Your passport is the single most important possession you take with you overseas. Laptops, phones, cameras and clothes may all be expensive, but with the right protection, they’re replaceable. Without a passport, your well-earned holiday grinds to a nightmarish halt.
Unfortunately, your passport isn’t only valuable to you. Scammers and pickpockets know that a stolen international passport can potentially be sold to the highest bidder and exploited in dangerous ways.
In this article, we outline common passport scams, some tips to help you avoid them, and what you can do if your all-important travel documents are lost, stolen or damaged.
Common passport scams
Passport safety overseas isn’t just about protecting it from pickpockets. Scammers exploit the fact that travellers will do just about anything for their passport, like paying unnecessary fees at a border crossing in the hope that they’ll be granted faster entry. Here are three common passport scams that don’t involve pickpockets:
1.The passport validation scam
Border crossings can be stressful at the best of times. In places like South-East Asia, Central and South America, and even parts of Europe, they can be a whirlwind of confusing bureaucracy and intimidating officials.
Scammers know that in this high-stress environment where instructions can be confusing, some travellers will tend to do what they’re told without question. This is the basis of the passport validation scam, in which stalls at the border crossing offer to ‘validate’ your passport for a small fee, sometimes claiming it will speed up your entry to the country.
In reality, these ‘validation’ services have no effect and are not required on entry.
How to avoid:
Scammers will attempt to exploit confused travellers, so having a good understanding of entry requirements is the best way to thwart passport scams like the validation scam. The Smart Traveller website includes entry requirements by destination, and specifies things like how long your passport must be valid for upon entering your destination. Ensure you research the entry requirements of your destination carefully before arriving at the border.
In regions where borders can be disorganised and dangerous, like Central America, it’s often a good idea to book your border crossing with a licensed shuttle service. The shuttle company will transport you through the border and handle all documentation for you, and advise of official instructions and any dangers to watch out for.
Remember to also check the Smart Traveller website to ensure there is no travel warning against the country you are travelling to.
2. Discounted passports scam
If you’re travelling overseas for the first time, or if your passport has expired, you will need to apply for a new one. Some unlucky would-be travellers have been lured by discount prices advertised online for passport renewals, only to discover that the website is fraudulent.
Other websites will claim to accelerate the passport application process, or offer to secure you a visa in record time, however these should also be avoided.
How to avoid:
The Australian Passport Office advises that “The department will never ask you to email a photo or a scan of your passport to renew your passport or request money by email.” Fraudulent websites are often designed to appear official, so it’s best to always seek a second opinion if something feels out of place.
3. Scan and send passport scams
When booking your overseas accommodation and activities, you may be asked to scan and send your passport information via email. This is a rare occurrence and is best avoided, however in some places around the world, local laws require that accommodation companies hold a record of their guest’s passport numbers. In the worst case scenario, the information you supply can be used for identity theft.
How to avoid:
If you’re asked to email a scan of your passport to a hotel or tour operator, always ask if it’s actually necessary, and what information they need to legally complete your booking. If they cannot supply a satisfactory answer, or have no formal policies they can reference, consider taking your business elsewhere. If you are required to supply a scan of your passport, use a redaction tool on your computer to block out the information they don’t need to know.
Pickpockets and your passport
These elaborate scams can be dangerous to unsuspecting travellers, however pickpockets are one of the greatest threats to the safety of your passport. In a campaign released by the UK Government, called ‘Passport Aware’, pickpocket extraordinaire James Freedman demonstrates common techniques used by thieves to swipe valuables from unsuspecting travellers.
For example, picture this: you’ve just taken a seat after boarding a train. But before the train departs, a frantic man on the station starts tapping on the window to get your attention. As you try to understand what he’s saying through the glass, his accomplice swipes your bag from the seat next to you and disappears into another carriage.
A time-tested technique used by pickpockets, ‘the distraction’ is devilishly simple and dangerously effective. It can be applied to any situation, whether it’s a couple requesting that you take a photo of them, or a passer-by asking for directions.
Other common techniques include:
Pickpockets create a physical obstruction that make pedestrians vulnerable to theft. For example, this may be someone blocking your way on an escalator.
The Hugger Mugger:
An overly-enthusiastic stranger embraces you in an unexpected hug, only to swipe your passport from your back pocket.
The Fake Official:
Where a phoney police officer or train attendant requests to see your passport, then disappears into the crowd.
How to keep your passport safe from pickpockets
So what’s the best way to avoid having your passport swiped by pickpocketing scams like these?
Leave it locked securely in the hotel safe when you’re out and about! If you do need to carry it with you, ensure it’s kept in an inaccessible bag that’s carried on you, or try using a money belt, which is kept out of sight of others.
Travellers should also be wary of strangers who take an unusual amount of interest in them. What may seem like a friendly local offering to help with your bags can turn into an expensive misjudgement. Refusing to accept a stranger’s help with your bags might feel rude, but it’s often the safest choice.
Keeping your passport safe from yourself
Whether it’s forgetting the phone in your pocket when diving into the hotel pool, or leaving your passport poking out of your back pocket as you tour the city, you can often be your own worst enemy when it comes to protecting your valuables overseas.
Common ways travellers have lost or damaged their passport in the past include:
- Leaving it vulnerable on the hotel reception desk while distracted with payment during check in and check out
- Leaving it in a jacket or a bag, which is hung over the back of a chair at a restaurant
- Offering it as a security deposit when renting equipment like jet skis and scooters
Five ways to protect your passport
Travellers should keep the safety of their travel documents at the front of mind, at all times. To avoid passport scams and pickpockets, remember to:
- Leave it secured in a hotel safe whenever it isn’t required
- Carry a photocopy that you may use on day trips, and ensure you also have an electronic copy stored on secure websites like Google Drive
- Never offer it as a security deposit when renting equipment
- Be wary of strangers who show a suspicious amount of interest in you
- Always know the entry requirements of your destination before departing home
What to do if your passport is lost, stolen or damaged overseas
There are a few important steps you’ll need to take if your passport is lost, damaged or stolen while you’re travelling overseas, which are outlined on the Australian Passport Office website.
It’s also important to stay calm and follow procedure. Organising a last-minute replacement may be expensive, but remember, our TravelCare policy provides up to $1,000 per person, with a maximum amount of $2,000 per family, to cover lost, damaged or stolen travel documents. There is a $100 excess that applies to any claims.
Remember to report the loss, theft or damage of your passport to the police or local authorities within 24 hours of your discovery of the incident. When you make a claim with us, you’ll need to provide this report and other documents and receipts involved in the replacement of the passport.
As you know, terms and conditions do apply under the TravelCare policy. Please see our Policy Wording for further information.
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