Is Phnom Penh Really Being Overrun By Filipino Blackjack Gangs?

Posted on by Alex Watts
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I take everything I read in the Phnom Penh Post with a large bucket of salt, especially after noticing it couldn’t even get the date right on the front page a couple of months back. I’ve had fun spotting appalling errors like “insert byline here” in big bold print where a reporter’s name should be – perhaps indicating that even the subs don’t read the paper.

But it’s not just the subs. Far from it. A story this week must have left readers with the impression that if you take even a few steps down the riverside area, you’ll be pestered by armies of gangsters trying to scalp you of thousands of dollars in rigged blackjack games.

It appears you can’t walk anywhere in the capital’s tourist spots without some kindly member of a Filipino crime syndicate complimenting you on your sunglasses or choice of ice cream, and before you know it you’re hypnotised into a tuk tuk.

Generally, the fraudster will make up a story about how his (insert relative) is heading to your country and could you give some advice/assurance to (insert relative) while enjoying a lovely meal at their home. Then you’ll be hoodwinked into a game of cards upstairs, frogmarched to a bank to pay off your losses, and end up walking home without your shirt.

The paper warns that over the past week there have been “numerous instances” of a blackjack scam targeting visitors to the capital – so many in fact that it’s impossible to count them, it seems. But nowhere is there any context. Phnom Penh is a city of more than two million people, and scams are widespread in every city in the world – yes, even in rich countries where gullible backpackers come from.

Although you can only feel desperately sorry for the victims forced to cut back their travel plans after handing over wads of their parents’ cash in rigged card games, there is absolutely no evidence that these frauds are on the increase, as the rag warns.

There have been reports of Filipino blackjack gangs operating in Phnom Penh for at least two years, and probably much longer. And as tourists are reticent to report crimes to police because it usually involves handing over even more money, there is no way of knowing if the problem is growing. All I know is having walked down the riverside thousands of times, I’ve only been approached by a Filipino crook once, and he quickly lost interest.

As I say, you have to have sympathy with the victims, and can only admire their trust in humanity. But where do these people come from? How do they find themselves sitting at a card table in a stranger’s house, betting the sort of sums the average Cambodian takes years to earn?

There are many warning signs along the way as the scam progresses. Many times when they realise now is the time to get out. But like a rabbit in the headlights, they see the fraud through to the bitter end.

I know because I’ve been there. Last year, I was given a job by a news desk to investigate the so-called Filipino blackjack mafia preying on tourists in Ho Chi Minh City. After wandering around for a couple of days in District 1, I was eventually approached by two Filipino girls who invited me to lunch at their house the next day. I knew the risks, but I was getting paid to do it.

On the way they asked me the usual questions about how long I’d been in the city and whether I knew anyone there. They might just as well have asked whether I had my bank card with me, what my pin number was, and whether I had a strong tolerance to Rohypnol. Eventually, after many unnecessary twists and turns, the taxi arrived at the house.

“Oh we didn’t know our uncle would be here,” they said innocently.

JR, as he called himself, was a large, confident man in a thick, gold chain, and immediately dominated the proceedings. I was to drink an (unopened) can of Coke with him in front of the telly, while the women did the work in the kitchen. I realised I was probably at the right place, as victims had described – two-storey, huge lounge with kitchen at the back, and a spiral staircase leading up to the room where the card table would be.

JR kept grilling me about whether I had a house in the UK, how much it was worth, whether I was married, had friends in Saigon – you know, the sort of questions that wouldn’t raise suspicion in anyone. On and on he went, as I sat there like a gullible fool.

Then we sat down to eat. We shared the same food, but I watched every hand manoeuvre as they served. Then I felt a tingle. A mild rush. It was probably my imagination.

My host was already on about how he worked as a croupier at a big casino. The next stage would no doubt involve being shown a fool-proof way of beating a casino, a couple of dummy hands of poker 21 (a game that’s like blackjack but involves bluffing). Then there would be the dealer nose scratches he’d teach me to show I had a good hand, and then the sudden appearance of a rich businessman we’d supposedly set out to fleece. I’d win the first few hands, then the businessman would suddenly raise the ante.

The pulse in my head got worse. Surely it was just paranoia? I’d watched every scrap of food and movement. Maybe it was that fish they’d left to one side? I still had a hangover, but it had suddenly got worse. Or at least I thought it had.

“What do you do for a living?” JR asked.

So I told him. It was the only card I had to play, so to speak, given the increasing fog. I told him I was a journalist for a TV company and would be working in the city for a month or two, and had a couple of stringers there helping me. His expression didn’t change, but something inside him did. He began lecturing the others about how difficult a job journalism is – he was clearly an expert on everything. Then he began a bizarre conversation.

“Because you’re a reporter, nothing will happen to you in my house. Otherwise my name will be on the telly,” he laughed, gesturing at the flat-screen TV behind him.

It was a strange joke. I thanked him for his hospitality, stood up slightly unsteadily, but not nearly as badly as I feared, and headed straight to the front door. He was right beside me in a flash with another lecture.

“You know, you should never go to a stranger’s house in Asia,” he said. “You shouldn’t just trust people like that. You don’t know who they are…”

He kept on and on. He almost seemed concerned. I was being lectured on naivety and the dangers of fraudsters by the known head of a Filipino crime gang.

He was right though. And who would know better? I shouldn’t have been there at all. The blackjack is just a side show, it’s not an essential part of the plan. It’s just a way to break you down and put you in a powerless situation. A gun can do the same thing far quicker if necessary.

It’s just down to the witnesses who saw or didn’t see you go in there. And no-one sees anything in some parts of town. Not after a few free bottles of scotch anyway. The streets of Phnom Penh are not overrun with Filipino gangsters. Far from it. But as I’ve always said – if you don’t trust anyone in this country, you won’t go far wrong.

Alex Watts

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12 Responses to Is Phnom Penh Really Being Overrun By Filipino Blackjack Gangs?

  1. gavinmac says:

    “As I say, you have to have sympathy with the victims, and can only admire their trust in humanity.”

    I have very little sympathy for the victims. Backpackers who won’t pay more than $10 for a room, but they’ll wager $3,000 on card game that they think is fixed in their favor.

  2. soi dog says:

    Does K440 pay by the word for front page articles? This was unnecessarily long. Get an editor.

  3. ken svay says:

    waste of a few minutes reading this tosh-where was the good story?

  4. Geir says:

    I had the same thing done to me in Bangkok in 2007. Got apporched in MBK by a young man, asking about where I come from. He told me that his sister where going there for work, and he whanted me to talk to her. Ended up with them whanted me to play cards, so they could win money for sick brother, and so on. He was really, really skilled with the cards, but I didn’t play. But this where thai people, so probably the same scam all over asia.

  5. Ta Mao says:

    Pol Pot needs to come back and exterminate these mexican speaking phillipinos out of Indochina

  6. Khmer Kid says:

    this is typical in the Philippines especially in the tourist areas of Manila and Angeles. Mostly the trike drivers say they have to stop at their family’s house to pick up something and then start a game and ask the mark to join.

    I’ve been stopped several times by Filipinos asking about my shoes, clothing etc…I seem disinterested and after tellling them I lived in the Philippines for several years they walk away. I think they know I know the scam.

    Other guys in the Philippines didn’t know they could have walked into a restaurant and not paid the bill to the crooks. They may have to watch their backs, but never had to pay.

    Just ignore them if they come to you or say you are busy and can’t talk long they will leave you alone. I know, been living in the Philippines for over 10 years.

  7. Dangerman says:

    Don’t you paraphrase most of your stuff from the Phnom Penh Post, Alex?

  8. jimmy says:

    A pinay approached me near walkabou a few days ago and asked where i got my shoes.
    Told her i won them playing cards in Manila.

    She bolted forthwith.

  9. ATourist says:

    I read this article and others on the Ho Chi Minh City scams by Filipinos before travelling to Cambodia earlier this month.
    In Phnom Penh, I was approached by a woman at the small temples opposite the Royal Palace on Sisowath Quay one evening. The next morning I was approached by a man outside Psar Thmei. Both claimed to be Malaysians visiting a relative & invited me for a meal to meet and advise another relative who was moving to Australia.
    I declined and said that I had read articles on scams about visiting local houses. Both said they were unaware of the scams & only the woman persisted in continuing the conversation.

  10. PinayTraveler says:

    There are really Filipinos that are scammers in so many ways, most of their target are foreign people. Just like any other nationalities that are doing scam tricks in many parts of the world. I’d say that those victims are just absolutely m-o-r-o-n-s and they went to flock of birds. Watch Scam City at NatGeo, great TV program on how they reveal the business of scammers all around the globe instead of reading this long post that has no story to tell at all.

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