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Warning: American tourists are being profiled. Don't be one of them.You might be right if it feels like you have a target on your back when you’re travelling. Tourists are being profiled like never before.

Sometimes, it’s harmless. For example, I recently walked into a cafe in Rio de Janeiro. Before I could say “bom dia,” a server handed me two menus — in English. 

How did she know? No matter how hard I try, I look like an American, and when I walk into a restaurant, I smile like an American. So, of course, I get the English menu.

But sometimes, the profiling is deadly. If you’re pegged as a tourist in Colombia, you could get drugged, robbed and even killed. The State Department has issued a warning that numerous U.S. citizens have fallen victim to dating scams that can end with them getting seriously hurt — or worse.

“U.S. citizens should use caution while travelling and try their best not to stick out or be profiled as American while abroad,” says John Gobbels, chief operating officer of Medjet, an air medical transport program for travellers.

No one keeps statistics on the number of foreign tourists profiled or killed abroad. But based on the number of new State Department warnings and some of the stories I’ve heard from international travellers, the problem has never been worse.

Although most profiling is just irritating — a hard sell of souvenirs or tip-baiting, for example — some of it can be hazardous to your health. But there are things you can do to avoid being targeted. I’ll tell you how in a minute.

Most profiling is not dangerous — it’s just annoying.

Reality check: Most tourist profiling is harmless and should be no surprise to the average traveller.

Ellie Blake was on a tour of Japan with her college alumni association when she began feeling pressured to buy things. 

“For example, our tour guide took us to a museum shop,” she says. “It was a very long stop compared to other sites we visited.”

Along the way, the people they met would ask them, “What did you buy?” almost as if they were egging them on to purchase more souvenirs.

Blake believes the tour guides added these shopping breaks because they pegged their group as affluent Americans. It’s something I’ve seen recently in Japan, too. I was on a coastal cruise last summer, and our land tours always seemed to end at a business that sold pricey art.

The solution: Resist the temptation. Better yet, choose a tour that prioritizes the attractions over the shopping. (If you’re on a guided tour, always ask about the shopping opportunities. You may want to select another tour if there are too many.)

Sometimes, the profiling is scary.

You can’t always walk away. Consider what happened to Ariel Figg recently when she booked a last-minute tour in the Dominican Republic.

One day, the guides detoured a village. They took Figg to a gift store filled with trinkets and pressured her to buy local artwork. She refused.

In the end, she offered the guides a generous tip. “They counted the money in front of us, scoffed at our faces, and told us that, as Americans, we should pay more because we can afford it,” she says. 

Figg says she should have known better. After all, she’s a travel coach, and before taking a last-minute tour, she would have told her clients to research the tour operator carefully. 

I had a similarly awkward moment recently in Santiago, Chile. After having lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant, I stood up to pay. The server brought over a mobile point-of-sale system. She asked me to enter a tip amount before her and tap my card to pay. There was no apparent option for “no tip.” 

Figg is right — avoiding this more forceful profiling is easy if you do your homework. I learned my lesson about tipping restaurants in Chile and ordered takeout afterwards. And Figg will never retake a last-minute tour without doing her homework.

Profiling can also turn deadly.

“Americans have been targeted overseas by criminals and sometimes by dishonest businesses, simply for being Americans,” explains Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Advanced Operational Concepts, a security consulting firm.

Why? Thanks to Hollywood, he says that people in many foreign countries perceive all Americans as rich. The perception has some validity when compared to income levels and living standards in developing nations.

Fortunately, the profiling rarely leads to death. But experts like O’Rourke warn that people in some parts of the world are desperate enough to use force against a visitor. And especially when Americans go to far-flung places, you must stay aware of your surroundings.

I’ve never been attacked because of my nationality, but I’ve been followed. A few years ago, I was in an ancient village in a remote part of Turkey. I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a group of young men hanging out and smoking. They looked at me, said, “American! HI!” and followed me. 

I wasn’t sure what they wanted and didn’t want to find out, so I turned around and walked back toward the town square — and safety. 

But maybe I should have stayed.

“Profiling is not always negative,” says Thomas Swick, author of the memoir “Falling into Place: A Story of Love, Poland, and the Making of a Travel Writer.”

Swick remembers visiting Vietnam in the early 1990s. Students would approach him and ask if he was American. 

“When I told them I was, they politely asked if they could practice their English. Then we’d go off to a café for an hour of conversation, which was as beneficial to me as a travel writer as it was to them,” he recalls.

He makes a valid point. Being recognized as an American when you’re abroad can make your next trip more interesting — as long as you’re being recognized for the right reasons.

Elliott’s tips for avoiding profiling 

If you’re travelling abroad, here are a few strategies to avoid being profiled as an American.

Dress down

Avoid wearing USA T-shirts and American sports jerseys. And since this is an election year, I have to say it: No MAGA caps or shirts, please. You could be putting yourself in danger. Wear muted colours and avoid sweatshirts with hoodies, and you will at least keep them guessing.

Mind your manners

Kitty Werner, a former airline reservation agent who has lived overseas, says nothing gives away your nationality faster than your etiquette—or lack of etiquette. That’s true in Europe, but in places like the Middle East or Japan, your casual attire screams “American!” “You can tell an American tourist immediately by their manners,” she says.

Shut up

“Many tourists are too loud,” says Harding Bush, associate director of security for Global Rescue. “Be mindful of your volume and avoid drawing attention to yourself.” Your noise level is a dead giveaway and may mark you as an American tourist.




Written by: Christopher Elliott



Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at chris@elliott.org.