Scams and Thefts to Watch for in Sri Lanka

I shall start by saying that I have travelled much of the world, and there are scams everywhere, The most persistent scam the traveller is likely to encounter is being overcharged by tuk tuk drivers, and constantly having to haggle with too many of them, which is tiring. but rarely does it involve big sums of money. The incidents listed below are those I personally know of, or have been told of by people coming to the Fig and Gecko.

The police have also published a list of 5 scams to watch out for, which when I find it, I'll post on here.

Police Emergency Telephone


Anuradhapura Police Telephone


Anuradhapura Tourist police


The bus or train station pick up

The best place to find tourists are bus and train stations. The standard approach is by someone speaking English offering you a ride. Depending on which station you are at, you may be overcharged, told the meter's not working. Alternatively, in a small town, you may be undercharged to get you to agree to do something else with them, such as a tour, the next day..

Rule of thumb. Don't agree to anything other than the tuk tuk or taxi ride. Take their phone number which they'll insist upon and wait. .



Being Rushed into Decisions that Involve you Parting with Money

People are willing and able to overcharge you for all sorts of goods and services by sounding reasonable, friendly, and helpful.

Write what they say down, sleep on it, ask the prices, compare, and commit to nothing until you have done some research. 

You are taken somewhere (a restaurant, or a hotel) by a driver, or sold something, often because the people advising you or taking you are making commission on it - and sometimes, a lot.

If after research you find this isn't the case (hooray!) tell me about them and we'll recommend them! 

Thefts from the Train

In a 2 month period up the end of January 2018, we have had 2 guests come to the Fig and Gecko having got off the train from Colombo to Anuradhapura having had their 'small bag' stolen on the train.

Everyone puts all of their valuables into the 'small bag' to keep it safe, and the thieves know this. If you have a small bag with valuables with you, on the bus or train, keep it in sight, or attached to you, or tied, or whatever you want to do to ensure you aren't the victim of this targeted theft.    

Thefts from Buses

In october 2017, a traveller joined us in Anuradhapura at about 03:00, having caught the night buses (you have to take connections) from Arugam Bay.

Three times he tried to sleep on one of the buses (I recall him saying that he was on the bus closest to Arugam Bay) and 3 times the guy sat next to him, tried to open his bag and put his hand inside. The traveller told the conductor who did nothing. The assumption is that the driver, conductor, and the 'passenger' were working together.

What can you do? When you get off the bus, photograph the bus and its' registration plate, and make a complaint to the tourist police when you get to your hotel.  

Tuk Tuk Scams - the many ...

The simplest way to avoid being overcharged is to use your sat Nav to plot the route, show the driver the KM, and know the price you are willing to pay.

1. 'I'll take you to my brother's shop.'

The most serious scam I put first. A young German travelling alone, who came to the Fig and Gecko in December 2017 caught a tuk tuk in Colombo and agreed to go to the driver's 'brother's shop', where they presented him with gems for $000s. In order to get out of the house, he eventually bought a 'stone' for a few $00.

If you are picked up by a tuk tuk driver who says about visiting a shop, or massage parlour, my advice is to say a clear 'No'. If he insists, tell him to stop and then get out, or get out when he stops.

2. Parking Charges

Tuk tuk drivers will tell you they have to pay parking charges, and pass that on to you. In Anuradhapura, a guy outside Walkers wanted me to pay him LKR 100.  From outside the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo, the 'charge' he asked for was LKR 3,000. 

They ask because they get away with it. 'No!' is the answer, or the result you want, however you achieve it.

3. My meter / milometer isn't working.

Hail another tuk tuk

4. KM price

The going rate for taxis in Colombo is LKR 40/km. The same for tuk tuks. The maximum should be LKR 50./ KM. If they want more than LKR 50/KM, then hail another tuk tuk. Same applies in other towns.

5. The tuks tuks waiting at town train and bus stations

These tuk tuk drivers are there looking out for you, the tourist.

Once they have you in the tuk tuk, many will offer you tours (don't agree to any until you have spoken with us if you are coming to the Fig and Gecko, or until you have done some further research wherever you are going). They know that western tourists are good for their word, and unfortunately, even when given better info, will feel obliged to take the tour as they have agreed to it. If, on the other hand, a better deal comes their way, you won't be seeing the tuk tuk at 08:30, and they won't let you know either.

They will tell you the hotel you are going to is 'rubbish' (we have been told that they say this about us at the Fig and Gecko, and others, which many hotel owners are afraid of)  and they will then take you somewhere where they are paid commission  etc.

My rule of thumb is that if I am at a station, and approached by a tuk tuk driver, I need to be careful - especially if they speak good English.

I always avoid this hassle by walking out of the station and hailing a tuk tuk going past, which is not part of the 'operators' at the stations.


Paying for Tickets Up Front

You may well be offered what appears to be a cheap tour of the archaeological cities, and told that if you give the 'organiser' your ticket money, when they take you, they will .buy the tickets for you.

They don't buy the tickets at all. They pocket the $25 /person, take old tickets, and pay off the security as you go around with them.

 At Polonnaruwa, I have been told by a few people that you can do the tour for LKR 4,000 by climbing under the fence, getting in the waiting tuk tuk and then 'as above'.

Other than at Polonnaruwa, where you know what is being done, don't pay for tickets in advance - and if you do - get receipts, and or go with the drivers when they buy them.

Scams with Car / Minivan with Driver

Things to watch out for with drivers for tours / scams.

1. Always put in writing, and signed - whether organised through a hotel, or directly by you - whatever you have agreed. It is common in Sri Lanka for agreements to be made and agreed one day, and changed by the Sri Lankan the next, In your case, they may wait until the journey has begun to ask for more money,

2. As part of the agreement, you should be looking at a KM price (maybe 35-60/KM), an allowance for the driver's daily food (approx KLKR 1,000), if the driver is staying with you overnight only, and overnight accommodation (approx LKR 1,500). The expensive hotels may well provide free driver accommodation, but the lower priced accommodation, rarely does, and may not even have driver accommodation.

It is important to agree the food prices, otherwise the driver will invariably sit with you at lunch and dinner time - taking photos for his FB account - and expect you to pay, He will order off the menu at a far greater cost than the the LKR 1,000 / day you would be wise to pay at the beginning (Remember, many Sri Lankan establishments - hotels for rooms, and restaurants - add 10% service charge plus 15% tax on each bill). Westerners are usually too polite to say to the driver that they wish to dine alone, and this is taken advantage of. 

3. Never pay all the money up front.

It is reasonable to pay petrol to begin, maybe LKR 5,000 for long distances.

3. Always agree routes, and use your GPS to at least estimate daily mileage before agreeing with the driver to take them on for your tour.

Get an opening and closing mileage each day.

When a driver gets lost, they will charge you for their mistakes, or they may simply add mileage at the end. Be clear that you will only pay the extra mileage you ask them to do.

4. don't allow the driver to buy you lunch at a local place for LKR 220. You will feel obliged to buy him lunch - usually at a more expensive place.

5. Remember, drivers usually recommend places for you to visit or eat at where they will get commission. So plan ahead. 

5. If your driver does start performing (expecting more money, driving badly, drinking, or even refusing to take out someone for the day when the rest of you have gone elsewhere) then you can alway call the tourist police to get involved, pay the driver for the mileage done, and get another driver and van or car.