"Our Bank Accounts Were Almost Drained": Travellers Recount the Worst Scams They've Fallen For
"The next thing I remember is waking up, alone, on the floor of the bar—surrounded by the girls—struggling with consciousness. The guy was yelling at me to pay for something."
All illustrations by Ashley Goodall
Sure, travelling can be a lot of fun. But being a tourist—a gawking photo snapper, asking obvious questions—can also make you vulnerable to getting swindled.
Some things are to be expected when you're abroad—paying inflated prices for stuff like souvenirs and taxis is pretty much par for the course. But there's also the possibility of being conned by more elaborate schemes. It's not easy to get someone to hand over large sums of money, which is why the best scams are absurdly intricate, creative, and well-executed.
I think these scams are fascinating, so I talked to some people who've fallen for them abroad to find out how it all worked. Their stories are intriguing, pitiable and, sometimes, funny. Hopefully these anecdotes will help you avoid having your pockets emptied next time you're lost and vulnerable.
I'd been travelling through Europe and decided to settle in Paris for a while. Sussing out rooms on Craigslist, I eventually found a sharehouse that looked good. I contacted the girl who advertised it, met up with her, and we ended up hanging out for the night and getting drunk together. We got on really well and when she took me to a cool little Parisian flea market I thought I was in roomie love.
After a week of texting, I was accepted to move in and transferred the bond and first week's rent. All up €1000.
On the move in date, I rocked up with all my stuff only to get text saying she wouldn't be home until later. She said the key was in the secret spot and to make myself at home. But there was no key. And no answer to my phone calls or texts. I waited for three hours and eventually knocked on the neighbour's door, who revealed the girl had moved to the USA three days before. The apartment's new tenants had already moved in.
I went to her "work" and nobody knew who she was. She'd made up a fake name and everything. I found that the account I'd transferred money into was in her mum's name but when I tried to track her mum down, it just didn't come to anything. I ended up back in on my aunt's couch.
I was 19 and as green as they come. I was travelling by myself in Goa and I met a local guy who was really nice. We hung out a lot over the next few days. He said he worked for a textile company and, eventually, introduced me to his boss, who immediately offered me a job.
They wanted me to post a package of jewellery to Australia and deliver it to a guy in Sydney. They said the import taxes for Australia were really high, but if I—an Australian—sent jewellery through the post, it would be considered my property and they wouldn't have to pay tax on it. The jewels were supposedly worth $10,000 and they'd give me 40 percent of that. $4000.
It sounded a bit sketchy. But I didn't have a phone, or internet access, or anyone to talk it over with, so I went for it.
I packed the jewellery myself—making sure they didn't sneak any drugs in there—and insured the package for $10,000. Once it was sent, they said they'd completely look after me until the package cleared customs. They put me up in a hotel, took me out, fed me, got me drunk, and paid for almost everything.
After a few days of this, we got this phone call from Mumbai Customs asking why I was posting a package of jewellery worth $10,000 without providing a receipt. I totally panicked and pretended that the phone line was breaking up. Eventually, the guy started screaming at me, yelling, "We know what you're up to, you're trying to illegally export jewellery! You have 24 hours to come to Customs and prove that you've paid for it otherwise we'll blacklist your passport!"
I freaked out, thinking I was going to Indian jail for sure. The "boss" said we were all in a bit of trouble but assured me that they had my back, insisting he had far more to lose than me. He said I needed to transfer them whatever money I had so that they could forge a receipt and then they'd transfer it back. It sounds stupid now, but at the time it sounded like my golden ticket out of Indian jail.
I only had about $1,700 in my bank account, which was massively disappointing for them, but I handed it over immediately and promised I'd borrow more money when I got home. Within five hours they had me on a flight back to Sydney.
At home, my brother Googled what happened and told me I'd been textbook scammed. The jewellery was basically worthless, the "Mumbai Customs official" wasn't legit. I'd signed over all the money in my account and I was back in Australia, just like that.
Last September, I joined two friends in Tokyo for 10 days. On the second night we cruised through the alleyways of Roppongi and met a big jovial man who insisted on taking us to a bar. We'd spent the night declining these kind of offers but we thought, What's the harm in saying yes to one?
So he led us enthusiastically to his bar, where three girls were waiting for us—it was his harem. We declined on the girls, saying we'd just have one beer and leave. He poured beers and pushed us into a booth.
The next thing I remember is waking up alone on the floor of the bar—surrounded by the girls—struggling with consciousness and memory. The guy was yelling at me to pay for something. I had enough sense to ask for an ATM, at which point he began walking me out to find one. When I spotted a fire exit, I ran out as fast as I could.
I awoke in the morning, face down on the floor again, but this time in our apartment. My friends were there, in pretty much the same condition as me. We'd been drugged, our bank accounts almost completely drained. In total we lost $4,000 and a camera worth $5,000.
The strangest part was that our cards were still in our pockets the next day. The guy must have nabbed our wallets while we were unconscious, then put them back in our pockets afterwards. When we called our banks to tell them we'd been drugged and robbed, we found that our cards had been charged for multiple transactions, rather than one large lump sum. These two factors made it seem like we'd just gotten carried away on a night out, so we never got any of the money back from the bank. The worst part is I will never know the full extent of what happened that night.
In Mumbai recently, a British Indian man approached me with a story of being mugged and having his passport stolen. He was missing a tooth and had facial bruising to support this. He said he could get his brother to wire him £500 via Western Union, but the transaction would have to be made to my name because his ID had been stolen in the mugging.
The British consulate was legitimately closed for India's Independence holiday, so replacing his passport was out of the question. After chatting for a bit, I agreed to let his brother transfer the money into my name and we set out to find an open Western Union. It was dusk when we started, and after almost four hours of trying to find one, it was dark. Without money or a passport in India you're extremely vulnerable—so by this point I felt somewhat invested in his safety.
He decided his best option was to get a taxi to Delhi, where his family owned a house. Being convinced there was £500 in limbo with my name on it, I withdrew 22,000 rupees (roughly the equivalent) to help him on his way.
I wasn't worried—he'd seemed genuinely distressed, and had transferred the money into my name. But when I went back to my hotel, on the off chance something was up, I Googled it. Turns out the guy's been at this scam for years.
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