san francisco tourist scams

Top San Francisco Tourist Scams Exposed and How to Avoid Them

San Francisco is a great city to visit. Known for its hilly streets, beautiful architecture and exciting tourist destinations, it’s a terrific place for a vacation.

But if you are new to the city, it’s easy to fall for tourist scams.

There are many people in the city who will take advantage of you and rip you off, especially if you are not familiar with the transportation system, the various attractions and the ways the city works.

However, if you know what to look out for, you will end up having a pleasant, drama free trip. Read on to find out about tourist scams in San Francisco and how to avoid them.

Public Transportation Scams

San Francisco is a small city and public transportation is a great way to get around. However, a tourist that is just learning how the public transportation system works can easily fall for scams, especially at ticket machines.

If you have never used a San Francisco ticket machine, it can be confusing to get the system down. One couple was approached by a woman asking for money when they were trying to use the machine. As they were searching for money to give to the woman, she managed to steal their credit card.

Another popular scam involves Clipper Cards which serve as all-in-one transit cards for the Bay Area. People may try and sell you their cards claiming there is more money on the cards than what you are paying. Once you try to use these cards, you will find there is no money on them at all.

Fisherman’s Wharf

While you are in San Francisco, you will definitely want to check out Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s an excellent place to take in the sea air and there are plenty of great restaurants and shops in the area.

But be warned, your pocketbook could be in for a shock.

The area is known for a concentration of extremely overpriced restaurants and attractions and you may find yourself severely disappointed to discover the quality of products you get for your money.

To avoid getting ripped off, do a bit of research in advance. That way you can find out about reasonably priced restaurants in the area that offer affordable meals.

There are also several electronics shops in Fisherman’s Wharf that come with a ‘buyer beware’ warning. These shops are known for charging inflated prices and selling counterfeit items. If you are shopping for electronics when on your trip, it is best to go to another area.


Alcatraz is another popular tourist attraction. Once an isolated island jail, people love to visit to explore the different cells and facilities.

Boats to Alcatraz leave from Fisherman’s Wharf. However, not only are the rides and tours expensive, it can take several hours to get on these boats. This is all part of a larger scheme to get people hanging around the Wharf and spending money.

Instead of going this route, consider taking a Golden Gate Ferry. The ferry boats depart every few hours and cost less than $20 round trip.

Fake Buddhist Monks and Nuns

The Buddhist community thrives in San Francisco. Unfortunately, this also opens the doors for a variety of scams.

Many people hang out in tourist areas posing as Buddhist monks and nuns. They will ask for money to fund charities but, usually, these charities are nonexistent and, who knows where the money will end up going?

To avoid falling for these schemes, avoid ‘Buddhists’ hanging out in popular tourist areas asking for money. Also, if you see people who look like native San Franciscans passing these people by when approached, it’s likely they are scammers.

Cable Cars (Trolleys)

If you have ever seen a movie or television show about San Francisco, it’s likely you know about cable cars. These open-air public transportation vehicles seem quite romantic and it’s easy to see how you can get caught up in the fairy tale.

However, the truth is, cable cars are often crowded. You may wait for hours for a car that is empty enough for you to get on. Once you are on, you will find yourself crammed in like a sardine.

What’s more, riding cable cars is expensive. They typically cost $5 each way. This can rack up considerably if you are traveling with your family.

For a similar experience, try riding the Muni F Line. It goes down scenic Market Street, it costs about half the price and if you have a Muni card, it’s included in the cost.

Trolly riders should also be aware of drivers that don’t have enough for change. Often passengers will get on a trolly and need $6 in change. The driver will give them $5 and tell them they don’t have any singles. Then, when the ride ends, the driver will act like he or she does not owe you any money.

Tip Jars

When you are in San Francisco, you will see tip jars everywhere. It’s important to remember that not everyone deserves a tip. Don’t feel obligated to tip someone who is just doing their job.

Massage Parlors in Chinatown

Chinatown is another popular San Francisco tourist destination. It’s a great place to find delicious Chinese food and inexpensive souvenirs.

Because the Chinese are also known for their alternative health therapies, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of massage parlors in the area. However, when you get your bill at these establishments, be sure to review them carefully.

Although inexpensive prices may be listed on their service menus, they are known to throw in extra services during your session without asking first. This will cause sticker shock when it’s time to pay.

Restaurant and Food Stall Scams

San Francisco is known for its diverse restaurants and food offerings. But when it comes time to pay, tourists will be in for a nasty surprise.

Some restaurants add gratuity to the bill and then include an extra line for customers to add their own tip. Customers who do not look at their bills carefully may end up over-tipping.

Other popular restaurant and food stall scams include the following:

  • Food carts that do not list prices and then charge according to how much money they think their customer has or how ‘green’ they think the person is.
  • Restaurants that advertise a 50% off happy hour but don’t tell you the discount only applies to certain items.
  • Restaurants who do not itemize the bill and end up overcharging you.

You can avoid getting ripped off by looking at your bill carefully and only going to reputable establishments.

Final Thoughts

San Francisco is a great city to visit but falling victim to a scam can ruin your entire vacation. Now that you know what to look out for, you can use this knowledge to prevent being victimized. Here’s hoping your San Francisco visit is everything you imagined it would be.