schemes and rip offs. A major way to avoid these scams is to agree on the destination and price before getting in to the vehicle. Don’t pay a cent until you have arrived at your destination. Often on a longer journey a driver will ask for money for gasoline which is okay to give as long as it is part of the agreed upon final price and you remember it at the end (they will hope you forget!). Another thing that makes it easier to communicate with drivers is to say you’re going to landmark such as a well known fancy hotel or tourist attraction. Then when you’re near you can either get out and walk or direct them a little further to your real destination. This helps avoid confusion, misunderstandings and the chances of being scammed or tricked by a sly driver.
4) Almost all shops are going to rip you off
As soon as the shop keeper sees that you’re a westerner they will get dollar signs in their eyes and jack up their prices. A simple way to avoid this is to only go to “fixed rate” shops. If this isn’t possible then you will need to bargain.
5) Learn to bargain like an Indian
I wrote this other article (worth checking out) called, “how to bargain like an Indian“. The key is to offer an absurdly low amount for an item so that the bargaining begins and then ever so slowly increase your offer until you agree with the shop keepers offer. Another tactic is to walk out of the shop saying “too expensive” or “too much” and often this will drop the price closer to your rate instantly. Lastly, you should try to know how much something is worth in India.
6) Get experience with true prices
This is easier said than done but after a few days or weeks in India you might start to figure it out. Basically you need to know what the locals would pay for the same item and then you’ll know how low the shop keeper, driver or hotel is willing to go.
7) Ask trustworthy looking locals
One way to help with quickly knowing the true price of things is to ask helpful locals who aren’t getting a commission from anyone. They will gladly tell you the true prices and may even help you bargain when the vendor is blatantly ripping you off.
8) Be careful when exchanging money
Obviously exchanging money can be a risky business that scammers like to be involved with. The airport exchange places are usually fine but they do rip you off. I personally like ATM’s the best because they are safest and have some of the best exchange rates. Learn more about it on my blog, “handling & exchanging money in India“.
9) Read the Lonely Planet book
The Lonely Planet India book is like a bible for all the destinations popular and (not so popular) in India. They also usually throw in some examples of the typical local specific scams that commonly take place at the destination you’re going. Here is the latest issue on Amazon.
10) If possible never pay upfront for a service in full
The balance of payment (and tip) should never be paid until you are satisfied with the service. Otherwise the driver or guide or whoever can walk away with your luggage or simply your money without delivering the service or goods they said they would.
11) Be super vigilant around large financial transactions
Whenever you pay many thousands of rupees for a big expense be extra alert. I have been scammed a couple of times with a very common con. You count several thousand rupees in payment for a service. You recount it on the table in front of the seller. There is no question about the accuracy of the count. He then recounts it in front of you, and surprise! It is Rs500 short! You look at him incredulously. He looks at you incredulously. He hands you the cash, and you recount. It’s Rs500 short! He shrugs his shoulders. You are both astonished at the error, so you pull out another Rs500 note, and accept the miscount. What happened? The missing Rs500 note is in his lap. When he was counting the notes, you blinked. He slipped a Rs500 note out and into his lap. When he showed you that the cash was Rs500 short, he was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling you that he had the Rs500 note in his lap.
12) Do your research before arriving
Last but not least, do your research. This means looking up the destination on the Internet, studying maps and getting advice from other travelers about that place you’re thinking of going. This will help you get any insider knowledge before you arrive making you more prepared to deal with the possible onslaught of scams that await you.
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