Solo Travel Danger Part II: Caught in a Con Game

This is part II in my series on Stranger Danger. Please have a read of last week’s post. It shows the wonderful, magical, positive side of strangers in 5 short stories.

I was almost taken in Paris. If I had been, I would not have had a Liam Neeson to save me.

This is a story of firsts. My first time in Europe. My first really  solo travel adventure. And my first – and last – time being caught in a con game. It was 1985, I was 27 and I really should have known better.

My trip began in Paris where I spent my first days tripping around the city with fellow hostellers – men and women.  I felt safe and confident. On the day I was to leave for Salzburg, I felt the same way. I was to take an afternoon train so I stored by backpack in a locker at the Gare de L’est station around noon then went across the street to look over a menu outside a restaurant. A man approached and checked it out as well, we chatted and went in to spend lunch together. No big deal. Meeting and hanging out with people in Paris seemed pretty normal at this point.

While we were eating, a man at another table leaned over and asked for a light for his cigarette. The fellow I was with (let’s call him John) provided it and we all got chatting. It turned out that we were all heading to different cities in Austria.

The other man (I’ll call him Peter) got up to leave and casually mentioned that he had to pop into a bank to pick up the Austrian Schillings required to enter Austria. This was before Euros and was news to me. Assuming that this was a detail I missed, I joined the two men and went to get my money changed.

The bank we went to couldn’t change our money. It is only with hindsight that I realize that it was likely a commercial bank. I didn’t even know of their existence then. From this point on, my life took a very dangerous trajectory that fortunately ended well. My choices at each step may suggest that I am a stupid woman but I’m not. I was, however, very naïve. I reveal my failings here to save others as they travel.

A con game is all about gaining the confidence of the mark – in this case, me. The end objective is different with every con artist but the process is pretty well the same. Prey on a human frailty such as vanity, greed or naivety, gain the person’s confidence, then get what you want from them. The thrill of the con is often as important as the results.

After being unsuccessful at the bank, the three of us set out for an Austrian restaurant which John knew. He was sure that the owner would exchange our money so that we could continue our travels. We positioned ourselves at a café across the street from the restaurant. I went to the restroom and took money out of my money belt, went back to the table and gave it to him. Peter gave him cash as well.

As John entered the restaurant across the street, Peter asked how long we had been traveling together. To his apparent shock, I said we weren’t travel mates – that I had just met him.

–          But, you’re my insurance he said.

We both sat back and waited anxiously to see if he had taken off with our money. John returned and gave our money back saying that he had failed. Confidence earned.

We then went to another Austrian restaurant on the Champs Elysees and repeated the process. This time John returned with Peter’s money exchanged but there had not been enough for both of us. He again, gave me back my money. Confidence confirmed.

Peter wished us luck and continued on his way. John and I then headed for the west bank where we would try once again. I know. You’re thinking how crazy I was but it actually seemed pretty realistic. They were pros!

The day was getting on. This time when John went to get the money exchanged he returned and said he had to leave it at the restaurant but that we could return in an hour to get it. Naturally this made me anxious. We went for dinner across the street to wait it out.

At dinner he mentioned that we had missed the train and would have to stay overnight and that we could share a room. I refused and he got angry. When I moved to leave he settled down. After doing this dance a couple of time, I pulled out a photo of my two year old son. He looked at me stunned.

–          How old are you?

It was not a good scene. I left him and looked for phone booth to call a remote connection I had in the city. The booth was occupied. I knocked. I got the one minute hand signal and the person’s back. I looked and saw John watching me. I went to the other side of the booth and pounded on it furiously. The man eventually left in a huff and I called. Once it was clear that I was talking to someone, John took off – with my money of course.

Long story short, I grabbed a cab and went to my contact’s home. She said that had John been successful, I would have been on my way to be sold in the slave trade. Is that the case? I’m not sure. But I certainly wasn’t going on any holiday.

The details of that day are indelibly marked in my memory. What saved me was the fact that I stayed in a public place. While I was significantly poorer in the end, I was left with my life – and a lifelong principle for solo travel: public is always safer than private.

That trip lasted another 7 days.  I criss-crossed Europe by train, as far as Budapest in the east and Amsterdam to the north, and many points in between. As I did, I told the story to as many women as possible. Now, I write a blog on solo travel in which safety is a major theme.

  • elizabeth

    Im curious, why do you say that japan is the safest place for a woman traveling solo? could tell me more about please?

  • Marie Kazalia

    I’ve traveled and lived as an expatriate in several countries. My first solo trip was to Japan, which is probably the safest country in the world for a woman traveling alone. So a great place to start, as it turned out. I never had any problems in Japan, and I lived there for several months teaching.

    Then I traveled with friends to Bangkok, where we stayed with someone they knew who cautioned us not to accept anything from a stranger. Not even fresh fruit. She told us a true story of a young American guy visiting Bangkok who thought it would be ok to accept a fresh mango from some guys he had been talking to. He ate the mango and then woke up with all his money and passport gone. Apparently the mango had been injected with a drug that had knocked him out. He hadn’t expected this and had not examined the skin of the mango so closely as to find a needle mark.

    From Bangkok my friends and I traveled to India and after a few weeks there together, I went off alone to the south where I had a teaching job. After a year in India, my employer tried to get me to stay and head a new school in New Delhi, but I was eager to leave the harsh life I’d lived in India for more than a year. In my employer’s office, I was introduced to a Malaysian man who owned an engineering company in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The man wanted to hire me to work in his company office writing business letters in English inviting engineers internationally to a conference. It sounded like a good job. He gave me a signed letter to give to the engineers in his office.

    I flew to Singapore and stayed for a couple of days and then took a train up to Kuala Lumpur. I did not like the rather negative vibe of that city. It seemed dangerous with a lot of tensions brewing just under the surface of human interactions. When I took the letter to the engineering company office in a high rise office building, they were all men working in the office. While the cat was away the mice were at play–their boss and company owner was still in India. These guys told me that I was to have a free apartment as part of my employment, but that all the guys in the office would have a key to my apartment. The message was clear. I did not feel safe working there. I left immediately. I returned to Singapore. I already had a flight ticket from Singapore to Hong Kong, so that was my safety net. If a situation does not feel right get out of it. That is my motto. Hong Kong is a lovely pleasant and friendly safe city.

  • Cheryl

    Great story. I am glad it turned out so well for you. I too have traveled alone often. I have been very lucky too!

  • Janice Waugh

    Thanks Gigi. Yes, my number 1 rule for solo travel is “public is safer than private”. People around increases safety.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • GiGi Blanchard

    In 2008 I was backpacking alone in Dubrovnik when two men tried to arrest me for publicly drinking a beer. (Tip 1:know the local laws e.g. about open beverages) Luckily, I asked to see a badge in order to buy time (maybe too bat my eye lashes out out of it). Little did I know Dubrovnik didn’t actually have badges at the time. (see Tip 1) the posing officer took out a card and flashed it so fast that I had to ask to see it again and when he did I noticed it was actually a Visa card and these guys were trying to fake arrest me and another traveler I had met earlier at the hostel. I screamed fake cops and we ran to escape but the posers chased us and kicked my new friend down while I continued to scream for the police. Suddenly, these two guys were met by three more guys but since I had made such ruckus all five escaped in a cab that was seemingly waiting for all the men since it was not the first cab in the lingering queue. Later, we found out that a girl had went missing days before from the exact same place -a young Australian girl- who, instead of going back with all her mates she had met at the hostel, had decided to stay behind with some locals she met earlier in the night. I don’t mean to paint the wall dismal but the young lady was found dead later on. That said, traveling alone involves many risks but you must play by the rules. Don’t stay behind with new acquaintances, always meet people in your hostel to go out with. Def. do not leave the public sphere regardless of how handsome the invitation. There are a lot of theories of what went wrong during this fatal incident. I was later interviewed by both Australian and local authorities, Dubrovnik’s main detectives lost their jobs and they now have real badges to carry in case of incident. I still travel alone almost always but I NEVER GET BERATED ALONE , which was the case with the young lady as tapes were reviewed from the night in question. She also left the public sphere with people she’d met hours before. Be safe guys, traveling alone can be awesome!

  • Barbara

    My mom taught me to be wary. She taught me the cross-body purse clutch and the listen-in-4-directions. I learned to distrust strangers and not-so strangers by age 5. Luckily, as an introvert my social needs are pretty much solved by observing people from a seat in a cafe’.
    May you all be safe and careful.

  • Ed Dombrowski

    I just got back from Cambodia and found the country to be intoxicating. I was only there three days but the country really took me in and I want to go back. I was robbed in Ho Chi Minh City a few days earlier and a few Cambodians told me that Cambodia is much safer. I think you’ll love it there.

  • Janice Waugh

    Yes, one has to be mindful of safety but solo travel is still a great experience.

    This incident is why I write about safety. A whole section of my book is dedicated to safety. But I tried to balance it with the fun that is out there for the solo traveler.

    Have fun. Travel safe.

  • L.A Canlas

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m starting to search about solo travel and it excites me to start the journey.
    I’m 29, female and I’ve never been out of the country yet so it would be my first time travelling abroad and solo.
    My boyfriend has been encouraging me to travel solo after reading the “10 Reasons Women Need to Solo Travel” from

    I’ve asked around what is the friendliest country to visit within Asia and I was told it would be Cambodia. Right now I’m reading blogs about Cambodia vis-a-vis Solo travelling. I’m excited at the same time anxious about my first solo travel abroad.
    Safety is always the first concern when it comes to solo travel.
    Thanks for your post, now I’ve been warned.. =)

  • galthea

    Hi, did you make your move? I hope all went well for you. I´m just in preparing to do the same, Thailand too, bit afraid, young, quite naive and single young woman, so I´d be so thankful for any advice! I didn´t find your mail though…

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  • Ashlee

    Thanks for sharing, Janice! This reminds me of a few scary situations of my own, and how important it is to travel smart and not be too trusting.

  • Hank Miller

    Narrow escape. Lucky you. There are still many travelers facing such or far more worse issues. I recently heard from a fellow traveler that a group of some Italian trekkers have gone missing in Triund area of northern India, if to be believed he said there is a foreign mafia group active in some remote region there and no Indian national or authorities are allowed to step in there. He also said that the abducted tourists are posted as drug suppliers or to carry other illegal tasks. I guess using basic common sense is the key to survival as a solo traveler.


    Thanks for sharing this story. Really reminds us to be very mindful when it comes to traveling!

  • Romina

    Something strange happened to me when i was in Amsterdam. I was having lunch in Dam sq and talking with a man i met there. After an hour we went to walk around and then on my way back to the hostel i had to cross Dam sq again. Sudenly a man was following me, walking behind me, almost run, he started to shout, calling me in many languages and telling that he saw me in Dam talking whit a man and saw we left Dam together…. he said he was watching me for a long time while i was there and told to me many other things that i had done the time i was in Dam.

    I´ve been observed and I never recognised it. It scared me a lot and after that I think that every thing could happen at every time.

    Anyway, I take this situation as an experirnce and i still continue travelling alone.

  • Michaela

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this story. I’m glad that you were able to get away from him. Your street smarts kicked in when you needed them most!

  • Sarah Cason

    Thanks for this entry – and for the ALL the entries on solo traveller safety. I’m about to move to Thailand, alone, a single female, and these tips and warnings are exactly what I need to hear. I’m terribly polite (stereotypical Brit) and naive but I’m going to practice rudeness, shouting and a healthy scepticism before I leave… Thanks again! Your tips will be really helpful :-)

  • Linda K Jenkins

    i think that is good… be proactive.. The predators are the ones who are choosing you for a reason… Ignore them.

  • Linda K Jenkins

    It can be dangerous to travel alone or even in groups… as locals might consider you easy prey. I have traveled from Paris to Guatemala, Belize and Singapore. And have plenty of stories of rip off artists.. Just be very aware of your surroundings.. and cautious about trusting complete strangers.

  • Janice Waugh

    Whoa! Those are both crazy situations. Now I feel I got off very light. Yes, share your stories. They are important. Thanks, j

  • Melissa Adams

    Thanks for re-inspiring me to write the stories of the 2 con men (both Dutchies) who preyed on my vulnerabilities as I was moving from California to Amsterdam. One chap led me on a 6-week wild goose chase in search of an apartment that didn’t exist (total loss, about $21,000). The other, a platonic “friend” I knew for 3 years, lived with me for 3 weeks, then locked my on my balcony, dismantled the home theatre system he’d installed + left with 2,500 euros. I wince when people ask me if I feel safe hosting couchsurfers!

  • Lisa Samloglou

    Vividly described story, thanks Solo Travel for reminding my own ‘thrillers’ when I started traveling alone at 18; seems my youthful self sometimes cotravels with me now, at my 50s and pops up. Or it is just the power of seduction that works at any age! ? Are we more open when traveling solo? Can a ‘stranger’ exercise as much ‘power’ on us even in our own city? Sharing, even the questions, is great!

  • Ruth Kozak

    I once wrote a story about the dangers of date-rape drugs after incidents that happened to myself and a friend (hers ended up quite serious). It was accepted for an anthology for first-time travelers to Europe but in the end Lonely Planet who was supposed to publish it refused to publish the story saying it would put people off travel. At that time and more so even now date rape drugs are a very dangerous situation worldwide

  • Tobias

    A chilling story but very well told. Thank you for sharing.

  • Em S

    Oh, and yes, I did the same thing as you did, Janice, with the guy driving me to Naples. (Well, at the time of reality kicking in, I wasn’t so sure where he’d be taking me!!)….but yes, I took out my iphone and started showing him pictures of my family and talking about how much I love them…..trying to make myself a “real person” to him (just in case he had any ideas…)  He also saw a picture of me going out with friends, though….and that infuriated him almost.  He was telling me he wanted to have a baby with me and for me to move there….and that I was 34 and shouldn’t be going out. I should be staying home, blah blah blah. It was ludicrious, I am telling you! But I’d remembered in the back of my head of somewhere hearing to make yourself seem “real” to the person in question….so that is what I was trying to do. 

  • Em S

    Scary stuff!!! I learned my lesson (actually twice!) on my first international solo trip to Italy a few years back. The first story revolved around a man that befriended me who pretended to own a vineyard in Tuscany…and then another guy in the Amalfi Coast that I let drive me to Naples so that I would not miss my overnight train to Venice (after missing the last local bus of the day). Initially, I was viewing him as my “angel” and that God put him in my path to help. But oh gosh — what a fiasco that was!  With both, nothing happened THANK GOD, but I was alone with strangers that really would have liked for something to have happened with me. :( Very easily I could have gone missing. :(  Ironically on the way back to the US, the movie playing was “Taken”. I had never seen it at the time and was thinking, ‘wow, that could have been me!’ on both occasions. Very thankful and learned not to be in such la-la land when I travel. 

  • solotraveler

    Wow. Yes. You do have to be on your guard but, at the same time, be open to the 99% of people who are good. It’s a tricky balance. Thanks for sharing.

  • FisterraTravel

    In 1981 when I was 12  I went with my Mom, then 30, to Paris. We couldn’t find the way back and a man from African decent was going to show the way back. As we kept walking and walking he said not to know his way back, only to his house! We got out of the situation, and found the hotel. Later we noticed he had been leading us around in circles. Very scary to hear (white slave market) but you always have to be on your guard.

  • Jennifer

    Woe, thankfully you are here to share this experience with us today. I do some solo travel in Europe and I meet interesting people from time to time. But I always make sure someone knows where I am going to be and where I expect to be next. If returning to the hotel, you can always let reception know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. And thank goodness for smartphones that can travel the world over with us!

  • Niaih

    RAISE YOUR VOICE: When you sense the discomfiture and smell of a threat, speak louder than normal. It attracts the attention of passersby.Coming out of the Paris metro, I felt a hand dipping into the open pocket of my briefcase. I shouted: “Get your hand out of my purse.” Peace at once. SPEAK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. I did that in Scotland over Christmas when a man tried to pick me up: I said everything polite imaginable as I refused his invitation, but loudly and in Swedish. He gave up and left. NEVER LOOK LOST by studying a map in public alone. That’s how I got targeted in Athens and just barely scraped safely through a rape attempt. NEED HELP? Go to a business owner or someone in uniform.  

  • Janice Waugh

    There are two significant take-away’s from this story. 1. Stay in public. 2. Choose how you engage with – it is unlikely that you will choose the wrong person whereas the wrong person can certain target and choose you. Of course, this isn’t always the case but I like to think that proactive is better than reactive. That experience was a life lesson to be sure.

  • Andrea

    Gosh, such a worrying story and a very harsh reminder of the fact that we sometimes have to learn when *not* to trust, which is hard for many travellers who seem to be trusting by nature. You certainly had a lucky escape, though it’s disheartening that we have to be so aware that not all people we meet when travelling have good intentions.

  • Alexsandra Trevor

    Thanks for reminding all of us solo or other wise to be cautious and not too trusting when traveling.

    I am friendly as well, and have to remind myself to see the big picture of what is really going on sometimes.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Marianne Schwab

    Janice, this is an awesome website for solo travelers. I think of all the narrow escapes I had when I was young, trusting of everyone and so naive. I’m friendly and love to meet people in my travels so avoiding cons can be tricky. Thanks for being open to share this personal story as I’m sure it will help so many. I’ll be linking into your site from mine!

  • solotraveler

    Thanks for your story Ashley. That’s a fantastic rule. When I went to Budapest in 1985 with two other solo travelers I met in Vienna, we made a rule as well – we would stick together no matter what.

    You can make “the pinch rule” with friends and with trusted new friends as well.

    Anyone else have a rule for safety?

  • Ashley

    My girlfriend and I went for our first trip to Canada. That night we went clubbing and drinking. Well, neither of us had any real experience at the club scene. We made rules-that we would stay within eye sight and arms length of each other at all times. Well, we were dancing with two guys and I felt like the room was getting smaller-little did I know that they were backing me into a corner and my friend saw them nod, point, and laugh to each other towards me. My friend said “Let’s Go” and the smartest thing I did was listen they followed us out and luckily there was a cab outside that we got in.. Now I pay more attention and I make a “pinch” rule if I pinch my friend or likewise, then we know that something is going on

  • solotraveler

    The story isn’t meant to scare but to reinforce the importance of following the safety tips in the Solo Travel Safety section of Solo Traveler. I hope it’s helpful.

  • solotraveler

    The story is not intended to scare anyone away from solo travel. It’s a cautionary tale that demonstrates the importance of exercising the solo travel safety tips I offer on this blog.

  • akel

    These kinds of stories always scare the you know what out of me. Glad you’re safe!

  • Sylvie

    Food for thought! I will be in Paris in a week and a half for the first leg of my European adventure. I will definatly be on the look out for any over friendly men offering anything!
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Abhi

    Wow. What a scary story! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Chez Loulou

    Fascinating and scary story! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Globetrooper Todd

    On a lighter note, the last time my girlfriend went to France alone for work was the first time I’d watched Taken (with Lian Neeson). Quite literally, the night after she departed I saw it. Great movie, but during the entire thing I kept worrying about the possibility of… you know… With that sai, there’s a fine line between under-cautious and over-cautious. Luckily you were cautious enough on the day to only lose money.

  • jessiev

    oh my gosh. i can’t even imagine this. i am SO GLAD You are safe.

  • solotraveler

    Thanks to your all for your comments. It’s interesting to see the range. Some people have been in the situation. Others are blown away by the possibility that it actually does happen. Next Saturday it’s on how to recognize danger. I hope you’ll all join in with ways that you recognize and avoid danger.

  • zoe zolbrod

    Thanks for sharing this. I think it’s important to talk about scrapes like this, because it can help others know what to watch out for. With the barrage of new stimuli one is presented with when traveling alone, and with the necessity of sometimes trusting strangers, it’s hard to know what to guard against.


    Wow- good post. Thanks for that tip- it’s good to know. Perhaps carrying a family picture or something is also a good safety precaution when traveling alone!

  • geoff ryan

    John was very professional in the way he kept returning money to build confidence.In typical fashion he put on an angry act when things began to move against him.NEVER BE AFRAID TO BE RUDE TO A STRANGER!These scum use our politeness against us.
    remember what Mum told us;dont talk to strangers!So true.They dont approach people who are moving along purpousfully.Its people like U that are standing still in a busy place looking at a map,perusing a menu or just looking distracted.They come up at you seemingly from nowhere and start their pitch.The target is afraid to appear to be rude by ignoring them and moving on.Big mistake.

  • Ruth Kozak

    I have a couple of date-rape drug stories 1 involving me and another invovling my group of friends and one friend in particular. This kind of thing was rampang in Greece and probably still is and it is so insidious you can easily get tricked. I wrote the story of what happened to my friend and it was accepted for an anthology of First Trips to Europe that was to be published by LonelyPlanet. I signed the contract but in the end they cancelled saying their ‘target market’ thought it would ‘discourage travel’. It was a cautionary tale, and like yours, a real one and very frightening. something that could happen to anyone (even a man!)

  • Joei Carlton Hossack

    Been there myself but certainly not to that extent. Brought up some bad memories for me but I definitely learned my lesson and I too wrote about it for a couple of magazines. Never know when it’ll help someone else from getting scammed. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Monica

    Wow! Glad you came out of that encounter unscathed and able to spread the word. It’s amazing to me that sometimes, even though we know what we’re doing feels off-kilter, we continue to do it because it doesn’t “look” shady.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Nancie (Ladyexpat)

    Sometimes when we’re on the road it’s easy to be a little too trusting. Your story is a good reminder to be cautious. Thanks for sharing.

  • Donna Hull

    What a scary story, Janice. Those scammers were pros. Thanks for sharing important information that every woman (and man) should read.

  • Stephanie

    Have to agree with @SoloFriendly. Thank you so so much for sharing!

  • Gray

    Wow. Scary. How DID travelers learn about cons like this back before the Internet? I certainly had no clue before I started traveling, either. Thank you for sharing your story, Janice.