Is Phnom Penh Really Being Overrun By Filipino Blackjack Gangs?April 27, 2012
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.