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Amy Chavez Headshot

Don't Fall For This Travel Scam!

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Let me preface this post by saying that Southeast Asia is generally a very safe place to travel to. As a woman who has traveled around most of Southeast Asia by herself, I can say I have never had any problems. However, there is one thing everyone should know about before they set foot in South-East Asia. It's a scam called "The Millionaire from Brunei."

You arrive at your exotic locale in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, wherever) and are walking around the city, when someone comes up to you and asks what country you're from. You sense immediately that you have become the target for this person to practice their English. But the man seems nice enough, and his English is pretty good, so you just follow the conversation. You know from experience that these types of people usually have some kind of connection with the English-speaking world, such as a brother studying in the US, or a cousin married to someone in the U.K. This man is no exception. His sister will soon be going to your country to study nursing. Would you mind giving her some advice?

You agree to the man's invitation to his house for tea and a chat with the sister. After all, this could be a great opportunity to experience some of the local culture. You arrive at his modest house and are introduced to various brothers, grandfathers, neighbors and caged birds--the whole family, in fact, except the sister. It turns out that the sister has just left to take her mother to the doctor, but she'll be right back. Must be getting a head start on that nursing degree, you think. In the meantime, you have a few laughs with the father exchanging cultural information while drinking hot tea served in a glass, and sitting on plastic over-stuffed furniture.

The man asks, "Would you like to play cards?" Hmm, well, okay. After all, you have nothing else to do and your host wants you to play. After a few games of Black Jack, the man says, "I'll teach you a trick: How to win every time." He teaches you a simple trick and in the next few games, you indeed win.

"Today, a friend is coming to our house," he says. "He is a millionaire from Brunei. As you know, Brunei is a conservative country, so he is not allowed to drink or gamble there. So he likes to vacation here where he can. He will bring lots of money and I'm sure you can help us win it playing Black Jack. As a matter of fact, he'll be here any minute." You can't believe your luck! You get to meet a millionaire and a man from Brunei and it's only mid-day.

A few minutes later, the millionaire from Brunei arrives who, low and behold, looks just like a local! No gold chains or flamboyant clothing, no harem. Then again, maybe he doesn't want to show off in front of his provincial host. The millionaire sits down at the table in his t-shirt and jeans and lays out a large sum of US one hundred-dollar bills. Your host also brings out a stack of bills, gives you some, and everyone starts playing Black Jack. Luckily, since you've been taught the card trick, the stack of one hundred-dollar bills is building up quickly in front of you. But soon, the tide changes and you are losing! Your host gives you one of those hand and eye signals meaning that he needs to talk to you privately. All you can do is follow, so you get up from the table and you both go into the kitchen.

"We need more money!" says the man. "Don't you have any?"

You don't. You explain that you didn't plan on gambling with a millionaire from Brunei when you left your hotel this morning. He asks if you can't you take out a cash advance on your credit card, but you say no. I'll pay you back, he promises. At this point, you ask to use the toilet and escape through the bathroom window.

I have heard this story several times from people traveling around South-East Asia. One guy in particular, told me that after he was exposed to this scam, he was walking around a different city in a different country a few days later, when a man came up to him and called him by name. "Simon," he said, "Remember me? We met on the boat the other day."

Simon vaguely remembered the man. They talked a while and the man said, "My daughter is having a birthday party tonight, would you like to come?"

But when they got to the man's house, the daughter wasn't there. "Oh, she's gone with her mother to the cake shop. She'll be right back," he said.

"While we're waiting, would you like to play cards?"