SE Asia Scams
I had the pleasure of living in Southeast and Central Asia from 2004 until 2014, and it was an awesome decade. There was only one thing I absolutely despised (and still do when traveling) and that was when locals would try to rip-off tourists who they only see as walking dollar sign rubes rather than actual people. Traveling around in Asia can be a great experience, and this brief guide will hopefully make it easier to avoid some of the common scamming pitfalls.
Do you want to help someone who you perceive as less fortunate? Toss a few extra bucks to that honest mom and pop fruit vendor selling pomelo by the roadside. Discreetly (very discreetly) slip a few dollars to that hardworking guy sweeping trash from the curb. If you have a local friend, get their advice as to how to ensure your financial assistance goes to good, honest folks. DO NOT give anything to people who bother you. It makes you a target if the proposition is in public and you only reward that behavior. If you see an unsuspecting tourist or a naïve expat rewarding scammers by falling for a trap, then do your part and warn them off.
The background photo is of the royal palace in Bangkok, which is such a cool spot for fans of both architecture and history. But if you go up to a taxi (or tuk tuk as in the photo) in a touristy area and ask to go there, most drivers will lie to you, explain how its closed for some absurd reason, and then proceed to take you to a series of rip-off joints (gem stores, high priced massage parlors, etc...) where they make commission off of you. Educate/prepare yourself, and do not let this kind of situation spoil your experience or even worse: Taint your opinion of the local people overall who are usually pretty cool and honest.
Compendium of Major Southeast Asia Travel Scams - By Type
This informal but comprehensive anti-scam guide ONLY covers scams and not outright/blatant crime or general safety dangers such as muggers/pickpockets, getting your drink spiked, driving/transportation hazards, or the art of haggling (a skill deserving of its own guide) to avoid being overcharged. Further, it assumes that you have at least half of a brain. For example: If you are offered a Rolex for 30 US dollars and actually believe that it is real because the person hawking the watch claims it is genuine, then you probably need help beyond what is written here.
Certain cities/countries can be difficult to navigate if you don't have the luxury of a TRUE local friend...The best general advice is to both NEVER trust anyone who solicits your attention in a touristy spot or airport departure area and NEVER fully trust taxi drivers. It also helps not to rock a big, expensive camera around your neck and huge tourist map in your back pocket.
While not scam-free, in my experience the least "scammy" countries are Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, and Korea. Conversely, the specific cities where I have experienced the most scams are Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. I thought Thailand was on the road to cleaning things up when the new airport was built, but sadly they have regressed with their new "official" taxi service now running scams to trick customers into upgrading their car.
The point of this guide is not to be cynical about Asia traveling, but to prevent travelers from being screwed over and this in-turn will prevent them from unfairly judging an entire (and otherwise awesome) country based on the pond scum scammers.
"Never seek illicit wealth." -Confucius
GREED/CHEAPNESS AND LUST SCAMSScammers love to prey on our desire to get things for dirt cheap. A cousin to the greed scam is the lust scam, which lonely, male rookie travelers can be especially susceptible to falling for.
Real World Example:Many, many years ago I was a rookie traveler in Manila looking to hang out somewhere so I strolled into what from the outside looked like a standard bar/restaurant. I sat down at the bar and a decently attractive girl came over, shot the BS with me for a minute, and then asked me to buy us drinks. We had a fun conversation, and after tossing back a few, I was handed the bill which after converting from Peso amounted to roughly 250 US Dollars. This was my introduction to rip-off bars which are in all major cities in Asia.
Fake Tours:Don't be cheap and go with a super low price tour. The dirt cheap or "black tour" focuses on a bunch of boring shops where the "guides" make commissions off of the customers rather than seeing the real sites; for some reason the cheap crap tours in Thailand usually include a visit to a horribly maintained crocodile farm. The cheap-crap tour operators may also try to push some garbage "travel insurance" on you, which is good for absolutely nothing.
"Precious" Jewels or "Real" Handmade Batik:The gemstone scams are especially pervasive in Thailand. The mark will be persuaded to buy a gem - sometimes complete with fake certificate - for a duty-free dirt cheap "just for you" price. Varying tactics can be employed in this one, but the outcome results in the gem either being fake (probably some kind of sapphire or dyed quartz) or at some point a real one is switched for a fake. Many of these rip-off gem shops like to call themselves "factory export centers" which I suppose they think foreigners prefer to "jewelry store" due to it sounding more official. Anyway, There are REAL gemstones for good prices available in Thailand and great deals on REAL pearls and jade in China, but you need to do your homework and not implicitly trust that tuk-tuk driver or gemstore salesman. The Indonesian and Malaysian version of this scam usually involves batik garments or silk. Hong Kong has many infamous places that push fake "precious" antiques and bogus mammoth ivory. And, not to be outdone, Vietnam has their own variation that involves fake war relics.
Tailor/Copy Watch Touts/Fake Goods/Cheap Deals:The aggressive and hugely annoying tailor touts in Asia do not understand a polite "no", so either ignore them or be forceful when declining their offers. For some reason these guys are almost always of Indian or Pakistani descent. If you take them up on getting a suit, the construction might actually be ok but it is a safe bet that the fabric will be of terrible quality. Be wary of cheap deals in general, especially on electronics where a salesman can show you one model and secretly slip a different version or broken one in the box for you to take home. I know firsthand of a person who purchased an expensive camera that worked wonderfully while in the store, and then having been bait and switched at some point, discovered later that the onscreen menus were only in Japanese. Illicit goods, such as pirated movies or drugs, carry an even higher chance of you being ripped off since you can't report anything to the tourist police. I find fake timepieces to be blatantly obvious (hint: look closely at the font and the etchings), but if you happen to know absolutely nothing about watches and their prices then I'd advise caution when buying one in Asia.
Fake or Super Expired Consumables And Medicine:This could potentially be a problem if you are traveling in China and don't have access to reputable grocery stores with brand name products. Its kind of rare for a traveler to stumble across this stuff, but you could happen upon chemical eggs, cardboard noodles, or even fake cigarettes at the small stores in rural China. If the look of them doesn't tip you off, the prices will because they are dirt cheap. Unscrupulous street vendors in Vietnam, Indonesia, and China will sometimes refill bottled water with tap water, so if a roadside shop looks shady then check the bottle top for a seal. Sometimes, and this is a pretty minor scam compared to most, they will also remove the label from cheap beers and sell them as higher end brews. Watch out for fake medicine as well, as there are some seedy pharmacies in Cambodia and Thailand that sell fakes which are usually missing some minor but noticable details on the boxes. Also, just for your records, despite what you may have heard Chinese "monkey pick tea" is rarely picked by actual monkeys.
Card/Shell Games And Connect Four Kids:If you are approached for a game in a touristy area, then YOU are the game. At crowded beaches in Thailand local kids will challenge Western adults at Connect Four and give really good odds, though the problem of course is that it is nearly impossible to beat them.
Timeshare Opportunities:Much like in Western countries you can be approached with this scam at a resort area. And much like the scam in the West, you are taken to some shady seminar where salesman try to coerce you into buying a 40-year timeshare.
Your Famous!:There are legit acting opportunities for Westerners, albeit they come with horrible pay and accommodation, throughout the big cities in Asia. Every Asian drug kingpin has a "White Goon #3" or a "Black Goon #3". BUT, there are also plenty of fake opportunities where a "casting agent" approaches you and builds you up to be the next foreign superstar from the West. Naturally your new agent will tell you to pay for headshots, screen actor guilds registrations, and of course, the sizzle reel for all the acting gigs coming your way.
Dirt Cheap Hotels and Hostels:Using cheap hotels in Japan and Singapore is probably fine, but I've heard many horror stories from the 3rd World countries in Asia. I've had a few cheap hotels in Korea try to scam me with attempted "addon fees" and tricks like the old "rate is per person and not per room" scam. Staff at a "black hotel" can branch you off into many other types of scams, so I'd advise looking into more than just the "room rate" before booking. Also, be wary of the rip-off hotels that name themselves after the large chains so the scammer taxis can use that as an excuse when they bring you there. In Bangkok for example, very different from "The Peninsula Bangkok" hotel is the smaller, crappier "Peninsula Hotel" which is inconveniently located nearby.
The Buy Me a Drink:If you wander into an unknown bar and a girl immediately hits you up for a drink, ask to see the prices before you agree to buy anything as it could be rip-off hostess bar/club/disco. Nowadays they are usually obvious, but sometimes these clip joints (old school slang) will fly under the radar and a weary traveler not paying attention may not be aware until its too late.
Massage Parlors, KTVs, And Hookup Joints in General:There are legit places, and many other not-so-legit just waiting for guys to stumble into and be ripped off. Keep in mind that no matter what, the goal is to fleece hornball guy tourists of their money. So even if you think you know the prices upfront, that Chinese tea you ordered while waiting for the masseuse (or "masseuse") to arrive isn't free. And then there is tax, and service charge, and finders fee, and oh my God do they nickel and dime customers to death...Just be wary because with illicit services - much like illicit goods - the mamma-sans and pimps of the World know that you won't be running for the tourist police over disputes at these places.
SYMPATHY SCAMSRookie travelers from Western countries are especially in danger of giving money to sympathy scammers.
Real World Example:In the Philippines one trip I happened to be given an overly chatty driver who wanted to take me to his home almost immediately after us just having met. Shortly after bombarding me with an unsolicited earful of his hardships, I was taken to his home where there was an obviously staged meeting of his family. He then continued on about how tough life is and I was finally taken back to my hotel where I imagined I was supposed to feel guilty and eventually mull over how I was going to financially help him. Instead I arranged for a different driver who did a great job while occasionally engaging in normal unstaged conversations with me, and who I later tipped extremely well for hard work rather than insulting my intelligence with transparent sympathy scams.
Fake Monks:I despise fake monks, as they are a slap in the face to both real monks and to poor people who truly deserve alms from folks who are of means. If you have ever fallen for this cheap scam, then don't admit it to a veteran traveler. These bogus holy men throw on a robe, prayer beads, and maybe shine their shaved head before heading out to touristy areas and patrol for suckers. Its most prevalent in Hong Kong, but I've seen this one at touristy areas in other big Chinese cities and in Malaysia.
The Stranded Traveler:The stranded traveler scam is a basic confidence game played out in airports, train stations, and ferry terminals all over the World. Ignore anyone who claims to need a specific amount of money because they supposedly either lost their wallet or had it stolen.
Fake Charity Organization:Fake charity scams are popular in Hong Kong, especially in Tsim Shat Tsui and parts of Central. People - or handout monkeys afraid of doing real work beyond bothering passers-by - will stand around the street with paraphanialia for a charity that you have never heard of anywhere in the World and in actuality any money collected just goes into their pocket.
The Starving Artists:This one is popular in big cities in China. Basically a young couple will approach you alleging to be starving artists that want to practice their English, and after setting the hook they will at some point try to con you into buying cheap art which is really just mass produced junk.
The Poor Kid:This is a tough one, but you have to remain vigilant. A young child will approach, sometimes while the mark is in a car in traffic, and beg for money claiming to be hungry. Often times they will be holding something like flowers or a broken toy to make them seem more cute and sad. The money given to them does not go to the kids, but to the middle age guy nearby who pimps them out for donations as he actually receives the money from them. The real starving children usually aren't near tourists; just the actors. You will see this scam very often in the big cities in the Philippines and Indonesia. You can DISCREETLY (do not be obvious and make yourself a target!) give the kid food, but NEVER money. This is a good rule of thumb for beggars in general, as I've heard some scary first-hand accounts of travelers who made the mistake of whipping out a big wallet in public. The Cambodian version of the "poor kid scam" involves a slight twist, where a young kid will convince a Western tourist to buy them milk at a local store and then shortly afterwards the kid will sell the milk back to the store and his adult minder pockets most of the money.
CONFUSION SCAMSTravelers who are new to a particular city and country without a local friend usually don't know how to find their way around, and scammers will swoop in on these poor unsuspecting victims like vultures on a fresh kill.
Real World Example:Rather than arriving in Jakarta on an international flight and taking a domestic flight to my destination in Central Java, I decided to save time and fly directly to Semarang airport. I arrived and waited in an immigration queue, and then was pulled out of line along with several other white people. Next I was taken into a stuffy office where a sloppy looking "officer" looked at my passport, shook his head and continually grunting sounds as if something was wrong. I sat in a chair looking like I didn't give a shit (My visa was squared away and I had local friends so I was cool) and it turns out the guy didn't even have the guts to straight out ask for money, as he was waiting for me to act scared and say something to him. After noticing that I wasn't shaken (I actually propped my feet up on small chair and hummed a tune in his crappy office), he put me back in line and brought in the next Western traveler. Honestly, if this had been my first rodeo I would have been pissing my pants.
The Friendly "Helper": A large macaque monkey snatches your friend's purse during a visit to an outdoor Hindu Temple in Indonesia, and an absurd keystone cops style chase ensues with you running it up a tree. You shake the tree limb while "helpers" pelt the monkey with food that they just happen to have on them. The monkey finally drops the purse, and the "helpers" expect payment. Yes, this ridiculous situation happened to me one time. Anytime someone comes to your aid in a touristy area, expect them to hit you up for a dollar. It can be as weird as someone shoving seed into your hands expecting you to feed birds, or as simple as someone getting in a picture with you. A good general rule is that if anyone tries to hand you something in a touristy area, simply DO NOT take it. If they offer to take your picture, DO NOT give them your camera.
Rip-off Cabs, Boat Taxis, Tuk Tuks, Trishaws, Rickshaws, Jeepneys, VIP buses, And Other Transport Scams:These guys can branch you off into the other kinds of scams...Two rules of thumb is ALWAYS have small change because taxi drivers seem to never have change (much like how their English skills deteriorate rapidly when there is a dispute) and if you have doubts about the meter, then DEFINITELY haggle the fare beforehand. Be aware of a roughly average taxi fare to your destination in advance of course, and keep in mind that every country has specific tricks you can use to help weed out the good ones from the bad. For example, a clear tell if a Hong Kong taxi driveris a scammer would be a "modified driver certification" which is to the left of the driver and displays his name and other details. If it has been tinkered with (perhaps along with the taxi registration number on the receipt), then you have a potential scammer on your hands. Another example is Beijing, where legitimate Beijing taxi license plates start with a "京 B". So be sure to read up on the taxi rules and costs such as highway fare, luggage fee, etc...in the country you are planning to visit to be prepared in the event that the driver tries to charge you. If traveling as a duo with luggage, have one remove the bags from the trunk while the other waits in the car to help prevent an unscrupulous driver from peeling the hell out of there with your stuff. The same rules that you apply to car taxis also apply to boats and buses, who are equally capable of ripping off an unsuspecting traveler. Boat taxis (like the Mekong Boat Mafia) are notorious for raising the rate when there is no alternative option of transport. Simply put: Go with a trustworthy driver in a trustworthy vehicle when possible, even if you have to pay slightly pricey premium, and in the cases where you do have to use a scammer then make sure they play by your rules and not the other way around.
Fake Tickets: Some tourist attractions are free to visit, and scammers will try to fool foreigners at these places with fake ticket booths. I've seen this attempted at the Batu Caves and at Mao's Tomb. Be sure to find out in advance if you will need to get tickets at the entrance. You should also keep in mind that many real ticket booths will have separate prices for locals and foreigners. Fake ticket vendors and fake travel agents have also been known to set up shop outside train stations and ferry terminals.
Airport Terminal Cab/Shuttle Transport:This scam is popular at Jakarta airport, but I've heard it can happen at any slightly confusing airport in Asia. You arrive on an international flight to the terminal, exit and begin looking for domestic departures and naturally out of nowhere a "helper" (sometimes in a fake airport uniform) offers to drive you to it. If you had arrived in Jakarta and agreed to the proposal, you would be driven in a circle because the domestic terminal is in the same place as the international terminal.
Visa and Immigration/Border "Extra" Fees:If you are in an airport, you can usually brush off the immigration official's request for money as I have done in Indonesia on a handful of occasions. But if you are stopped at a land border, there may be no choice but to throw the customs officer a few dollars to avoid a lengthy wait or perhaps even their refusal to cross. Usually these kinds of situations combine confusion and fear scams, so try to learn as much as possible about what to expect at all borders you are crossing on your journey. In Indonesia and Malaysia if you enter on a business visa and list companies that you are working with on the forms, be advised that immigration may check up to see if the information is accurate and there would no doubt be a stiff fine in the event of a discrepancy. I've heard of employees at cheap hotels in Indonesia checking up on visitors for immigration departments; basically looking for an excuse to levy a nasty fine. Be ready if you cross the land borders amongst the Golden Triangle countries, especially in a "VIP" bus, for the guards/officials to attempt extortion (nonsense exit stamp fees, SARS free certifications, etc...). Most importantly, watch your passport like a hawk and never, ever go to the Cambodian border town of Poipet.
Money Under The Receipt, Short Change, Extra Credit Swipes, And Coin Dump:These basic scams are common in 3rd World countries. The old money-under-the-receipt scam involves a server attempting to hide a really flat high value bill under a large receipt that is clipped into a small guest bill folder. It can go unnoticed if the customer doesn't take the receipt and isn't paying attention because the rest of the change is on top of the receipt. The short change trick is pretty basic, so just be aware that some cashiers/tellers will try to take advantage of a tourist not being familiar with the local currency. It is pretty rare nowadays for someone to try doing an ATM skim or credit card swipe style rip-off, but just in case always keep your eye on your card and be sure to fill in the total on a receipt so a tricky waiter/waitress doesn't try to write in a tip after-the-fact. The coin dump is an old classic, and this scam preys on your dislike for carrying around coins and unfamiliarity with the amounts (Japanese Yen and Singapore dollar coins shouldn't be tossed around like pennies). The easiest way to avoid the trick being pulled on you is to tell the cashier/teller that you don't tip people who think you are a slot machine and they should take the hint.
Currency Exchange:You should be able to exercise common sense on this one. Never choose a currency exchange that is in an unsecure location and/or if the staff at the booth are desperately attempting to solicit your business, then avoid them and go to the one where everyone is mellow. Even if you are at an honest exchange place, hotel or real bank, allow the teller to see that you are paying attention to the rate and what he/she is doing with your money. If for some reason you are forced to use a shady ramshackle currency exchange shop, then you may want to additionally double-check to see if you are being passed counterfeit bills.
Internet Café And Wi-Fi Spoofing:This is closer to thievery than a scam, but I wanted to mention it anyway...Exercise caution at the many ramshackle Internet cafes that you come across and NEVER do online banking or PayPal related transactions there.
FEAR-BASED SCAMSPeople tend to set aside common sense when they are afraid, and sadly scammers will take advantage of this all too often.
Real World Example:I had a driver in Thailand one time try lead me to believe that it was the most dangerous country in Asia, and that for my personal safety, he should be my driver for the weekend. He was hoping that I would get so afraid that I would not think straight. So having detected an obvious scam, I naturally I told him to eat hot shit and then I enjoyed myself that weekend going with whatever driver I felt like using.
Personal Driver/Bodyguard/Buddy: You can stumble across good local folks who will be your friend, and those friendships will develop slowly and organically just like back home. Try to avoid the leeches, who will bleed you dry while they are "taking care of you". These "friends" usually hurry the friendship along and may try to fear scam you into believing that you can't get around safely by yourself. Much like "friendly helper" scams, the staged and artificial way that the "helper/buddy" rushes the friendship is so not organic (like friendships back home) that your internal alarm bells should be ringing.
Unofficial Toll Roads:This is getting into outright thievery territory, but in some 3rd World countries you may run into an unofficial roadblock where you or you driver have to pay a toll. Your options are to turn around or fight them, and since the fare is usually dirt cheap I hate to admit it but for this one you probably should bite the bullet. Attempting to plow through the roadblock will have consequences (then or later) that simply aren't worth the meager pittance of a few bucks.
Damaged Rental:The "damaged rental" is an old scam which combines the fear and confusion scams. You are rented some kind of vehicle, for example lets say you rent a jetski from a shack on the beach for some enjoyable watersports time out on the water. Later you bring it back to the rental shack to return it and the proprietor claims you dented, scratched, or otherwise messed up his jetski. There may also be a handful of goons hanging around to pressure you into paying restitution for the "damage". For reputable jetski, motorbike, or other rental needs you should check with your hotel or perhaps via online reviews. The Laos variation on this scam involves a thief (working for the rental place) stealing the vehicle from you while you aren't looking, and then returning it to the rental place as a "good samaritan" who naturally deserves a hefty reward from you. Don't rent anything without doing your homework.
Fake Police:You can of course be scammed by real police in 3rd World countries, but adding to complexity are scammers who dress up in uniforms of police or airport personnel. It can be difficult to tell the difference, even for veteran travelers, but just be aware that they are out there. At Dhaka airport in Bangladesh for example, there are fake airport personnel wandering around who will charge you for customs forms that are freely available! One thing you can try, though its not smoking gun evidence of anything, is to demand to see their National identification card to see if that matches their fake police/airport ID.
CULTURAL CURIOSITY AND ASIAN MYSTICISM SCAMSWe want to immerse ourselves in a different culture when visiting foreign lands, and hopefully get a more personal and interesting experience by witnessing a traditional ceremony/ritual or meeting an "Asian mystic". In reality, without a TRUE local friend it is hard to know anything real about the country's cultural rituals and traditions.
Real World Example:In the West people are fascinated with Asian mysticism. I've lived in Asia for a decade and only met ONE person who probably had something extra going on. He was an impressive feng shui expert in China who lived on the grounds of Confucius’s home who read me like a book, and after we had an awesome conversation through a translator he didn't ask for single penny.
The Ceremony/Dance/Ritual:If you do your research and time your trips right then you could see a variety of real-deal culturally fascinating ceremonies in Asia and if you aren't careful, you can be subjected to bogus rituals that were invented strictly to rip-off naïve tourists. The most infamous of course is the tea ceremony scam in Beijing, where a con artist will befriend the mark on the street and take them to a tea house where a fake ceremony is performed and the mark is presented with an inflated price. Other versions of ceremony/ritual scams will weave religion into in the mix, like the old "burn super-pricey incense in a temple" scam.
Mystical Magical Healing Clinics:Use your noggin and avoid this nonsense. This scam targets Western tourists who are "just off the airplane fresh" and is sadly quite popular in China, and I would imagine India as well. Now certain alternative medicines/therapies, such as ear candling and acupuncture, may have some benefits and deserve some research before plunging ahead.
Lucky Man Fortune Tellers:This is arguably a scam, depending on whether or not you believe there are real fortune tellers. Touristy areas in Tsim Shat Tsui, Hong Kong are loaded with these guys. They usually dress like Sikhs and will approach you, often aggressively by getting in your way, and claim to read your fortune. If you entertain their offer, then cheap parlor tricks will ensue with the end result being their demanding money.
Southeast Asia Travel Scam Watch - By City (Biggest Cities in East Asia) : THIS SECTION IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
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