The Influence Game: Probolinggo Fake Bus Tickets

These are the real bus tickets for the Probolinggo->Surabaya trip, but don’t count on that to save you; the scammers may be ‘selling’ you identical ones.

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: Fake Bus Tickets

Location: Probolinggo, Indonesia

Scam Summary: A man approaches you in the bus station or while you’re waiting for a bus to depart selling bus tickets. It will seem like a routine transaction for buying bus tickets, but once your bus departs the real bus ticket seller will come by collecting money for tickets. You’ve just given your money to a scammer selling fake tickets, but you’re already on your way and will never see him again!

How it works:

This scam works on the power of authority and while it’s simple, it’s also incredibly effective. If we hadn’t read anything about it, we probably would have fallen for it without knowing! AND despite plenty of warnings about it online, we still nearly fell for this one. If you’re making the trip to Probolinggo, you should read up on this and remember: only pay for bus passage when the bus is moving, and you pay the same guy that everyone else pays.

When we got off the minibus from Cemoro Lawang in Probolinggo, several men came up to us and offered to help us with our luggage and take us to the bus to Surabaya. While it’s possible some of those were genuine, this unsolicited offer of help raised some red flags with us and we politely declined. They could be helping us to the bus for some kind of tip, or they could be taking us somewhere that only sells fake bus tickets.

We carried our stuff across the street and into the train station, ignoring the additional guys here in kiosks hollering at us or motioning to us. There were no info booths of any kind, but the buses out back were all labeled with different destinations and we found the bus to Surabaya quickly. We got on the bus and settled into seats next to a few other people. A couple minutes later, an old guy boarded the bus and approached us with a stack of bus tickets in hand. He asked in English where we were going. We told him Surabaya, and he tore off two tickets and said it would be 50,000 IDR. This was more than twice the price we’d read online, and it made me hesitate just long enough to realize what was going on.

On the bus with a few other locals.

“The price says 20,000 online,” I told the old guy, “and we pay the bus driver.” The old guy thought I was negotiating with him, and he paused before saying, “OK, 20,000.” He handed out his hand for the money. “No, we pay the bus driver,” I told him again. “I am the bus driver,” he told me with annoyance. “OK, I’ll pay you when the bus starts going,” I replied.

What followed was an increasingly aggressive and hostile salvo from the old guy, starting with his insistence that he was the bus driver and that we pay him now. I kept cool and stuck to my line about only paying the bus driver when the bus starts driving. But I was getting increasingly nervous; this guy had actual printed bus tickets and was extremely persistent. Was I making a mistake? Stoytcho glanced over at me several times, and I could see he had the same question. The old guy eventually left in a huff, giving us the chance to ask a local for help. We asked two girls nearby via Google Translate whether they’d paid already for the bus and they hadn’t. Vindicated.

The scam ticket seller walks off in a huff, as a group of men at the front of our bus look on.

The old guy came back moments later with a younger guy in a polo shirt behind him for a good ol’ good cop-bad cop routine. “You pay for bus ticket,” he shouted at us. “You pay for bus ticket or you get off bus!” The younger man behind him told us more gently and calmly, “You have to pay for a bus ticket to ride the bus, so please pay for a bus ticket.” But we stuck to our guns, “We pay the bus driver once the bus starts.” This was the last straw for the old guy, who began yelling at us to get off the bus, “You take other bus then! I don’t care! NO PAY, NO GO!” The younger guy continued to plead with us, motioning to the old guy and saying “This is my driver. This IS the bus driver.”

(I WISH I had gotten a photo of these guys)

To shut them up, we got off the bus with our stuff. They both got off the bus and walked off in a huff. There was silence for a few moments and then laughter rose from a group of guys nearby. One of them broke from the group and walked over to us, motioning us to get back on. This was the real ticket collector for the bus, who we would pay minutes later when the bus actually started. While the scammers had their hustle, he wasn’t about to lose money from passengers over it. We got back on the bus and finally sat in peace.

And the scammers? The young guy was gone, nowhere to be seen. The old guy stood in front of the bus, glaring up at us for a few minutes while we settled in. When he saw me raising my camera to take his photo, he dashed off.

The REAL ticket seller on the bus, currently selling a ticket to a local. You might recognize his shirt from the previous photo; he was in the group of men hanging out by the bus.

How to avoid this scam:

  1. Don’t travel through Probolinggo. This is terrible advice for those who must, but you can book a round-trip transit to Bromo with a jeep that’s affordable ($40-60 USD) and saves you a lot of hassle.
  2. Refuse to pay with confidence. Our mistake was trusting him at first, but then realizing it was a scam and refusing to pay. From the scammer’s point of view, he had us and it made him fight all the harder when we changed our minds. So if someone approaches you while the bus isn’t moving and the locals aren’t paying them, give them a dismissive look and tell them “I am from around here. I know your tickets are fake,” and wave the person away. If they persist and you want to cause a scene, threaten to take a photo of them and the tickets. If you don’t want to cause a scene, just calmly get off the bus and wait out front. As with us, your bus driver is probably nearby and only tolerates the scammers’ actions insofar as they don’t lose him any money. He’ll make sure you get back on the bus.
  3. Generally, the easiest way to avoid it anywhere is to know what the rules for bus tickets are. You can find this out online from other travelers and from talking with multiple locals when you are on the bus. While it’s possible multiple locals are in on the scam, it’s unlikely.

The Influence Game – Last day Batik Sale

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.

A batik painting from a ‘last day batik gallery’, demonstrating how the batik process works.


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.

Maliboro street in Yogyakarta–you’ll find tons of Agents hanging around here.

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.

One of the “last day” batik galleries we were directed to by Agents. If it’s a temporary exhibit, why do you have a permanent sign?

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.