scamHong Kong is not a place you want to be without money. The city is about as capitalist as you can imagine and you’re either a “have” with money, or the financial equivalent of an “untouchable”. As I walked out of the 5th bank to reject me for a cash advance, I was beginning to have my doubts about how I was going to finish this trip. I had a whole month of travel left and no money. I had been scammed out of every cent I could borrow by some crooks in Thailand and had just found out!

I’ll admit I was naive. I hadn’t really met anyone who had been scammed so I really didn’t even know about such things. I had just arrived in Bangkok and it was a little overwhelming to say the least. We were visiting the famous Buddha temples and trying to make sure we didn’t miss anything important when we bumped into a really nice Thai couple. They knew about Texas and had a relative who lived there supposedly (usually a dead giveaway) and told us about this amazing Thai show that we needed to see that evening. They were going to be there and would like us to accompany them…. oh, and by the way, they wanted to show us something really amazing.

What could be so amazing? you ask….. Well, it turns out that they had these friends who owned a gemstone store and it was very nearby. If we ever wanted to know anything about the exclusive world of Thai gemstones, here was our big chance to get a free lesson while they picked something up. They even paid for the tuk tuk, the little 3-wheeler taxi  present on every corner of Thailand, so named because of the sound it makes. The store was a little further than “nearby” but we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be so we went with it. Once inside, some very polite Thais appeared and offered us tea and soft drinks. Our friends had come there to pick something up and they disappeared into the backroom. We were a little suspicious when they never came back.

While we were waiting for our friends to return, we were treated to a free lesson on Thai gemstones. The presenter explained that these stones were very under priced in Thailand and that someone exporting them to the US could double or triple their investment. Why didn’t they do it? There was some government regulations in place that didn’t allow Thais to do it. However, we could definitely make some easy money. I explained that we didn’t have money to invest in gemstones. We were poor backpacking college students with a tiny bit of cash and a couple of credit cards that we had for emergencies.

No problem. They would ship them to the US for us and we could pay them as soon as we sold them to some eager buyer. We explained that we knew nothing about selling gemstones. They laughed. The gemstones practically sold themselves. All we needed to do was take them  to a jeweler. At the very least we’d get enough money to pay for them and make a profit for our trouble. We could probably even keep a few if we liked at no charge. I knew it sounded to good to be true, so I was ready to leave. I still had my non-jaded traveling niceness about me however and  they could smell my naivety. Before I knew what had happened, the stones were wrapped up to mail to my home address. There was no risk they explained. They needed to make a copy of my passport and credit card just in case I decided to keep the stones and not pay them. There would be no charges until I sold the stones in the US. The whole deal seemed more than suspicious but they seemed so trustworthy and they had given us a Coke and a free lesson on gemstones.  How dishonest could they be after all?

As we left the store and headed to the dance show our friends had recommended, we were a little surprised that they didn’t meet us there as planned. Had this been some sort of elaborate scam? We took a little comfort in knowing that the gemstone company couldn’t charge our credit cards without permission.  We had been very clear about the date we would be returning home so there wouldn’t be any unexpected surprises. If they tried anything funny, we would just dispute the charges.

Two days later we arrived in Hong Kong. We were going overland through China and we had a couple of days to get oriented and make a plan. We would take the overnight boat to Guangzhou and then travel by a combination of boats and trains to Beijing. We just needed to get a cash advance so that we would have some Chinese yuan. There’s lots of banks in Hong Kong and all you need is a credit card and a passport. Unless of course your credit cards are completely maxed out… which they were. The Thais had taken every cent!

It wasn’t easy, but I eventually found numbers that didn’t cost $5/minute to call the credit card fraud department of my cards. As we feared, both cards had been charged to the limit and there was no available credit. We explained that we had a month of travel in China and NO money. One bank was a little sympathetic and agreed to give us an extra $500 in credit. So $500 for a month of travel? Was such a thing possible?

It turns out if you eat noodles every day and stay in cheap places you can get by on very little in China. We ate street food, took public transport and stayed at youth hostels. We rented bicycles to get around the countryside for $1/day. We were able to stretch our little bit of money so far that we had enough left over to do an overnight in Taipei. We had packed an American Express card that was useless in China, but it got us by for the two days we were in Japan.

When we got back to Texas, the gemstones were waiting for us as promised. We disputed the charges, sent them back but it took almost a year to resolve the issue. The store got the gemstones and some of the money. The credit card actually ended up paying for the loss which is surprising even back then.

The moral of the story is this: Before you travel, read about the common scams of the country you’re visiting. I might have been taken by the “tea scam” last time I was in China by a couple of beautiful Chinese girls, but I knew better from an article I’d read before I left. If anyone randomly wants to be your friend in another country, there’s usually a catch. If someone wants to practice English, there’s usually an angle. Don’t get into a taxi with someone you don’t know. Eat your vegetables and brush your teeth before you go to bed. Amen.

Too bad Wikipedia didn’t exist back then….I would have read this and saved myself the trouble:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gem_scam

Graphic by Joel Becker/Dunn County News