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.
“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 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.
How to avoid this scam:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.