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.