The tourist trap

 The Bangkok Post had a piece on Sunday about what it called the gem scam. It spent 2,200 words tut-tutting about the 20-year-old-old story about how gullible tourists get picked up by street touts and steered to jewellery shops that hand over fourth-rate gems for first-rate prices. A 51-year-old foreigner, unnamed, has taken photos of some of the touts. Ho-hum, another day in the Tourist Trap. Too bad, because it could have been a good piece.

Listen up! It’s not a scam, it’s a confidence game. Here’s the difference:

  • A scam is straight robbery. It could be bait and switch or 7-Up bottle glass instead of gems, but it’s not clever and it’s just cheating. A Sukhumvit Road vendor charging you 450 baht for a Singha Beer just scammed you.
  • But a con game gets your confidence, geddit? You are manipulated, so that you think you’re getting a deal, indeed that you are cheating the con man. Or, these days in Thailand, con woman.

The so-called Bangkok Gem Scam takes a couple of hours to develop. The nice young con man takes you to a temple or two (say), maybe buys you a snack. Then he finally and reluctantly drops that it’s a special day to buy gems, at a government-sponsored discount store.

 But this is the start of the con. Once in the store, the con man and confederates subtly and sub-consciously convince the marks — yes they are marks — that they can make big profits from the gems. They can bypass customs by shipping or mailing the gems instead of carrying them. Once home, they can deal the jewellery at four, five, eight times what it’s selling for at the discount today.

So now the con man has convinced the marks to participate in an illegal act of smuggling the gems, so that he can make a lot more money than the jewellery sellers by dealing the gems on the market back home — having cheated both Thai Customs and their own government airport inspectors.

That, dear readers, is called The Hook (think fishing).

Look. You don’t need advice on where to buy gems in Thailand. (There’s one rule: Know your dealer). You need a copy of The Sting, which is only the greatest movie ever made about con games. The movie was done in chapters, which perfectly describe the evolution of a confidence operation. Here’s how a con develops.

  • The Set-Up
  • The Hook
  • The Shut-Out
  • The Sting

That’s all there is. There is a scam, but it’s a minor part of what’s going on.

The Bangkok Post story briefly described the set-up and moved immediately to the sting. But the hook and the shut-out is what causes hundreds of foreign-tourist marks to subsidise the Thai con-man community. See this movie, come to Thailand, don’t forget to think. Then you may get cheated on the price of your fake Levi’s jeans, but no one will con you.


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