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There’s no such thing as a free elephant, and other tourist scams being busted on YouTube

As more firangs head to our shores, videos and blogs that track the most common and complex tourist scams in India are going viral.

travel Updated: Mar 16, 2019 18:30 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
India,YouTube,Travel
‘If you participate in a ceremony and someone ‘gives’ you this, you will need to pay them,’ says travel writer Rachel Jones, who blogs as Hippie in Heels. The scams that get most tourists are driven by what we would call jugaad — the do-anything-to-make-it-work mentality that combines craftiness and creativity to perpetrate elaborate ruses or straight-out petty fraud.

To hear New Zealand native Karl Rock tell it, Delhi is Ground Zero for tourist scams, Paharganj is “a hotbed of fraudsters” who specifically target foreign travellers, and at religious sites across the country, some priests aren’t above making a fast buck at the expense of a visitor.

He would know. Rock, 34, made several trips to India over the last decade, has visited 33 states, speaks fluent Hindi, and loves the country enough to have learned Hindi and settled in Delhi. He runs the eponymous YouTube channel, featuring fun, caught-on-the-spot videos that attempt to ‘make sense’ of life in India. The channel has close to 3.5 lakh subscribers, videos often touch 5 million views and there’s a sub-genre (21 videos) on scams and travel safety. He even has an e-book, India Survival Guide, aimed at orienting (cautioning, really) first-timers about scams and sickness, sexual harassment, bargaining, dealing with pollution, and more.

Rock is probably the most devoted of the digital content creators tracking how pervasive and persistent Indian touts can be. While domestic tourists typically fall for the occasional rigged rickshaw meter, a deliberate mistranslation or marked-up souvenirs, ‘White-tourist’ scams can reach a whole new level (see box). They’re targeted, organised, well-rehearsed and cover every stage of a vacation, from arrival to departure and sometimes beyond.

Over the last five years, videos and blog posts have started to offer the kind of practical, first-hand advice that is missing from most travel brochures, magazines and official websites. The camera-phone videos film scams live, as they unfold. Location-based listicles show you how to spot a trap. And as more international tourists consider exploring India on gap-year trips, long-stay vacations and self-planned holidays with online marketplace bookings rather than tour operators, the videos and posts are becoming the first port of call.

On YouTube, foXnoMad’s ‘What happens when you say YES to every scam in India’ has had close to 7 lakh views in a year. DeathByVlog’s ‘SCAMMED in India’ has had 23,000 views in a week. Travellers Trina and Pierre’s ‘Our first SCAM in India from Jodphur to Jailsamer’ (sic), uploaded five months ago, has had 4,000 views. Birch Web Design has a whole series and their Delhi Tourist Scam # 2 from two years ago has racked up 56,000 views so far. The Comments sections on all of them bristle with Indians outraging at the foreigner’s apparent gullibility, and other foreigners aghast that Indians are such frauds. Neither sentiment bodes well for Indian tourism.

ALL GROWTH, NO CHECKS

India’s growth story since the 1990s has seen a parallel rise in international visitor interest, with numbers nearly doubling over the past decade. In 2017, 88 lakh foreign visitors touched down in India. Between January and November 2018, 93.6 lakh foreigners visited, earning India Rs 1.5 lakh crore — that’s up from just 50 lakh foreign tourists in 2007.

There’s also been a spurt in tourists looking for offbeat, off-the-itinerary experiences, relying more on online marketplaces than tour operators who would have buffered them from some scams. Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings, says established tour providers will typically offer insurance against illness, accidents, delays and lost baggage – which small operators won’t. There will be legal invoices rather than dodgy proofs of transaction.

More importantly, there will be a trusted person to turn to. “At several tourist places in India, where foreigners are charged differently, tour operators inform them in advance of the entry fees or opportunities to pre-book,” he says. Tourists get phone briefings about their trips and suggested action in case of emergency. “Tourists are also asked to have their mobile phones always charged,” he says “In a group tour, the tour leaders start with a city tour, so tourists become familiar with the city and its people.”

Rock says most first-timers flying blind simply aren’t prepared. “They have dated views of India as a simple country, with little idea of the last few decades of development. They’re also used to systems that work,” he says.

Scammers thrive in this gap — and the YouTube videos are an attempt to bridge it. They will tell you, for instance, that cash transactions are common in India but you must be careful to get (and check) your receipt. That it’s not illegal (or unusual) for civilians to wear clothes in the colours of official uniforms. Or to name a private company India Tourism, Incredible India, Tourist Information, International Tourist Bureau or DTTDC (a play on Delhi Tourism Department Corporation) to trick you into thinking it’s a government-run enterprise. They will remind you that 14 states have some form of tourist police – but neither the numbers nor the power to crack down on scammers.

Most of all, the videos are a window into the many faces of what we call jugaad — the do-anything-to-make-it-work mentality that combines craftiness and creativity to perpetrate elaborate ruses or straight-out petty fraud. Most of the time, the losses are so small that these crimes are not reported, but here are the numbers we do have. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started providing separate data on crimes against foreigners in 2014. Data from 2015 shows that crimes against foreign tourists form 74% of crimes against foreigners. Close to half of these were registered in Delhi, followed by Maharashtra, UP, Goa and Rajasthan – essentially areas most frequented by foreign tourists. More than half of all crimes were theft.

These are sobering numbers for Indians who leave offended comments on the videos and posts. “When someone comes up to you on the street offering to ‘help’ it can often be a trick and they can have ulterior motives. This makes tourists in India put their guard up and then they cannot experience it in the best way,” says Jones. “I’ve had people put logs on the road in Assam on the way to a national park and demand money ‘to donate to their festival’ if I want to pass. I told them in Hindi that maybe instead of demanding money, they should invite a guest in.”

‘IT HAPPENED TO ME’

Travel writer Rachel Jones’s blog featuring travel tips to India, Hippie in Heels, gets over 1 million visitors a month. She says that when she was travelling through Delhi six years ago, construction work was on at the bustling New Delhi railway station. “When four men in uniform told me the foreign ticket office had moved, I believed them,” she says. The office sells last-minute tickets under a quota for tourist-visa holders.

“They took me to an office where a man in what looked like a police uniform waited outside. They told me all trains were booked and I needed to take a bus, quoting a price I knew it was 10 times higher than usual. Knowing the office was fake too, I got angry and told them so. The man stood up like he was going to hit me. I left the office and didn’t get scammed in the end. It was upsetting, though!”

Rock recalls one trip to Pushkar with two friends where the ruse methodically involved several priests at a temple. One priest offered them flowers and sugar crystals to take to the river below. “I thought ‘A puja, how nice’,” Rock says. At the river, three priests singled out the tourists holding the flowers, and performed ceremonies asking the men personal questions. “We told them if we were married, if our parents were deceased, what we wanted most,” Rock says. “No money was ever discussed but we were later told we had to ‘donate’ Rs 1,000 for each parent’s long life. It preyed on our insecurities and our heartstrings.”

On YouTube, UK resident Harald Baldr aka Bald and Bankrupt, posts videos about getting a haircut, taking a road trip and chilling with locals in India. When he flew here in November to celebrate 50,000 subscribers, he began filming straight out of the airport gates. The video is damning – men inflate taxi prices, lie about standard rates, tell him the official booth is closed. He captions the video thus: “I was soon reminded that in Delhi you can never relax with rickshaw drivers! Fortunately I was experienced enough to know what was happening.”

AND STILL THEY COME

Rock believes that the disparity between the tourism department and on-ground idea of India needs to be bridged. “Government tourism offices are not located in convenient places, but the people there are incredibly helpful,” he says. “They know all about the scams and will get the police involved too. They are just not promoted enough.”

Jones lived in India for five years before she moved to Mexico. Rock, at home in Delhi, is planning to visit the few states he hasn’t. Both exuberantly profess a love for the country despite being a constant target for scams. “The 100 or 200 scammers in Delhi and other tourist areas are not representative of the country,” Rock says. “There is still the notion of Atithi Devo Bhava [the guest as a god]. Most people will feed you and host you and expect nothing in return.”

Jones says that when she was once lost in Mumbai, some young girls helped out. “They showed me the way home on a local bus an only after did I realise they then had to take the bus back to where we started and then go a different way,” she says. “As a whole my experience in India is positive. There is so much good.”

It explains why, in Baldr’s video enumerating 10 things he hates about India, scammers come in at a lowly number 8. Things that irk him more: poor cellphone coverage, spitters, and fellow tourists.

The video has had 6.5 lakh views since December. What does he hate most about India? “It’s so damn addictive! You meet more interesting people in an hour here than in a lifetime in England.”

First Published: Mar 16, 2019 17:48 IST