Dec 04 2012

Phuket scams, rip-offs and hassles

Published by at 2:39 am under Health & safety

As Thailand’s tourism cash cow, Phuket regrettably attracts some unsavoury characters looking for quick and dirty access into the wallets of the unwary visitor. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common Phuket scams and rip-offs to be aware of to avoid becoming the island’s next victim.

The water’s inviting but the jetski ride could come at a high price.

The jetski scam is Phuket’s most notorious tourist swindle. The scam is simple. A tourist rents out a jetski for an agreed amount of time and money, then after bringing the jetski back to shore the rental operator points out damage to the vessel and demands a cash payment to cover costs for repairs and lost business. Claims of tens of thousands of baht are not unheard of, and some rental operators will take on a threatening manner if the money is not paid up.

This scam gained wider international attention when Patong Beach jetski operator Winai “JJ” Naiman was captured on film in the 2009 British TV documentary Big Trouble in Tourist Thailand threatening a group of British marines when they tried to dispute his claim of costly damage to his rental water scooter. So far efforts by local officials to put a stop to the scam have been futile and, last we heard, JJ and others continue to operate on Patong with impunity. Thus, the only sure-fire way to avoid this scam is to never rent a jet-ski in Phuket.

The motorbike rental scam works the same way as the jetski scam. Upon bringing the bike back you’re told that there’s damage to the vehicle that needs to be covered and some outrageous figure is quoted. The big trouble comes for those who have handed over their passport as security for the rental. With no passport your negotiating position is very weak, and it will weaken more and more as your departure date from Phuket looms closer. Never give up your passport when renting a motorbike or car. Most of the small rental operators on Phuket will request it but will agree to a cash deposit instead if asked. If a place won’t accept a cash deposit to secure the rental, don’t rent the vehicle there. Phuket has plenty of shops to choose from.

A great way to get around, but not worth having your passport held to ransom.

Before you drive off, be sure to inspect the bike together with the rental operator and note any damages. For car rental, there are certainly some honest local rental companies but renting from a known international brand such as Budget or Avis with clear rental contracts might offer some added peace of mind.

ATM and credit card skimming is something else to watch out for in Phuket. One way scammers gain access to your card’s information is to attach a device to an ATM’s number keyboard or card slot. The device copies your PIN code and other information that will be used later to make a fake card. These devices are not easy to detect, but if you notice something strange on an ATM machine, choose another one and report what you’ve seen to the bank if possible.

Another scam is for cashiers to make one or more extra swipes of your card when processing your payment. We know of one Phuket resident who was stunned to discover a 10,000-baht charge on his credit card bill a month after handing his card over for payment at well-known department store for a small purchase of clothing. He’d unwisely given his card to the shop lady and let her swipe it out of sight. To avoid this fraud, be sure to stand by and keep a close watch as your credit card purchase is being processed. The Australian Government’s Scamwatch website has more details on how to avoid a card skimming scam.

ATM cards are convenient, but costly if skimmed.

Timeshare scratch cards are more a deception than a scam. For most victims it results only in some lost time during their holiday rather than any monetary loss. The most common set-up is when a sales rep – usually a young European – approaches someone on the street to offer a scratch card that gives a chance to win a free boat trip or some other enticing service. Or a tourist sitting on a beach will be asked to fill out a tourism survey and be promised a prize in return. In either case it’s a ruse for getting your name and hotel contact information. Soon afterwards, the “lucky” tourists will receive a call and be told that they’ve won the prize and are invited for a day out.

But before or after enjoying their promised trip or prize, they’re shuttled into a room somewhere and forced to listen to a hard-sell presentation about a timeshare, or fractional ownership, property opportunity. As far as we know, there are no reports in Phuket about people shelling over money for timeshare deposits and getting nothing in return – the timeshare properties are real. But the way some of these are sold can be misleading, even intimidating, and for most this is an annoying and unwanted diversion from their holiday time.

Scratchcard paradise. Winning an island excursion might come with an unwanted side trip.

If you arrive in Phuket without knowing where you’ll stay you’re in for a bit of hustling from accommodation touts. The Phuket International Airport arrivals area and many of the ferry boats coming from Ko Phi Phi are teeming with agents trying to strong-arm you into a spot where they’ll be sure to pocket a commission. Sometimes this can be helpful if you’re patient and firm in your insistence that you won’t book any place until you’ve first had a look. Oftentimes, however, you’ll end up being taken to hotels that offer less than promised.

Even if you have booked a room in advance you may find yourself at the mercy of a taxi driver claiming to not know where to find it or stopping at an agency where you’ll be pressed to change your booking into one of its recommended places instead. Again,  be firm and insistent. Though it might not feel as adventurous, booking a room in advance and arranging for pick-up at the airport might be the best way to ensure a more pleasant arrival to Phuket, at least for the first night or two till you gain your wits.

Soi Bangla, the crowded walking street and nightlife hub of Patong Beach, is rife with hustlers of all sorts including those who lure you in to the ladyboy photo scam. When strolling along, you might be approached by some glamorously dressed ladyboys, or katoey, and invited to take their photo. What you’re usually not told till after you’ve taken the photo is that they are charging 100 baht or more for the privilege and you need to pay up now.

If you don’t pay then expect to receive some nasty comments or worse: attacks on tourists have been reported. The small fee is not worth having your head bashed in over, so if this happens to you it’s best to just hand over the cash and carry on.

It’s amazing that people continue to fall for the Phuket black money scam, but every so often there’s a report in the news of yet another arrest or complaint. Black money scammers convince their victims that they have a large stockpile of currency, usually US dollars, that has been taken out of circulation and marked with black dye. But with the purchase of some special, expensive chemicals, the money can be “washed” and made viable again.

Of course, the chemicals are useless and the victim’s left with a pile of worthless paper after handing over sums of 20,000 baht or more. The lesson: keep your greed in check and don’t fall for any scheme that sounds too good to be true.

If you do find yourself a victim of a scam or other crime in Phuket, contact the nearest police station to report the incident, and you might be able to find additional assistance from your home country’s embassy in Bangkok. Some countries have honorary consuls in Phuket who can be called on for help, too. Phuket also has an active Tourist Police force with foreign volunteers that speak English and other languages.

We’ll cover taxis and tuk tuks in a later post on their own.

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7 Responses to “Phuket scams, rip-offs and hassles” ...

  1. H. van Klaverenon 11 Dec 2012 at 9:31 pm

    In Thailand I use a copy of my passport. In the copyshop they copy the main page of my passport and shrink it to creditcard-size. On the back they make a copy of my entry stamp. This copy is accepted everywhere, even by police and could also be used as deposit when renting a motorcycle if they require it.

  2. Heatheron 25 Jun 2013 at 1:25 am

    Contrary to what Lonely Planet will tell you, there is no such thing as a metered taxi outside the Phuket airport. When we asked at the taxi stand we were VERY rudely told to “sit here for three hours if you want meter!!!” or pay fixed price 650 Bhat. When we found two other tourists to share the cost, it went up to 900 – also with the woman organizing the taxis SCREAMING at us. It was the most un-welcome I have EVER felt traveling. Seriously wanted to get on the next plane out of Phuket.

  3. Mike Bannockon 13 Jul 2013 at 12:46 am

    While holidaying at Kata Beach, Phuket in June, 2013 we were subjected to the following deception by Gary Harman, Club Tropical manager, and Peter Thatcher, Club Tropical client contracts manager. In the well documented approach of an Englishman on a motorbike with a scratch card, we were snared into a supposed ninety minute presentation, which then took considerably longer, of what we were assured was a “travel club”, and not a timeshare, presentation. Not only would we be entitled to a free week a year’s accommodation in one of Club Tropicals eight Resorts, with the ninth one under construction, but our membership would provide us with considerable discounts on a range of accommodation around the world, air travel, cruises, packages etc. Our membership to the “Club” would in effect provide us with our own personal consultant through Club Tropical’s association with Dial an Exchange (DAE), who would be able to arrange all future holiday trips for us at a greatly discounted rate. When asked how this was possible, we were told that the unutilized space on flights, accommodation etc, which they had the ability to access, made this possible. We were told that through their association with DAE and I.C.E. Vacations we would be able to get access a diverse and comprehensive range of discounts on airfares, accommodation, cruises etc. We paid a deposit for at three year membership, with the balance to be paid on our return to New Zealand.

    On our return we were alerted to the possibility of this being a scam. As Thatcher was the person who had made the presentation, I sought confirmation of Club Tropical “owning” eight resorts. A post on Tripadvisor had alerted us to the fact that it was more likely that they had access to availability of units in resorts owned by other entities. Also, for the third time, I sought clarification from Harman on the three examples provided to us of the cost of a travel itinarary through them to Thailand, Europe and Canada. I had asked him twice prior to our departure from Thailand, and was assured that it would be waiting for us when we got home. It wasn’t. At the end of the presentation, as I had remained slightly wary, I had asked for, and received, Thatchers presentation notes in his handwriting, as well as Harman’s quotes in his handwriting. We then received an Email from a third party, Ivo Vanefeld, whom we had never met, who claimed that Thatcher was too busy to deal with our enquiry. He also phoned us from Phuket on three occasions, speaking to me once only. I refused to deal with him, and eventually received a response from Thatcher.

    Dial an Exchange (DAE) are a company who deal in timeshare exchange, with the New Zealand office based in Taupo. I called them to verify the Club Tropical benefits as conveyed to us. The woman spoken to stated emphatically that their business was time share exchange only, and that they were most certainly not a travel consultancy offering discouted travel.

    Despite now asking Thatcher three times for evidence of their Resort ownership, I have received just the one Email, with my query being largely ignored. Given that we have obviously been misrepresented to, I have now asked on three occasions for a refund of our deposit. We have been waiting more than a week for their response, and are still waiting.

  4. Mike Bannockon 02 Aug 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Since writing this I received a phone call from Richard Segal of Club Tropical who apologized for the manner in which we had been treated by the other parties. We have since been refunded the deposit we paid. My caution would be that although Club Tropical is not a direct scam, do ensure that the Club Tropical benefits are not being over-stated during the sales presentation.

  5. James P.on 27 Jan 2014 at 1:12 pm

    My advice is to check with your hotel, assuming you are staying at a decent one, for their advice where to rent a jetski or motorbike. Perhaps online reviews could help as well.

  6. Kconanon 31 Jan 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Pretty much all resort areas in the 3rd World in Asia have some variation of the Jet ski scam. Sadly, it still works.

  7. Herberton 11 Mar 2014 at 2:14 pm

    It still works , because the Fun and Fullmoonparty-Generation wants it. Let them be scammed , I says , as I find few things more deplorable than to noise around the beaches with these damn thangs.

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