The Thai gem scam involves layers of con men and helpers who tell a tourist in Bangkok of an opportunity to earn money by buying duty-free jewelry and having it shipped back to the tourist's home country. The mark is driven around the city in a tuk-tuk operated by one of the con men, who ensures that the mark meets one helper after another, until the mark is persuaded to buy the jewelry from a store also operated by the swindlers. The gems are real but significantly overpriced. This scam has been operating for 20 years in Bangkok, and is said to be protected by Thai police and politicians. A similar scam usually runs in parallel for custom-made suits. Many tourists are hit by conmen touting both goods.
A network of touts and con men present the mark with an opportunity to profit from buying discount gems from a jewelry shop. The mark is convinced that he can buy gems at duty free price and bring them overseas for a three-fold or more profit. Through a network of helpers, each of whom tells the mark bits of information, the mark is guided to the jewelry shop.
1. A tout will be on the lookout at popular tourist spots like the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Khaosan Road, Siam Square, or other temples or tourist attractions in Bangkok. (Also, the scam may often be initiated by a tuk-tuk driver.) The tout will be dressed as a student or gentleman and will approach the mark to tell him the place he is about to visit is closed today because of some made-up holiday. The tout, taking advantage of the Thai people's reputation for friendliness, may strike up a conversation, asking where the mark is from, and if this is his first time in Bangkok. The tout will also tell the mark that a certain tuk-tuk waiting nearby is cheap or even free because it has been sponsored by the tourism ministry and can bring him to other temples elsewhere to visit. Sometimes this gentleman finds out which country the mark is from and informs the con man at the next layer about it.
2. If the mark gets on the tuk-tuk, the driver will bring him to a secluded temple in the city, drop him off, and wait for him to return.
3. When the mark walks into the temple, there will be a gentleman praying inside. That person will tell him about a scheme by the government which allows people to buy jewelry duty free and make a profit when the gems are shipped to their home country, adding that today is the last day of this scheme.
4. The tuk-tuk may take the mark to another temple, where another person (sometimes a Thai, sometimes a Westerner) tells the same story, building up the mark's confidence through a seemingly "independent" verification. If the mark is interested, the person will tell the tuk-tuk driver to take him to the jewelry store.
5. At the shop the mark will be pressured to buy jewelry. If the mark purchases the jewelry, the gem will be packaged and shipped directly to the mark's address in his home country so that he will not have a chance to get the gem appraised or return it for a refund. In the purchase process the mark may be told to go to a nearby gold shop to purchase gold to be exchanged for the gem - this money laundering ensures that any stop-payment on the part of the mark will not affect the gem store's profits.
6. The mark returns to his home country, only to find the jewelry to be worth far less than he paid for it.
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Game and Story Use
- This fairly elaborate scam can be sprinkled in the background of a campaign to show the level of organization of the local thieves guild, or the extent of corruption in the city. Since the scam takes place at multiple locations, often in public, it's the sort of thing you can show snippets of again and again to establish setting and flavor, without having to make it a major plot element for the PCs.
- The Thai Gem Scam can serve as a model for contriving other confidence games unique to a setting. Note the technique of reinforcing the legitimacy of a con by having multiple independent sources all mention the opportunity it provides. This makes the mark think that it must be true, since several seemingly unrelated people told him about it. Replace temples, tuk-tuk, and jewelry with whatever common locale, transportation mode, and treasure fits your game.
- In a fantasy game, the fraudsters could pose as fellow adventurers dumping a haul of jewelry for quick cash - especially effective if the PCs have experience of getting less than book value for their loot in the past. Possibly one of the fraudsters could set them up with a jeweler prepared to buy from them (also in on the scam) … the fraudsters then sell some initial, good pieces which the buyer contact pays full price for when the PCs unload them. When they go back for the next load from the seller contact the buyer goes to ground whilst the seller tries to load the PCs with as much stock as he can before he too vanishes. When the buyer re-appears he examines the PCs new goods, proclaims them either worthless trash or very poor quality and buys them back for far less than the PCs paid. The PCs will not be able to notice a difference between these pieces and the first ones because there isn't one, but the buy may have some similar - but higher quality - pieces that he'll swear blind are the ones they sold him so that he can demonstrate why he's not prepared to pay as much as they want.
- Like many scams, this preys on the mark's greed - a more honest man might introduce the "adventurer in need" to their own buying contact, thus shorting the scam out, but if the PCs decide to make some money at the seller's expense, then they open themselves up to being scammed.
- Gemstones are a common choice for MacGuffins. What happens when the scammers find that they've accidentally sent something far more important than they thought?
- To reverse the scam, pay with counterfeit money - it's unlikely to go near anyone who will be able to validate it for a while (as long as it's a decent copy) and someone intent on scamming you may not be aware that they're being scammed in return.