Scam is an Art in India

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In India, scamming is an art form—and you, the tourist, are a prime target for scam artists. The best defense against the regular plague of touts and con men, who will try to tap into your supply of foreign currency by calling themselves “guides” or representatives of a local temple, is a combination of awareness, common sense, and fortitude. Scammers rely largely on human psychology to either win your confidence or tap into your irrational sense of guilt. Although it’s okay to have a heart, don’t fall into the costly pit of naiveté. Politeness is likely to be your enemy. Stick to your guns when you’re approached by anyone offering to get you something “cheap,” “quality,” or “easy” by firmly declining. In fact, get used to shaking your head and saying “no” three to four times without losing your temper, which only serves to make you feel guilty while the perpetrator looks hurt and violated. If someone tells you upfront that they’re not interested in your money, the warning bells should begin to sound; 9 times out of 10, a casual conversation or unintentional sightseeing trip will end with a suggestion that you hand over a token of your appreciation. Remember: Don’t pay for services you have not requested. And when you do ask for help, ask if there’s going to be a demand for money at the end, and decide on a price upfront. Here, then, is a guide to handling India’s touts, hucksters, scam artists, and general wheeling and dealing. • Street touts Touts operate under guises of initial friendship, wanting to practice their English or making promises of cheap accommodations or shopping. Often (but not always), the initial kindness turns sour when you don’t comply with a suggestion that you buy something or check in at a crummy hotel. When browsing a street or market, you will be accosted by what appears to be the owner of the shop but is in fact one of a host of men to whom shopkeepers pay a commission to bring you inside—“to look, no buy, madam.” Since scam artists know that foreigners rely on hired transport, you also need to be particularly wary when considering car hire, taxis, guides, sightseeing tours, or travel agents. The rule is: Never jump into a deal. • “Official” unofficial operators Even more annoying than the slipperytongued con artists of the street are those who operate under the guise of perceived legitimacy by calling themselves “travel agents” or “tour operators”—and a sign saying “government-approved” often means anything but. Before purchasing anything, you need to know in advance what the going rate is, and preferably deal with someone who comes recommended by this book or a reputable operator recommended by your hotel. Time allowing, shop around. • Dealing with drivers Taxi drivers are notorious for telling passengers that their hotel does not exist or has closed for some reason. Never allow yourself to be taken to a hotel or restaurant unless it is the one you’ve asked to be taken to (specified by exact name and address). Note that any successful establishment will soon have competition opening with a similar name. Drivers also moonlight as restaurant and shop touts and receive a commission for getting you through the door (see the next bullet). If a taxi driver is very persuasive about taking you to a particular shop, this is a sure sign that you’re about to be taken for a ride. Taxi drivers often have meters that have been tampered with, or refuse to use fare-conversion charts issued by the city authority. Whenever you’re suspicious about a driver’s conduct, ask to be let out of the vehicle immediately, or seek the assistance of your hotel manager before paying the cab fare. When arriving at major airports and train stations, make use of prepaid taxis (the booths are clearly marked) whenever possible. • The commission system Try to establish the commission fee upfront. It’s not just street touts you need to be wary of, but even your rickshaw- wallah, guide, or driver (hotels are surrounded by taxis that work on a commission basis), who without fail are out to earn commission from the shops they suggest you visit. Then this gets added to the price you’re quoted—as much as 50%. • Bargains Beware of unmarked wares—this means the goods are priced according to the salesman’s projection of your ability to pay. Also beware of the ultimate “bargain.” Any deal that seems too good to be true, is. If this all sounds too tedious, head for the government shops, where goods are sold at fixed prices. Know that these prices are not negotiable and are usually a great deal heftier than elsewhere (see “The Battle of the Haggle,” under “Money,” above). • Credit card fraud Beware of unscrupulous traders who run off extra dockets, then forge your signature. Never let your credit card out of sight. • Getting the goods on precious goods If you’re shopping for silk carpets, ask the salesman to razor a small sample and light it with a match. Unlike wool, silk does not burn, it smolders. Tricksters will mix silk and wool—which is why you’ll need to ask for a sample across the whole color range. And don’t fall for anyone who tries to persuade you to purchase precious stones on the premise that you can resell them at a profit to a company they supposedly know back home (a Jaipur scam). Note that gold is imported and therefore hugely overpriced, so cheap gold jewelry is exactly that. • Scam doctors Be wary when offered food or drink by a stranger— it’s better to be offered food by a family rather than by a lone male or group or men. There have been isolated incidences of travelers being drugged or poisoned in order to rob them. Worse still, there are well-documented (though again isolated) accounts of these kinds of scammers in cahoots with doctors. Once you are ill, they will recommend a doctor, and after you’re admitted into the care of the fraudulent physician, your medical insurance is contacted, and you’re kept ill until a substantial medical bill has been run up. • Surviving the scam Frankly, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave India without having been the victim of at least one minor scam—either accept your loss and humiliation as a lesson in local custom (and good dinnerparty fodder) or, as the scam unfolds, insist on being taken to a police station, the threat of which alone might force a con man’s hand. Whatever happens, don’t let it ruin your holiday!