Scams For Gap Year Students To Avoid in Asia

This is the time of year when thousands of students and young people from UK and elsewhere fly off to exotic countries to begin a gap year or take a well earned holiday to celebrate completion of their exams.

Anxious parents will be warning their kids to watch out for pickpockets, to avoid being duped into smuggling drugs, and not to accept drinks or food which might be spiked. All good advice but kids growing up in Britain these days should be pretty street wise and alert to potential threats to their personal safety.

Students might be less familiar with some of the inventive scams and cons prevalent in Asia which are designed to part them from their limited funds.

After 37 continuous years of living and travelling in Asia and the Middle East, I must have encountered every trick in the book. I could probably write a website about it. TrapAdvisor would be a good name but I might run into copyright issues.


Here is a small sampling of scams to watch out for. What they all have in common is that they play on your emotions, your good nature and sense of fair play. Idealistic young people are a perfect target, though somewhat lacking in funds.

1. The Istanbul Shoe Shine Scam

Turkish shoe shine stand

This a fairly harmless scam. Itinerant shoe shine men can be seen all over Istanbul. They carry a simple wooden box over their shoulder (not like this elaborate version in the photo) with slots for their brushes and polish.

Their trick is to cross your path and ‘accidentally’ drop a shoe brush and carry on walking, seemingly oblivious. You, being a kind person, pick it up, run after the guy and return it to him. He gushes with gratitude and offers to clean your shoes as a reward (it doesn’t matter if you’re only wearing scruffy trainers). While giving your shoes a wipe he will tell you that he is a Syrian refugee and has 8 kids to support (which might well be true) and you end up giving him 10 Lira or 10 Euros, which is well over the odds for a shoe shine that you didn’t want or need. If you do get caught by this scam, never mind, you are doing a good deed and the amount concerned is not going to blow your travel budget.

2. The Bombay Milk Powder Scam

Infant formula, India

You step out of your hotel in Mumbai and you are accosted by an impoverished looking young girl, perhaps aged 7 or 8, carrying a small grimy baby. Instead of begging for money she asks if you would buy her some milk powder for her baby brother. You might think that sounds OK – certainly preferable to giving money – at least you know your charity is going to help meet the baby’s nutritional needs.

The girl will lead you to a nearby pharmacy where, if you are not careful, you will pay a highly inflated sum to purchase a can of infant formula from the wicked chemist. Once you have left the scene, the milk powder is of course returned unopened to the shop. The girl, if she is lucky, will receive a pittance and be sent out to find another sucker.

3.The Shanghai Practice English Scam

Nanjing Road Shanghai

While strolling down Nanjing Road in Shanghai, you might, if you are male, be approached by a couple of local women of around your own age. They will ask if they can practice their English with you and suggest you go for a cup of Chinese tea with them. They look pleasant enough. What could be the harm in that, you think. They might guide you to a tea house or bar but whether the drink is Chinese tea or alcohol, you will eventually be presented with a bill for an exorbitant amount by one or two menacing looking men. Don’t be lured into this trap!  Beijing is also famous for this scam.

My Tips

Here are a few techniques which I have developed over the years and found useful.

a) Beware of taxi drivers offering tours or anything else, especially the taxi taking you from the airport to your hotel.

b) Ignore anyone who approaches you on the street offering anything. If it against your nature to be rude, I find that developing a temporary deafness or an inability to speak any language other than Welsh or Sanskrit is a useful defence.

c) Never respond to the question ‘where are you from?’ If you must answer, say Iceland or Comoros Islands or somewhere whose language they are unlikely to speak.

d) Buy what you want but never be sold anything.

e) Unless you seriously plan to buy a carpet, never, ever enter a carpet shop. It is impossible to leave one without buying at least one carpet!

Enjoy your travels.