Monday, February 21, 2011

Conned in London!

I was robbed. :p No, I was conned. And I was conned right under the QUEEN’S nose! :p

Since my return from my trip to London, I had been repeating this story over and over, so at the risk of making myself sound like a moron, I hereby post this blog about myself getting conned right under the Queen’s nose at Green Park, London. Hopefully, through my own experience, readers of this blog have one more thing to have themselves alert off in their trips overseas!

First, a declaration.

“LONDON, PARIS, AMSTERDAM, ROME… if you think these places are safe, think NOT.” In fact, you'd probabably be even SAFER in New York, Los Angeles, Kuala Lumpur or even Siem Reap!

These modern European cities, being popular destinations for tourists from all over the world are some of the BEST places for con artistes and criminals to prey on us. They know we love this places, that's why they linger there like flies attracted to a dead carcass. :p With snatch thieves and robbers, they are obvious. Scam and con artistes, now they are a different category of felons all together. :p

These people prey on our relative ignorance of local customs and practices and exploit to extract our hard earned cash from us. And I label them ‘artiste’ because they are professionals, cool, methodological and confident. They are NOT AMATEURS. :p

Now back to my story. How did it happen to me? Well, sit back and let me regale you of my tale. :p

It was a chilly winter afternoon of the 22nd of January 2011. The venue, somewhere near Wellington’s Arch on a traffic island, east of Buckingham Palace and north of Green Park. I had just finished a conversation with my cousin on the phone when all of a sudden some guy just popped out of nowhere and asked me ‘where was the Big Ben’. And herein comes the first precaution when handling strangers in a foreign place.

Precaution #1: Be wary of strangers that pop up immediately after a phone call. You have been distracted and disorientated. Chances are you have made an appointment with someone and need to get somewhere soon. Perfect for scam artistes to make a good getaway as you’d be too busy trying to get to your destination than have time to check whether you have just been conned.

I looked at the guy. He was alone, dark and of slight build. He looked Southern European, maybe Italian. “The Big Ben? Oh it’s back over there,” I replied as I pointed in the general direction of Westminster Palace. I was right. It was the ‘wrong’ answer.

The famous BIG BEN...

The guy asked, “How far away is it?”

I said, “About 20 minutes walk. Just follow the signs to get there.” Again, I was right and again it was the ‘wrong’ answer.

“You seem familiar about this place, how do you know where it is?” The guy was trying, hard. :p

“Oh, that’s because I just came from back there a moment ago,” I answered.

The guy placed a hand behind his head and said sheepishly, “Thanks. I am actually new here. My name is Franco and I am an Italian tourist.”

That was when I made my mistake. “Oh really? I AM A TOURIST TOO.”

The guy had to make sure. So he asked one more question.

“Your English is quite good. Are you a student here?”

“Nah, I am not a student. I am a tourist. The reason my English is good is because I come from Malaysia. We speak English there,” I chirped.

At that, the guy must have given some kind of hand or eye signal. And just as suddenly as he appeared out of nowhere, two other guys popped up.

Precaution #2: Now what just happened? Did you notice the line of questioning? The ‘Italian tourist’ was shooting off questions to gage me to see whether I can be a potential victim. Unfamiliarity is something he was looking for. The fact that I answered the two questions correctly threw him off. I made the mistake when I admitted that I WAS A TOURIST too. But he made one final confirmation with the question on my English in which I affirmed I was a tourist again and not a student (whom might have spent a little bit longer a time here to know the ways of this place).

“Police!” one of the two guys yelled as they approached.

Both of them were dressed in the same greyish jumpsuit similar to what most of the joggers were wearing this time of year. Both of them had beanies (hmmm… how come beanies are such a favourite among felons?) on their heads, again of the same colour. The whole thing was meant to show it was some kind of undercover ‘uniform’. :p

When the two reached us, one of them flipped out his wallet to show his ‘warrant card’. I only had a fleeting image of a horizontally orientated card with a picture and some wordings written on it before he quickly flipped it back. The other guy did not do the same.

Precaution #3: When undercover ‘police’ approaches you, make sure you make an additional effort to verify their identity in detail. Demand to look at their ‘warrant card’. READ IT. Observe whether they immediately make a ‘report’ that they have stopped people via a walkie talkie or some kind of communication device. This should be procedure. Both of the officers MUST SHOW THEIR WARRANT CARD.(A note about London Police warrant card: The one that was eventually shown to me at the police station are longer vertically. The ID side has a picture of the officer in uniform and on the other side is a BIG BADGE. Strangely, though it is important for the general public to recognize a warrant card carried by a police officer, samples of it are notoriously hard to find on the web). For more information on what to expect when stopped by London Police, read here.

“There have been a number of incidents whereby people have been tricking tourists by exchanging them money. We suspect you two of doing so,” began the bearded, taller of the two. “Do you know this guy?” he queried, indicating me as he looked at the ‘Italian tourist’.

The ‘Italian Tourist’ said he did not know me.

“How about you?” the ‘policeman’ asked, turning towards me.

At that point I was rather struck by the un-English like accent the two ‘policemen’ were using. They did not look ‘English’ as well, again akin to Southern Europeans than natives of the British Isles. But at the same time, another part of mind was telling me, “Hey, this is the United Kingdom! All sorts of people come here. It shouldn’t be surprising to have two Southern European guys speaking in a non-English accent as police officers right?” I mean, how many times have you seen a British citizen of Indian origin?

“I don’t know who this guy is,” I answered, “We just met a few moments ago.”

“Can I see your passport?” The ‘policeman’ asked the ‘Italian Tourist’.

The ‘Italian Tourist’ handed over his passport to him. The ‘policeman’ flipped it open, looked at it a while then returned it back to the ‘Italian Tourist’. He then turned to me and asked for the same.

Oh Great! I thought as I struggled to pull out my passport from my tight chest pocket. Finally managing to pull it free, I passed it to the ‘policeman’.

He examined it.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Eddie Tuen Wai Keong,” I instinctively replied, realizing quickly that ‘Eddie’ was never printed in any of my official identity documents.

It apparently didn’t bother the ‘policeman’ as he closed my passport and handed it back to me. He then launched the standard 'immigration' questioning charade.

“How long are you here in London?”

“I have been here since yesterday.”

"Where are you staying here in London?"

"At the Raddison in Warren Street..."

“You have to know that there have been a spate of illegal money changing going on here recently. For this reason, we have to check your wallet for any foreign currencies,” said the ‘policeman’. “Can you pass me your wallet?” again indicating the ‘Italian tourist’ first.

The ‘tourist’ obidiently handed over his wallet.

The ‘policeman’ opened it, lifted the notes within, put it back in and handed the wallet back.

It was now my turn.

I took out my wallet with British pounds and passed it to them as I had been subconsciously led by the ‘Italian tourist’. However, I kept my eye on the wallet as it was handled.

The wallet was returned to me.

It was now the 2nd ‘police officer’ to start his ‘performance’.

“How long will you be staying here in London?” asked the clean shaven, shorter of the two.

“I’m going to be here till Sunday, after that I will head back to Amsterdam.”

“Amsterdam?” the ‘officer’ said with a slight tilt of one eyebrow. “Then you’d have Euros too! Do you have a 2nd wallet?” he asked.

Drat. I had indeed a 2nd wallet with more of my money, although I had never the intention to carry all my cash with me :p. In fact, that very morning, I had the very clear urge to stash the 2nd wallet into the hotel safe but for a small fact that the safe wasn’t working! So, between risking keeping my wallet in the hotel room and having the cleaners swipe it or carrying it along with me but making sure it was securely buried in my backpack, I chose the latter. I didn’t know that I have to now ‘surrender’ it to people claiming they are ‘police officers’. :p

Reluctantly, I said, “Yes…”

“Can you pass it to us?” came the inevitable request.

What was I to do? If I lied and they were indeed police officers then if they searched me and found my wallet, I would be in deep shit. As a matter of fact, if they were suspecting I was some illegal money changer, my 2nd wallet had all the evidence; 100 Malaysian Ringgits, 705 Euros and about 350 US Dollars. So, with a heavy heart I told them, ‘Ok’ and knelt down to open up my bag to retrieve my 2nd wallet.

It was at this point that I made my biggest blunder.


Knowing that the 1st time those guys handled my wallet and nothing happened, I had again subconsciously begun to ‘trust’ the two. When I handed my wallet to the ‘policemen’ I had initially kept an eye from where I knelt. I saw him did the same thing which was lifting my money out and putting it back in. Unfortunately, somehow, I turned away from it for a split second and that was when they made their move.

“Ok, everything is in order,” said the 2nd clean shaven ‘policeman’. “Please be aware that robberies and snatch theft happen quite often here in London. Make sure you secure your wallet properly,” he ‘advised’ with a slight grin.

At that, the ‘policeman’ took my wallet and ‘helped’ shove it deep into my bag before piling it under the pair of mittens I had carried.

Once I have zipped up my bag and stood up, the other ‘policeman’ gave out his hand and grinned even wider as he said, “Well, thank you for your cooperation, but we have to go now. Have a good trip here in London.”

I grabbed the guy’s hand and shook it, all the while not realizing that the bastard must be thinking what a BIG SUCKER I was :p.

With that concluded, the two ‘policemen’ coolly walked away towards Wellington’s Arch leaving a flustered looking ‘Italian tourist’ to cover their escape. In hindsight, it was more likely that the guy was to make sure I don't do anything as stupid as checking my wallet straight away while his accomplices walk away. :p

I turned around, saw the man’s ‘flustered’ face and thought he was probably as ‘shaken’ as I was.

“Well, this is really the 1st time such a thing has happened to be,” I started. “Never thought such a thing would happen here.”

The ‘Italian tourist’ said nothing.

“Anyway, I have to go. I have my cousin waiting for me at Chinatown. Hope you enjoy your stay here,” I said offering my hand.

The felon took my hand shook it and left, probably satisfied on a ‘scam well done’. :p

I watched with a slight degree of confusion as the guy went in the direction of Wellington Arch after his two accomplices instead of the Big Ben he had asked me earlier.

But I didn’t have the ‘time’ to do anything else. I had an appointment to keep and I was late.

Only when I arrived at Leicester Square, waited 15 minutes for my cousin, meeting him and being brought to a local Chinese restaurant did I opened up my bag again to check my wallet’s contents.

And that was when I found I was 500 Euros and 200 US Dollars poorer. :p (The PROFESSIONALS picked out the big denomination notes and left the smaller ones in to maintain the wallet's volume. All this in a blink of an eye!)

After that, I went to make a police report at the Holburn Police Station near my hotel on Warren Street. This was so that I can make a claim to my travel insurance agent.

Ironically, at the same time I was asking the hotel concierge on the location of the nearest police station, there was another elderly hotel guest who was also doing the SAME! Apparently she too was robbed of all her belongings (money, credit card and identification)! She was travelling with a group of other ladies. And that is not all, as I walked to the police station, I met this family who was asking me for directions to the station. They say they had 'lost' one of their children, possibly kidnapped! I met all three parties at the station when I was making the report. Gosh!

Holborn Police Station, where I made the report. As the crime was committed in Westminster, my case was transfered there later...

Precaution #5: ALWAYS BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE! This should not come as a surprise especially after my ‘adventure’ in Cambodia two years ago :p. Anyway, the maximum coverage is only 800 Malaysian Ringgit for theft, although it is still better than nothing. :p

You should note that in Britain, you don’t actually get a ‘report’. You get a ‘crime reference number’ instead. The British police claim that there are certain ‘sensitive’ information on the report which cannot be revealed to the general public. However, it is mandated by their Freedom of Information Act for the police to respond to any questions on the status of the report. Thus any queries from you should be entertained.

Also, the British police do maintain a database of felons caught by their famous network of CCTVs installed throughout London. The database can be accessed here.

It is here that I found a picture of the ‘Italian Tourist’, dressed in the same brown jacket with the same mark on the bridge of his nose. :p From the site, it was shown that he had been active in the Westminster district since November 2010.
Suspect 31242, Wanted for Burglary (now as a scam artiste as well!). Watch out! Grrrrr...:p

Strange, because that district, with the British government offices, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace was akin to the area around the National Mall, Capitol Hill and the White House in the United States! I mean, this place should be as secure as the Green Zone in Baghdad! :p And yet, from their own website, the police highlighted this area as an area with a high incidence of crime! :p

Another thing to note was during my 3 days in Britain, I had hardly sighted the famous British Bobby on patrol. Whether it was the cold or their over-reliance on their CCTV system, I only saw them at two places: Tower Bridge and Trafalgar Square. In contrast, Amsterdam had police everywhere in threes and fours, on foot, mounted on motorcycles and also in patrol cars.

Finally, British Bobbies! Too bad I had already been robbed :p.

Finally, a surprise. :p This was neither the first nor the last time a con was executed on me during my two weeks in Europe. Watch out for these two scams:-

Scam #1 ("For the BABIES!(?)")

At the Big Ben, watch out for this roving band of elderly ladies sticking ‘flowers’ into your pockets. They will ask for some ‘donation’. If you pause and start to take out some money, they will insist on hard paper notes. ‘They don’t take coins’ and don’t expect to get ‘change’ for your bigger notes. It’s for the ‘babies’. :p My advice is to FIRMLY decline and return the piece of grass if necessary (the grass is not even worth a pound!). :p

Scam #2 ("Oh dear! I've lost all my belongings!" *Sob*)

This happened at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. Before checking in for the flight home, I was arranging my bags on one of the benches as it was overloaded. Suddenly a lady appeared and told me that she was robbed of her belongings and money. She then asked whether I have any Euros to ‘spare’. This is a classic case of ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on ME!’ :p I told her that since she was robbed, she should report to the police. She replied that she did but she still did not have any money. I then replied that it was ‘improbable’ for the police to leave her like that and offered her to find some policemen to assist her. To this, she immediately withdrew and went off to prey on other unsuspecting tourists. :p

Precaution #6: Be extra wary when in places like airports. Prime real estate for con artiste and criminals to operate!

Alright, that’s all for today folks. I hope by sacrificing my dignity to air this on the internet, that you readers will learn a thing or two when you are travelling overseas. Never be fooled by this veneer of ‘civilization’. Often times, that is where all this kind of professional criminals fool us country bumpkins! Until next time…

1 comment:

  1. Update... another Malaysian was conned using the SAME modus operandi... :p Guess he didn't read my blog... hahahah