In Bangkok, seemingly corrupt police are extorting large sums from foreign visitors. In South Africa, pseudo-cops are stopping drivers and pedestrians, requesting wallets in order to see identification or “search for contraband,” then absconding. In Stockholm, thieves impersonating police lured seniors into give up their PINs at ATMs in the name of “controlling withdrawals.”
This strategy seems to have exploded recently, or at least is being recognized for what it is, or at least making it into the news.
In my book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams, I categorize thieves as either opportunists or strategists. Fake police are a specific type of strategist. They’re operating in small U.S. towns and cities as well as abroad. And it’s easier than ever to gear up for the job with fake badges and uniforms.
THE DUPLICITOUS STRATEGIST
The strategist elite are those who make participants of their victims. Like the Palma claveleras, they’re in your face with a story. Their only goal is to walk away with your wallet. Consummate con artists, they’re the slipperiest, wiliest, and most difficult to detect. Garbed in a counterfeit persona designed to gain your confidence, they lay bait and entrap their prey: usually the unsuspecting traveler.
These strategists concoct ingenious schemes. Who could avoid falling for what happened to Glinda and Greg? They were walking in a foreign park in—well, it could have been anywhere, this is so common—when a gentleman approached them with a camera. He asked if one of them would mind taking his picture, and the three huddled while he showed them how to zoom and where to press. Suddenly two other men arrived and flashed badges. The man with the camera slipped away while the two “officials” demanded to know if the couple had “made any transaction” with him. Had they changed money with him illegally? They would have to search Glinda’s bag; and they did so, without waiting for permission.
“It all happened so fast,” Glinda told me a few days later, “I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t have time to think.” The “officials” absconded with Glinda’s wallet, having taken it right under her nose. In variations on this theme, the pseudo cops take only cash saying it must be examined, and they may even offer a receipt. Needless to say, they never return and the receipt is bogus.
On first impression, the pseudo cops’ scam is believable; their trick requires surprise, efficiency and confusion: they don’t allow time for second thoughts. Theirs is a cheap trick, really. They depend on a fake police shield to gain trust; they can’t be bothered to build confidence with an act. Authority is blinding, and that’s enough if they’re fast. It’s a thin swindle, but it works.
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Seven: Scams—By the Devious Strategist