Beware of this common scam in Southeast Asia

When you start reading or talk to someone about Southeast Asia, there is a reoccurring theme. No, we’re not talking about the inevitable bout of diarrhoea most travellers face, we’re on about SCAMS!

What a horrible word. Southeast Asia, like many areas of the world these days, is home to various scams that tend to give the region a bad rep. While there are many scams that you will need to factor into your budget, but probably won’t even notice (like overpriced goods and services), there are others that you can avoid.

One of the most common, yet avoidable scams in Southeast Asia is shortchanging. This happened to us twice, once for the equivalent of around $5 and a second time for the value of $200. Let us tell you how it happened…

How we almost got shortchanged in Southeast Asia

The first time we got shortchanged was in Laos. We were buying our tuk-tuk tickets from the arrival of the slow boat in Luang Prabang to the city centre. Normally we try to use small notes, but eventually, those run-out. We had to break a big note, but luckily the guy selling the tickets had a big wad of cash.

Our change was counted out quickly and passed over. We had already gotten into the habit of calculating our change before it was handed back, so we immediately knew something was wrong. We think the guy was just trying his luck because as soon as he realized that we knew our basic sums, the missing $5 was handed straight over with a short grunt.

How we almost lost $200…

Now, you’re wondering how we almost got shortchanged by $200. The surprising thing about this story is that it happened in a bank. Normally we don’t use currency exchange services in banks, but we literally had no other choice in Huay Xai, Laos.

We were getting some of our Japanese yen, that we earned while working in Japan, changed into Lao Kip. Now, one of the problems with this situation is that both currencies are foreign to us and they also use much larger numbers than we are used to. We gave over the equivalent of just over $200 dollars to the bank employee and got our Lao kip back in just a few minutes. We’re not sure if this was on purpose or not (let’s face it, banks are supposed to be legit, right?) but when we counted the money in our envelope, they had only given us $20 worth of Lao Kip. Thankfully there were no problems getting the correct amount of money back.

Whether this was a mistake or a genuine scam, we will never know. One thing we do know for sure is that shortchanging is common practice. And don’t think that this only happens in Laos either… we spoke to a French family that was shortchanged over 2000 baht (almost $60) in Thailand, along with many other travellers facing the same problem.

How you can avoid this scam

While we can’t stop this from happening, there are ways to try to avoid it. Unfortunately, this does involve math!

Always calculate how much change you need: This is easier if there are two of you because you can confirm the number with someone else. Whisper how much change you need out loud so you are less likely to forget. If you don’t have someone else and you’re bad at math, use a calculator.

Count your change before you walk away: Particularly when you are due to receive a large amount of change, don’t be afraid to count it out before you walk away. This will also help you to claim your missing money if the person sees you checking.

Make a homemade conversion table: The currencies in Southeast Asia often run into the tens of thousands, so the number of zeros can be very confusing. We advise you to make a small conversion table on a piece of paper so you can quickly understand how much everything costs.

Example

$1 = xxx

$3 = xxx

$5 = xxx

$10 = xxx

At the end of the day, you will be scammed in some way, whether that is being overcharged for a pineapple at the market or being given a tourist menu at a restaurant on which the prices are twice as high (yes, this also happened to us!). Shortchanging is something you can avoid, so just keep your wits about you and remember to count everything up!

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