Passport Ransom Scam and How To Avoid It

Have you ever had your passport held for ransom by an unscrupulous hotel owner on your travels? It could turn out to be a passport ransom scam.

A real scam story that happened

An unpleasant incident happened to a friend of mine from Germany when she was backpacking in Vietnam. She had arrived at a hotel and asked what the price was per night. They quoted her USD $15 per night. She thought that was a reasonable price, so she decided to stay there for three nights.

Later, when she was checking out of her room and paying the balance, the hotel staff claimed that the price per night was actually $25. Although she insisted, no one would admit that they had originally quoted her $15. She tried to argue with them. However there was no written proof of the quote and it was her word against theirs.

When she told me that story, I said to her, “That sucks, but I would have just put $45 on the counter and walked away.” After all, she was originally quoted $15 per night and the hotel staff knew it. They were just trying their luck.

“I would have done that, but I couldn’t.” she lamented. “They had my passport and wouldn’t give it back until I paid the full $75.”

passport ransom scam

Yikes. The hotel owners had her at their mercy, because they had requested her passport from her on the first day she had arrived at the hotel. They had claimed that they needed to “keep it on file”. They were then holding it for ransom so that they could extract more money from her.

How to avoid passport ransom scam

Apparently this type of passport ransom scam is common, especially in Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia. There are a few things that you can do to avoid it happening to you, such as:

  • If the hotel owner tells you a price, ask them to put it in writing so that you can show the original quote when you pay at the end of your stay.
  • If you choose to pay at the beginning of your stay, make sure that you receive a written receipt so that they cannot claim later that you haven’t paid.
  • Also, ask them to confirm in writing that no other charges or fees will be added when it comes time to pay.
  • Never let a hotel keep your passport. They may need to take down your information when you check in, but they shouldn’t need to keep it behind reception.
  • What I usually do is let the receptionist take my passport at first, then come back to the front desk shortly after checking in and ask for it back. I tell them that I am booking flights online and that I need my passport number. Then I just keep the passport with me after that.
passport ransom scam

Have you ever encountered this passport ransom scam on your travels? Has a hotel ever asked to keep your passport? Let us know in the comments. 

About Kelly Dunning


A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word. She and her English boyfriend Lee run, packed full with travel guides, stories and inspiration for those who dream of travel. They have been location independent and travelling the world digital-nomad style for the last three years, with no address, no car and no fixed schedule.

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