Saturday, November 1, 2008

Scams, rip-offs and cheats

Being a Westerner in the developing world means that many people see you as MoneyBags McGee. They look at you and don't see a person -- they see dollars. And they'll stop at nothing to scam those dollars from you.

I may sound dramatic, but potential scams happen, literally, dozens of times a day. If you're not on guard at all moments, you can kiss your wallet good-bye. We've been scammed for small amounts several times, but we're doing relatively well. Most travelers we've met have lost much larger amounts.

Some of the more common scams include:

-- A tout will follow you around as you're searching for hotels in a new city. (Your backpack is an obvious sign that you need a hotel). You know full well that if you walk into a hotel with him in tow, the hotel will pay him a "commission" and tack it onto your bill. Yet you can't lose him. You tell him to go away. Get lost. Scram. Goodbye. You get stern with him. You yell. He continues to stalk you.

You and your friends devise a "divide and conquer" plan: one of you will stand on the street and engage the stalker/tout in conversation, while the other one ducks into a hotel and looks for a room. This plan fails, because the person who sneaks away immediately attracts the attention of another greedy stalker looking for commission.

-- A really suave tout stands inside the hotel lobby, posing as the staff. He has a copy of the hotel keys and shows you the room. He negotiates the price of the room with you. He helps you check in. Yes, he's a tout, earning a commission, but you might never know it.

-- "The official" -- a man in uniform stands in front of a train station and explains that a given ticket office is closed, or sells tickets to locals only, or doesn't sell tickets as far in advance as the ones you need. He then redirects you to the "foreigner office" or the "advance sales office" or the "after-hours office," which in fact is a scam-office that sells fake tickets.

-- "The counterfeit" -- a person hands you US dollars and asks you to exchange it with them for Egyptian pounds. Then they either hand you counterfeit money or they claim that YOU shortchanged THEM, and demand more money.

True story: some Australians we met got counterfeit money at the DESK of an established Exchange Bureau.

-- You pay for something at a store or a restaurant, and the shopkeeper/server doesn't give you change. You ask for change. They give you PART of it. At this point, most Westerners fail to count their change and they walk away. If you're street-smart, you count your change, then stand your ground. The shopkeeper gives you another portion of it. You continue to stand there with your hand extended. They give you a little more. Then they tell you that they don't have any smaller bills or coins, so they're unable to give you adequate change. At this point, you either demand it and make a fuss, or you ask that they trade you another item in exchange for being shortchanged. Either way, this costs you 10 minutes of your life.

-- The "premise changing" scam. You ask an Egyptian taxi driver how much a ride will cost. "Ten pounds," he'll say. You and your friend get into the cab and complete the ride. Upon exiting, you hand him 10 Egyptian pounds. He looks at you and says, "no, 10 British pounds."

When you refuse, he raises the stakes. "10 British pounds EACH."

-- The "bribery" scam. When you refuse to give the cab driver "10 each," he refuses to unlock the trunk, where your baggage is kept, until you pay him 10 each -- plus another 10 for a "baggage fee," plus a "tip."

-- If people say "everything is included" -- that means NOTHING is.

-- Inventing the amount of time it will take to get from one city to the next by bus, then encouraging you to take a "private car" that gets you there "faster."

I wanted to tell the story of Sayid, the ostensible "driver" of a felucca sailboat that cruised down the Nile River from Aswan to Luxor, who pulled one of the most frustrating and ingenious scams we've countered. But right now it seems our internet time is running short. Stay tuned for the story of Sayid next.