The Authority Tourist Scam: What It Is and How To Avoid It

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein

I emerged from my cushy ADO bus at 1 a.m. in Mexico City’s bus terminal. I was a little out of it and had to get to the airport to catch my flight in the morning.

After the bus assistant handed me my backpack, I asked him where to catch a secure taxi. Mexico City is infamous for the express kidnappings by corrupt taxi drivers, and I wasn’t about to be a victim that day.

He motioned to a brightly lit window that issued taxi chits a few steps away.

Just around the corner from the stand were three guys wearing white button-down shirts, black slacks, dress shoes, and laminated badges that hung around their necks. “Taxi senorita,” they said, shifting nervously from foot to foot.

I bypassed them and joined the other passengers in line at the taxi stand. I paid my fare and was issued a receipt to give to the driver.

As I rounded the bend to find the cars, another well-dressed man approached me wearing a laminated badge. He said, “Taxi?” and grabbed the receipt in my hand. I followed him a few steps before I noticed the rank of cars lined up along the sidewalk with an official-looking desk outside.

I stopped dead in my tracks and opened my mouth to say something, but he beat me to the punch line. “Oh, you’re with them?” he said, feigning naiveté. He shoved the receipt back into my hands and disappeared.

As I handed my receipt to the correct company reps, one of them said to me, “Be careful of those guys.”

“Why are they let in?” I asked. The terminal obviously had some kind of contract with this particular taxi company, yet these “free agents” were allowed to wander about, attempting to lure weary travelers into their cars.

“The police allow it,” he told me, as he scooped the pack off my back and into the car’s trunk. Sure enough, as we pulled out of the terminal, an old cop sat at the exit, sitting on a ledge outside of his car and swinging his legs like he had no care in the world.

What is an Authority Scam?

In Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) (affiliate link), he talks about the power of authority and how its projection can be used to market to, influence, and manipulate others.

When we’re young, we’re taught to obey authority. Parents, teachers, and police are figures that we dare not defy. This teaching has seeped into our psyches, and certain external indicators trigger an automation of compliance without our conscious thought.

The taxi drivers were executing this principle perfectly. By dressing as businessmen and wearing badges, they positioned themselves as legit professionals.

Another example of this scam in action is the “crap attack” found on the streets of Quito. Again, a well-dressed man approaches a tourist and tells him or her that they have feces on their backsides. Seemingly well-intentioned, he ushers the tourists into an alley or a solitary bathroom, where the rest of his team is waiting to relieve the visitors of their belongings. (This particular story has been recounted to me first hand twice.)

Don’t Get Played

While these scammers may walk the walk and talk the talk, there are some key distinctions that will help you avoid getting ripped off – or worse.

When in Rome, do as the Romans

When getting off the bus in Mexico, the Mexicans on the bus completely ignored the guys hovering outside the window and went straight to the official window. This is an excellent indication that this is the safest, most legit route.

Ask a non-related party for advice

It’s been my experience traveling that most people like to have visitors in their country and are willing to help when asked. If you’re nervous about using a particular service provider, ask someone who has nothing to gain, like a seatmate, a street vendor, or a random stranger.  The combination of seeing locals approach the taxi window and asking the bus assistant if they were safe (a legit authority figure with no ties to taxi providers) assured me I was choosing correctly.

Read body language

Some criminals are excellent liars and have perfected the art of deceit. But the average person trying to exploit you? Probably not. Look for cues that someone is lying or being shady. Shifting, nervousness, unwillingness to meet your eye (dependent on culture), and aggression are signs that you should stay away.

Take your time

Don’t let anyone rush you into making a decision. If something just doesn’t feel right about a situation, separate yourself from your influencer and observe your surroundings. At a bus station, for example, you could go inside and grab a snack until you’ve got your wits about you. It’s your schedule, not anyone else’s.

When in doubt, trust your instincts!

The ultimate travel principle that never fails – follow your instincts! Don’t second guess them, don’t out-think them, just go with it. I swear this is the one thing I can attribute to my safety record after all these years of traveling. Check out my video above to hear a few stories about trusting your instincts.

Have you been a victim of the authority scam? Have you managed to avoid one?

  • great advice, jasmine! loved this article!

  • Thanks Jessica!

  • Amer @TendToTravel

    Great advice! This is something all travellers need to be wary of. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks :)

  • Excellent advice Jasmine. Stay safe!

  • Thanks Ryan!

  • Walt

    anyone who thinks authority conveys any degree of trustworthiness is terribly gullible and naive.

  • Maybe so, but we are programmed to think in this way and not many people are conscious of it.

  • Great advice! I have heard plenty of scams involving taxis. I always try to do my research regarding this aspect particularly, before I arrive in a city. Often times, simply shooting the hostel or hotel an email asking about transportation options and what is to be expected can help eliminate this.

  • It’s a great idea to email the hotel or hostel beforehand, and ask about how much it should cost so you won’t get ripped off.