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Bangkok: How I Almost Fell For an Incredibly Complex Rare Gem Scam

October 13, 2010

While most of you were sleeping last night, I was being whisked around the Thai capital by tuk-tuk — Bangkok’s ubiquitous rickshaw-like motorized taxi — as part of a complex conspiracy, involving grossly over-priced loose sapphires, temples, custom-tailored suits, boat rides, and even more jewelry. A total of over a dozen people at eight different sites around the city played major roles in the scams that will make me reconsider trusting anyone else I meet in Bangkok, and perhaps elsewhere abroad.

Here’s how it all began:

Shortly after leaving our hotel, my father (who is joining me for the Bangkok portion of my Asia trip) and I met “Charlie” (on the street in the photo above), an incredibly friendly, well-dressed Thai man who introduced himself as the head of security at our hotel, explaining that he had seen us in the hotel earlier this morning. “Charlie” seemed suspiciously friendly, but not enough to raise any initial concern, so we allowed him to talk us into abandoning our plans to visit the Grand Palace, instead choosing to check out the wholesale gem market at Thai Center, which he explained was open to the public for two days only — for the first time ever — in celebration of its 25th anniversary. He suggested a couple other sites, including a temple that I didn’t recognize, and walked us down the street to the nearest taxi stand, helping us choose a tuk-tuk, and even negotiating the fare (just $1, including all of our stops) with the driver.

Our tuk-tuk driver spoke English surprisingly well (our far more expensive sedan cab driver from the airport didn’t speak a single word of English), and drove us several miles down narrow alleys to our first site — a non-discript Buddhist temple.

In the temple we met “Chef Tony,” the “Executive Chef at the Four Seasons in London,” who broke the ice by asking if we were Buddhist (!!!), before explaining that he was in town to visit his family, and to take advantage of the incredibly low prices for rare gems, which he was purchasing for investment.

“Chef Tony” spoke briefly about his family and life in London (which he claimed to absolutely despise) before quickly changing the subject, focusing on his gem purchases.

I STRONGLY suggest that you click the “read more” link to continue.

As if on cue, “Chef Tony” pulled out a map of Bangkok, identifying a market where he found the best deals. Then he pulled out a notepad and pen, drawing a flow chart while explaining the advantages of buying gems directly from the source in Thailand, rather than spending “several times more” to purchase them in the States. Slightly insulted that our new friend felt the need to draw a flow chart to explain a basic supply chain, we listened attentively, admittedly curious about how we could take advantage of similar deals.

Just as quickly as he pulled out the map, the chef reached into his Louis Vuitton handbag to display two certificates of authenticity, which featured photos of his two recent purchases (and displayed Monday’s date). I didn’t consider questioning Tony until I was unconvinced of the authenticity of the certificates themselves.

Just a few moments later, Tony pulled out a brochure from The Exotic Center — the same rare gem market that “Charlie” had mentioned an hour or so before.

Even this didn’t raise concern, and we returned to our driver, asking him to take us to the market (which he found without asking for any directions).

As we arrived at The Exotic Center, our driver emphasized that we should take our time shopping as he waited outside. Really? All that waiting for a single dollar?

After we walked into the market, we were whisked up to the third floor by a woman who met us at the entrance, and made our first stop at a long jewelry counter. After a sales associate pulled out  a tray of mens’ rings, I began asking questions about the market, anniversary promotion, and typical distribution channels, since the market was set up like a large jewelry store with unique items, rather than the wholesale market I had envisioned.

Only interested in gems for investment, I asked to see loose stones, and was brought into another room with tiny gems, with prices ranging from $3,500 to $10,000 and up, depending on quality and carat size (typically just over 2 carats) for each stone. I admittedly know absolutely nothing about gems, but thought it was a bit odd that the store’s blue sapphires were priced higher than diamonds, especially after Tony had mentioned that prices were three times higher back home.

I decided to leave, but reconsidered when the saleswoman explained that the direct-to-consumer sale ended today, in just under four hours. Instead of leaving, I asked to use their computer to do some research. The first woman we met led me downstairs into a back office, where she showed me to an empty desk so I could search the Web. After about five minutes of digging (and finding not one reference to the market under its current name), I stumbled upon a website called “Bangkok & Thailand Scams,” and this post (click for link) in particular.

I emailed one of the comments to my iPhone, and brought it upstairs to show my father. We quickly left, and returned to our tuk tuk, which was still waiting outside. We asked the driver to take us to the Grand Palace, but after a few minutes of driving I noticed that the blue dot on my iPhone was traveling in the opposite direction of our requested destination — into a questionable-looking area — and instructed the driver to pull over and let us out.

We paid the agreed-upon fare and hopped in a real taxi (the kind with four wheels and four doors), and set off for the Golden Palace. We didn’t walk 100 feet before a good samaritan approached us, explaining that the Palace was closed for the day, and that we wouldn’t be able to enter wearing shorts anyway. He suggested some alternatives, and walked us over to a row of waiting tuk tuks, negotiating a fare of about 70 cents, including all of our stops, of course.

To be continued! Check back tomorrow to read about the rest of the day’s scams, including one that actually ended up costing us some money.

Update: Read about the rest of the day here.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 4:29 am

    I suffered the same kind of trick when I was there. My wife and I got colalred just outside the Grand Palace. They took us to a few jewelry shops before I got the hump and we just jumped off the tuk-tuk, gave him 80baht extra and got another one back to the hotel.

    Bless ‘em!!

    http://danjswade.wordpress.com

  2. matt permalink
    October 30, 2010 9:49 am

    My friend had this happen to her too… seems like just about everyone is a potential victim of the rare gem scam.

  3. Emma permalink
    November 11, 2010 5:26 am

    We met chef Tony this morning! My partner who is suspicious of everyone had a sense that something was going on so we did a quick google of chef Tony scam and found your blog. Thanks as I am sure there will be lots of tourists who will fall for this trick. Like you say, it’s very difficult now to trust people and the locals in Bangkok. Just became very tiresome today listening to the same old scams, “no lady you can’t enter that temple dressed like that but I can take you somewhere else” or the museum is closed today! Best advice is not to engage any of the tuk tuk drivers and if you are in a location only with tuk tuks arriving with tourists, you know you are in the wrong place.

  4. zachhonig permalink*
    November 11, 2010 12:05 pm

    Thanks for writing, Emma! I can’t believe that you ran into Chef Tony! I tried to find him at the Four Seasons in London, but I guess his October 13 departure was delayed. Was he still in the temple waiting for a monk to arrive so he could make his massive donation? I’m glad you were able to find my blog post and not waste any more time!

    Stay safe,
    Zach

    • Emma permalink
      November 12, 2010 2:56 am

      He sure was, ready and waiting with his big speech and notepad and diagrams. Every morning we see Charlie sat on the corner outside our hotel waiting to jump on tourists, then by chance leading them to the empty tuk tuk on the corner. I am so tempted to meet chef Tony again, I really think you could make a good sketch from it!!! I like the way the very helpful man at the temple instructed you to sit down when you went inside the temple just to get the full “chef Tony” experience!

      When we returned to our hotel yesterday we saw Charlie on the corner again but this time he was wearing a different shirt and he had a partner working the opposite side of the road so I told him that I knew all about his game and suddenly his English deteriorated!

      You just need one chef Tony in Bangkok to put you right off the place. Oh and who in their right minds would buy any of that horrendous jewellery from the exotic centre!!!

      Thanks again for your blog, you helped to open our eyes!

  5. Don Wilson permalink
    December 7, 2010 7:07 am

    We ran into the same scam today. It appears that Chef Tony is now on vacation. We were taken to the same temple shown in the post. We were promptly approached by a gentleman who spoke fluent English and said that he is an engineer working in Dubai (I don’t recall his name). He recommended the Export Market, which had been previously suggested by the man who had kindly flagged down a tuk tuk for us. When we did not buy anything at the Export Market, and didn’t want to go to a different jewelry store, our driver lost interest and dumped us off at a BTS station. Lessons learned in Bangkok.

    • zachhonig permalink*
      December 7, 2010 9:02 am

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad the blog post was helpful … the experience and feedback from yourself and others has definitely taught me to be less trusting of generous strangers when traveling overseas. You may find my article about the scam interesting, since you just experienced one yourself: http://www.frommers.com/articles/7022.html

      Safe travels!
      Zach

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