Last year, I had a wonderful opportunity to explore Bali when an airfare sale to the region was posted. I booked inexpensive flights and was looking forward to relaxing on the island. Indonesia as a whole is one of those countries that doesn’t widely accept credit cards, and I needed to access local currency.
How I Normally Access Foreign Currency
Before my trip there, I had opened a checking account with Charles Schwab. One of the unique features of this no-fee checking account is that not only does it waive ATM withdrawal fees, but it reimburses the fees imposed by ATMs themselves. Once a month, at the end of every statement, I get a small deposit back if I used an ATM. It’s a perfect scenario for frequent international travelers who want to avoid paying commission or lose money on less-than-fair currency exchange rates.
At the time, I didn’t know that setting up such an account and funding it with another checking account isn’t an instantaneous process. First, the bank verifies the external account you want to link, makes sure you’re its owner, and then it takes several business days for the first deposit to come through. So, by the time I landed at Denpasar-Ngurah Rai International Airport, I couldn’t access that cash yet. However, it’s my preferred method of getting my hand on local money now.
I exchanged a small amount of money at the airport at an OK rate upon landing and paid for my accommodation with a credit card. I later learned that being able to use a card at a hostel without paying additional fees was an exception.
I Learned of a Popular Money Scam the Hard Way
The money I had exchanged lasted me a few days, and I needed to access more cash. However, the deposit I had sent to the Charles Schwab account still hadn’t cleared, and I decided to exchange more U.S. dollars at one of the currency exchange kiosks lining the streets of Seminyak Beach.
I walked down the street comparing rates and found one that I liked best. I even remember thinking, “Wow, what a great rate! It’s even better than what’s listed on the app.” When I travel, I use a currency exchange app, which gives me daily exchange rates for every foreign currency. The rate displayed at the kiosk was rather generous—and that’s how they get you.
I walked up to the man at the kiosk handing him $100 bill. One U.S. dollar is equal to thousands of Indonesian rupiahs, and it’s a bit overwhelming to count the money if you’re unfamiliar with the bills. The man pulled out a bunch of small bills—to purposely confuse me I think—and lay them on the counter between us. As he counted, I counted the money with him. Then I double checked and counted the money myself. It all checked out.
Happy that I got such a great rate, I went back to my hostel without stopping anywhere and spending the money. I wanted to leave some of the thick stack locked in my bag and keep a small amount on me for food and drinks. That’s when I noticed that some of my money was missing!
I counted the money again, and lo and behold, about $30 worth of rupiahs suddenly disappeared! I couldn’t believe it. “How could this have happened?” I thought. “I counted it twice!”
How I Think the Money Stack Got Thinner
But something else happened during the exchange that I didn’t think twice about at first. After handing me the bills, the man asked for an even smaller bill to give him to even out the exchange. He must have distracted me and swept a small stack off the top with a sleight of hand while I was checking my purse for the small bill. You see, my mistake was letting go off the money and taking my eyes off the stack for a split second. Turns out, it was enough for him to perform his trick. It was street magic at its finest, except I didn’t know my money was a prop.
Upset at myself for being so inattentive, I told one of the hostel workers about “the trick,” and he asked me if I could find the currency exchange kiosk again. He gave me a phone number of the police and told me to hop on his motorbike—we were on our way to ask for my money back.
As we rode on his bike down the infamous street, I was hoping for the best, yet feared the worst. The man who tricked me could easily say he didn’t remember me or that he didn’t take responsibility for what I did with the money after exchanging it, that I could’ve spent it… Of course, I didn’t have a receipt, either. How could I be so stupid?
When we returned, the man looked as if he recognized me right away. I came up to him and said that there’d been a mistake. I was polite and said I wanted to receive the rupiahs he stole from me since it actually was a higher rate than the bank rate that day.
At that points, the hostel worker got involved and spoke to the man in his language. The trickster then pulled my $100 bill out, lay it on the counter and shouted, “Take!” He clearly didn’t want to lose out on the exchange, either, and asked for the local currency he’d given me back.
And that’s all she wrote.
I’m lucky I was able to get my money back. The guy from the hostel drove me to a bank where I exchanged my money at a fair rate, albeit lower than the scam rate, and got a receipt. I then tipped my hero to thank him for helping me and vowed never to exchange money by myself at a sketchy kiosk again.
Have you ever been scammed while traveling?
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dbmayur]