They’re hard to avoid – tourism is a bigger industry than ever, and where there are vulnerable people, there will also be those looking to take advantage of them financially. Scams run rampant, and Guatemala is no exception.
The good news is this: scammers are extremely easy to avoid if you know where to look and who to watch out for. Suspicion is an excellent skill to develop, as many scams work by feeding off of the ignorance, generosity, and compassion of travelers. If you can grow a healthy sense of suspicion, without becoming cynical in the process, you’ve struck gold.
To give you an idea of your biggest threats and the common strategies used by the exploiters roaming about, here is a (not comprehensive) list of typical scams you might encounter during your travels in Guatemala:
- Good ol’ spilled ketchup trick: Many people who are scamming or pick-pocketing work in teams, using distraction to their advantage. In this scam, someone random will spill something on you – sauce, ketchup, whatever it may be. Another “random” passerby will be kind and compassionate and assist you to clean up the spill, probably chastising the culprit for their rudeness at the same time. However, while you’re distracted by the mess, they’re reaching into your pockets and bags and robbing you.
- Help our failing school: If someone approaches you with unsolicited information or a request, it is almost always a good idea to walk the other way. In this example, someone might approach asking for donations for a school or organization which is closing and needs financial support. The problem? It doesn’t exist.
- “Priests”: Similar to the above, someone dressed as a priest may run up to you while you’re out, claiming that something terrible has happened – his wife has suffered an accident, and he needs help to get transportation home, help in the form of money (first tip: priests can’t marry). There are police and embassies for that – walk away.
- Entry and exit fees: Sometimes at the borders, corrupt officials will demand fees from you to either enter or leave. If you call them out in the form of either asking for a receipt, or offering to pay by card, they will be more likely to drop the act and let you through.
- Fake police: It’s not uncommon for locals to dress up as police in order to scam or get information from tourists. For example, they might ask to check your passport or other travel document for legitimacy, and then extort a fee from you in order for it to be returned. This is where carrying only a photocopy of your passport can come in handy, so you don’t risk losing the real thing.
- Carjacking: Valid only for those who will be driving during their time in Guatemala – those same fake police might set up a roadblock, ask you to leave your car, and then rob you. Or, while your car is parked, someone may slash your tires and wait for you to return. When you get in and start driving, they will flag you down for a mechanical problem, coax you out of your car, and then…rob you. Always make sure to inspect your car before getting in, keep the doors locked, and the windows up.
Financial Safety in Guatemala
When it comes to keeping your money in your pocket, there are certainly a few more things you can do to help make yourself more financially secure while you move around.
First, keep in mind that card skimming and cloning is a common practice. Cash is still king in Guatemala, so keep small bills in your pocket and use cash as often as possible, and only take your card out for large and reputable vendors whom you trust. When you need to take cash out, use only ATMs in bank lobbies so that you can be assured they have not been tampered with.
Have you ever considered a money belt for keeping said cash safe? You can invest in a small belt (which looks like an actual belt!) in which you can store cash, keeping it hidden and inaccessible. If you also want to use it to keep larger documents like your passport, full-sized money belts exist which can be worn under the clothes. These will make it nearly impossible for the infamous pickpockets to do their worst.
The take-away? Anyone traveling anywhere in the world needs to be aware of tourist scams and thieves, as they exist practically everywhere. With a discerning eye and a little know-how, you can keep your money, and yourself, protected.