If you read your guidebook and check the Internet you can get the impression that everyone gets robbed or conned. This is not true, but if you take some basic precautions you can drastically decrease the chances of getting into trouble. Money exchangers have many ways to rip you off. ATMs really are the way to go, but if you want to use money changers here is some advice on what to look out for:
1. They can fold the bills over and count them twice
2. They can give you lots of smaller bills and drop some behind the counter. Count the money yourself in front of them. Take your time and do not feel stressed because there are other people waiting to change their money.
3. Some countries have a big problem with counterfeit money. Learn how to check that the bills are ok.
4. The money changers can charge you a huge commission which was displayed on a small screen in fine print in the back. Ask them how much you get in local currency after commission and fees for the amount you want to change before handing over any money. Changing money in a bank is usually a lot safer and the rates are normally competitive as well. Changing money at your hotel usually gives you the worst rate.
5. The cashier claims that your bills are fake and have to be confiscated. They can also switch your bills for bills which actually are counterfeit.
6. Short changing also happens (have you ever seen David Copperfield the magician? Well these guys are not far behind in their sleight-of-hand). Count the bills yourself.
7. Do not change your money in the street, it is a sure way to get ripped off.
8. I find that ATMs are usually to be the best way of getting local money. When you arrive in the airport you can normally find ATMs in the arrival hall. They are everywhere these days, the exchange rates are usually competitive and you do not risk getting short changed. Make sure that you know how much you will be charged for making withdrawals abroad first; if there is a fixed fee (and not a percentage of the amount withdrawn) it may be better to withdraw higher amounts of cash each time. You may sometimes be charged a fee from the local ATM in addition to the fee your home bank charges you. It may we worthwhile getting a special credit card with a low fee or no fee at all for withdrawing money from ATMs just to use on your travels.
9. ATMs are very convenient, but unfortunately there has been a rise in scams involving ATMs. The scam is called skimming and involves a card reader being attached on top of the normal ATM card reader. As you insert your card the information on the magnetic stripe is read and stored. When you punch your pin code it is also recorded. A duplicate card is then manufactured and with that your account can be emptied. Check that the ATM looks authentic and pull the keypad and the card reader to see if they are legit (the fake ones are sometimes attached with double adhesive tape).
10. Getting change for large bills can be quite a nuisance. Often you only get large bills when you withdraw money from ATMs but if you change money at a bank or money changer you can insist on getting change (do this before you hand over your money). Try to break large bills when possible, it is easiest in supermarkets, large stores, restaurants and hotels.
By following the above advice I hope you have a great and safe trip. I leave you with a personal experience:
Personal Experience – The Rio Rip-off
When I was in Rio de Janeiro I ran into a couple who had just gone to the beach. While one of them went swimming the other stayed on the beach watching their backpacks. A person approached from one side and asked a question. After she had answered she turned around and the bags were gone. It was a classical “one person distracts while the other one steals”. They had their money, passports and credit cards in the backpacks so it created quite some problems for them. Oh well, you live and learn 🙂