A Rip-Off Primer
Here are just a few of the lovely tricks that sneak thieves and con artists have waiting in store for you in several of the well-traveled places you may visit. It is hilarious reading, but no fun when it happens to you. Be aware and you will be safe.
Sneak Thieves (Lessons from the Peruvian Experts)
- You are lying down resting in a park. (This is just an invitation to thieves in any city). Your day pack is firmly under your head. You are thinking about your friends back home. Suddenly something strikes you on the leg. "Hey look out! Oh sorry!" A couple of kids nearby are playing, and their ball had hit you. No problem. You lay back down. Your bag is gone! You spin around, but the entire park around you is empty. You bag has disappeared into thin air! You turn back and the kids are gone too.
- You are sitting on a bench, or leaning against a low wall, waiting for a bus, or a friend. Your bag is right beside you where you can see it; your hand is resting on it. A man in a suit walks along in front of you, stuffing something into his pocket. A 100-peso note flutters to the ground right in front of you as he walks off. You reach down and grab it, calling out to him. Forget the rest of the story, your bag is already gone!
- You are on the train. You have stowed your bag safely over your head and just ahead of you, where you can see it. At the next station, a few people get on. Then, just before the train pulls out, several men come running through the car shouting loudly and waving their arms. They are pushing each other around, yelling frantically, and pointing out the other side of the train. The car is in an uproar. You stand up to get a better look. The men disappear as quickly as they appeared, as the train is pulling out of the station. You guessed it, your rucksack is gone!
- You just arrived at the airport. You haul your rucksack out of customs and set it on the ground in front of you while you dig out a map or guide book. Fine so far. Now you go to put your rucksack on your back, but in order to do so, you must set down your day pack. You set the day bag down beside the rucksack and hoist the rucksack up across one shoulder. When you turn back again, your day pack is gone! The airport is full of people but you see no one with your bag, no one running, and no one very near you. You shout out, and people just stare at you, wondering what is wrong. Welcome to the Third World.
Con Artists (conmen, confidence tricksters)
I don't think I could begin to tell you all of the con artist's tricks and ploys that you may be confronted with. They make up new ones every day. They usually involve you going to someone's house, going into an alley, getting into a car or bus with someone, or paying some money right there on the street. Some are just very good hard-luck stories to illicit money from you. They can be as intricate as taking you on a lovely outing into the countryside (where you are robbed), joining a friendly poker game (ditto), or being rousted by phony policemen.
The best way to avoid being conned is never to talk to anybody, anywhere. As a more reasonable alternative, be very cautious of anyone who approaches you in a city, or tourist center. If you suspect that it is a ruse, walk away. Don't accept invitations in questionable situations, or in areas where confidence men abound. Sometimes people will claim to recognize you from another place where you have probably been (the airport or a popular resort). Since local people "all seem to look alike", you pretend to remember them to avoid being rude. Now you are "friends" and they invite you to their home. Don't go.
Many con artists, and also hard-sell vendors, will play on the Westerner's aversion to being rude. They will maneuver you into a situation where you cannot avoid doing what they want you to do without appearing to be very rude to them. Learn to be rude! These are strangers whose only business is to rob or extort money from you. Walk away and ignore them.
Some countries and some cities are worse than others. Some are almost free of con artists! Ask other travelers. There are always new scams around and travelers will be sure to have the latest horror stories to warn you in advance. Get the lay of the land before you decide to be a trusting soul.
The most common con is really a sleight-of-hand trick, and it is performed to virtuosity by bogus black market money changers on the streets of cities all over the world. You probably owe it to yourself to learn a humbling lesson from these experts at least once, but don't try it with any more money than you would burn. There are probably at least a dozen different sleight-of-hand tricks that can be executed when changing money. I don't know them all, but I will warn you that if you get yourself into this situation, you will very likely come out a big loser.
You can avoid it by never changing money on the street, and by always asking around among other travelers where they have successfully changed, and what the rate is. If there is a black market, you can usually find a shop where the transaction takes place on the premises, preferably right up front. This is safer because the shopkeeper (was that guy really the shopkeeper?) has an address, and he can get into trouble. Street urchins disappear into thin air before you realize you have been ripped-off.
If you know someone who changed in that shop yesterday, you should feel safe about it today. There are a few countries, like China, where the exchanges usually occur on the street. In this case, ask around to see if it is trustworthy, or go with someone who can identify honest changers, or use the bank. Always have the money you want to change separate and handy. Never show your wallet and certainly not your money pouch when changing money on the black market. It sounds obvious to me, but I've seen travelers doing it.
I say if there is a black market, because dishonest money changers do not gain their profits by virtue of the black market rates. They make their my money by cleverly stealing it from you! There may be no black market for money in that country -- but they can lure greedy tourists into a scam by claiming that there is! It should be a big tip-off to you when someone offers you a rate far above either the official or the black market rate. They just want to get your attention, and they will go even higher if you ignore them. Like many con artists, they play on your greed.
The usual trick is to short-change you. Say the real black market rate is 20. They offer you 25. You get greedy and head off into an alley with them. When you count the money they give you, it is the equivalent of only 22. You complain and give the money back. (One acquaintance of mine actually took this money, stuffed it in her jeans and walked off, making 10% over the real rate and leaving the changers dumbfounded!) But you are greedy, so you give the money back. They re-count it, add enough money to the top to make it right, and give it back to you as you hand over your dollars. Alternatively, if you have already given them your dollars (you might as well have flushed them down the toilet!) you will then have an argument, and they end up giving you back your dollars.
The first case is actually better, because you at least will have been given some local money, although what you were handed, just before they disappeared in five directions, was only equivalent to a rate of 12 or 15! The hand is quicker than the eye. Perhaps you would like to see a card trick?
In the second case, just as your dollars hit your hand again, someone will shout that the police are coming, and the transaction is foiled as every one stuffs their own money in their pockets and runs for it. Back at your hotel, you reach into your pocket and pull out the worst possible excuse for a Xerox copy of a $100 bill! You now have no local money, and that crumpled piece of paper in your hand is worth nothing more than as a very poignant souvenir. (Yes, I have seen this happen, in Manila.) Welcome to the club!