Be Smart: common money scams in South East Asia

In our Be Smart series we take a look at common things that you might encounter that seem strange that you should be informed about.

In this installment we take a look at common money scams that happen in South East Asia and how to avoid them.

ATM scams

You should take care when withdrawing money, especially in shady areas. You could be watched, and then afterwards mugged and your card stolen. In some places, the ATM can just swallow your card after you’ve entered your pin while in others there will be a fake reader (to read the contents of the card) and a camera (to see your pin).

In less then reputable places, if you use your card to pay they could skim it and save the information on it.

Common in

If the ATM looks old and ragged and is in a bad neighbourhood. We haven’t encountered any ourselves but have heard from friends in many different places.

How to avoid

Use ATMs in legit places — banks, post offices, malls. Before putting in your card, pull the card slot as hard as you can if you feel it’s suspicious. Yank it really good: if it’s real you wont do anything to it, they’re very solid. If it budges, don’t use it.

Don’t use your card to pay in restaurants that are suspicious. If you do, insist on using the PIN.

As an additional precaution, we also use a separate bank account for travelling. We deposit money into that account and then use that card to pay abroad. If someone were to skim that card the most they could get is whatever we deposited for the trip — which is rarely more then the days expenses.

Short changing

Not really a travel issue since you could be short changed in your local supermarket but something to take care of since as a tourist you’re more likely to be a target.

Also, be aware of the seller saying no change. If that happens immediately insist on your money back and get louder and louder especially if there are many people around.

Common in

We’ve encountered it in several places, including Thailand and Vietnam.

In Tunisia, it was particularly prevalent because at the time we visited they had a 30 dinar note, instead of a more common 20. So, A LOT, of vendors would try to make you assume that you gave them a 20 instead of a 30. A LOT. I think they’ve since removed the 30 not.

Exchange rates

You should, of course, be informed or an approximate exchange rate between your home country and the country that you’re visiting. We have developed the habit of checking the exchange rate in advance and then coming with an easy formula to remember. Note that the amount that you see when you Google the exchange rate is likely to be higher then the one on the street so deduct about 10%.

When paying at a restaurant or shop if they ask you if your home currency is OK, say no, and ask to be charged in the local currency. The exchange rate on your end is likely to be much better then the local bank with your currency. For instance, if your bill was THB1000 (that’s about USD30) they’d ask if your currency was ok, and then charge you USD35 or USD40 — I guarantee your bank’s exchange rate wont be anywhere near it. This is most commonly not on the merchant but the bank that they use. They probably have a scheme where the retailer has a share of the profits if they ask the customer to use the local exchange.

When paying in cash, your bill will be calculated in the local currency but if you ask if you can pay in USD/EUR etc, the merchant will say sure, but just be vigilant since the exchange rate will once again be ridiculous.

Finally, when changing money at an exchange rate you should note a couple of things. Check the exchange rate outside and do the calculation on your phone first so that you know how much you should get. Next, when you ask to change ask how much you’d get with a receipt preferably, and double check with the amount that you got. If it’s different walk away. If there is no receipt, I’d also walk away. After you get your money, never give it back to be “recounted” or “put it in an envelope” or “to put a rubber band on it” since the merchant will most likely skim some off the top.

At the end, what we’ve found with money is that people will do anything to skim off the top so we decided that it’s better to give a tiny amount to a legit place (such as a bank, or a decent exchange rate) rather then risk a slightly smaller amount to a less then reputable place that would be more stressful or end up being worse of.

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