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.

Bromo to Probolinggo to Surabaya: a primer on Indonesian driving

Our driver from Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo, standing intrepidly on his ride.

If you’re at Bromo/Cemoro Lawang and need to get back to Jakarta, the only feasible route (as of April 2017) is through Probolinggo and Surabaya.

Your first step is to catch a minivan from the center of Cemoro Lawang that will take you down the mountain for ~40,000 IDR ($3.00 USD). On paper these vans leave every hour, but realistically they leave when they’re full (about 13 people). It will help you to recruit others going down so you’ll leave sooner, or you can all agree to pay your driver more money to leave earlier.

Somehow I don’t think this thing has AC, WiFi, OR Bluetooth.
I claimed shotgun, but without seatbelts I don’t know if I can recommend that to you.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then there weren’t many good intentions to be had when they paved the road down to Probolinggo. It’s bumpy, windy, and your driver will go fast. Buckle up (if you can) and enjoy the ride. You’ll pass tons of adorable little villages, where at midday uniformed schoolchildren crowd the streets as they walk home for lunch. Whizz past them and fear for their safety with drivers like yours on the road.

Someone having a bad day with a ditch.

In Probolinggo, the van driver will drop you on the street across from the Probolinggo bus station. Ignore everyone trying to help you with your luggage, signs advertising bus tickets (there’s a markup), and men trying to call you over and go straight into the bus station. The bus you want will say Surabaya, but you can double check by asking other people on the bus for Surabaya.

Okay, time to play guess-the-real-ticketseller! Which guy down there will give you a REAL bus ticket?

Now here comes the hard part: ONLY pay the ticket collector once the bus is moving. Ignore the guy or pair of guys that board the bus and tell you to pay for a ticket from them. Do not hand over money for the official-looking bus ticket in their hand. It is a scam targeting foreigners and that is a fake bus ticket. If they get angry at you, stay calm. If they yell at you to get off, get off the bus and stand in front of it. The real bus driver will have a laugh at the scammers’ failure and usher you back on the bus. ONLY hand over your money once the bus is moving, and give it ONLY to the guy you see all of the locals paying. And check your change, as he may try to shortchange you. A ticket from Probolinggo to Surabaya cost 20,000 IDR ($1.50 USD) in April 2017, and you can always ask ‘harganya berapa di Surabaya?’ (“How much to Surabaya?”) to a person next to you.

Did you guess the man in a striped shirt with a ponytail? You win! But check your change.
Why yes, this is our bus passing a semi carrying a shipping container, passing another truck carrying construction supplies. Truck-ception, whoaaa.

Phew. Made it to Surabaya? Then you’re past the difficult part. You’ll likely be dropped south of city proper at Purabaya Bus Station, and it’s up to you to take a bus to the train station or airport. There is a WONDERFUL info booth in the bus station where the staff know some English, so politely decline the taxi callers and make your way there. As of April 2017 the bus to the train station was the P5; it cost 6,000 IDR ($0.45 USD) for a ride and took about 30 minutes. We had no scam problems, but it’s literally crazy taxi bus edition, so sit at the front for the 90 km-an-hour ride of your life along Surabaya freeway.

Taxi drivers trying to wave us down at the Purabaya Bus Station. Ignore ’em, unless you’re in a hurry. Even then, the bus is going to be (disturbingly) fast.
A P5 bus rolls into Purabaya Bus Station.
The driver’s ed test: what’s wrong with this picture?

You’ll get off on the West side of the train station, which as far as we could tell had no actual entrance. You’ll have to find your way around to the other side of the station with a map or asking the super-nice locals. There aren’t really cheap street eats at the train station, but there are a couple of cafés and minimarts nearby. After buying your tickets, head over to stock up on snacks for the overnight ride back to Jakarta.

You made it to the train station alive! The train from Surabaya to Jakarta will be a breeze, but bring an eye cover–they never turn the train lights off.
A beautifully-domed mosque near the train station. You may want to offer a prayer of thanks to whatever you believe in for making it here alive.