The Gem Scam
Being a regular reader for the past couple of years of your weekly column and readers submissions I felt ‘shamed’ into making my own submission so thought I would relate the tale of an ‘adventure’ during my first trip to LOS.
The following is an excerpt from a sort of travelogue/diary I keep of trips/holidays, it details an experience I had during perhaps the typical Brit’s introduction to Thailand; a two-centre break three days in Bangkok and nine days in Pattaya, that I took a couple of years ago.
It is day three in Bangkok, now my plan, courtesy of Lonely Planet, is to take a taxi to Tha Ratchawong and then catch the Chao Phraya River Express four stops to Tha Chang and visit the Grand Palace. So I take the taxi that always seems to be lurking outside the hotel, I show him the map where I want to get to, after somewhat quizzical looks from the driver he turns on his meter and off we go. Everything goes smoothly, well as smoothly as any taxi ride in Bangkok and I get to the pontoon at Tha Ratchawong. After realising that the cubicle is just collecting the fare for the cross river ferry I eventually find the person selling tickets, and wait for the ferry.
Travel on the ferry was interesting and required not inconsiderable skill at remaining upright with nothing to hold onto, all the available places close to something to grab are taken, so it is with a sense of achievement, if not a little relief, that I get off at Tha Chang. As I’m striding purposefully past the University, about to cross the road to the Grand Palace, I’m approached by a portly Thai man in a shirt and tie, newspaper tucked under his arm, he’s maybe mid thirties or so: “Hello Sir where are you going? Are you lost? Maybe I can be of assistance? Now I’m sceptical, if not a little cynical, so all the time we’re chatting I’m trying to guess his angle. He says the Grand Palace is closed until 2:00 for a special ceremony for children, that he’s a school teacher who’s just off to the park to read his newspaper and do a crossword until his pupils are out from the ceremony. He offers to point out a few alternative places of interest, most seem to be temples with Buddhas standing up, lying down, smiling whatever. He circles them on my map, saying that I have time to visit the temples and be back at the Grand Palace for 2:0 when it re-opens. Then, almost as an after-thought, he remembers that today is the last day of the ‘export gem sale’ and that I should visit the gem export trade centre where I could purchase gems avoiding tax. He says it’s part of a government scheme for students travelling to foreign countries to study, whereby their parents buy them jewels that are not subject to export tax and that the students are able to make a healthy profit by selling them in the country in which they are studying. Now it seems I’m “lucky” because today is the last day of this sale and I could easily double my money, but I’ll have to get there before 4 PM as today is the last day. Well of course I’ve read the guide book and know all about the scams so even though he circles the ‘trade centre’ on my map I’ve no intention of buying any. I’m about to bid farewell to my new friend and set off on foot towards the first temple he’s circled when he catches me up and says I should take a tuktuk as it’s quite some distance to walk and before I can say no, he’s hailed one. What the hell, a ride in one of these was on my list of things to do, anyway so after agreeing a price off we set.
At the first temple Wat Bovornives (it’s still circled on my map), I have a look around, take a few photos outside then venture in. I’ve been siting quietly soaking up the atmosphere for not more than a minute when a man enters, bows to the Buddha, then sidles up to me: “Hello Sir where you come from? Ah England, my son is studying medicine in London, I have a picture here see” and he shows me a picture of a young Thai man stood by the Houses of Parliament in London. So we exchange mild chit-chat about Thailand and England then he mentions did I know how ‘lucky’ I am that today is the last day of the gem sale, that he’s flying tomorrow to Hong-Kong; he’s in the temple praying for a good flight, and he’s bought some gems and shows me the receipt. The fact that it all seems so plausible is beginning to lessen my suspicions that this is some sort of scam. Anyway of to next temple: Wat Intharawihan.
It’s an experience travelling in a tuktuk zipping in and out of the traffic. I must admit to finding the Thai driving style, in its own way, very impressive. They cut one another up relentlessly and don’t seem to mind, if all else fails they simply create a new lane. In England if you drove like that pretty soon you’d have ‘white van man’ or BMW man ‘up your ass’ flashing his lights. ‘Road-rage’ doesn’t seem to have made it to Thailand, well not quite true. One day in Pattaya whilst in one of those pick-up taxi things I did see a farang on a Honda-Dream with Thai lady passenger who took exception to the pick-up driver stopping to pick up myself and a group of locals. Next thing we know the pick-up is haring of after said motor-bike and proceeds to try and run him off the road. At the next set of traffic lights the ‘good-natured’ banter between the farang, his lady and the ‘taxi’ driver sets off again. When the lights change off we all set like an F1 Grand Prix start. The Thai passengers in the pick-up frantically ringing the bell, somewhat reluctantly, it seems the ‘taxi-driver’ stops and we all make a hasty exit, the younger Thai passengers and myself finding it all amusing whilst the two older ladies huff and puff with righteous indignation the way only old ladies can. The driver does not even wait for his fare but sets off after the motor-cyclist …..hmm…wonder what happened next. Anyway back to the plot….
At the next temple pretty much the same scenario as the first is repeated, at first I don’t think I’ll bother to enter this temple just peer through the door, but a Thai man slipping off his sandals kind of insists I should enter and so as not to offend I go in. After a short pause he too strikes up a conversation and guess what? His younger brother is flying to America tomorrow and he’s praying for his safe travel and would you believe it? He’s bought some jewels for his brother to trade to fund his education in the States, and he gets out the receipt. My cynicism is being eroded such that when the driver asks whether I want to go back to the Grand Palace or visit the Export Trade Centre I decide to go to the Trade Centre. What the hell I’m only going to have a look, I still don’t intend to buy any.
Well the ‘Trade Centre’ appears to be a normal shop front with a security guard out front. Asking the tuktuk driver to hang around, I haven’t yet paid him, I’m ushered in the store. In the main store area there a several families seated but I’m shown into a side room where the details of the ‘scheme’ are explained. I buy some gems, say for $3000, they give me a certificate of authenticity and arrange shipment of the gems to England then I take them to Tiffanys in London, along with the certificate and Tiffanys will pay me $6000. They show me a whole stack of passport photocopies of ‘happy’ clients from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America, the U.K. I explain that I know little about fashion and would not have a clue what style to buy, but they suggest I just specify a figure and they will select an appropriate set. I’m told that Thailand is the major source for one particular type of gemstone that’s currently very much in vogue. I explain that I don’t have the ready cash to make the transaction worthwhile, but they explain that I can use my credit card to get cash at the bank. I explain that my credit cards are back in my hotel's safety deposit box. No problem they’ll arrange a ‘limousine’ and driver to take me to the hotel and bank and then back to the ‘Trade Centre’.
Don’t ask me why but for some reason I go for it <you idiot! – Stick>, despite the warning bells ringing in my head. I settle up with the tuktuk driver (40 baht) and off we set to my hotel. It’s comfortable in the car with driver and a lady who speaks good English, as some sort of representative. She keeps talking, asking questions about England, music, football. It’s a pleasant experience but I subsequently decided that the intention was not to allow me time to think. At the hotel, about a 20 minute drive across the city, she instructs me to be quick as they are parked in a no-parking zone.
In the hotel I retrieve my credit card at the front desk and briefly enquire if there is a manager available, I thought I’d just quiz him about this ‘government supported-tax free’ scheme but there’s nobody about. Outside it doesn’t look as though they’ve had any parking problems, back into car and off we go.
We end up a roadside kiosk, I recognise the location, this is near the junction of Soi-3 & 4 on Sukhumvit Road, funny sort of bank I think to myself, wouldn’t there have been one on a more direct route back to the ‘Trade Centre’. X. By now I am really worried about this whole deal and looking for an escape route. Anyway, we settle on an amount 1500 pounds sterling in Thai Baht. I hand over one of my credit cards, the one I’m pretty sure has a 200 quid daily limit. Never has a credit card transaction refusal been more warmly received. I explain about the limit to the ‘rep’ and that it will be the same for all my cards, not quite true, but I’m looking for that escape route. The ‘rep’ says that I’ll have to accompany her back to the ‘Trade Centre’ to explain what has happened. I feign ‘loss of face’ and try to avoid the return trip but she’s insistent. Now this is a foreign country and I’m reluctant just to walk away at this point, I don’t know how they would react, visions of the driver getting out with a machete flash through my mind. So off we go, back to the ‘Trade Centre’.
By now it’s 4:30 so I’m somewhat surprised the place is still open, the man said they closed at 4:00. I’m escorted upstairs where I have to explain the problem to a different person than the lady who first told me all about the deal. No problem, they’ll take me to the ‘Gold Shop’ where I can buy some gold on my credit card and instantly sell the gold for cash and return with the cash to the ‘Trade Centre’. If the use of a roadside kiosk as a bank hadn’t already dissuaded me this final ‘deal’ would have. I am now insistent that I don’t want to continue with any purchase and explain I have to meet some friends very shortly. But they keep going on, “do I not want to double my money? It would pay for my holiday”. I explain that I’m on holiday this is all becoming a bit tiresome and I need to go. It is with a great sense of relief that I leave the ‘Trade Centre’ and walk briskly away.
Now I’m somewhat lost, it is not until I find a busy street that I feel completely at ease. The traffic is all stationary so there seems little point in stopping a taxi so off I trudge in what I think is the general direction of my hotel. When the traffic starts moving I stop a taxi and show him the card for my hotel, never will a Bangkok taxi ride be more welcome.
Back at the hotel I retreat to my room and reflect on the lucky escape I’ve just had, in part I’m pleased that I haven’t lost any money, whilst appalled at my stupidity, in a way quite enjoyed the experiences of the day.
I still to this day find it quite amazing that, as a fairly widely travelled individual who knew about these sort of swindles, I still almost fell for it. I find myself questioning why, even though I had read about scams where they tell you some public attraction is closed when it isn’t and was aware of the existence of jewellery scams I still, but for the rejection of the transaction at the kiosk, would have fallen for it. Ultimately I guess, it was the extent of co-ordination between the different places and people that convinced me of the potential authenticity of the scheme, although in a way it did strike me as rather too much of a coincidence to meet a private individual exploiting the ‘tax-free’ scheme at both the temples I visited; the English phrase “…over egged the pudding” springs to mind. Among lessons I have learned has been how things in Thailand can pretty quickly get out of my control, to be a bit more assertive early on (e.g. I shouldn’t have let the original contact dissuade me from my initial plan) and to keep a healthy scepticism even/especially when I’m on holiday.
As an aside, a year or so later whilst visiting my folks they show me a newspaper article all about a ‘Thai Gem Scam’, it is an accurate description of my experience except that the people in the article were not as fortunate. Some of them never got the gems, others on receiving the gems and taking them with the ‘certificate’ to Tiffanys discovered that the jewels we worth maybe a tenth of the price they had paid and were not of ‘first class quality’. Of course, I don’t admit to nearly being taken in by the scam to my folks.
P.S. The experience occurred a couple of years ago, I don’t know whether the authorities have done anything about the scheme. Perhaps their view is that it’s just an example of local enterprise. Assuming they haven’t done anything about it, in light of the current ‘clamp-down’, one does question which would potentially affect tourism more, awareness of:
A) being potentially swindled out of a large sum of money when frequenting a tourist attraction
B) the odd glimpse of a naked women if you go to a bar in a notorious area of the city
What you say about being assertive early on holds very well for a variety of situations in Thailand. Give them an inch and they won't just take a yard, they'll go for a whole mile!