July 30, 2009
Don't buy duty-free in Bangkok! That's the message coming from dozens of tourists arrested in the Bangkok Airport for shoplifting, and then detained until they pay thousands of dollars for their release.
Here's how the scam works. You're at the Bangkok airport after your vacation in Thailand. After browsing through stores in the duty-free zone, a policeman approaches you. He informs you that some items are "missing" from a store, and that a security camera fingered you as the culprit. He asks to search your bags.
Naturally, he finds nothing, but he still removes you from your departure gate and escorts you to the airport police station. That's when things get really interesting.
According to several reports I've read, the pattern is roughly the same. First, the police confiscate your passport. Next, they interrogate you in Thai, interspersed with occasional phrases in broken English. Then you're thrown into a hot, filthy jail cell at the airport.
By now, you've missed your departure flight. You spend the night in the jail cell, wondering what you've done wrong.
In the morning, the police inform you that they will provide an interpreter for you to assist you. And at this point, it becomes clear that you're being subjected to nothing more than an old-fashioned shakedown.
The interpreter tells you that the charges against you are very serious. However, by paying a fee of $10,000-$15,000, you can avoid prosecution. If you don't pay, however, you will be transferred to the notorious Bangkwang prison, located on the outskirts of Bangkok. Your interpreter helpfully notes that all prisoners must wear leg irons for the first three months of their sentences.
Can't come up with the full amount? Don't worry—the fine may be negotiable. Your interpreter will take you to an ATM, and ask you to withdraw all the money you can from your account. If it's deemed sufficient--$5,000 is usually sufficient—you'll at least avoid Bangkwang. Instead, police will transfer you to a roach-infested hotel and warn you not to contact a lawyer or contact your embassy.
At this point, some victims of the scam—called the "zig-zag" by locals—manage to sneak out and contact their embassy, or hire a local attorney. But in virtually all cases, you're not permitted to leave Thailand until you come up with the remainder of the money the interpreter demands. If you don't, you risk transfer to Bangkwang.
I've also heard reports of similar scams in Cambodia, and given the "success" of the Thai scheme in raising money for extortionists in cahoots with local authorities, I wouldn't be surprised if it spreads to other countries as well.
Of course, most tourists visit Thailand without incident. But if you go, once you clear immigration upon your departure, go directly to your departure gate. Definitely don't shop in the duty-free area!