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Elaborate Blackjack Scam Targets Unwary Expats

Tourists in Bali are still getting invited to houses and ensnared in card games in which they lose big-time. How does it happen?

“Where are you from, mister?” It’s a pretty innocent opening, but if you’re fresh off the plane, it could be an invitation to be scammed.

When approached by a stranger who seems intent on becoming your friend, take out your smartphone and tell them you want to upload their photo on social media.

If they agree to a photo, they probably have no sinister motive. Or perhaps they just want to earn a commission by taking you to someone selling something. But if they balk at having their photo taken, put your guard up, they may be a scammer.

Since at least the 1980s, there has been a scam in which a tourist in Asia will be lured to a house and coaxed into gambling in a ‘can’t lose’ card game in which they end up being fleeced. Why would anyone agree to start gambling with a group of strangers in a private residence? It works because the con artists are masters of deception and persuasive patter.

The most recently reported case involved a New Zealand man in Bali. Reports claimed he was “forced to play a card game” that swindled him out of NZ$2,000. Forced? In most known cases, victims were duped by their own gullibility or greed, rather than being threatened with a knife, gun or fists. Some claim they were drugged to make them more susceptible to being conned.

‘Please Help My Sister’ 

Here’s how the con works:

You’re at a popular area for tourists when you are approached by a friendly person who strikes up a conversation in reasonably fluent English and inquires about your nationality. No matter where you are from, the scammer will have a younger sister or perhaps a niece or daughter who will soon be moving to your country to study nursing (unless you tell them you’re from Yeungland or some other invented country). Unless you tell them you’re from Yeungland or some other invented country.

The scammer politely peppers you for information about your home city, keen to know what the younger sister should expect about public transport, food prices and other matters. As you continue to chat, your new friend will invite you to their house so you can reassure the mother that the sister will be safe in her new city. Flattered to share your expertise and eager to gain greater insight into local culture, you accept the invitation.

At this stage, the scammer might be joined by a charming relative, who confirms the story of the younger sister needing advice. They lead to you to their vehicle, often a minivan, or hail a taxi. During the long ride to their house, the scammer keeps asking questions, so you won’t have time to think that you’re making a mistake. Upon arrival, it transpires the younger sister is out, having taken the mother to hospital. But you can wait and have some food. If you’re a male, there may be a sexy female cousin who flirts with you.

There will also be another family member present, usually an ‘uncle’ or a ‘brother.’ He starts chatting to you about your home city and your travels. Then he mentions he works for a floating casino as a blackjack dealer. He will take you to a room with a card table and gambling chips and show you some dealing tricks and signals, so you can always win. He gives you two US$100 notes to bet on a few hands, just for fun and practice.

After you have proven you can read his signals, he will mention that a high-roller, a person with more money than brains, may be coming to visit for a private game. Sure enough, this gambler soon arrives. It may be a ‘rich’ haughty woman draped in phony jewellery. Or it may be an oil tycoon from Brunei or Singapore.

She or he seems to be foolish and obnoxiously arrogant but harmless. The uncle takes you aside and tells you this is a great opportunity to make some easy money. The gambler is keen for a game and produces a wedge of money. You convert your US$200 into chips and play a few hands, just for a few dollars at first. You always win and the stakes are raised higher each hand. Before long, you may be playing for US$1,000 or US$5,000 or more.

At some point, the idiot gambler produces stacks of money from a bag and declares that you should also produce your money to continue playing.

You don’t have enough money in your pockets, so the uncle offers to provide part of the stake and suggests taking you to an ATM to withdraw the remainder. If you can withdraw only a thousand dollars, the uncle offers to take you to a shop where you can use your credit card to purchase a few thousand dollars worth of gold.

Why not just take your winnings and quit while you’re ahead? Because under the house rules, if you fail to match your opponent’s bet, you lose everything. So you feel impelled to obtain a few thousand dollars so you can conclude the game and take your share. You will, of course, lose the next hand. The stakes may then be raised so you can win back everything, but you lose again.

Victims are returned to their hotel. Some are even given a cheap mobile phone and instructions to obtain more money ‘for the next bet.’ Many victims are too embarrassed to report the crime and cannot remember the location of the house. Anyway, gambling is illegal in Indonesia and police sometimes need encouragement to dash out to arrest villains.

One of the worst known cases of this scam involved an Australian couple in their 60s, conned in Bali in 2011. Delys and Norm Langford from Perth, Western Australia, went to the house of a man who claimed his sister would soon be starting a job at Royal Perth Hospital. They were duped into participating in a blackjack game against a ‘rich businessman.’

Over three days, Delys withdrew AU$3,000 from an ATM to keep the game going. Then she flew back to Perth, withdrew AU$15,000 from her back account, returned to Bali and handed over the cash. When asked to provide a further AU$6,000, the couple realized they had been scammed.

The scam rarely makes the local news in Indonesia, but in some cases, police and victims have suggested the scammers were Filipinos from organized crime gangs.

A local version of the scam, known as potong babi (killing the pig), has been taking place since at least 2004. Perpetrators scour real estate classifieds for private sales. A property owner will be called and informed that a potential buyer is keen to meet at a Jakarta hotel. If the seller takes the bait, he may be met by ‘employees of a boss.’ They confide that their boss loves to gamble, but they can beat him. Alternatively, the boss will come and complain he wants revenge after being swindled in cards by a Chinese man. Whatever the story, the seller will be lured into a rigged card game and lose hundreds of millions of rupiah. One of these gangs, led by a Malaysian, was busted in Jakarta in December of 2016. Police said the gang operated from Sumatra to Java.

Should you ever feel the urge to gamble in Indonesia, just remember that it’s illegal. Going to a complete stranger’s house to give advice to a pretty sister is stepping into a den of hungry lions.

 

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.


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