Avoiding Scams, Thefts, and Assault in Sri Lanka

On this page:

Overview

Most Active Scams

Listen to what your mother told you!

Independent Information

The psychology of the scam in Sri Lanka

Common Scams

Reporting Incidents

Knowing typical prices

Real Life Stories

Overview

Sri Lanka, in my experience (we have been working here for 4 years) and listening to the experience of many others at the @FigandGecko, our Give A Fig Volunteers volunteers, staff, as well as on forums, is a very safe country to visit. Violence against an individual tourist by individuals is rare. Many would agree, that you are safer in Sri Lanka than in an American or European City.

We have many solo tourists coming to us who experience few problems beyond that of being overcharged, which is annoying, and the norm for the tourist here. When overcharging becomes so much that it is 'theft', that is a scam.

You are, however, a target, by virtue of being white. Scams - which range from being charged for parking (there are no parking charges) by the tuk tuk driver (I have been asked for LKR 100 in Anuradhapura to LKR 3,000 in Colombo) and being taken to other hotels without permission so that the tuk tuk driver gets commission (he has no interest in your interests), to being forced to buy gems at a shop that the tuk tuk driver has taken you to - are unfortunately widespread. There is a particular focus on the main tourist centres, but scams are too frequent, widespread, and accepted by Sri Lankans as part of normal behaviour to be dismissed as unfortunate occurrences. They have a word, 'cuppity' meaning 'sly', which they will tell you refers to Sri Lankans.

Private car and driver hires can be very bad, with overcharging at the outset, as well as additional charging for extra mileage when the driver gets  'lost', or claims that the agreement he agreed to is not enough. Know the prices (on this page), write things down. Get him to sign the agreement. 

Sexual assaults do occur, but given the number of female visitors we have, this is either low, or underreported - (which may be the case for all of these issues - and certainly for scams). I am personally aware of 5 sexual assaults in 4 years against white tourists. 3 in Colombo (one I actually witnessed, of a guy running past a white woman, grabbing her breast and jumping on a bus), and 2 on trains. One on the train from Colombo reported to me by a guest who joined us in June 2018 - of a guy rubbing her leg., who left when she screamed at him. Another on a crowded train being touched up. The 2 others were related to me by an older woman in Colombo who was volunteering with another company, and someone else she knew, also a volunteer, Both were out alone on separate occasions in a Colombo back-street at night, both were grabbed from behind, groped, and the perpetrator ran away when screamed at.

Social media accounts (2 of the main links to these accounts are below) highlight incidents and responses, and focus on the main gathering points for young travellers.

Again, it is important to say that the majority of people have few unpleasant encounters, and knowing some basic information could probably help you to avoid the vast majority of chances of being scammed.

Most active scam encounters for tourists centre around:

  • Overcharging. This is everywhere, and a real annoyance fior most tourists. But, it has to be put in perspective. One hotel charges you $10 for a bed in Sri Lanka, another charges you $500. You agree to pay according to your budget and choice. Overcharging in this case is the annoying fact that far too many people do this to you in daily life. If you don't notice, maybe you paid the $500 for the bed. You get charged $30 to visit Sigiriya, a local gets charged maybe LKR 300. The way to equip yourself is to have a good idea of prices. If watermelon is LKR 50/KG in one place, it won't be LKR 250/KG down the road, If a beer is LKR 160 in one liquor store, it will be the same in all of them. If a tuk tuk driver charges you LKR 60/KM instead of LKR 50 or LKR 40, then it's probably just an extra LKR 100, and 50p, and if you argue every day it wears you down. If, however, a driver charges you £700 for a £350 trip, or a tuk tuk driver tries to scam you LKR 3,000 for a LKR 150 trip, you're being scammed.
  • Be wary of people who approach you who speak good English, and initiate conversation.
  • Be wary of tuk tuk / car drivers who base themselves at major tourist entry points, especially train stations, to a lesser extent bus stations, and outside major hotels, and in tourist hotspots, as this is where many people report their scams beginning. Simply avoiding these tuk tuk and stationary taxi drivers at the major train stations appears to significantly cut your chances of being scammed. Outside of these places, the vast majority of tuk tuk drivers have been decent people, who offer a fair service.
  • private car and hire drivers - often sourced through hotels - can be a major headache. If they do not have named independent reviews, don't use them. If they charge too much, don't use them (see prices below).
  • 'Beach boys' have a bad reputation in Sri Lanka, and tourists would be wise to bear that in mind.
  • Sri Lankans providing services tourists ask for that may be unusual at that place; - e.g. horse riding -, that the providers say yes to, may well be simply put together, at a high price for very poor service.
  • being asked to pay up front by service providers such as driver and tour over a few days is to be avoided.
  • buying anything of value (e.g. gems) without an independent expert opinion
  • Engaging in any agreement that without it being fully written down, which is to include the details of the deal, the person you are engaging - e.g the driver of a tour, including their National Identity Card number which you will write on the agreement yourself, and the terms of payment. Want it in Sinhala? Email hello@figandgecko.com, and we'll translate it and run it past a solicitor. Cost to be added shortly.

Listen to what your Mother told you - it will save you a lot of grief!

  1. If your cocktail tastes as though it does not have alcohol in it, then it has NO alcohol in it!

  2. if the price seems too high, it IS too high!

  3. If someone approaches you, and they speak good English, you must assume they are a scammer.

  4. Just because you say 'yes' under pressure, does not mean you have to carry it through. Western ideas of 'Yes' carry the meaning 'Yes', and a commitment. No such commitment is conveyed by the word 'Yes!' in Sri Lanka, where at best 'yes' is an acknowledgement that something has been said or agreed, at worst it is used instead of 'No!', which people do not say unless you ask 'Do you have any onions?' etc. in a shop

  5. If you think you probably should not trust someone, do not trust them! Walk away!

  6. Do not give a complete stranger, or a stranger who has befriended you, the benefit of the doubt!

  7. Never give anyone money up front!

  8. Do not accept people as your friend on FB in SL. Too often their friends will troll your friends often asking for money

  9. In this day and age, there is no need to accept services without asking if the providers have online reviews by westerners.


Independent information.

FaceBook

Posts about problems travellers have had, and problem places, and incidents, appear on Facebook on at least 2 forums:

 Sri Lanka Backpackers NL, and  Sri Lanka Backpackers .

Please tell me if you know of others.

 

Newspapers

You can also read the Sri Lanka Daily Mirror online, as well as its posts on Facebook , when an incident becomes national news.

Sri Lanka Daily Mirror Reports  Mirissa beach Bar Assaults on Tourists and Outcomes

(2018), Arrests in Mirissa Beach Bar assaults of Dutch Tourists   (reported also on FB Sri Lanka Backpackers NL)

(2018)  Illegal Structures where the above assaults took place demolished on orders of the President

 

Police Information


Common scams

Overcharging is at best a daily hassle, (Who wants to haggle with tuk tuk drivers every time you step out?) and in most cases is just that.

However, the haggle with the tuk tuk driver at popular tourist spots can lead to more hassle, and you would be wise to assume that drivers for hire at these places are there to snare tourists. 

  1. Tuk tuk drivers, particularly those waiting at train and bus stations, and outside major hotels, and tourist hotspots, where there is often an English speaking coordinator, are a major focus for scams, This is because they get commission, or tours. These include:

    • offering massages
    • once in the tuk tuk, persistently offering to take you to shops and hotels (where they get commission) - to the point that they take you to them even if you say no. You must be assertive (see the experience of one of our guests below).
    • In Colombo especially, they don't know the place where you are going, but take you anyway. In some cases dropping you 'somewhere'.
    • telling you their meter is not working,
    • overcharging you anyway
    • Giving you one price and then adding more to the final bill
    • Adding (non-existent) parking charges.
    • Offering tours at seemingly good rates, but actually, of limited scope and duration when compared to others.
    • Overcharging the number of km
    • rushing you into agreeing to a tour and forcing you to take their number - which westerners then feel obliged to honour.
    • And simply being disarmingly 'nice'
  2. You appear to have a higher chance of being scammed as a solo traveller (male or female), though the 'tour' offers work with individuals and groups
  3. Agreements with car and hire drivers, often organised through hotels include:
    • vastly inflated prices with high commission for hotels
    • a pricing agreement that the driver reneges on once out on the tour
  4. People working in collusion:
  5. Thefts on public transport
  6. Sexual assault 

The psychology of the scam in Sri Lanka

  1. Tourists, white people generally, are believed to be 'rich', and overcharging tourists, is 'to be expected'. When I have been scammed, Sri Lankans I know say, 'You're white!'
  2. Sri Lankans who are scammed by Sri Lankans - usually for work badly done - almost always pay to avoid trouble and social disharmony, Scammers know this and rely on it.
  3. It is also very bad to show anger, hence everyone almost always presents a very pleasant and friendly face in front of other Sri Lankans.
  4. Sri Lankans around you will generally not get involved in any problem you are having, or register any dissent or support for you, Don't expect anyone in public to get involved with your issue.
  5. To press home their unreasonable demands, whether for a service done, or a tuk tuk drive, some resort to sulking, then claim they are hungry (emotional blackmail and manipulation), or scream at you. The friendly smile can quickly drop. In my experience, and what I have been told by others, maintaining a firm approach with individuals will lead to the Sri Lankan backing down.
  6. A Sri Lankan caught in the act of lying, will never admit it, they will simply lie more in the assumption that they will get what they demand. 
  7. Remain composed, and adult, and stand your ground. I don't know of an instance where standing your ground with individuals scamming you - on the street or in a tuk tuk, has not resulted in the tourist 'winning the point'. Of course, most tourists give in, which is why the scams are repeated.
  8. You can be scammed by anyone, anywhere. This has no class line, and no social barrier. The more you are paying, the more you can be scammed.
  9. All Travellers will tell you of the friendliness of the people, which scammers use to their advantage to gain people's trust. If you are obviously approached by someone speaking English, they are likely to be out to scam you

  10. Tourists rarely report scams, theft, or sexual assault incidents to the police. Crimes are generally only reported when a passport is stolen, therefore in my experience, crimes against tourists are widely underreported.

  11. Saying that, the vast majority of tourists are unaware of any trouble - and most probably don't even realise they are being overcharged!

Report incidents.

You can call the national Tourist Police line (scroll down the police website page for the numbers) and ask for the number of the local tourist police.

Every hotel should also display the local Tourist Police number.


Knowing Typical Prices

Basic knowledge helps avoid being Scammed

  1. Avoid taking a ride from a taxi or tuk tuk parked in a bus or train station. Walk outside and flag a ride down.
  2. In Colombo, use a taxi app and pre book, Use Uber / taxi Go / Pick me / Kangaroo / Budget. This also avoids the hassle of tuk tuk drivers wanting to take you to shops, and other hotels etc.
  3. Don't take a tuk tuk from someone who asks you if you want a lift. Flag someone down.
  4. Always use Google Maps or Maps Me when travelling, and check out your journey and distance before hiring a tuk tuk or taxi. 
  5. Know the per KM price (see below).
    • Remember, you may be going A-to-B, but trips are always priced A-to-B-to-A
    • Prices for a small car and driver can be from L:KR 25/KM. We charge LKR 30/KM drop only.
    • Overnight with a car and driver, expect to pay an additional LKR 2,500 for food and driver accommodation (few small hotels now provide driver accommodation)
    • Prices for Minivans / Minibuses are from LKR 35/KM
    • Per Km prices for taxis in Colombo can be from as little as LKR 32/KM . You call them, they collect you.
    • max per KM price for tuk tuks in Colombo should be LKR 40/KM. Do not pay more than LKR 50/KM
    • Max price for a Tuk tuk outside Colombo / Negombo is LKR 50. The standard price is LKR 40/km, but is widely settled at LKR 50
    • There are no parking charges for tuk tuks and taxis. If they try to add them at the end (from LKR 100 - LKR 3,000) say No!
  6. The very small pieces of fried lentils sold from stalls outside liquor stores are LKR 2.5 - LKR 3 each.  Those the size of a 10 Rupee coin, LKR 5- 10. Those with prawns on are LKR 20/25. Same prices apply on buses and trains
  7. Street food is generally LKR 30 - LKR 50, depending on the item. Veg roti, LKR 30 - 40 
  8. Hotels also charge tax and service charge. On Hostelworld and Booking.com, tax is included in the room price. 
  9. Far too many tuk tuk drivers have no idea where they are going (not just in Colombo!).
    • Make sure you have data on your phone and you know where you are going on Google Maps, or Maps Me.
    • Sometimes in Colombo, you will be picked up, dropped, and told 'This is it!' and you are 2Km from where you want to be. To avoid this, always have an obvious place to be dropped. e.g. at a named Hotel. Otherwise they will drop you, say you are 'here', you will look around wondering 'where' and you will pay them they will drive away, and you are 2 KMs away! This has happened to a Christian Priest I know personally.
    •  REMEMBER. ALWAYS fix the price before the journey for the whole journey and only pay that. If they say 'You decide' at the end of the journey, it's because they think you will overpay. If they don't think you've given enough, they will want more.
  10. Never agree to go to a shop or house with a tuk tuk driver.
  11. Once the price is fixed, some will, within minutes, start asking for the original price they asked. They may do so at the end, and make weka faces feigning hunger. This is manipulation.  Be clear about what you will do.
  12. Some tuk tuk drivers will massively overcharge you,and when you say no, will begin to scream. Remain composed, get out of the tuk yuk, pay the agreed price, If you can, take a note of the registration number, and tell the police. This has also happened to me. I paid the agreed price and got out of the tuk tuk.

Real Life Stories

each story has been reported to me by a visitor to the Fig and Gecko, or I know of personally. 

  • Tuk Tuk, Colombo, June 2018, Sharing a tuk tuk with a 'pedestrian, : a well spoken guy walks with you. He says he's going somewhere once he knows where you're going. He says he's going to take a tuk tuk, would you like to share? He hails a prearranged tuk tuk, goes half a KM and gets out, and you, being a westerner, offer to pay. The tuk tuk driver takes you to your destination - maybe 3 KM for the total journey, costing LKR 150, and he then demands LKR 3,000. You say 'No!', he starts screaming at you. She (a New Yorker) speaks firmly and politely, asks if he wants her to call the police, tells him how much  she will pay, gets out of the tuk tuk, and gives him LKR 300, and walks away. This has happened to me in a hotel car park, when I would not pay the price that was significantly higher than the tuk tuk driver had agreed. I did the same. Gave the original agreed sum and got out. 
  • Tuk Tuk, Highland Area / Kandy - Ella, April 2018, Is there a bus due? : Alighting at a station / place in a fairly isolated area. Asking when the bus comes. 'There is no bus' says the tuk tuk driver (although being told there is 'no bus' is common) . You decide to ask, e.g. the station master. 'There is no bus' he says. Why? because of the psychology of Sri Lanka. No one will rock the boat, everyone wants to get on with people, and honesty is the victim. Then a bus comes along.
  • Tuk Tuk, Fort, forced to buy a gem, Feb 2018: a tall young German male was taken to a house / shop by a tuk tuk he'd pick up at Colombo Fort. He was shown 'gems' and expected to buy one for Euro 000s. In the end he bought a cheaper one for Euro 00s to get out. He told me this story, as we were his next stop after Colombo.
  • Bus, Arugam Bay, October 2017, Attempted Theft: On the night bus north from Arugam Bay to Anuradhapura. 3 times one guy tried to fall asleep. Each time he awoke to see the Sri Lankan guy next to him with his hand trying to get into his rucksack. Each time he told the bus conductor. Each time he was ignored  by the bus conductor
  • Bus, Arugam Bay, refusal to sell bus tickets, June 2018 : Tales emerging from Arugam Bay, told at our hostel, are telling of travellers being refused tickets on outbound buses, forcing them to pay for car transport to get to Ella
  • Bus, route unknown, June 2018 this is a perfect example of Sri Lankans not getting involved, but an unusual occurrence. Probably happening less frequently than someone in London on a bus preaching about their god! A woman was on a bus to a destination. A man next to her starts shouting at here, 'your stop, your your.' Bemused she looks at the conductor, and asks him, and looks to him for confirmation. He stands there and looks past her, without flinching or smiling.  The man carries on telling her it's her stop. The conductor says nothing. She decides it's not her stop. the man gets off, she looks at the conductor who says, 'he's a bad man!'
  • Bus, CMB International Airport, November 2017, locked on a bus and demands for money at the local bus station 1/4 km from the airport: 2 young female tourists get on the bus. They are the only passengers as the rest are getting off. The conductor shuts the doors on them, and demands they pay him LKR 600 each for the trip to Colombo. He would not let them off the bus. Very odd, as he could have just said LKR 600, and they would have paid anyway (price approx LKR 150) as they did not know the actual price. The girls were frightened, but unharmed.
  • Train, Fort to Anuradhapura, May 2018, sexual assault: a young woman on a day time train. A man sits next to her and  begins to rub her leg. She protests loudly, the people opposite who have seen this, then get involved. The man goes. later he comes back, sees the people still there, and he carries on past.
  • Train, Fort to Anuradhapura, November 2017 - June 2018, theft of 'small bag': 2 people November 2017, and Jan 2018 had their 'small bag' stolen from the train. Neither saw where nor when. Both bags contained passport, money, electronic items, laptop/tablet etc. Such bags are clearly being targeted. June 2018, a woman sat with her back to the wall, with the train door passageway behind The window next to her was open. She had put her small bag on the chair opposite, after getting on at Colombo Fort with one other person. Pulling into the first stop, a man swung around the outside of the train, holding onto the door handle rail by the door, and looked through the window. They looked at each other. Pulling out of the 2nd station, he swung around again, grabbed the bag through the window, and she then grabbed her bag. They each pulled the bag and, her friend joined in, and the thief eventually let go, and got off as the train began to pick up speed. There were other Sri Lankans around by the door, but none joined in to stop the attempted theft.
  • Hotel, Pony Trekking, Nuwara Eliya, April 2018: a tourist, who likes pony trekking,asked if he could do so in Nuwara Eliya. The receptionist phoned a contact, and agreed a price of LKR 10,000 / hour (this is the monthly income of poor rural household). He said he'd arrive at 10:00 and they'd trek until 13:00 (LKR 30,000 is the monthly income of a manager - to put this sum into perspective). The pony and lead arrived at the hotel at 11:00. The lead led the pony up a path to the top of the rise, and  the tourist asked where next, and that was it. So after protests he was led to the bottom of the hill, then up the next one etc. until 13:00. When they'd finished, the man demanded LKR 30,000, The tourist said that the agreed price was for 3 hours, and they'd only done 2. The Sri Lankan insisted on the 30K, and the tourist only paid LKR 20k. Each aspect of this is all too common. A price agreed for a service that is not carried out, the price is expected to be paid., the service itself is frankly rubbish, the hotel 'knows someone' who can provide a service. If a service provider cannot point you to online reviews by westerners, don't agree to anything, and don't do anything.
  • Hotel, Walking, Nuwara Eliya, April 2018: Discussing walking, we were told of a guy who'd paid $200 the traveller had met to go walking for a day, Be sensible out there. You wouldn't pay that in a first world country! Don't pay it here.We can arrange walking for $35 for an afternoon, the following morning, overnight camping, and 3 meals.
  • Sacred Cities of Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura: If you are going to pay $25 to see these sites, then pay the money at the ticket desk yourself. Do not allow the tuk tuk driver to 'pay' the money on your behalf, nor take the ticket to the guards for you. 

Car and Driver Tours

  • Always put in writing, and signed - whether organised through a hotel, or directly by you - whatever you have agreed for the car and driver tour. 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,
  • As part of the agreement, you should be looking at a KM price (maybe 30/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.
  • The KM price will include a round trip, not simply A-to-B. If yoiu leave form A, get dropped at B, you will be expected to pay B-to-A 
  • It is important to agree that the driver will have a food allowance, 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. 
  • Never pay all the money to  a driver - or any other service - up front.
  • It is reasonable to pay petrol to begin, maybe LKR 5,000 for long distances.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Remember, drivers usually recommend places for you to visit or eat at where they will get commission. So plan ahead. 
  • 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.