10 Tourist Scams to Avoid in India

We love travelling in India and think it is a beautiful country. However, like a lot of other tourist destinations, there will be people who are out to make some quick money out of you. Here’s a list of the top ten scams that you may come across while visiting India – hopefully this will help you to avoid some hassle!

1. All the trains are fully booked. You want to take a train from Delhi, for example an overnight sleeper to Rajasthan. If you’ve not travelled by train in India before, you might think the Tourist Office would be a good place to start. A tuk-tuk driver or a random passer-by will kindly show you the way to one that says ‘Government of India Official Tourist Office’. The offices are always plush and super clean, and blasted with wonderfully cool air-conditioning – you are shown to a seat and feel comfortable, so you ask about booking a train ticket. Unfortunately, you are told that trains out of Delhi are booked for weeks, and the only way to travel now is a package tour that includes all journeys, hotels and food. Feeling disappointed you ask how much, to be told it will cost an extortionate amount. You say that you will think about it and politely say thank you and walk out. Once you leave, you will be greeted by a man who says this isn’t the ‘Official Tourist Office’, and that he will take you to the real one. You feel silly for being taken in, and happily follow this kind stranger…only to be told the exact same thing as in the previous place, walking out a completely different man will greet you and say he will take you to the real one, only for the same thing to happen, again and again. Something doesn’t quite feel right does it? None of these places are ‘official’ tourist information offices, but seemingly there is no rule against them branding themselves as such. There is actually only one real official Indian Tourist Office, it’s at 88 Janpath in Connaught Place. If you want to buy a train ticket, go to the reservation office at the train station – most big stations have a separate office for advance tickets, sometimes with a dedicated ‘foreign tourist’ counter called TATKAL.

2. The baby milk scam. This one is a difficult one as it plays on your emotions. In Varanasi and various other places in North India you are approached by a lady wearing a bedraggled looking sari, holding a baby and an empty milk bottle. She says “no money, just milk for my baby”. If you happen to fall for this she will ask you to go to a specific shop with her and buy a particular type of milk powder. Unfortunately she will already have an arrangement with the shop-keeper where this product will be sold to you at a highly inflated price. Once you have gone, thinking that you have done a good deed, the woman will return the milk to the shop and split the money with the shop-keeper.

3. Tuk-tuk tours with commission. This one is a bit of fun and games, and can work out for you, if you have the patience and acting skills to fool the shops into thinking you are interested in buying their expensive wares. We came across this in Kochi, where drivers will offer you a rickshaw tour for a couple of hours at a very cheap price, usually for a measly 50 rupees, great but what’s the catch? All you have to do is at the end of your ride, go into around five ‘Government Shops’, they sell handicrafts, pashminas, jewellery, furniture, and make it look like you are interested in buying their goods, when really you have no interest whatsoever. The best thing to do is play the game with them, ask how much things are, make a fake story up like you want a gift for your parents but not sure what to get them, and always ask at the end for their business card in case you want to come back and buy something. It’s a little light-hearted fun, and if your acting skills are on point, you may even get a free chai out of it.

4. Pushkar passport scam. Pushkar is such a peaceful town, strictly no alcohol or meat is served anywhere here, and it attracts hippies as far as the eye can see. But there’s an underlying scam that can spoil it. In the centre of the town is the holy lake, surrounded by various ghats which you can walk along. One man will come up to you and place a lotus flower in your hand, and usher you to the lake telling you that you must have a blessing here or you will not be allowed to walk around the lake. He ties a red and yellow string round your wrist (a ‘Pushkar passport’) and speaks in Hindi which sounds great, while piling some flowers into your hands, for you to put into the lake. He then asks how many relatives you have and what their names are, he asks you to repeat some Hindi words and a suggests you give a certain amount of money for each family member for good luck. Out of nowhere he will suggest that you donate a large sum of money, say $20. It can feel like you are under pressure to donate in this situation, but you don’t have to, particularly if it was not clear from the start, or if he named a much smaller sum at the start. A lot of the time these are not even real sadhus or holy men. If you do want to have a blessing and get your Pushkar passport, then go ahead, but know that you shouldn’t feel pressured into paying more than you think is fair, and you can walk away if it doesn’t feel right. If you don’t want a blessing, just don’t let anyone put a flower in your hand or lead you to the lake.

5. Ripped money. This is not a scam as such, but worth noting as it is a bit cheeky. Sometimes shops or restaurants will try to get rid of any ripped notes they have by giving them to tourists as part of their change – often you won’t notice until you try to spend the note. Just be aware of this and check your change!

6. Your hotel has burned down! This one is prevalent in Delhi mainly, where many of the hotels have commission deals with tuk-tuk drivers. Picture the scene – you’ve just arrived in Delhi after a 24 hour train journey, you’re tired, hot and sweaty. You’re feeling relieved that you already have a place booked for the night and you’re looking forward to checking in and unwinding. You’re ambushed by tuk-tuk drivers as soon as you leave the train station and you secure a ride . You gratefully climb aboard and tell him the name of your hotel and this is where it all seems to go wrong. Dismayed, your driver will tell you that your hotel has burned down, or moved, or closed. But not to worry, he knows a good place to stay and he can take you there instead! If you seem like you doubt this, he will even offer to phone your hotel so you can speak to them and they will confirm the story – of course it won’t actually be the hotel that he phones, just one of his mates pretending! The only way to get out of this is to insist that he takes you to your original hotel – say that you only spoke to them that morning to confirm and that you know they are open.

7. The gems scam. This crops up all over the place, but mostly in North India, or Goa. This one can feel a little bit like a betrayal as it starts with someone making friends with you. Sometimes they can go to great lengths to convince you they just want to chat, to practice their English – you might be invited back to their house for dinner, for example, and the sales pitch won’t be made until a few hours later. They will show you some gems, and say that you can make a lot of money selling them back in your own country. It can sound like a tempting way to make a little money when you get home, and they look like the genuine article. They will tell you that they can’t export the gems themselves as they can’t get a licence, but that they have a contact in your country who will be waiting to buy them from you at a good price. If you do buy them, they won’t be genuine (they’ll switch the ‘example’ ones you were shown for fakes), and you can guarantee their ‘contact’ back home will be fake too.

8. The ear cleaning scam. This is gross, and an unsanitary rip-off! You’ll be approached by someone saying that they are a professional ear-cleaner, offering their services. They may say a cheap sounding price, say 100 rupees. You think it sounds genuine, or like it might be a funny thing to do. However, once they get to work and start pulling huge globs of stuff out of your ear, you may have second thoughts! By a sleight of hand, they already have these ‘ready made’ chunks of gross ear-wax and they wipe it off to show you. Then it transpires that they meant 100 rupees per chunk of stuff they have ‘cleaned’ out of your ear, and you could be looking at up to 800 rupees! You should also be aware that sometimes they won’t ask, they may just come up to you and start trying to poke around in your ear – you don’t have to give them any money if you haven’t given them permission to do it.

9. Money for directions. Sometimes, you may be standing on a street corner – consulting a map or just looking a little lost – when a friendly local will come up to you and offer to show you the way. Most of the time, they will just be being friendly, but be aware that sometimes they will be expecting some money at the end. We got lost once looking for a temple and a local offered to walk us the whole way. How kind, we thought. We’d only needed him to point out the turning, but he was friendly and chatted with us as we walked. However, once we said to him that we could find the rest of the way, he asked for money, saying that people often gave him dollars for his directions. When we refused he got quite angry, so we ended up giving him some rupees just to get away.

10. The shoe cleaning scam. You’re happily walking along the street in, for example, Delhi. A friendly passer-by will stop you and point out that you have some dog mess/cow mess/mud on your shoes. You look down and they are right – you must have stepped in something gross without noticing. Luckily, the passer-by will happen to have a friend who is a shoe cleaner, or there will be a shoe cleaner a few metres away. How convenient that you can get it cleaned off right away! Of course, the two are working together and they have deliberately placed the muck on your shoe in the first place. It’s a difficult one to avoid to be honest, as you may not have noticed until it is too late, but it pays to be aware that it happens. A worse version is when someone throws mess at your shoes or clothes without you noticing, and then offers to help you clean it. Amidst the chaos of this, someone else will steal your valuables. As always, make sure you keep your valuables safe at all times.

If you are prepared and aware, none of these scams should be able to spoil your visit. But if you are caught out, don’t feel bad – everyone has fallen for one of these at some point. Let us know in the comments if you have any more to add to this list!

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