Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Pickpockets on the Prowl in Popular Destinations
Ask any seasoned traveler and they’ll likely have a story or two about pickpockets ruining their trip abroad. These sneaky thieves prey on tourists in crowded areas, public transportation, and tourist sites. Their nimble fingers can slip a wallet or phone from your pocket or bag before you even notice. Southeast Asia’s popular destinations seem to attract more than their fair share of pickpockets, with hotspots like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bali frequently targeted.
One of the most infamous pickpocketing schemes involves teams working crowded buses or trains. One will create a distraction by dropping something or engaging you in conversation. Meanwhile, their partner will stealthily access your belongings from behind. Other thieves wait at transit stops, boarding just before departure to take advantage of rushed passengers jamming their way onboard. Don’t be fooled by innocent looking children either. Local gangs sometimes use kids, knowing compassionate tourists won’t suspect them.
Markets and other crowded locales also allow pickpockets to strike unnoticed. At Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market, a traveler turned for just a second only to find her purse open with wallet gone. Walking tours are another prime opportunity, where tight groups and constant movement let thieves operate freely. One woman on a Ho Chi Minh City tour felt a tug at her crossbody purse. A boy had partially unzipped it and was reaching for her phone before she pulled away.
What else is in this post?
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Pickpockets on the Prowl in Popular Destinations
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Bogus Tour Guides Dupe Unsuspecting Travelers
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Counterfeit Currency Running Rampant at Street Markets
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Taxi Drivers Taking Tourists for an Unwanted Ride
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Spiked Drinks Leading to Robberies in Nightlife Districts
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Avoiding ATM and Credit Card Skimming Scams
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Violent Crimes on the Rise Against Lone Travelers
- Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Police Corruption Enables Criminals to Operate Unchecked
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Bogus Tour Guides Dupe Unsuspecting Travelers
In their eagerness to dive into new cultures, tourists often book tours with local guides to unlock insider access and knowledge. However, travelers must beware of unscrupulous actors posing as legitimate guides, ready to scam unsuspecting foreigners. These bogus tour guides bank on the trust tourists place in them, spinning false credentials and backstories, only to ultimately rob or abandon their charges.
Across Southeast Asia, authorities have warned about shady outfits marketing themselves as authorized guides or travel agencies. Without proper vetting, tourists hand over cash or personal information, never to see the “guide” or their money again. For example, Vietnamese police reported scammers posing as tourism company reps at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport. They offered taxi services and tours, diverting passengers to rob them instead. Savvy travelers avoid this by pre-booking airport transfers and tours through verified companies like Klook or Viator.
In Bangkok, unlicensed tuk tuk drivers pretend to be guides, overcharging for visits to temples or shopping stops from which they collect commissions. One group of Aussie travelers agreed to a lowball Tuk Tuk fare of 20 baht, only to be delivered to a jewelry shop andstrong-armed into spending thousands. Arrange licensed, metered transport like taxis or Grab ahead of time to avoid this scam.
Fake guides also operate around major sites like Angkor Wat, where scam operations have become so sophisticated they include fake minefield warnings. These “guides” pretend to clear safe paths through active mines near the temples to justify exorbitant fees. In reality, no mines endanger tourists in Siem Reap. Always book licensed guides via reputable channels and ignore offers from solicitors, however official they may appear.
While walking city streets, travelers may be approached by locals posing as students or travelers themselves. After befriending tourists they suggest grabbing a drink or meal together. The new “friends” then disappear after consuming expensive food and drinks, leaving travelers to foot the inflated bill. Other times, they’ll recommend an off-the-radar bar or restaurant they have a “deal” with, ultimately bilking tourists through dodgy pricing and forced purchases. Keep conversations polite but brief and never deviate from set plans or venues you researched ahead of time.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Counterfeit Currency Running Rampant at Street Markets
Street markets in Southeast Asia teem with vendors peddling everything from fresh fruits to handmade textiles. However, they also covertly trade in counterfeit currency, circulating fake bills to unsuspecting tourists. This fraudulent money fuels dangerous criminal enterprises and leaves travelers out of pocket.
Unlike scams involving pickpockets or shady guides, counterfeit currency at markets often catches tourists completely unaware. As travelers excitedly shop and haggle, they may not inspect foreign bills closely before paying or accepting change. By the time they discover the bills are fake, the vendor has long since disappeared into the market’s crowds.
Australian blogger Alyson describes her experience getting duped in Hanoi’s Dong Xuan market. In her enthusiasm browsing stalls, she failed to inspect a 500,000 dong note handed to her as change. She didn’t notice anything wrong until trying to spend it at a convenience store. The clerk immediately identified the bill as counterfeit.
Fake currency also circulates heavily in Bangkok’s popular Chatuchak market, where police raids occasionally uncover vendors stockpiling bogus bills. Travelers recount receiving dodgy 20, 50 and 100 baht notes in change after purchases. Other visitors warn of taxi drivers switching out larger notes for counterfeit ones when giving change.
Although scams often involve smaller notes, higher value bills are counterfeited too. An American traveler had $100 in fake USD after exchanging money at a Cambodian market. A Canadian couple visiting Vietnam independently exchanged $200 into counterfeit currency before their trip, not realizing until arriving in Hanoi.
Why does this matter beyond a traveler losing some pocket money? Firstly, possessing counterfeit currency is illegal, potentially landing tourists in hot water. Travelers passing bad bills could face criminal charges, fines, and imprisonment.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Taxi Drivers Taking Tourists for an Unwanted Ride
Getting around Southeast Asia often means hailing taxis on the street. However, tourists must be vigilant of unscrupulous drivers deliberately taking them for a ride - quite literally. Unlike regulated taxis in places like New York or London, a cowboy culture pervades drivers across the region. Locals accept this insider knowledge as part of daily life. But visitors are prime targets for inflated fares and other taxi scams.
One of the most common scams involves taxi drivers taking indirect routes on purpose to rack up the meter. Instead of driving directly to a traveler's stated destination, they’ll take a convoluted path involving unnecessary detours. In places like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, this can more than double the fare. Drivers think most tourists won't know better, allowing them to essentially name their own price.
An American visiting Bali for the first time fell victim when asking a cabbie to take her from the airport to Ubud, expecting a 30 minute, 60,000 IDR ($4 USD) trip. Instead, the driver took backroads and a 90 minute route costing nearly 300,000 IDR ($20 USD). While she questioned the outlandish meter price, the driver insisted it was "the only route." A savvy local later informed her the actual drive should have been half the duration and cost.
Another tactic involves taxis refusing to turn on the meter at all. They’ll quote an arbitrary flat fare far exceeding normal rates. If visitors aren’t familiar with reasonable rates, they end up massively overpaying. One travel blogger recounted Bangkok cabbies consistently demanding 500 baht for rides that should cost less than 100 baht on the meter. Agreeing to flat rates leaves tourists at the mercy of drivers picking obscene prices.
Of course, some cabbies go a step further, taking passengers to entirely wrong destinations against their will. A scary account from two female travelers in Cambodia described a late night taxi ride that ended at a brothel instead of their hotel. The driver acted angry and intimidating when they refused to go inside the club. Only firm demands got them back in the taxi to reach their accommodation.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Spiked Drinks Leading to Robberies in Nightlife Districts
Southeast Asia’s nightlife scene lures travelers longing to let loose. From Bangkok’s riotous clubs to beachfront bars in Bali, revelers pack the region’s party hotspots. However, criminals also flock to these areas, spiking unattended drinks to incapacitate tourists and rob them. While nightlife crimes occur worldwide, lax regulation and enforcement enable these schemes to thrive across Southeast Asia.
A scary account from two foreign women partying in Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road backpacker district describes their experience getting drugged by a street tout. Lured in by promises of free shots, they eagerly downed the small samples. Yet just minutes later, they began fading fast into unconsciousness. Local staff had to intervene to stop the shady character from dragging their now limp bodies out of the bar. The rare good Samaritans likely saved them from robbery, assault or worse.
Other travelers report getting dosed after accepting drinks from strangers at clubs or bars. In touristy nightlife enclaves, scammers masquerade as fellow visitors to gain trust. They’ll pretend to befriend intoxicated partiers, buying them drinks which are spiked without their knowledge. The tourist soon becomes incapacitated or blacked out, allowing the criminal to empty their pockets and purses while supporting their now limp body.
These predators target solo travelers and smaller groups, though even couples and families aren’t immune. One man visiting Pattaya, Thailand accepted a whiskey and soda from a friendly patron while his girlfriend was in the washroom. After just a few sips, he passed out and awoke to find his wallet, phone and watch stolen.
Another sinister tactic involves beautiful women approaching often tipsy male travelers and aggressively flirting or seducing them. Once their mark becomes sufficiently aroused and distracted, they’ll proposition going somewhere private. The scammers lead the men to a second location where they are dosed and robbed blind.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Avoiding ATM and Credit Card Skimming Scams
ATMs are a lifeline for travelers in Southeast Asia. Withdrawing cash directly from our accounts back home saves the hassle and fees of exchanging money. However, organized crime syndicates have tapped into this necessity, installing skimming devices inside ATM machines across the region’s popular hubs. These ingenious bits of tech copy debit and credit card data, stealing account numbers and PINs without cardholders ever realizing. The scam artists then create cloned cards to illegally withdraw funds.
While bank fraud happens worldwide, lax security measures and lackadaisical law enforcement enable ATM skimming rings to run rampant across Southeast Asia. Travelers must remain vigilant when taking out cash, or risk draining their accounts in a matter of days. Trust us, there are few worse feelings than the panic of a wiped out debit card halfway through a dream trip.
So how do you avoid joining the masses of skimmed tourists? Firstly, use ATMs directly attached to reputable banks whenever possible. Criminals often target isolated or standalone machines which are easier to tamper with. Splurge for accommodation offering in-house ATMs for guest use only, like many hotels or hostels in the region.
Check for skimming devices before inserting your card. Wiggling card and card readers will reveal anything loose or improperly fitted. Perpetrators often place a fake cover over the actual card slot able to scan data. Avoid machines with scratches, damaged panels or loose parts - obvious signs of tampering.
When entering your PIN, cover the keypad with your other hand. Skimming devices commonly include pinhole cameras to capture PIN entry. Deny criminals this vital data to render stolen card numbers useless. Only use machines in reputable, high-traffic areas with good lighting and security cameras. Avoid ATMs in dark alleys or empty streets, ideal spots for criminals to install skimmers without notice.
Also consider alternate withdrawal methods beyond standalone ATMs. Many major bank chains like HSBC or Standard Chartered have relationship networks allowing fee-free withdrawals from overseas partner banks. Ask your financial institution before traveling about international banking alliances. Withdrawing from a teller inside a bank also reduces skimming risk compared to external machines.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Violent Crimes on the Rise Against Lone Travelers
While Southeast Asia conjures images of friendly locals and spiritual serenity, violent crime afflicts the region, especially targeting unsuspecting foreigners. Reports indicate attacks and homicides against tourists are rising, creating dangerous situations for solo wanderers.
Predatory thieves often escalate petty robbery into outright violence, whether due to sinister intent or victims resisting. In 2019, a British tourist died while fighting off a group of muggers on a Bangkok street. They stabbed him during the altercation, leaving the man bleeding out from severed arteries. Police later arrested four young men for the murder—all with prior arrests for targeting tourists.
Other travelers recount harrowing stories of armed bandits holding them up at gun or knifepoint. In Siem Reap, a van of tourists got hijacked on the road to Angkor Wat. Their driver was forced out at gunpoint while the assailants drove them to a remote location. There they were systematically robbed of wallets, phones and jewelry before being abandoned.
While weapons raise the stakes, sinister locals know even their bare hands can be lethal weapons. Australian visitor Amanda recounts a terrifying ordeal being choked unconscious in an attempted kidnapping. After dinner in Hanoi, a rickshaw driver offered her a ride back to the hotel, only to wrap his hands around her throat mid-journey. She awoke hours later in a strange basement, having been abducted with clear ill intent before somehow escaping.
Violence against perceived outsiders often stems from nationalism and bigotry in Southeast Asia's diverse melting pot. Radical groups have recently stoked tensions, inciting vicious assaults against foreigners in hotspots like Thailand's Deep South. In 2016, groups across Malaysia held demonstrations advocating violence against Western tourists visiting the country.
Vulnerable solo female travelers face unique dangers, including rampant sexual violence. A Dutch tourist visiting Koh Tao was raped and murdered during a night dive, just one of many alleged assaults against foreign women. Violent pimps and traffickers also abduct unsuspecting female travelers into forced sex work.
Beware the Scam Artists: Organized Crime Targeting Tourists on the Rise in Southeast Asia - Police Corruption Enables Criminals to Operate Unchecked
Sadly, law enforcement corruption further enables criminal networks to openly target tourists across Southeast Asia. While visitors assume police will protect them, underpaid officers often prioritize bribe money over upholding justice. And high-ranking officials participate directly in trafficking, extortion and other illicit schemes.
Low salaries mean many cops supplement incomes by accepting kickbacks to ignore crimes. Bangkok taxi driver Pirote T. described how police profit by letting him violate laws and overcharge passengers. For a monthly fee, officers allow him to avoid vehicle inspections, renew licenses fraudulently and tamper with meters. In exchange, Pirote funnels fares from tourist scams back to the cops.
Other times, police directly menace tourists and shake them down for bribes. British travelers Jasper and Anne got stopped leaving a Bangkok night market for not having a vendor license (which foreigners don’t need). Cops threatened them with jail if they didn’t pay a $300 on-the-spot fine. With no other choice, they reluctantly paid up. The officers then promptly shared out the money as Jasper and Anne walked away fuming.
Expats note corruption grows the higher you climb the ranks in Southeast Asia. Senior officers and politicians participate in trafficking rings, extortion rackets and other organized crime. A Burmese trafficking victim described being brought to Thailand and handed over to a local Superintendent known for selling women to Bangkok brothels. He supplied the madams with forged documents before dispatching the girls to awful fates.
In the Philippines, "narcopoliticians" like mayors and governors operate drug manufacturing and distribution. The Saffron Success reports local officials across Malaysia partner with crime bosses to operate illegal gambling dens. They also give police stand down orders allowing these establishments to operate freely.
With cops on the take, criminals can buy freedom to repeatedly prey on tourists knowing they'll never face consequences. An American visiting Koh Samui got his phone snatched from a passing motorbike. Later he spotted the thief brazenly snatching another phone, and pointed him out to nearby police. Their response? A shrug while pocketing cash the criminal discreetly paid them.