Wednesday, 2 July 2014

China's "nostalgia" tourist scam

While listening to the radio in the mornings during the past few weeks, I've been hearing a story repeatedly about a freight forwarding scam whereby an unsuspecting person wanting to buy a used vehicle overseas is persuaded to transfer money to a freight forwarding company to hold as a deposit. Of course, the car never arrives and the deposit is never seen again. This type of scam is described in some detail here, if anyone is interested to know its modus operandi.

Anyway, scams have been around globally for a very long time. While the Internet has contributed to scams being perpetrated across borders easily, there are still the more traditional, down-to-earth scams that hit unsuspecting victims. In November last year, I had written about one such scam, observed by one of my ex-colleagues from the banking days, that is still quite prevalent in China. As I had promised then to relate my own experience witnessing a similar scam, here it is.

Way back in April 2010, I had tagged along my wife when her company, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, organised a staff outing to Beijing. Now, the FMM is a national trade organisation with branches across the country and the staff members that joined the Beijing tour were from everywhere in the Malayan peninsula, Sarawak and Sabah. We were such a diverse group of tourists. Throw a stone into our group and you would hit someone from any state in Malaysia.

The problem with China tours is that the tour package always includes some compulsory visits to medicinal, jewellery, jade, silk, whatever, factories and shops where the staff lay in ambush to hit on the tourists. Through decades of practice, the Chinese entrepreneurs have honed this craft into a fine art. The way they carry out this process is almost scandalous. I would even describe it as a scam: a scam to relieve you of your hard-earned tourist money!

Now, on this particular day, we were taken to a jade factory not far away from the Bird's Nest stadium, main site of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Our group went in and was greeted by a lady who inquired where we were from. When someone said "Malaysia", this lady became so excited and told us that she would inform the manager. He would want to talk with us personally.

Soon afterwards, this man came in and, in some stilted but fluent enough English, introduced himself as the manager of the factory. He claimed to be so excited to see us because he was from Malaysia himself. He had left the country to come to China when he was still small, but could still recall many of the comforts of the home that he had left behind. Why, he could also remember a few words of Bahasa!

Then he talked to us, blah, blah, blah, about what he was doing now, how he had risen up to become the manager of the factory and was now very glad whenever tour groups from Malaysia visited the factory. For him, it was a connection with home. If that was not enough to soften us, he said that he still had relatives back in Malaysia.

But he was found out soon enough. Someone in our group asked him very casually where he was from. At first he hesitated but later when pressured, mentioned that his roots were in a small village in Malacca and his grandmother was still living there. That was taking a small chance because he had no idea where we were from. If he mentioned Malacca to most other tour groups, I would dare say that in 99 percent of the time, perhaps nobody would have pressed him further.

But then, you see, our tour group was very inquisitive and we came from such diverse places in Malaysia. Mention the name of any state and there was bound to be someone who originated from there. In this case, there were people in our group who were born and bred in Malacca, there were people who now worked in Malacca, and there were people who knew Malacca well. This Chinese bugger didn't realise it.

He was grilled left and right for more answers on Malacca and he couldn't answer. Eventually, he fell back on the excuse that he had left Malaysia a very long time ago and had forgotten many things. We just smirked and laughed at him. This fella had been found out but in his bewilderment, he didn't know why. But his modus operandi had been uncovered.

No matter what tour group had arrived at the factory, he would profess to be from that same country of the tour. Or maybe there were many others like him behind the scene, specialising in certain countries. He knew that to tug on the coat-tail of one pining for one's country whenever one is overseas could possibly generate sales for his business. That was a good psychological ploy but it did not work with us. We knew he was lying big time through his teeth. Yet, I have to add that our group still did buy quite a lot of stuff from him. Not us, but the rest did. Perhaps that was the only point that redeemed him of his embarrassment.

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