Beware ... Touts preying on holidaymakers

Photo shows passengers with their belongings loaded on a 'tuk-tuk'. Picture: EPA file

Sunday, March 14, 2010

ASIA is a vibrant travel destination but there are plenty of unscrupulous individuals trying to make a quick buck out of unsuspecting tourists. Be smart and don't be caught unawares.

You've heard many horror stories of tourists getting scammed as they travel around Asia. Sometimes it's money, sometimes, much worse than that.

Of course, you always think that you're smart enough not to get conned.

But are you?

Touts have perfected the art of scamming so well that it is very easy to fall into their traps. Being an avid traveller myself, I find the warnings in Lonely Planet guides very helpful. The guides usually have "Danger and Annoyances" sections for each country as well as for specific cities.

Here are some common scams you should be aware of:

Gem scam Bangkok, Thailand

"This is one of the oldest thriving scams in Bangkok. Many travel warnings have been issued but people still fall for this trick, even myself," jokes Samuel Prabhakaran, 48, who has been working in Bangkok as a general manager for an ICT company for one year.

Samuel explains that the scam usually takes place around the Grand Palace where a "uniformed official" will tell you that the palace is closed because the King is there or some special ceremony is going on. He will then suggest visiting another temple first with a tuk-tuk driver (who'll conveniently be there) and to return to the Grand Palace later.

The friendly tuk-tuk driver will start telling you about a special government promotion on gems just for the day or an ultra-exclusive closing down sale that he knows of.

He will then bring you to a store where you will be tricked into buying worthless pieces of glass that are being passed off as gems.

"The scam works with other products, too, such as gold, silver, silk or whatever you are interested in. The drivers get a commission from the shop owners if the customers buy something. I was with my sister, and my sister bought some gems. Till now, we do not know if they are real or not," says Samuel.

Batik scam Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Yogyakarta is known for its arts and crafts, but beware of the many scams here. Lonely Planet warns of a batik scam that is quite common in the area but teacher Christina Fernandez, 40, found out about it too late.

She was at a magazine shop with a friend when they were approached by a well-dressed man who spoke good English.

The man said he was with a government-funded batik gallery and offered to take them to see the paintings which were just down the street.

The gallery was quite impressive with the batik paintings exhibited under A-Z categories, A being the top grade. The man even did the "real/fake batik test" by immersing the batik in water.

"He told us you could tell fake from real batik by submerging it in water as real batik doesn't run but we found out later from Lonely Planet that the operators have become more sophisticated in faking batik art by using a permanent dying process," recalls Christina.

She ended up buying two batik pieces for about RM80 (around $33) each.

"Until today, I don't know if my batik pieces are fake or not but I felt that they were worth it because I really liked them. The designs are abstract, modern and unique. I guess you should pay what you are comfortable with. We were lucky as the officials at the tourist office said that some have been cheated of a huge sum of money."

Tuk-tuk/taxi scams

This scam happens almost throughout Asia. You hail a tuk-tuk or a taxi, the driver brings you to your destination, and there is disagreement over the fare.

"Make sure you agree on the price BEFORE you get on the tuk-tuk," says project manager Edmund Lou who has been based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for more than half a year.

He stresses that you must agree beforehand on the price, the number of destinations, the duration of the ride and the number of passengers.

"If you want to go to several places, make sure you clarify it with the driver and tell him how long you'll be at each place. Also, clarify if the price is for the whole tuk-tuk or one person. The driver might get rude and aggressive if there is a disagreement and get his friends to surround you."

Sia experienced this show of aggression when he was in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

"We agreed on the price to Chinatown with our cyclo driver beforehand but when we arrived at our destination, he quoted us double what we had agreed upon," recalls Sia.

A shouting match ensued soon after.

"It was quite scary as there was a risk that he could harm us. A crowd was gathering because of the commotion, but luckily, I overheard some locals speaking in Cantonese. So I explained to the locals my side of the story and they scolded the driver instead. The driver relented in the end and agreed on the original fare."

Overweight luggage scam China

This scam mainly happens at transportation hubs. Writer Abby Lu, 29, was a victim of the overweight scam as well when she travelled around China for work two years ago.

"I was at the Guangzhou Airport when this guy with an official-looking tag approached me at the check-in counter," says Lu.

"I was checking in this big, red suitcase which was slightly overweight, but in my experience, domestic flights were never particular about weight anyway."

The guy told her she had to pay for the excess weight but he could "settle" it for her at a reduced price as he had connections.

"The check-in girl was in on the scam, too, because she said the same thing. She allowed me to check in my luggage but told me I had to follow the guy to pay the excess charges."

Lu then asked whom she had to pay and the guy said to pay to him. "At that moment, I knew I was being conned but since I was alone, I didn't want to risk any trouble and gave him half of what he demanded."

"My Chinese colleagues later confirmed my suspicions and said that domestic flights didn't charge for excess weight. They advised me to ignore these people and report them to airport authorities if I was ever approached again."

The Star/ANN