Conor Woodman travels the world with an undercover film crew in his show Scam City (9pm, January 16, National Geographic) and gets himself robbed, conned and roughed up, all so we can learn how to avoid similar scams when abroad. Woodman explains more about his dangerous experiences while making the show and gives excellent tips on how to avoid getting ripped-off when on holiday…
What should we expect from the new series of Scam City?
The next series is 10 new cities, new scams and some old favourite scams like street hustlers and thieves. Episode one kicks off in New Orleans, where we visited during Mardi Gras. We went after the big scam for that time of year – a gambling game called the ‘razzle’. Americans have funny rules about gambling – if you’re in a casino it’s legal, if you’re anywhere else it’s slightly illegal – but that doesn’t stop people wanting to gamble. People there have set up an underground, back room gambling den, but unfortunately it’s not always a fair bet, shall we say.
So you played the game and knew what the scam was?
Yes, the game I got involved in came to a bit of a sticky end; there was no way I was going to walk out of that. I didn’t win any money and there were lots of people in a scary back room off of Bourbon Street wearing masks and carrying guns. I’d heard of the scam but people had said it changed all the time, and until you get into the room you won’t know exactly what it is.
How did you get out of there?
We film undercover and when I reached the final game, I met some of the more senior network, and they know what’s going on. They were as interested in what I was up to as I was what they were up to. But I’ve already got my money on the table and there are baseball bats and guns involved. I’m there to find out how these scams work, I’m not there to get people into trouble. Once people realise what I’m going to do they still take my money, and don’t go easy on me, but at the same time no one’s shot me yet. Although sometimes I get beaten up.
Have you ever thought that you’re not going to make it out alive?
No, I’ve been scared for sure. Again, in the Buenos Aires episode I ended up in a locked room with men wearing masks, carrying guns and getting high on cocaine while I’m trying to do an interview with them – it was quite a scary situation. Being from the UK, I’m not used to gun culture and people waving guns around in a room, it’s quite intimidating. I wouldn’t say that I’m not going to make it out but I’m definitely on my guard.
What’s the sketchiest place you’ve ever been to?
I’ve been to Afghanistan, I’ve been to the Congo but there aren’t many scams there as there aren’t any tourists.
You don’t seem afraid to travel to riskier places, is that what got you into this line of work?
After I wrote my book Unfair Trade, about companies exploiting people in different parts of the world, which involved a lot of going under cover to find out information, a producer contacted me about the possibility of finding out how criminals engage with tourists around the world. When we did the first series of the show in 2012, it sort of developed. In this new series we’ve pushed a little bit further and gone a little bit deeper. The crew have become extremely good at going under cover. We’re able to access these worlds firstly by seeing them through the eyes of a tourist and being played the fool all the way to the scam, and then once we’ve done that we re-engage with these people to find out a bit more about how they work and who they are and why they do what they do.
Are the criminals often hostile when you reveal who you are?
Our interest is to hear their side of the story. To reveal and document what they do, we’re not the police and we’re not going to investigate them. We engage with the criminals on their terms. If I asked you about work and if you’d had a hard day in the office, you’d probably answer the question. We say to them that we’re not here to get our money back, not here to grass you up to police, we actually thought what you did was quite clever and quite sophisticated and would like to know a bit more about it. If you respond in a human way, with an interest in what they do, a little bit of flattery goes a long way. I’m constantly amazed that people reveal as much as they do on this show. People who’ve watched the show always say “oh my god, why are they telling you all this stuff”. What makes the show really special is that we get a really unique perspective on these criminals, and hopefully that helps people when they travel.
Have you ever sided with the criminal?
I’m never on their side, let’s be clear who the bad guys are. You can’t ruin someone’s holiday by stealing their wallet or their passport. But I can appreciate the skill and the craft in what they do. When you see gangs working in an organised fashion, and they’re playing the psychology of their targets, the mental and physical dexterity that goes in to what they are doing – you can’t help but be impressed by the craft of that. The show really works by reserving judgement long enough to understand it, film it and document it. At the end of the day, you’re never going to be on the side of the criminal because what they are doing is intrinsically wrong.
What the most common tourist scam?
The most common scams anywhere in the world are pickpockets and taxis. Wherever you go, taxi drivers are always up to the same thing. Taking you the long way round, the dodgy metre scam, charging twice as much to get you to the airport, all those kinds of things. We did one taxi scam in this series, in Mumbai; it was the mother of all taxi scams. There was nowhere on earth that could do a taxi scam as well as this. This taxi scam went on for two and a half hours, it had so many different elements to it, and it was a really well worked routine. The driver had something going with a travel agent, which involved taking me to a hotel that wasn’t my hotel, coming across someone who was sick who needed to borrow money to go to a doctor. Getting blocked in by a festival, in which the people wouldn’t clear the street until we gave a donation. It was just one thing after another and quite breathtakingly elaborate. They do this every day to people arriving in Mumbai. It could be a Hollywood horror movie. Mumbai definitely wins the award for the best taxi scam. There’s an artistry and showmanship to some of the best scam artists.
Would you rather be confronted by a scammer or a mugger?
Even though you have to say that the scammers are still bad guys, they’re not hitting people over the head. You have to admire that a good scammer will tell you that night is day and black is white in order to take your money from you. If I was to lose my money to a scammer or a mugger, I’d go with the scammer every time. It’s part of the experience of travelling; everyone remembers the time they got scammed for money.
Have you ever been scammed for real?
The first time I went to Thailand was in the ‘90s when I was a student. This scam was going on where people get you to pay way over the odds for gems. It was really elaborate; again, the drivers were working for the shops. We went back there in season one of Scam City and this same scam was still going 20 years later.
Why do tourists get targeted over other people?
Firstly, they’re easy to spot. Tourists are looking up; where as other people are looking down, trying to get from A to B. You stand out and you’re vulnerable because you’re carrying a lot of cash. Either you don’t know how to report something to the police, because you don’t know the system, or even if you do you’re on a tight schedule and you’re only there for a few days. Do you really want to spend a day at the police station? If it was your own city you wouldn’t let it be. The pickpockets in Barcelona said that they would never target Spanish people, because it would be too much hassle. The tourists are a soft target and aren’t going to cause you any problems.
What’s your advice to tourists, to help them avoid getting scammed?
Be as cautious on holiday as you would be at home. When people go on holiday they sit around with their iPhone out on the table, their bags draped off the back of their chair, walking around with all their valuables on them. Keep your valuables where you can see them and be protective of them. When you go somewhere you might well get scammed, you can’t let that put you off your holiday. It happens to everybody. If you do get scammed the best thing you could possibly do is tell people about it, save a good story for the next dinner party. I’m actually setting up a website so people can share these stories, and help travellers warn each other. And, of course, watch Scam City and hopefully we can alert you to some of the dangers, so you’re less likely to fall for it yourself.
Watch Scam City at 9pm, January 16, on National Geographic