Monday, December 5, 2011

Riverfront Scammers and the Filipino Blackjack Con

It’s the beginning of the high tourism season in Cambodia. The tourists are back, and so are the scammers that prey on them, especially in tourist zones like the riverfront in Phnom Penh. Actually, the scammers never left, but in my forays up the riverfront these last couple of weeks they seem to be out in numbers and working hard, chasing the fresh crop of newbies in Cambodia. Day before yesterday in front of the Royal Palace I almost got a photo of three different scammers in the same shot, but they saw me raise my camera and scattered.

There are of course the professional beggars that pester tourists as they try to have a meal on the riverfront, but they are more of an annoyance than scammer. There are also more insidious forms of this, such as the women (and sometime children) that carry around rented and drugged infants as sympathy props and child beggars that have been put on the street to work. All this is fairly well known.

Then there are the foreign scammers. ‘Wild Turkey Man’ (a.k.a. the Australian beggar) is probably the best known and longest ‘working’ of the group. He and at least one or two other foreigners are running the same scam on the riverfront, a rather old one in fact, often used on the traveler’s trail. He approaches you and spins a tale about how he’s a tourist who has lost or had his passport and money stolen, the embassy requires him to pay for a new one, or is making him wait, leaving him penniless and on the street, or he needs a bus ticket to Siem Reap to pick it up, etc., etc. The tale ends predictably, with a plea for financial help, “just a dollar, maybe a few…” Leaving aside issues of honesty and such, the biggest problem I have with these sorts of foreign ne’er-do-wells is that while they are scamming tourists for beer money they are also competing with poverty-stricken third-worlders for the limited pity dollars that flow in the tourist areas.  

But it wasn’t the usual suspects that inspired this post. It was the appearance of a comparatively new and potentially much more dangerous group of tourist scammers in Cambodia – what’s become known as the ‘Filipino Mafia’ or ‘Filipino Blackjack Con.’ One of these guys tried to work me the other day in front of the National Museum, and it wasn’t an hour later that a tuk-tuk driver was complaining to me (unprompted) that a tourist couple he had been ferrying around had to cut their Cambodia holiday short for having fallen prey to “Filipino sharks.” He claims that there are several of these scammers working in Phnom Penh and that he and other tuk-tuks have complained to the police, who have as yet done nothing about it.

The Filipino scammers have been running this con for years in Vietnam and their doings in Ho Chi Minh City have been well documented by Adam Bray on his website Fish Egg Tree. Even the well-experienced Vagabond Traveler was taken for a ride by these guys in Saigon.

I first noticed them here in Phnom Penh about a year ago. While walking past the Royal Palace I was approached by a friendly Asian couple – a man in his 50s and a woman in her 30s in casual dress. They began by complimenting my hat and asked where I got it. This led to more friendly conversation, and more praise and interest in my knowledge, appearance and country. They claimed to be Malaysians living in Australia. When they found out that I was a long-term expat they ended the conversation politely but quickly. I was immediately suspicious. It may sound cynical, but while somebody may stop to ask directions or perhaps try to sell you something, nobody starts extended conversations with passing strangers for no particular reason. I didn’t know what the game was at the time, but something was definitely fishy.

Three weeks later the same couple approached me in the same spot in almost the same way, but this time it was my beard they liked. They had forgotten me from before. They claimed to be half-Khmer/half-Malaysian visiting family in Cambodia. Again, they showed glowing interest in my country, my travels, my family and my experiences as a tourist in Cambodia. All 'feel good' stuff, appealing to my vanity and sense of openness as a traveler. Again, they ended the conversation when they learned I was a long-termer. I still didn’t know what they were up to but it was clearly no-good. I saw them a few times after that, walking the same area, but they didn’t approach me again.

It was shortly thereafter I learned about the ‘Filipino Blackjack scam’ being run in Saigon and heard that the same scammers had been seen in Phnom Penh. I put 2 and 2 together.

About a month ago in front of the National Museum here in Phnom Penh another couple approached me in the same way – different people, same general description, same sort of conversation except this time they started by complimenting me on my handsome backpack. Like the others, they spoke English well and with a non-Khmer accent. Unlike previous encounters, I changed my story and said I was a tourist. The conversation ran much longer. They expressed great interest in learning more about my country and invited me to join them for an authentic Khmer meal, a cultural exchange of sorts. I already knew enough, begged off and walked away. Whatever was to happen next, it was going to be some sort of an attempt to lead me into a situation over which I had no control and then separate me from my money.

Over the last month I have spotted the male half of the couple several times working tourists on the Sothearos Blvd sidewalk in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Twice in the last two weeks, apparently forgetting that they have already done this to me several times, he approached me with the same lame sort of compliment/question they use every time. Day before yesterday it was my sunglasses he liked. “Very nice sunglasses. Did you buy those here?…”

They have been seen in several places in Phnom Penh including other parts of the riverfront, at Sorya Mall, in the park next to Wat Botom and in front of the Central Market (Phsar Thmey.) There are also recent reports that they are working in Siem Reap as well.

No need to detail the rest of their scam – how they manipulate you into a compromised situation, how you get into a card game you never thought you’d enter, how you lose money you never thought you’d bet, how it can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, how they pressure, threaten, even drug you afterwards. They are slick and they are professionals and if you start to walk down the rosy path with them, they will get you there. The details of the scam have already been well covered by Fish Egg Tree and Vagabond Traveler.

You only need to know that THE FILIPINO SCAMMERS ARE HERE IN CAMBODIA, that they are targeting tourists, and to follow the advice that your Mom gave you when you were young...

BEWARE of friendly strangers.

34 comments:

  1. Off-topic: just read this, no need to approve comment.

    You should really change your color scheme, because it is really unpleasant to read white on black. There are hundreds of posts on internet by web designers which explain why black background is good for photos and videos, but really bad for text. I can't think of any reason why are you treating your readers so cruel. Try yourself - reading for 5-10 minutes your blog and then quickly start to read something on normal color scheme, you should probably feel how this affects your eyes.

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  2. Wow, Thanks for the heads-up. This explains a very weird situation I encountered last July while walking down a side street by psar kandal. A family of 3 people sitting at a cafe yelled me down to compliment my scarf and ask where I got it. Red flags went up right away, it was a krama, where can't you get one of those? They chatted me up for a while but cut things off when they realized I'd been around awhile. I'm always skeptical of friendly strangers. Some people might say I'm a misanthrope, but I think it's just being careful- especially while traveling.

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  3. you have a very nice blog. where'd you get it?

    j/k :)

    thank you for blowing the whistle. it's a total shame. i am a Filipino myself and i will share this alarming topic.

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  4. No sympathy. You have to be completely daft to get into a game of cards on the street and think you can win. These people are driven by greed and deserve to get fleeced.

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    1. he didn't... he was warned by the tuk tuk drivers!

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  5. I met a couple who claimed to be from Thailand, and while I didn't end up in any trouble (I maintained I didn't gamble and wasn't going to) and even got a ride back to the Riverfront, the story on Vagabond Traveler's site about their m.o. is scarily familiar. I'm very lucky that I got a free meal and ice cream at Swensen's out of them and they got nothing from me!

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  6. First heard of that scam 20 years ago in Bangkok from an Irish guy. Exact same smooth Filipino scam artists...the hook was a daughter who was going to Dublin to work as a nurse. The father worked in a Malay casino. The sudden visit of a disliked man.
    It was at the time an interesting change from the daily diet of gem scams.

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  7. What a shame! I am a Filipino and I felt shame with these kind of Filipinos who wanted the easy life. The real Filipinos are having none of the qualities of these scammers. We are surviving in our country and working in other countries to survive, to work hard, to earn a decent living. Not scamming other people. Not these guys. But well- it is a consolation to know that everywhere you go, whether in Cambodia, in the US, in Vatican, everywhere- scammers abound. And they are not exclusively Filipino.

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  8. all i can say is there's no such word as "safe"

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  9. Your body guard/protector is "Be Careful" no matter where you are, what you in, just bring "Be Careful" with you!

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  10. I can confirm these scammers are active in Phnom Penh, I have been approached on three seperate occasions in three weeks. They are Filipinos and they always asked me where I got my shirt, and then start a conversation asking where I am from etc. If they find out I am staying long term, they will end the conversation in a few sentences. The third one, whom I told I was staying a few days, showed me pictures of his wife and daughter, I think they were fake because they looked too nice to be true, and told me his sister is coming to my country to work, he would like me to go to his house for a meal. I had the exact same story in Saigon a month ago from another gang.

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  11. Also in Siem Reap. Last week I was approached by a filipino by the riverside near the Royal Gardens. Same story: his daughter was travelling to my city, to work as a model in the next few weeks and wanted information, etc. After chatting for no more than a minute he invited me to dinner next day but I declined. I had never heard of this scam but it all seemed very forced / too many coincidences.
    The man had problems with his voice and used pen and paper to write some words to help himself when talking.

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  12. This is one of the most racist articles I've read in my life! How can you label such crime to a particular race group??? This blog promotes hatred and racial discrimination!!! You should leave Asia now! You are unwelcome! You sick bastard!

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    1. I saw the comment about "racist bastard" well I seem to be some kind of "Filipino scammer magnet" I have been approached by 3 different Filipinos so far in Seim Reap wanting to bring me home to meet with mom and dad and have a traditional meal, with the female one suggesting a wild night of sex might also be on the table. Luckily, my Filipino wife has saved me from the scam by knowing the accent well-these people often pretend to be locals or from other parts of Asia. I know the accent well, it's very distinct (V'S often replaced by B's) I have also had this same thing happen at least 4 times in Bangkok. Seeing one group of people doing something does not make a person a racist-that's an idiot's response. And I am pretty sure that if the comment was about "American scammers" no moral outrage would follow the comment. Most filipinos i know are honest, and hard working people-however, that does not mean that there are not a few bad apples in there. on the first incident in Bangkok I went to a house in Bangkok-hilarity insured-the prince of Brunei, apparently a very bad poker player was going to show up. My challenge was to win thousands from him, I declined and left when he arrived complete with many fingers covered in cheap glass ruby rings and a thick Filipino accent. It was a dumb move on my part to test the waters like this but since the house was very open to the outside I decided I had to see this scam to the end. I am amazed that in just 10 days in Seim Reap I have been hit on three times. I talked to a local about it-someone with "street smarts" yes, the locals are more than aware of the problem with Filipino scammers (there, I must be a racist) working in Seim Reap.

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    2. "You should leave Asia now! You are unwelcome!"

      haha.

      reminds me of the times in the PI when i was totally broke, walking 2k's every other day downtown in order to check my bank balance. once i was yelled upon by a wannabe pinoy pimp: you want chica?, (or something alike). i said, thx, but i'm broke, why wouldn't i ride on a jeepney otherwise?

      his answer: you no have money? go home!!!

      anectdata are not representative!
      still, memories linger & blur perception, give ground to prejudice, is all i'm saying.

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    3. "How can you label such crime to a particular race group???"

      I didn't label it. It had that label in Southeast Asia long before I ran across this particular scam. Check out the links in my post above.

      Delete
  13. Trolling can be funMay 26, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    Above poster, it isn't that all Filipinos are scam artists. It is that all the blackjack scammers working the Riverside are Filipino.

    Got a feeling though you might be one of a handful of K440 posters whose witty posts I admire having a laugh.

    In case of the latter, respect.

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  14. to Anonymus 4:15 _ does this man name was Alan? with glasses?about 50 y.or something? Met him too - I believe the same man is hanging around in Siem Reap to find victims. He is more careful then some others I met but invited for a lunch immediately next day etc. He sounds really dangerous and bad man. To me he told- he is born on Havaii but had sister in Siem Reap etc.

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  15. I was just fleeced by these people a few days ago. I blame myself for not doing adequate reading ahead of time. What an elegant scam. I was approached on the corner of Street 13 and 178 by a Filipino woman trying to go to the Friends cafe recommended by Lonely Planet. They apparently feed on the vulnerability of politeness. Just blow them off!!

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  16. Wow, yeah I've been approached MANY times while down in Pnh - usually they love my sunglasses, or my shorts (no homo!) - and I had one person inquire as to what type of ice-cream i was enjoying - lol

    Always good for a laugh - thanks for the heads up as to their real intent - and here I just thought i was fashionable with a good taste in ice-cream

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  17. Ive been approached many times by young filipina woman around the riverfront and Palace, It was obvious something wasnt right, never got scammed maybe they backed off when they realised I wasnt a tourist...It may be a coincedence but I once was approached by a guy in a mall in KL malaysia who liked my shoes and we got into a long conversation about his sister moving to my country to be a nurse and how he was worried people would treat different because she was foreign, it may be just a coincednece but im just realising now he may have been up to something, i left thinking what a sound bloke he was!

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    1. ca 18 yrs ago, leaving the now defunct central bus station in KL, i was complimented for my ponytail by some 30sh girl. same routine. we had a coke together at the Mc Do & it was then that i realized she was up to something ungood. left her there. never curious about what kinda scam it would have turned out to be. you are right in your final judgement. until then, i only knew about the gem scam. was enough to raise red flags, fortunately.

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    2. I was at the Riverfront approached by 2 women claimed to be tourists from Thailand, and staying at their uncle's house in Phnom Penh. They said they are cousins and their uncle work in Phnom Penh. They of course started the conversation by complimenting on my dress. When they found out where I am from, one of them said her sister is moving to my city to be a nurse in a few months. Honestly, my city is very small, and it is not most popular place for foreign people to move to. Then, they invited me to their uncle's house for some authentic thai foods, so I can meet their sister who they said was at his house right now. I said perhaps we can all just eat out somewhere in a restaurant with your sister. Then, they suggested that we meet the next day and have lunch together at the Pizza Company with her sister, and then we could all travel to the National Museum together to do some sight seeing together. The next day came, I only found one of the women waiting for me at the Pizza Company. She said her cousin is coming, just wait. Then, she got a call on her mobile, and asked me to go outside with her, she said her cousin is outside now. Then outside, they told me to get on a motorcycle, the driver is a male whom they claim be another cousin of theirs. They said we are all going to the uncle's house for lunch. They said I can get on his motorcycle, and they have their own motorcycles. Their male cousin will take me to the house, and they will meet me there, and that their sister will be there as well, then I can meet their sister. I said I thought we were all going to go to the museum together in the afternoon. They knew I don't want to get on the motorcycle. Then they suggested that we meet again at 3:00pm here, and then their sister will come. A tuk tuk driver witnessed all this on the street and came to tell me not to go with them. He said they are Filipinoes, their faces look like Cambodians, but they are not Cambodians, they are from the Philippine, and if you go with them to their house, they may drug you, and take thousand of dollars from you. So, please be careful if you encounter similar situation.

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  18. So I'm a Filipina and I'll be going to Cambodia for vacation. What worries me is that foreigners who are also vacationing might blow me off if I ask for directions/become friendly.

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  19. Happened to me too, in front of the korean minimart at sorya. was drunk = stupid & went along with em to their house on 262th if memory serves. when it dawned upon me what was going on, i got scared shitless. it was a 5 to 1 situation, i was thinking a) are there possibly guns in the house? b) how will i get out now avoiding escalation? "eddie" realizing i wasn't game, changed his tone accusing me of being not nice etc, still, he offered me a ride back. thx, i'll find my way, bye, i answered & fled the scene very swiftly. they were a bit surprised by the acceleration of the development, i guess, so i got away scot free. thought about retaliation for a day or two before the whole thing became but a hazy memory.

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  20. i know this is a derail, it's about mugging, but since i'm on a roll, posting... first time in PP i natch wanted to check it all out. having heard about the martini, i went there once, arrived at 2:45 not knowing it would close at 3 AM. there was only two barang customers left, me included. one, an american expat, completely shitfaced, still obviously untouchable for the would be muggers, and me. so it was me they scouted. a pair of two to my left & a fat guy to my right.

    when i left, the fat guy followed me, asking where i was headed. that's on my way, i can give you a ride, he said. i have a pretty sharp idea of what would have happened, had i accepted his offer. trust me, although
    i've never been mugged in SE asia & i'm not paranoid, you must NEVER let your guard down. there's a lot of muggers around the russian market as well.

    at a comforting least, they hardly ever start a conversation with a gun put to your head in SE asia

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    1. PS: except for the PI, (philippine islands). there it happens all the time. it's pretty much the same way things are done in a huge chunk of latin america.

      there are of course reasons for that, but i won't get into it at this point, cause it's really multifaceted.

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  21. Very scary to read all this information. Travelling by myself in 2 weeks time.

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  22. Last month I was in Sihanoukville where I met Hans, a young German fellow. Hans warned me for a Philippine guy, who approached him and asked to help him to translate a letter from German into English ... Hans stupidly went along was offered a drink and was heavily drugged and fell in deep sleep. When he woke up, there were two other guys, they showed photos they made of him with a little girl and threatened to go to the police accusing him of sex with an underaged girl. Hans had about $150.- cash with him, and gave it... just in order to get out. Then he went himself to the police, but the officer told him that they couldn't arrest these Phils without proof.
    Mike

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  23. I was in Phnom Pehn for two days last week and was approached twice. The first guy was really plausible and it was only when he wouldn't come to my hotel to collect me that I blew him out. My experience the following day - same story - confirmed that my caution was justified. So be careful. They are out there and they are very plausible.

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  24. I am currently in Siem Reap and had the same experience though this time, it has a different twist to it. This time, they are claiming to be missionaries working for an NGO to teach English to Children in Phnom Penh. When asked if they have an office in Siem Reap, the lady who by the way could pass for a friendly grandmother told me they are looking for a place to set one up.

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  25. Hi ! I have been to cambodia 3 times and was scammed by well known Internet Scammer Thavra Pich AK THAVRA
    Choun, It was a advanced marriage Scam with the whole family involved in this in fact she has multiple facebook accounts on the Facebook with Different names.I had legal engaged with all cultural and legal protocols witnessed by the family and community . During the time we were engaged to be married I found out she was having relations with 3 different men in the time frame . From all the internet activity of scams she does she has had multiple cars during this time frame.

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  26. I just have same situation yesterday they are very klever but the story was to beautiful now I will search for them all the time I stay here

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  27. They try to scammer me today they are klever but not like me the story was to beautiful now I will spend my time to catch they and give a good lesson

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