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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.

9 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

  6. July 9, 2015 5:10 am

    I was there December 2014, and that same guy above (Chef Tony) still does it at that time. Amazing how well-orchestrated the scam is, though not really since we still had the time to take off, and leave the tuk-tuk driver (after paying of course). Lesson learned.

  7. Chris permalink
    January 18, 2016 1:50 am

    My family (including my father-in-law, mother-in-law, daughter of 4yrs and husband) and I were approached by a guy who claimed to be “chief security boss” at Central World, he told us it was a buddah’s birthday that day and claimed that there will be rituals at the “lucky” temple. We were brought to the temple by a tuktuk driver who was claimed to be a “safe” tuktuk driver by the guy who spoke to us as he was supposedly “used” by the security officers located just outside Central World (which we realised one day after that the security officers there do not offer such services of introducing tuktuk drivers). We were driven to the temple, after a rather long route, about 15 mins, when it was supposedly pretty close to Central World when pointed out (I suspect the driver had purposely taken a much longer route so that the next person we were supposed to meet at the temple had sufficient time to go to the temple). I also realised a few times that the tuk tuk driver had made ridiculous U-turns when he could have just turned left or right just to drag more time. When we reached the temple, it looked abandoned instead of the bustling temple which we would have expected if it was really a special day. There was not a single soul, the temple looked run down, but we met this guy, quite well dressed, standing at the entrance of the temple. We asked him if this was the Lucky temple and if there was supposed to be a ritual for blessing. He said it was the temple, but the ritual had already been done at 6am in the morning. He then proceeded to tell us that he was the teacher of the temple, teaches buddist study and that he didn’t work there. He guided us to go into the temple to pray, then we can take some holy water home in a bottle for blessing. He also told us we should stay in the temple for 5 minutes for good luck after praying. When we were done with praying, he pointed me out to follow him to the side of the buddah where there was a big pot of water, he gave me a mineral water bottle and told me to take some water home. I was surprised to see many mosquito lava in the water, and thought maybe it was common for thai temples, unlike the Singapore ones which will never allow breeding of mosquitos. The “teacher” then proceeded to talk to us, asking us where we are from, and that he has a lot of friends from Singapore. He slowly guided the topic into famous people like actors, policitians and the riches and told us that they all came to this temple to pray every year. They would also donate to the temple and that the temple looked so old because the buddah which was sitting in the temple refused to move even though there was a newer temple just beside the old temple we were in. He said the chef monk fell sick on the day the buddah was supposed to be moved, 3 times in a row, thus they decided to let the buddah stay in the old temple. Super convincing. He then said he wanted to have a look at my husband’s hand, and after looking, he said his fingers had holes inbetween and that would lead to bad money luck. He told him he should wear blue sapphire and I should wear red ruby as red ruby is the heart of the buddah, to bring good luck for my family. He told us all the famous people would go to the Thai Export to buy these gems to bring them super good luck. He also added that we must get only the ones which have been blessed by 999 monks. The usual gems which haven’t been blessed would not work. He said these 999 monks were returning the good deed to the public by chanting for these gems as the public had donated money to the monk hospital. The blessing would bring the person who wears the gem good luck and blessing. He also mentioned that my husband and i should wear the gems together to bring out the best. We then asked him where is the thai export, and he wrote on a piece of paper, and we asked him if he could guide the tuktuk driver to bring us there. He spoke to the tuktuk driver and showed him the piece of paper with only the name of the jeweller written on it (note that there was no address). The driver looked at it for a short while, nodded his head. Again, we were driven to the shop after a long drive of close to 20 minutes. I believe this amount of time was enough to gather the correct people to the jewel shop. At the jewel shop, when we entered, there was a lady who approached us and I asked specifically for the gems which were blessed by the 999 monks. The lady looked a little confused, then proceeded to guide us to a separate room. I asked again if the gems were blessed by 999 monks, and she said all their gems in the shop were blessed as the monks would bless their mine. Coincidently, there was a chinese lady with a baby in the shop, which we later realised didn’t work there, but was just visiting as she stayed nearby. The thai lady got the chinese lady to speak to us and we could communicate better in mandarin. I asked her if there was really blessing for the gems and she claimed she went with them to the mines and the monks really did the blessing. She also added that the thais were very religious people and that they would not swap the stones (I asked her if we chose to custom make the rings, would they swap the stones). My parents were playing with the baby when I was speaking to the thai and chinese lady. After all the discussions and negotiations (I already negotiated close to a discount of 50000 baht), we were charged 108400 baht for 7 rings. Thank goodness we didn’t have enough thai baht with us and our credit cards were not activated yet. We could only leave a deposit of 2000 baht. The owner was initially hesitant as he said to custom make, we needed to put at least 50% of the total amount. We insisted that we didn’t have enough money on us and that 2000 baht was all we could afford. He agreed and we were supposed to pay the full amount when they brought the rings to our hotel the next day. We left and asked the tuktuk driver to bring us to the 4 face buddah. It suddenly occured to me to check if the whole thing was a scam when I was more clear headed, and true enough, I managed to find the name of the jeweler where we were at. Someone had been scammed there before. The name of the jeweler is called “Manee Diamond”, the owner is called Mr Diamond. It was then we realised that the gem scam was common in thailand and that we could have possibly fallen into a scam. I then told my in laws that we should just leave the deposit and cancel the order to avoid and trouble. Afterall, we could have lost 106400 baht more, which is $4500 singapore dollars. So my husband called the jeweller and told him that our credit card couldn’t be activated and cancelled the order. Thank goodness for all the reports online, otherwise we would have lost a big sum of money. I would like to share over here so that tourists visiting thailand would be more alert and aware of these scams. They make us of our beliefts and also our trust in fellowship. We believed that they would not dare to lie in front of the Buddah, and that they would not make us of religion, but we were absolutely wrong. They put our guards downs by bringing in people whom we are more comfortable around, like the Chinese lady and her 6 months old baby to play with our trust. When we had time to think carefully, everything just came together, all the long rides just gave them more time to prepare for the next stage. Now that you are reading this, you might think that we are stupid to have fallen into the scam, but in that moment, everything was so convincing. Hope that this will put the guards of tourists up and help to minimise or eliminate these scams altogether. All these people should really burn in hell.

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