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How I Got Scammed Exchanging Money in Bali

How I Got Scammed Exchanging Money in Bali
Anya Kartashova

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.

The Confrontation

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]

View Comments (18)


  1. j2simpso

    February 6, 2019 at 12:03 pm

    I’m surprised you even needed cash in Bali! When I was there in December everything was paid with my credit card (including cab rides on Grabb!)

  2. RZR

    February 6, 2019 at 12:49 pm


  3. atflyer

    February 6, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    I’ve been in Bali too, last year, and tried to change Euro’s (I am from Europe) to Rupiah at a very, very (indeed too) good rate. I noted they were tricking, took my Euro’s back on the spot and went elsewhere. The simple thing is this – if they offer a rate better than the inter-bank rate, the only way they can make money is tricking you. So don’t go to money changers that offer a rate that is too good to be true. With many other exchange agents good experiences.

  4. nsummy

    February 6, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    Seems like a lot of work for $30. And it seems like you were somewhat complicit in all of this. If it sounds too good to be true…

  5. fotographer

    February 6, 2019 at 4:43 pm

    Use the atm pull what you need and be done with it

  6. FlyingNone

    February 6, 2019 at 8:20 pm

    Well we weren’t scammed but after dinner at a medium priced restaurant in Singapore at Clarke Quay, I paid the bill and my sister left the tip. Thankfully we had a very nice conversation with the Vietnamese waitress during dinner; she was extremely pleasant. We wondered why she was so wide-eyed when we left what we thought was a $5 tip (Singapore dollars). A few minutes later when we went to do some shopping, my sister was shocked that she was missing the equivalent of about $50. We went back to the restaurant and the waitress gave us the $50 back after we explained that we were sure we had miscalculated our tip money. Of course we still tipped her generously because of her honesty. She could have easily lied that we had given her much less. What a close call and shock on our part that this person was not only honest but gracious about it.

  7. TMOliver

    February 7, 2019 at 7:04 am

    “Currency Exchange Kiosk”? Upon just what planet have you been residing? Foe thse of us who lived and traveled before credit cards & ATMs (although Amex TCs were around even in those dark ages, a “Currency Exchange Kiosk” was often operated by a famous local partnership, Senor Scam and Monsieur Swindle (and manned by Signore Short Change, senior clerk). Ahhh, but those days aren’t gone after all. I wonder if it’s still far cheaper to “buy” Turkish lira in Athens, before your trip to Istanbul (and risk being apprehended by the Turkish police in wait for thos breaking Turkey’s currency laws….Shucks, these days, it’s Greece that’s broke….

  8. chavala

    February 7, 2019 at 7:07 am

    rookie traveller. YAWN

  9. florin

    February 7, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    A common scam in Bali. The lesson is not to go to those tiny exchange places.
    Restaurant bills are also a common source of scams in Bali: items on the bill being more expensive than on the menu (which they made sure to take away after you’ve ordered), the total being greater than the sum of its items, items that you haven’t ordered, and so on.

    Bali is beautiful but you have to constantly be on your toes.

  10. hfly

    February 7, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    What on Earth is the writer talking about? 1970? Except for maybe a FEW street sellers everyplace in Bali accepts credit cards, Why does this even rate an article?

    TMOliver, I ask you the same thing. 1970?1980? For decades in or out of Turkey you can travel with something like 25,000 or 10,000 EUR without need of any declaration, which incidentally is a higher number than what you are supposed to declare when entering or leaving the United States?!?!?

  11. AnyaK

    February 10, 2019 at 11:23 am

    For those asking, this happened in 2018. I needed cash in Bali often: to pay for street food, a bed at a hostel and some taxis (especially when sharing with other people). Why? Because many of these places don’t take credit cards, and if they do, they charge a fee.

    Thirty bucks might not seem like worth the trouble, but it’s a matter of a principle. Don’t scam me, bro! Besides, $30 goes a long way in Bali. I can cover four nights at a hostel with that much cash.

    There’s nothing rookie about this experience. I haven’t seen this happen anywhere else in the world. You live and learn! :) This is why I just use a Charles Schwab debit card when I need cash now.

  12. binman

    February 10, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Scams can happen anywhere and Bali is no exception. However I have been a regular traveller to Bali over the last 17 years and I never encountered anything but friendly helpful people. As others have said payment by credit card is widespread I use UBER quite easily.

    In 2017 there was an aggressiveness in Kuta I had not witnessed before but I blame the Russians in particular who are simply rude. The Australians are not much better.

    The advent of mass tourism has put pressures on the island and the cracks at times show. The best advice is stay away from Kuta, use cash machines, they are abundant, and pay by card at every opportunity.

    I will return in 2019 and very much looking forward to it.

  13. hfly

    February 11, 2019 at 3:37 am

    The bit you would possibly lose in a credit card transaction is equal to the bit you lose in a cash conversion. As for swapping of bills, etc. Happens every single day, almost everywhere, less of a “thing” as less people convert cash, but has ALWAYS been around. BTW, your hostel would most probably be quite happy to just accept the dollars straight and give you any change in Rupiah, at an ok rate.

  14. chavala

    February 12, 2019 at 8:21 am

    Not to mention ATMs are everywhere if you need some cash. These scams exist all over the world and I’m surprised FT would even publish such an article on their front page. The author should be embarrassed.

  15. mvoight

    July 30, 2019 at 10:53 am

    Not clear on why, while waiting for money to be transferred to your new account, did you not simply use the debit card attached to an older account and get cash from an ATM

  16. arcticflier

    September 25, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Thanks for the write-up of your experience.
    This is apparently the point I should brag of my more than four decades globe-trotting and being far too streetsmart to get swindled. Back in my day, there were not even travelers cheques. We used to keep our money in a suppository.

    Perhaps this is where I shound insert one or two “yawns” like my fellow FT brethren.

    But I am going to break away from the superior elitist FT mantra and say thanks for reminding all of us to remain alert.

  17. mhrb

    September 29, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    “rookie traveller. YAWN”

    Exactly. Noob who’s never set foot outside the west got caught by an incredibly obvious scam. Did this really warrant a whole article?

  18. view-with-a-room

    February 12, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Late to the game, but there was not advice. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Currency conversion apps are a dime a dozen. The $100 exchange is better suited to a more reputable vendor. $20 is the better option for a currency exchange on the street. Bad planning to run out of funds with the account tied to the ATM card. Bali is so cheap regardless. As to comments, charging a price not on the menu isn’t out of the ordinary. The Mexican restaurant down the street charges rather arbitrary amounts for the meals and doesn’t provide change. The food is good so I don’t bother with a few dollars. And confronting an individual after the scam can be rather dangerous, especially for a single person in a foreign country. Cut your losses and move on. The police aren’t necessarily your friend.

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