How to Avoid the Most Common Scams in Manila

January 16, 2014 by

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Manila is oftentimes depicted very negatively in the media, so much so that a lot of travelers can’t wait to get out of there the moment they arrive. They find they can’t stand the city’s air and noise pollution, and are turned off by the many warnings they have heard about tourists being scammed in the Philippine capital.


While the warnings have some truth in them, not exploring Manila while you have the chance to do so is doing a disservice to this old city. There are many things you can do there, and while you can’t do anything about the pollution, you can minimize being scammed by getting to know the modus of locals who are out scouting for an easy mark.

Be careful of these common scams in Manila.

The Ativan Gang—Or How a Whole “Family” Will Befriend You, Drug You, and Then Steal Your Money

The victim: Solo travelers (mostly foreigners) walking around in Malate, Ermita, Intramuros, Baywalk, or any other tourist destinations

The modus: One or two people—usually women, because they’re less threatening—will approach the mark (you!) and initiate a casual conversation. They look decent, sound educated, and they’re not pushy. Either they would tell you they’re local tourists, or that they live nearby.

You would feel suspicious at first, but as the conversation goes on, you lower your guard little by little. They’re just talking with you, telling you about their families, asking you about your plans. Once they see you’re getting comfortable, they will invite you out for a meal or if they say they live in the area, ask you to meet their family members.

These family members, or anyone else introduced to you, are actually part of the gang. Victims had told of meeting kids, grandparents, and siblings of the original two women. Once trust is fully established, you will get invited to an out-of-town trip with the whole family.

If you go with them, you will find yourself drugged (Ativan is the brand name of a sedative) in a guesthouse somewhere, and when you wake up, all your valuables will be gone. In other instances, only the credit cards will be stolen. You will never see the “family” again and you will be left with thousands of dollars charged on your card. Other victims had also been raped.

How to avoid this scam:

  • Remember this—Filipinos are generally shy. Unless you approach them, they will not make the first move to talk to you. If they do, non-scammers will not usually exert any effort to convince you to go on a trip with them.
  • The scammers will tell you to be careful walking around in Manila as there are a lot of pickpockets, but they do it only to fish for information and to establish trust with you. Never tell them that you’re carrying anything valuable, even if you are.
  • These gang members will use older people and kids to make you feel at ease, and they all look decent and nice, just like an ordinary family. Raise your BS meter when you get approached on the streets or in touristy places.
  • The drug is administered through a drink, so if you choose to go drinking with them, keep a close watch on your glass or bottle.
  • If you can, meet other travelers from your hotel so that you can go around together. Couples and groups are not targeted by the Ativan gang.

Here’s a detailed story from a victim, with photos of the scamming “family.” Although some details are different (the victim didn’t know until afterwards that she’d been scammed), the modus remains the same.

The No-Meter Taxis

The victim: Virtually anybody, both locals and foreign tourists alike

The modus: When you hail a taxicab in Manila, the driver may not turn on the meter. If you don’t tell him to do so, you will get charged a lot when you arrive at your destination. Other drivers will tell you that it’s “too far” or the traffic is too bad, so you must pay a fixed price.

How to avoid this scam:

  • Immediately after you get in, tell the driver to turn on the meter. Don’t assume that he will do so. If he doesn’t, demand to get off. There are many taxicabs in the city, and most drivers are not crooked.
  • If you’re coming from the airport, it would be best to take the airport taxi. They’re much more expensive, but safer for you. Or better still, arrange for a pick-up from the hotel where you’re staying.

The Money Changer Scam

The victim: Anyone who uses money changers in Manila

The modus: Exchange rates are much better in the black market in Manila, so most foreigners opt to go this way rather than have their money changed in the bank, hotels, or shopping malls. Tellers in money changers will count the money in front of you and then palm some notes off them afterwards.

How to avoid this scam:

  • Use money changers that have the rates clearly posted and never leave without counting your money. Make sure you’re the last one to count it!
  • A better alternative is to just withdraw money from the ATM. The fee of $5 per transaction is still a better deal than getting robbed.

The Sob Story Scam

The victim: Anyone who looks friendly or sympathetic

The modus: There are many variations to this. In one, a mother and child will approach you on the streets and tell you that they have been robbed or whatever and need money to go home to the province. Another variation happens in bars; you get friendly with a bar girl or a vendor who will tell you the saddest story ever about her family, ending with her asking you for money.

How to avoid this scam:

  • You can listen, you can empathize, you can say you’re sorry for them, but never give them money. While it is true that they’re poor, they’ll use the money to buy drugs or alcohol, or in most cases, turn over their earnings to a syndicate.
  • Buy them a meal, have them talk some more about their sad fortune, but make it clear that you will not give them money. If they see you’re firm, they will soon move on to another mark.

When you come visit the Philippines, keep in mind that Manila is just like any other capital. Appreciate its attractions, but understand that while majority of Filipinos living there may be genuinely hospitable, there is, unfortunately, a group of people who are on the lookout for vulnerable and unsuspecting tourists. Be street smart and avoid being a statistic!

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About Aleah Taboclaon

Aleah Taboclaon loves being location independent. She funds her travels with various freelance work, from writing and editing, to helping clients as a virtual assistant. She has backpacked solo in the Philippines, India, all over Southeast Asia and Europe. She writes about her experiences as a solo female traveler at Solitary Wanderer.

  • lawstude

    Very helpful post. Thanks for the heads up :)

    • Aleah |

      Thanks :)

  • Very helpful post, Aleah! I applaud you to write about scams of your own country.

    • Aleah |

      As with any capital, Manila has its positive and negative aspects. It’s good to be warned :)

  • Aleah, this is really useful to all people who live in the Philippines. Not just for foreigners but to all people who also live from the province and go to Manila for the first time. Honestly, I didn’t expect that this was it. I mean ganito na talaga kalala ang krimen sa Manila.

    Anyway, thanks for the guide. God Bless.

    • Aleah |

      It’s not really that bad, but it happens often enough. Better be forewarned, right?

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  • Nick Spanlopis

    This is still good and relevant advice. An experience I had may help others that pass through this post though. Several years ago I was visiting Manila and me and my friend needed a taxi. We had been warned about taxi scams so we made sure to choose a taxi with the meter sticker on its windshield. We had the advantage of being on a diplomatic mission from the United States so that may have given us extra leverage. Anyways, when we arrived at our destination, the Mall of Asia, the driver proceeded to give us our fee of 2500 pesos I immediately called him out on the posted rates and the sticker on his windshield. He countered with his meter was broken and that a group of Japanese tourist had just paid this rate. Well…I was a cocky American I guess, but I wasn’t having any of that so I told him he can either accept my offer of 250 pesos for having tried to scam us or we could call the police and let chance decide which side the law would favor. It helps that I was in the front seat and pretty big compared to him so I imagine a giant angry man right next to him helped the negotiations. I happily got my way and left him probably feeling pretty confused as to how he had so poorly misjudged us.

    A few important points now. First, at the time the exchange rate was much better than it is now. At that time I gave him roughly 5 USD. Which was a pretty fair price for the mile or so we traveled. I wasn’t going to try and rip the guy off even if he tried to do the same to us. Ironically, we tend to be very good tippers and like to surprise people that help us by giving them much more in tips than the actual wage we owe. We had intended to give the driver around 100 USD just because that was how we did things back then. In retrospect probably not too safe, but it did tend to secure very good service for us on our return trips. Obviously he wound up losing out on much more than he knew by trying to scam us. Second, the Mall of Asia is amazing, make sure you go there. I found some of the most obscure electronic components that I thought I would have to go back to Hong Kong for. Ended up buying way more than I needed because the prices were just incredible. A dollar each for components that cost upwards of 20 dollars each in the states at the time. I don’t know if this always happens, but there also was a very good marching band that performed all over the mall the entire time we were there. So a very positive experience overall.

    We took Jeepnies back to where we came from, much more honest prices. Those things are all unique and awesome and I found the drivers to be much more honest regarding prices and very helpful. Anyways, I was just thinking about traveling to the Philippines again and came across this post while trying to research the latest scams so I could be aware just in case. So thanks for your post, it contains some very good pointers.