Morocco: How to Avoid Scams and Love Northern Africa


Known for its beautiful mosques and enchanting medinas, Morocco is a country to lose yourself in. The culture is a wide blend of its vastly different neighbors; Spanish to the North, Sub-Saharan Africa to the South, and Arabic to the East. There is so much fascinating history and culture to learn about in Morocco, in addition to trying all the amazing food.

But Morocco, as with most developing countries, has a lot of scams and a lot of ways for a shady character or two to ruin your trip. So, how do you stay safe in Morocco?

Pickpocketing and purse-snatching are some of the most common crimes against tourists in Morocco, along with theft from a vehicles while the driver is stopped in traffic (very common here). These are quite common in many countries. And Morocco also has its share of fake goods, lying tour guides, and ATM thefts. Be aware of them all, but be especially aware of some unique ones, like henna artist scams, monkey-gifting scams, and the various rackets surrounding Morocco’s famous and gorgeous rugs.

The main cities you must see are Marrakech, Casablanca, Fez, Rabat, and Tangier. Within these cities, you have to visit the local souk (traditional market) and take a tour of the mosques and temples. Make a point to try a variety of couscous and bastillas to get a real sense of this unique cuisine.

And while the prevalence of petty crimes and various scams shouldn’t stop you from exploring all that Morocco has to offer, you should prepare and educate yourself on how to best avoid sticky situations during your stay.

Street theft in Morocco and how to avoid it

Henna artist scams

The art of henna is an ancient and highly respected part of Moroccan culture and history. It’s common for tourists to want to participate in this beautiful tradition, and for many artists – usually women – to make a living off this service.

However, it’s also an easy arena for naïve tourists to be scammed in.

First, choose an item from their art-menu and notice the price. Confirm with the artist that that’s all you will be paying.

In multiple situations, henna artists have extended the pattern farther up your arm or leg than originally planned, and then charge you more for it. Second, watch what they are doing with caution, so you can get a sense of what you intended on paying for and what you’re actually getting.

Third, one common scam tourists have experienced in Morocco is surprise henna-attacks. You might be looking up at a beautiful mosque roof only to find a tiny henna design was drawn on your arm before you could even say no.

Then, even though you didn’t plan on getting henna, you’re expected to pay for that surprise design. Moral of the story is:

  1. Don’t stand too close to the henna artist stands, and
  2. Confirm the price before the work starts, and stay firm on paying only that much

Pickpocketing

Like any tourist attraction in the world, where there are crowds there will be pickpocketing. When you leave your hotel to see the sights, make sure you’re only taking what you really need. Don’t bring irreplaceable documents, like your passport. Use a money belt to store your cash, and a bag that’s cut-proof and hard to break into.

Often, it’s when you’re distracted by watching a street performer or by trying to help someone with directions when a valuable is stolen from your bag or pocket. Always be aware of your belongings and do what you can to make them harder to steal.

Animal attraction scammers

A common sight in most Moroccan squares is to see exotic animals, like monkeys or snakes, and a trainer charging money to either hold them or take a picture with them. When I was in Marrakech, I was immediately attracted to all the animals in Jemma El-Fnna.

One day when walking through the square, I was shocked to suddenly have a toddler-sized monkey thrown at me. As a reflex I caught this strange monkey against my chest and tried to comprehend what was happening. I wasn’t comfortable at all with this monkey in my arms so when I gave the monkey back to the trainer, he said I owed him money. When I put up a stink about it, he started yelling and creating a scene.

Don’t become a victim of this scam- always be aware of your surroundings and don’t get too close to the animals unless you plan on paying for an experience. You just might have a monkey thrown at you.

Nice guy, bad intentions

Since scamming tourists is a main income for many poor Moroccans, you can guarantee you will be approached by this type of scammer during your stay. Usually they have a big, warm smile on their face and will speak a decent amount of English. They may offer to take your picture in front of the Bahia Palace, or give you directions to a locals-only spot. As soon as you accept any type of assistance from them, they ask for money.

If you say no, this charming person in front of you becomes greedy and cold. Always be aware that any interaction with a stranger on the street can be expected to be paid for. If you need to get directions somewhere, ask a family or a store owner.

If you really want someone to take your picture, you might have to just settle for paying for it, or just bring a selfie stick. Selfie sticks are annoying, yes, but they’ve ruined photo scammers’ little rackets worldwide. I’ll get them that.

Fake beggars

Although Morocco is not considered a Third World country, it does have a large population in poverty and low-income. In most tourist destinations, you will find people begging for money and assistance.

While many of these people likely are desperate for any income, it’s been proven that many beggars aren’t as poor as they’d lead you to believe. Or, some of them are even faking disabilities to prey on the sympathies of tourists.

It’s obviously not possible to check if the blind person in front of you is telling the truth or not, so you must go with your gut. If you’re staying in one area for a few days or more, you might become more familiar with the local beggars and what other locals think about it.

At one hotel I stayed at in Casablanca, the concierge warned us that the woman outside begging for money for her children didn’t actually have any kids, and to not give her anything. If you’re not comfortable denying someone of charity, then consider giving out food or other necessities instead of money.

Fake goods

The shopping in Moroccan markets can involve stressful bartering and knowing when to walk away. Most shop owners will price their items outrageously high expecting it to be negotiated down (but still to an overpriced amount). Before you agree to pay that insane price, realize that Morocco is known for selling fake designer goods to unknowing tourists.

If you see a Chanel bag in perfect condition for only 2,000 dirham, a red flag should go up in your mind. The best way to avoid being scammed by these sellers is to do your research.

Make a point to understand the currency conversion to your home currency so that you know what a realistic deal for an item should be.

Also, if you plan on buying a high-end item, do your research on self-authenticating that item. Know what stitches and seams to look for and what the material should feel like. Don’t rely on the shop owner to tell you if it’s real or not.

Transportation Security in Morocco—Ride Safely

Taxis

The most common way for tourists to get from the airport to their hotel is by getting in one of the numerous taxis waiting for them. While driving a taxi is common and respected job in Morocco, many of these drivers are willing to scam tourists for a couple extra dirham. The first sign you should look for when choosing which taxi to get in is for a meter. If the driver says they don’t use a meter but offer a fixed price to your destination, know that you’re being overcharged.

Choosing a cab that charges by the distance is less likely to scam you. However, a common way for all taxi drivers to make extra money is through commission. Stores, restaurants, and hotels will often offer a commission to taxi drivers who bring them customers.

You may already have a restaurant you want to go to, but the taxi driver will take you to a different one first in hopes you will settle for getting out there. You could potentially end up with an awful and/or overpriced meal and the driver gets a supplement to his income. The rule of thumb is to choose taxis with a meter, and to stick to where you plan on going regardless of your driver’s suggestions.

Public transport: buses and trains

Another common way of travel around many Moroccan cities is via public transport. Cities like Rabat and Marrakech have well routed systems for buses and trains. They’re also cheaper than hiring a taxi or renting a car. However, the buses can get extremely overcrowded, which is when you need to be thinking about your belongings. The U.S. Government considers buses in Morocco very dangerous in terms of theft and petty crime.

The more crowded an area is, the less personal space you have. This leaves you vulnerable to someone reaching into your backpack without you noticing. I saw this happen twice; once on a train in Rabat, the other on a bus in Fez. The best way to protect your belongings on crowded public transport is to only travel with your necessities, keep your cash in a belt, use a bag that has hidden zippers and slash-proof material, and always keep any credit cards protected with RFID blocking technology.

I like to use wallets that have this technology built-in, so that no matter who I’m standing next to, my cards cannot be scanned and scammed.

Rental cars

If you plan on renting a car in Morocco, as many tourists do, be aware of crimes that occur from your vehicle. Country Reports published an article that pointed to “theft from occupied vehicles stopped in traffic” as one of the most highly reported crimes from tourists in Morocco.

When you’re driving through the city in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you’ll see beggars going from car to car asking for money. If you open your window to give some money, you may be vulnerable to theft. In some cases, the beggar at your window is a distraction from another person opening your trunk or back door to take your stuff.

The solution? Don’t open your doors or windows for anyone, and keep all your valuables hidden even when you’re in the car with them. If you need to stop and get directions, go to the nearest bank or government service.

Scams in Morocco—don’t get taken

Fake rugs

One of the most common scams unique to Morocco is the fake rug scam. Morocco is known for producing some of the world’s most unique and beautiful rugs and tapestries. Their reputation in that industry is an ode to the centuries of textile producing in Morocco’s history. It’s not uncommon for tourists to come to Morocco with plans of bringing home one of these gorgeous pieces.

Unfortunately, many people get taken advantage of by rug salesmen. One way this happens is by being lured into a rug store by another seemingly well-intention tourist who says they sold one these rugs back is to buy these rugs upfront, you may see the merit in making some money back home. Unfortunately, one too many tourists have gone home only to realize the rug they are trying to sell isn’t authentic, it’s actually made in China, and sells for half of what you paid.

In other situations, the rug you pick out at the store may be authentic, but the moment you get distracted by something or someone, the store employees sneakily swap your rug for an identical fake. In some rug stores, the salespeople will offer you some complimentary tea, and then try to guilt you into buying a rug because you took the free drink.

The best way to avoid being scammed when buying a rug in Morocco is to do your research and go to a reputable store. Just because the lone traveler in your hostel wants you to go to one specific store doesn’t mean you should (and he is likely earning a commission on bringing tourists there).

Look at reviews online, talk to the hotel employees, and ask your tour guide for multiple store recommendations. Asking for more than one means they can’t insist you go to the one they profit from sending you to.

Tour guides

Speaking of tour guides, another common scam in Morocco is when you take a tour from a non-reputable company only to learn they aren’t real tour guides. This is unfortunately another common tactic for locals to make extra money.

You may be approached on the street by a professional and friendly face offering a full tour of the local attractions. You get sucked into how great it sounds and sign up for the tour. The guide takes you to the big sights, as well as a bunch of stores they are likely receiving a commission from. Then comes time for you to pay, and it’s astonishingly expensive, maybe even double what you originally were told. You’ll be expected to pay.

The best way to avoid this scam is to prepay for tours through your hotel and only with reputable and recognized tour guide companies. Always do your research on the company, their prices, and make sure they’re taking you to the sights you want to see. Not just their cousin’s rug store.

Hotel and Accommodation Security in Morocco—Secure Your Digs

Morocco has some of the most beautiful and lavish hotels in Africa, many with and without security features. When available, store your passport and other valuables in a safe. It’s always a good idea to bring your own portable safe that only you know the password to.

Hotels usually have an emergency password to get into the safes in the rooms in case guests forget the code. This leaves your belongings vulnerable.

Bring your own safe, and memorize where you keep it in the room. It’s not unusual for sketchy hotel staff to steal from guests’ rooms. Keep your room organized so you know exactly what has been moved or fiddled with while you were gone.

If your room has an outdoor terrace or patio, always keep the doors and windows locked- especially when you’re sleeping. Tourists have reported their belongings going missing from the room overnight, sometimes even while in the room sleeping.

Hotel staff often know the schedule of the guests and when they are fast asleep. They’ll notice if you left the window open on your terrace and take that as an invitation to come in and steal.

When you leave your hotel with your belongings, always be aware of where they are on your body. If you keep your things in a backpack, then you should invest in an anti-theft backpack or purse with hidden zipper, cut-proof material, and RFID blocking technology. If you use a money belt or necklace, make sure it also has the anti-scamming technology.

If you’re going to the Agadir Beach, have a plan for securing your belongings while you swim. Maybe take turns with your friends staying back with the stuff on the sand, or use a bag that locks to a stable object.

Beware of people who will try and distract you, so you don’t notice their friend stealing from your bag. Morocco is incredibly tourist friendly, but there are people with the intention of stealing from you. It’s your job to be prepared with the right equipment to protect your stuff.

Other Theft Threats in Morocco

My first time in Morocco I fell victim to a fraudulent ATM and had all my credit card funds stolen. Unfortunately, what happened to me isn’t a rare occurrence in Morocco. As tourists we need to withdraw cash so that we aren’t using cards to pay for every little thing.

The more you use your credit card, the more opportunities there are for someone to steal your information. The safest way to withdraw your money is to use an ATM at a bank or in a shopping mall – somewhere there are police and store owners always around.

The last thing you want to do, like I did, is to use an ATM on a random street surrounded by random people lingering and loitering nearby. Don’t go to an ATM in a sketchy area, and don’t go to one at night.

The Final Word on Safety in Morocco

Morocco is a beautiful, exotic, and exciting place to have an adventure. With so much rich history and culture to learn about, you’re never short on things to do and see. As with any other tourist destination, there are common issues with pickpocketing and petty theft.

The best ways to avoid being a victim of theft and being scammed are to do your research beforehand. Read other travelers reviews and experiences from different attractions.

Learn what they did wrong, so you can be prepared; bring the right supplies to protect your valuables.

Although you may be distracted by the gorgeous scenery and delicious aromas, make sure you’re always aware of what’s going on around you and where your belongings are. As the UK government website mentions, Morocco is considered a generally safe travel destination for tourists, but it’s not unlike other bucket-list countries.

Your time in Morocco should be remembered for its souvenirs, desert nights on camelback, mouth-thrilling meals. Not by the heartbreak of having something you love stolen, and being intimidated and ripped off.

More resources on safety in Morocco

http://travelscams.org/africa/common-tourist-scams-morocco/

https://www.worldnomads.com/travel-safety/north-africa/morocco/crime-in-the-kasbah-morocco

http://www.countryreports.org/travel/Morocco/crimes.htm

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/morocco/safety

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/morocco/safety-and-security

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Morocco.html

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