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Money-changing scams in Bali

So yesterday afternoon I decided to finish off a decidedly ordinary week by running out of money. On the final day that school fees were due. This is a more common occurrence than it should be at Casa Travelfish and we even have an emergency money frame with $100 in it. So I broke the frame, grabbed the cash and sped across the island to Seminyak to pay the school fees before the closing bell.

Never, ever trust a money counting machine in an exchange office. Never.

Never, ever trust a money counting machine in an exchange office. Never.

The $100 was in two plastic Australian $50 notes so I planned to exchange it at one of the dodgy looking kiosks among the kid’s clothing stores on Jalan Laksmana. Dodgy is right.

We had recently been scammed out of about US$200 when doing a large money exchange (don’t ask) so I was on the lookout for shysters. Turns out they’re not difficult to find.

According to xe.com, yesterday the Indonesian rupiah to Australian dollar exchange rate was 8,492. Meaning A$100 should have got me just shy of 850,000 rupiah. Browsing the kiosks (there’s about a half dozen within 100 metres of one another on Jalan Laksmana) I saw rates (all in theory non-commission) ranging from 8,700 to 9,199. That’s quite a spread — even on just $100 that’s roughly a $5 difference.

Of course if something looks too good to be true, it is probably not true — and, if you’re talking about money changers in Bali, rest assured it isn’t anywhere near the truth.

Dodgy moneychanger number one
So I hit the 9,199 exchange place. The wooden shack is down a narrow gang and just has three locals hanging around — it feels dodgy immediately. I ask after changing $100 — no problem. They do the math on their phone and it comes out at 919,900 rupiah.

Authorised to rip off tourists.

Authorised to rip off tourists.

The main money changer pulls out a wad of 50,000 notes and counts out 500,000 on the table in front of me. My A$100 is on the table as well. I pick up the 500,000 and count it. Indeed there is 500,000. I continue holding it.

He then counts out another 400,000. When I reach for that to count, he reaches to take the 500,000 out of my hand. I resist and snatch the 400,000 and count it. Sure enough there is 400,000.

So I’m holding 900,000 in my hands. Then he asks for the money back. While I’ve already decided the exchange isn’t going to happen, I let him take it back (my $100 is still on the table).

He then counts it again in front of me on the table. First 500,000 then 400,000. Note we’re still short another 19,900. I then reach to pick it up to count it again as I’m pretty sure he dropped one note out of the 500 and one out of the 400, and he brushes my hands away, pushes the A$100 back to me and says, “You go away.”

I oblige.

Dodgy moneychanger number two
This place, also advertising a rate of 9,199, was about 20 metres up the road. Like the first, it’s a shack but as I arrive there is a traveller in front of me also trying to exchange A$100.

Looks reputable? Ummm no.

Looks reputable? Ummm no.

It appears to have been going on for a while and when I arrive she’s asking to be allowed to count the money. In the end he relents and sure enough the bundle is 50,000 rupiah short. She asks after the missing 50,000 to which he replies, “Oh, that’s the commission.” She points out his sign out front has “No Commission” emblazoned across the top, to which he replies, “Ok, but how much do you pay?”

She leaves and me behind her.

Dodgy moneychanger number three
Fifty metres further up I find another exchange rate, this time 9,099. Perhaps this one will work.

In case you were wondering, those rates are BS.

In case you were wondering, those rates are BS.

Again the exchange is down a small alley and is little more than a wooden box. The math is done on the phone and again a tattered bundle of 50,000 rupiah notes come out.

This time he counts out 900,000 in a single pile in front of me then gestures for me to check it. I count it and sure enough there is 900,000 there, but before I ask after the 9,900 rupiah still to come he reaches over, takes the money out of my hand and says, “I’ll just check.”

He then counts it twice. First in the impossible for me to do Indonesian fashion, then at lightning speed he counts the 900,000 in a single pile on the desk.

I reach to count it again, and he declares, “Stop!” He grabs my Australian dollars and examines the notes. He then grabs his money back, gives me the two $50 notes back and says, “Sorry, that note is too faded.”

Ho hum.

Dodgy moneychanger number four
Onwards I go. I find another exchange kiosk, this one facing onto the main road, so it feels a little less dodgy than the shacks down the alleys. I have to wake up the guy who was asleep on the floor behind the desk.

Money management the Travelfish.org way.

Money management the Travelfish.org way.

No problem he says, math on the phone and he counts out 500,000 on the desk then another 400,000 behind it. I reach to take it all and he says “No, count the 500,000 first.” So I do that, and yes, there is 500,000 rupiah there.

I then reach for the 400,000 but he asks for the 500,000 back. So I give that back and count the 400,000. It’s all there. He then asks for that back and gives me the 500,000 back. He then proceeds to count the 400,000 in front of me while I count the 500,000. My 500,000 is suddenly 400,000 and his 400,000 was 400,000, but before I could say anything, he pushes the 400,000 over to me and says, “Okay.”

I know I’m short and so go to count the in-theory 900,000 rupiah, knowing full well he’s taken 100,000. As I start to count it, he grabs the rupiah I’ve already put on the table, pushing the $50 notes back to me and says, “Give me the money back. You come back later.”

I do so.

A legitimate money changer in Seminyak
A bit further up, almost opposite the Corner Store, I find a glass-fronted exchange office. It has the worst rate I’ve seen — 8,700.

Worst rate but no tricky business.

Worst rate but no tricky business.

I walk in, give him A$100, he counts it, then gives me 870,000 rupiah. I count it, there is 870,000 rupiah. I leave and go pay my school fees.

In summary
At no stage did I feel threatened. As soon as the dodgy operators knew they were going to get caught out they sent me packing. They all rely on a sleight of hand where notes are generally dropped behind the desk when they recount what you have counted once.

As with the last shyster above, they also use simple numbers to confuse you. The 400/500 amounts being swapped around was confusing and if I hadn’t been paying close attention, I would have walked out of there 100,000 rupiah short.

Here are the two basic rules to adhere to during the game:
a) Don’t use dodgy-looking exchange kiosks down narrow gangs; and
b) Always be the last one to count your money. This is crucial. When we were seriously ripped off we assumed the money-counting machine that counted the notes in front of us was counting correctly. Seemingly it wasn’t, and it cost us $200.

If you’d like another take on these tricksters, Nomad4ever has a good piece on why you should never trust a money-changer.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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