All over the world there are folks trying to make a quick buck by scamming others, and travelers are particularly vulnerable because they’re often unfamiliar with the traditions and norms of an area. It’s a risk you take as a visitor to another place, and while a scam can ruin your trip, it’s also a chance to learn how people work. Below is one of the scams we encountered on our travels, broken down so that you can see the techniques the scammer uses to influence you; read on to learn the signs so you won’t fall for it:
Name: Last Day Batik Sale
Location: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Why it’s a scam: A seemingly friendly face will lie or provide unverifiable information so that you’ll be convinced to visit a pricey batik painting shop with them. A Hustler will then also lie/provide unverifiable information to you to convince you to buy overpriced batik that’s actually mass-produced.
How it works:
The two actors in the scheme are an agent that approaches you with information, and the hustler who tries to close the sale. You’re the mark (victim), usually someone who has just come into town and don’t know your way around yet. The mark could be anyone from a lone traveler to a couple to a whole tour group. The ploy starts with you walking on the street; the Agent (usually an older man) will start a conversation with you in English. He’ll ask where you’re from, and miraculously he’ll have visited the place or has a relative/friend who lives or went to college nearby. It may be a lie, but it’s unverifiable and so he’s doing two things here: 1) dispelling suspicion of why he speaks such good English and 2) more importantly, building rapport and trust with you. After all, you two have something in common, and what a crazy coincidence you’d happen to meet him here. It’s human nature to like him a bit more after this.
The Agent will then ask where you’re going today, and when you respond he’ll try to deter you from going there with one of the following: the weather is bad for it, there is a protest going on in the area, or that attraction is closed. Since he’s a local, you’ll likely trust him to know more than you do. Furthermore, you feel like he’s done you a favor by giving you this insider information. In reality, he’s probably lying to trigger feelings of reciprocity, meaning you’re more likely to say yes to his next request.
This is where the Agent then makes his big move, part hook to catch your interest and part request: he’ll tell you he knows of a traditional batik art gallery nearby that he could take you to visit. It’ll sound like a great substitute for what you planned to do that day, so you’ll probably agree to go.
But if you resist and show hesitation, the Agent has one more powerful technique to convince you to come with him: scarcity. You might tell him you’re not sure or you’ll go tomorrow, whereupon he’ll reply “Ah, but this is the last day for the gallery. Tomorrow they close and go to (insert another city or island in Indonesia). As the mark you’re trapped—if you don’t go now, you’ll never get a chance to see this batik sale! You could find something so amazing and unique that it stays with you for the rest of your life! Aughhh! At this point, most first timers of this scheme follow the Agent willingly.
The Agent will lead you into a maze of alleys and arrive at a small store filled with hundreds of batik paintings on the walls and stacked along the floor. The Agent introduces you to the Hustler, who he says is a ‘teacher’ at the batik art school. Here, the Agent is making the Hustler a figure of authority, someone you’ll trust to have valid information.
Once introductions are done, the Agent quickly disappear and the Hustler works hard to reinforce his authority and do you favors to close the sale. The Hustler will start out by displaying examples of the batik dye process, which reinforces his role as an authority and also again primes you to feel reciprocity; he’s giving you this information, so shouldn’t you reciprocate a kind act to him by buying something?
The longer you hang around, the harder the Hustler piles on the pressure. He may increase the likelihood of your reciprocity by offering you a free bottle of water for that hot Indonesian weather. He’ll tell you that all of the prices in the gallery are very affordable, and that a percentage of the sales goes back to the school so they can give classes to students for cheap/free. This is meant to trigger the warm feelings you get when you donate to charity. You’ll do good by buying!
The Hustler will encourage you to pick a piece you like, and this is when the final tricks happen. Once you point out one you like, the Hustler will compliment you on your good taste and give you a price. He’ll quickly follow up with, “We don’t haggle here on price. I hope you understand.” This is a SUPER devious, SUPER common salesman tactic because it pre-empts nearly any attempt to haggle. Who does something that just isn’t done, especially if you’re in a new country where you’re not sure of the social norms. If you actually are in the market for a batik piece and someone does this, give them a friendly smile and say you’re only able to pay X amount so it’s out of your price range, and start to walk away. They’ll haggle.
At this point, the Agent and the Hustler have used a huge number of influence tactics on you, the Mark: rapport, reciprocity, an interesting hook, scarcity, authority, warm feelings, salesman tactics. At this point, you usually make a purchase, the hustler excitedly thanks you, and you leave the shop. It’s possible you paid for a nice, unique batik art piece. But it’s more likely that the Hustler has made over 100% profit on the batik piece that is mass-produced (we ‘visited’ a few of these shops and saw several duplicates), which he splits with the Agent for bringing in business.
To save yourself from this scam:
- Always be wary of unsolicited favors, be it information like above or physical gifts like those candies left by kids on your table or the bracelet slapped on your wrist by a wandering old lady. Truly free things given to you while travelling will come with a big smile and a “free/gratis/regalo”, after which the person will wave you off. Otherwise, unsolicited favors should raise a red flag that the person will ask for something afterward.
- Deviate from the script and ask for more information that might catch the Agent/Hustler off guard and reveal them as frauds. Ask the Agent for more specifics on his relative/friends or drop a fake detail and see if he agrees it’s true. Ask the Hustler which paintings in the gallery he’s made as a teacher, and note if the ones he point to look like they’re in a similar style or form. If he hesitates or they’re totally different, he’s probably lying. These are just examples, and you should think up your own questions—if the Agents and Hustlers encounter a deviation too often they’ll modify their own scripts.
- If you get a bad feeling, just say no calmly and walk away. This is what we did once we realized we were in a scam. It doesn’t matter that you’re standing in a shop and someone really wants you to buy something. It doesn’t matter that he might have even given you a free bottle of water. These people tricked you to get you here. The key is not to get angry, because that may get you into trouble (the Hustler might have friends nearby). Smile and say thank you, but you’re not interested in purchasing anything. Stay calm and repeat this as needed even if the Hustler gets angry/offended/gives you sad puppy dog eyes. Then leave.