Spotting the scam

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Hanoi, Vietnam.

Being scammed or robbed is just another part of the travel experience, happy to rear its head any place, any time. If you are switched on, it shouldn’t be a problem. In fact it can be kind of amusing trying to pick whether you are being scammed or if someone is genuinely trying to help you out.

There are plenty of different types of cons the world over. Pickpocketing is at the lower end of the spectrum, lacking a certain element of creativity that other scams have. Visit some of the attractions in London, for example, and there is a litany of signs warning to zip your bags and check your pockets while police make regular announcements telling tourists that thieves “work the area” as if it’s some kind of profession. Buckingham Palace, apparently, is a hot spot. Have a quick glance around at the Changing of the Guard and you will see thousands of tourist clutching backpacks to their chest like a mother running with her baby in a disaster movie.

Airports also have a scam or two running, usually involving taxis. What I have learned is to never assume that the random man who has volunteered to carry your luggage as you wait for your tour organised taxi to come around expects to go uncompensated- they actually demand foreign currency. Wanting $20 for carrying a bag 500 metres is a bit of a stretch. In fact he doesn’t work for either the taxi driver or the tour company. This usually happens in Asian countries where taxi drivers have been known to outsource the baggage carrying to others. Apparently that a job you can outsource.

Some money transfer places can be questionable as well, running the “2 for you, 1 for me” type of transfer where they sneak a large sum of your money under the table as they count. It’s the kind of sleight of hand that would make a magician proud. My father recently suffered this fate in Indonesia. He and his travel companions all lost considerable amounts of cash, only realising later in the evening that they were each quite a few Rupiah short.

Guidebooks like to outline some of the more major scams. Read any Lonely Planet book- scams involving gemstones are apparently a thing, but you’re more likely to be done for smaller cons, often perpetrated by children. In Nepal, for example, children are known to approach you, asking to purchase them books for schooling, tugging at your heart strings. In reality they sell those books back to the stores and keep the money. Strangely they are known to do the same with milk. At one stage we were followed relentlessly by a couple of kids who I made the mistake of making eye contact with. That was all the coaxing they needed and they stuck to us like chewing gum to a shoe. Eventually they tired of our stubborn refutations and left, or maybe it was the large policeman with the semi-automatic machine gun who had a word with them. He may have helped.

I got done earlier that trip. Walking through a busy Kathmandu street, a man followed our group wanting to “bless” us. This involved sprinkling some flower petals on my head and slapping a red dot on my face. He promptly required payment for each blessing he did on the group, asking me for the cash. The costs involved in flower distribution and the mark up on chalk dust must be astronomical, especially to demand money for religious blessings on the street.

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Blessed and unimpressed in Nepal.

I recall witnessing a few incidents in Hanoi that made me smirk. Whilst walking the streets, searching out a particular store, a friend and I became separated. I only noticed because generally he was the one pulling me out of the way of oncoming traffic as I attempted to cross the disorganised chaos that is Hanoi road rules. When he failed to do that, and I was narrowly missed by a taxi, I knew something was up.

Retracing my steps I found him a few blocks back, standing barefoot on the footpath watching a man carve up some moped tyre and glue it to the soles of his thongs.

“Getting a re-tred,” he stated.

When I enquired just how he had managed to come to this decision, he explained, “He grabbed my leg mid stride, so I stopped. I thought he was trying to steal my Flip Flops. He whipped my thong off, and slapped some rubber on it so fast I didn’t have time to stop him. I got the other one done to be even. It’s not all bad though, he reckons I’ll get another two years out of these before I have to come back and visit him again!”

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Re-tred thongs a.k.a. Calf builders.

This could seem like a genuine bargain, particularly if you were in need of ongoing flip flop management. That was until the issue of price immerged.

“How much?” we asked.

“700,000 dong.”

“Pfft. Seriously, how much?”

“700,000.”

Your instinct is to argue and haggle the price, but when he is wielding a knife that is sharp enough to cut down a small tree, not to mention he still had the thongs, we erred on the side of caution. Put simply, 700,000 dong could have bought my friend at least four pairs of new thongs, three dozen coconut cocktails, two small dogs and a share in a hotel complex. Instead he had a pair of thongs with road tyres glued to the bottom, heavy enough that each step was the equivalent to a leg session at the gym. Considering we had already been duped earlier in the day by the sweet, one legged lady who hopped after us until we bought at least one, “handmade” greeting card from her, we’d had a rough trot. Not to mention the costs of the stale bakery foods we had also bought on the streets. For the record, the cards were neither handmade nor were they as expensive as she was charging. The only genuine element of the exchange was that she definitely only had one leg. There’s no scamming that.

In all honesty, I have never been scammed in such a way that it has left a sour taste in my mouth. Being able to say no is a strong defence mechanism if you are being hassled into parting with your money. It is possible to still be respectful and pleasant while telling someone you aren’t interested at the same time. Chances are they get told that word regularly and the show they put on is all in the name of guilting you to relent.

Travel is often painted as this incredible experience that is all rainbows and lollipops. The sun always shines and no-one ever attempts to rip you off. While this is true in the majority of cases, lollipops included, every now and then the locals will try and fleece you for as much as they can. The key is being able to have enough common sense to see through the scam, keep walking and just say no.

Wayward Tip: If you feel guilty about not giving up your money to someone, there are plenty of legitimate charities that will take your money and put it to good use without creating an ongoing cycle of crime and scam.

 

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