Tourists along Phnom Penh’s popular riverside area are increasingly finding themselves playing a game they can’t win.
In the past week, numerous instances of a blackjack scam targeting visitors to the capital have been reported in the area.
The perpetrators, believed to be Philippine nationals, operate largely around Sisowath Quay, but also are known to frequent popular tourist spots such as Sorya mall, Independence Monument and the areas around the National Museum and Wat Botum.
One riverside hostel owner, who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity, said that four of his guests had been targeted in the past week alone.
“This is all people from one establishment. And these are only the ones we’ve heard of – there may be many, many more,” he said.
Typically, one of the syndicate’s members will approach a tourist, complimenting them on their appearance. A
sking about their nationality, the perpetrator will say that one of his relatives is moving to the victim’s home country and ask the tourist to join them for lunch to assuage the fears of his relative’s parents.
Two of the victims told the Post that at this point in the scam, they were taken via tuk-tuk on a confusing route to a house off Street 163, which they believed to be somewhere in the O’Russey or Russian Market districts.
After being served lunch, another member of the gang appeared, claiming to be a relative and stating he was a croupier in the VIP room of one of the country’s casinos.
The victims were then offered the chance to collude in a rigged game of blackjack against a man purported to be a Brunei national, with the “croupier” employing an elaborate system of signals.
After being asked to stump up money for the game, the tourist inevitably loses the hand and is taken to a nearby Western Union, where they are made to withdraw funds under threat of violence.
The tale is not unfamiliar to police in the capital.
“Our police have often received complaints and reports from many foreign tourists about this Filipino group’s activities in Phnom Penh,” Phnom Penh deputy police chief Hy Prou told the Post yesterday. “We now are still working and investigating this case,” he said, adding that they still lack the specific information necessary to make arrests.
A staff member at the riverside hostel who escorted one of the victims to the Psar Kandal 1 commune police office, said she was informed that 19 such cases of the scam had been reported at that office. In one instance, a Swiss national was allegedly fleeced of $11,000.
Another of the hostel’s guests, a 26-year-old Norwegian national, told the Post that her travel plans had been thrown into disarray after she was separated from $3,000 over the weekend.
“I didn’t want to give them any money at all, but it was made clear to me that I didn’t have any choice, and I was taken to a Western Union,” she said.
Another guest, a young British national, said she felt humiliated after parting with her cash on Monday morning.
“I feel like such an idiot,” she said. “At the time, my instinct was telling me this was completely wrong, but for some reason I just got caught up in it. I felt like I was in a position where I couldn’t get out of it.”
Instances of the scam in Phnom Penh have been documented by travel websites dating to the middle of last year, and variants in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City have been in operation for even longer.
Two different expats living near the riverside told the Post that they know the perpetrators by sight at this point and have done their best to warn off tourists, while a number of travel websites and local online forums have uploaded pictures of the men they believe to be responsible for the scam.
When approached by a Post reporter, a man identified as the scam’s ringleader angrily denied he ever conversed with tourists and refused to answer questions before hurriedly walking away.
The hostel owner said that as a tourism industry operator, he is concerned about the implications for his business.
“I’ve owned this place for four years. For most of that time, we’ve had no trouble at all. In the last four months, I’ve been hearing many stories about bags being snatched, people being scammed. These people will go home and tell these stories, and then people won’t want to visit this country,” he said.
Thong Kon, Minister of Tourism, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Ho Vandy, co-chair of the Tourism Working Group and an adviser to the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, said that while he was aware of the blackjack scam being reported across the region, he believed the number of those involved in Cambodia was small.
“I think that this blackjack scam will not affect Cambodia’s tourism sector or the flow of foreign tourists in Phnom Penh. … because this was only a small group,” he said.
Despite that reassurance, deputy police chief Hy Prou said police plan to increase patrols in areas frequented by foreign visitors For the 26-year-old Norwegian, it will be too little too late.
“I don’t have much money left now,” she said. “I was planning to go to Laos after this, but now I don’t even have enough for my return ticket.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Sean Gleeson and Buth Reaksmey Kongkea at [email protected]