May 25 2012
The problem with scams is we all think we’re too clever to fall for one, until we do. Tourists in Phnom Penh have recently been discovering that a friendly interaction can escalate into having their bank account lightened by US$4,000.
As will all good scams, the set up is innocuous. A smiling non-threatening member of the gang, usually Asian but not Khmer, approaches you and compliments you on an item of clothing, or wants to practise their English. They ask where you come from and, surprise, a member of their family is about to move to the exact same country, or is applying for university there. Seeing an opportunity to help, you agree to accompany them and offer assistance with the application form, or persuade mum that your homeland is perfectly safe.
Following drinks or lunch at a location a confusing tuk tuk ride away, the next invitation is to play blackjack with a friend or relative who is a croupier. Often there is a rich businessman whose wallet you can help to empty, thanks to a few secret signs you are taught beforehand. Unsurprisingly, the game is impossible for you to win, and the scam gang then ask to collect their winnings. If you don’t have enough cash on you, no problem — there’s an ATM close by. By this time, you are feeling very threatened, you don’t know where you are in the city and you’re starting to worry that your credit card is not the only thing that’s going to get a beating.
While this scam is not exclusive to Phnom Penh, there seems to have been an increase in tourists being approached on riverside, at Sorya shopping centre and outside the Royal Palace. I had been wondering why so many people seemed interested in my choice of ice cream flavour while making the most of the air-con in the mall in recent months. As a resident, I’m not the ideal target, and after establishing that I’ve lived here for a while, they’ve wandered off in search of fresher meat.
It seems obvious, but it pays to be on your guard when people approach you in the street to ask questions about your job, your home owner status and how long you’ve been in Cambodia. If it seems like too much of a coincidence that their sister is about to become a nurse in your home town, then it probably is. And while you could be missing out on a nice lunch, a healthy suspicion is better than going home early with nothing but a scam story to tell.
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