A Cheap Lesson
It was back in 2006. I was young and had just been sent on a mission to Thailand, and was due to come back to Europe after that. Never had been to Asia before, and knew nothing about Thailand before coming. I was notified of the assignment 3 days before I took the flight to BKK.
It happened just maybe 2 weeks after I arrived. I was staying in Lad Prao area, so I decided to go check Chatuchak Market which was nearby. I'm walking around and then a pretty well-dressed local guy just catches me, "Hey man, I like your shoes, where did you buy them?" Me being a friendly person and quite naive on that time, I engage into conversation and, then he tells me that his sister studies in Farangland (where I'm from obviously), blablabla tells me a lot about his (fake) life. He presents himself as a musician, playing in 5-stars hotels, going around town playing. He speaks very good English (probably Filipino now that I'm a bit more knowledgeable about Asia) and looks like an educated guy, very likeable. Then he tells me his sister received a letter and she doesn't understand it (or something like that I don't recall exactly), and he asks me if I could translate for him. Me having the image of Thai people being nice and easily inviting people I didn't think much of it. I follow the guy who says he lives 5 minutes from here. I start to become worried when we take a taxi and it takes like 20 minutes to arrive at his place. I have no idea where I am (although now that I know Bangkok, it was on Lad Prao Road in one of the sois. It was a very nice neighbourhood, almost like a small mooban but with townhouses, security at the entrance etc… So I didn't feel too threatened at the time.
Then we talk and he introduces me to his mum, his cousin, a very cute lady who comes to sit close to me immediately, and then another cousin comes in, speaking very good English as well, telling about his life as a dealer on a casino boat. I've always liked cards and when he asked me if I wanted to see a few tricks I said yes. He then shows me how he can deal a 21 at any time to who he wants on the table. He was really skilled like I've only seen magicians do before (and I've played poker a lot in casinos / card rooms and seen hundreds of dealers – and none of them could do that).
Anyway, he starts to tell me that there is this Singaporean guy who owes him money, and asks me if I can help him to take his money back. He would call him up and we would have a game where he would deal me hands and tell me when to bet big with a secret code or something like that. I'm starting to feel really uncomfortable and start trying to think of a way out. I really don't know what to do, and the Singaporean guy shows up like 5 minutes later. He looks Chinese for sure (at that time I had no clue how to differentiate different Asian origins) with gold glasses and a big gold Rolex.
The game starts and I'm really wondering what the hell I am doing here. I almost faint when the Singaporean guy takes out a stack of 100 USD banknotes from his bag. I had never seen so much cash before – it was like 10,000 USD. Then the Singaporean starts to ask for guarantees that I have money to pay if I lose. The dealer then takes me apart and says he will advance 4,000 USD for me, which he shows to me, and that I have to bring the 6,000 USD just to show, because anyway we are going to win. We deal the hand before we have the money, and he deals me a 21, and he even shows me the hand of the Singaporean guy who has a 20. At this point I know very well I'm the one getting screwed but still have no idea how to get out. My only "luck" is that I don't have any cash on me, so at some point we will need to get out of here and go to an ATM. Also I know that my credit card limit was very, very low, and that I had topped most of my limits already for my expenses. So I was pretty sure we could not get large sums at the ATM. So I decided to play in their game telling them I will go to the ATM and get the money. My plan was to try a few times to withdraw big sums of money, and I knew after 3 tries my card would be automatically blocked anyway. Then I would find an excuse to leave and go back to my hotel room where I would be safe. I was staying at a 5-star hotel so I was pretty sure they could help me if I were to be in real trouble.
Before we leave, they ask for a guarantee to leave at the house. The only thing I have is my tourist camera (worth around 80 Euros I recall), so I leave it there and off we go to the ATM, the dealer and the tout along with the cute girl who tries to keep me calm. Afterwards I felt that she was really not happy playing part in this and seemed to pity me getting scammed like that.
We go to the ATM at a shopping mall and I start to feel safer with all these people around and my hotel next door. As planned, my card doesn't give me any money. I can see they start to be upset, but I keep acting as if I were excited to beat the Singaporean and get my share of the money. I kept playing dumb even after I realized what I was getting into, so they would not get in to a threatening mode. They even buy me a McDonald's meal, where I tell them that I will go back to the hotel to call my bank and tell them to allow my card to get money, but it would take at least one day. To my surprise, they agree and they don't want to follow me to the hotel, big relief. They tell me to meet them again the next day at McDonald's. They don't know my room number, my name or anything about me (except that I had taken few pictures of temples with my camera). So I kiss goodbye to my camera, go back to my hotel room and arrange for a check-out the next morning. I call my bank to tell them my card has been hacked and ask them to block any withdrawal or payment in case they had a way to copy it (since they chose the ATM). I move to another area of Bangkok with the plan to stay clear of Lad Prao for a while.
Then I go on internet, and start Googling blackjack scam. I find out that some people have been shot when not able to provide the money, and feels very lucky to have escaped at a cost of 80 Euros and a good scare… A very cheap lesson indeed…
Amazingly I still hear of this scam happening today, although it seems to be in neighbouring countries as opposed to Thailand. Phnom Penh seems to be a hot spot for it these days so if you're visiting the Cambodian capital, beware of anyone who is overly friendly – especially Filipinos who may be posing as Cambodians.