Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fake US Dollars and what you can do with them

This happened to me before Pchum Ben. I was tending to the Russian Market shop as all Bloomers were off to the provinces to see their families during this important festival. I was about to shut it when a Khmer woman entered the shop. In hindsight, I should have been more alert. All the signs were there: She wore a hat which she didn’t remove, she didn’t look at me, and she spoke in a very small voice. Not that she was shy—far from it. When it was clear that I hadn’t a clue that she was about to scam me, she became confident and even demanding at the end.

She chose two bags and then paid me with a hundred dollar bill. I was in such a good mood because it was my only sale for the day that I quickly returned her the change of USD73. Unfortunately for me, I had the change on me because I had just withdrawn money from the ATM because Sipha was going to come to borrow money from me. If I hadn’t had the change, which normally I don’t because I don’t carry much money with me, I would have had to go to the money changer and the scammer (scamster?) would have been found out.

It really is a win-win situation for these crooks. If they were found out, they can just say, “Oh sorry, I didn’t know. Someone passed it to me.” So they are never held responsible. I was told in Japan, you have to declare that the money is real when you hand it over. And if it’s not, you’re responsible for cheating.

So anyway, Alan was there at the shop to pick me up (he was trying out a motobike loaned to us by our Canadian friends while they went on holiday). He said after the woman left, “It’s a good trick, eh, if the money is fake. You get real money and bags.”

That’s when alarm bells went off. I went to a neighbour’s shop and asked them to check the bill for me and true enough, it was a dud. There was no watermark. And no stripes. (For those of you who want to know how to spot a fake, there should be a watermark of a man’s face and stripes—which can only be seen when you hold the note up against light).

I was so furious, really furious. I shut the shop and ran into the wet market (the external bit where they sell meat and veg and fruit) to look for the thief. I was going to punch her, I really was. I was furious because I was so nice to her and treated her with such respect and trusted her. (Later on, Kerri, my American friend said I shouldn’t punch people—Khmer women have been known to throw acid on the faces of their enemies).

Anyway, of course I didn’t find her. She is a professional and won’t be back at the shop, Alan says. But I think she might, because it was so easy scamming me. (I just had an epiphany! I’m not as savvy as I always believed! I do get cheated easily!) If she comes again, I swear, I will not be nice.

It was a big lesson to me. Because I frequently see Khmers handing over real USD100 notes at Lucky Supermarket, I automatically assumed she was a rich Khmer and her money was good. Now I will be extra cautious.

Alan was really sweet. I felt so lousy for being a dumbo, but Alan told me it was bound to happen sooner or later. We’re in a country where fake notes abound. Then again, even in Singapore, there have been cases of people being given fake US dollars at the money changer’s.

Alan also pointed out that retailers usually add the cost of pickpocketing into their books, because it is so common. I guess I should take into account such losses when planning the budget, but I didn’t. And because I am also running a “factory” (it’s really a small workshop of just five people), I should also take into account the cost of theft. I’ve had silk and bags stolen from the workshop, but that’s common in a factory environment—although let’s not forget even in an office environment, people steal stationery. (The stealing at Bloom seems to have stopped for the moment, but you never know. In fact, I just lost a pair of leather slippers I bought at Beautiful Shoes, stolen from my house/workshop.)

So what can you do with a fake USD? Obviously you can pass it on to someone (and then say loudly if caught, “Oh sorry! I didn’t know—it was passed to me!). But I can’t in good conscience do this.

You can also “sell” the note. I learnt that there are Khmers who would pay USD20 or USD30 upfront for a USD100 note—but it has to be a good fake.

Then there was someone who offered to give me USD20 for it, if he succeeds in passing it off to someone. Incredible isn’t it?

Cambodia is so different from Singapore. I’ve never, ever examined a Singapore note. Here, I have to start examine all the big bills, the way they do at Lucky. For me, it’s just another hassle to add to an already stressful place.

So what happened to the fake money? Sipha asked me for it and I gave it to her. What was I going to do with it anyway? For Khmers, it’s just part of life. Even Sipha herself has been handed a fake USD10 note (Ten dollars! Why do they bother, asked a friend. Well, because 10 dollars is a week’s wages for some).

Sipha tells me she is angry with her countrymen and says out of 10 Khmer people, only three are good. It’s quite scary that Khmers themselves think so poorly of their own people.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Peaceful vigil for Burmese people

Yesterday, I stood outside the Burmese embassy here in Phnom Penh, with about 40 other people. I had just returned from Siem Reap and read about the week-long event in an email (no such demo in Siem Reap where people are too busy trying to fleece tourists). Most of us wore red (red supposedly symbolises the bloodshed) in a show of solidarity. As far as I know, there was only one Burmese man among us, a teacher here in Phnom Penh. I asked about Khmer monks--where are they? why aren't they supporting their brothers-in-monkhood? One Khmer man told me the monks are under pressure from authorities to behave, although a few did come on the first day of the vigil (Saturday) to chant for peace outside the embassy.

Most of the people there were from international NGOs, and were mostly Khmer. A few held up pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi. I have to say that I found it all of little practical use. I really don't think the group of us made a difference at all. I think what would have made the difference is the numbers. If there were hundreds of us in red, it would make for a good picture, which would get published, which would then bring more, sustained, attention to the issue. As things stood (pun intended), it seemed like a party for most people; a chance to meet up and chitchat with like-minded friends. Still, for all it's impact or lack of, I went because I felt it was the least I could do. I cannot pretend the brutality does not exist and get on with my life. I am reminded of a Singaporean woman who told me, when I brought up the Rwanda genocide at a party back then in 1994, "You should get a job. Then you will stop worrying about these things." I assume she meant stop worrying about impractical things, things that you have no control over. (She was a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group--there's a surprise.)

Anyway, so that is why I turned up. I wanted to do something, anything, just to be involved. For all the good it did. Oh well, maybe I'll take a photo and post it online and hope the Burmese people will see that other people do care about them and are rooting for them. It really is the very least we all can do.

Details are Sketchy

On another note, a friend of mine pointed me to this interesting blog where I got a mention for sharing my troubles with the local police (I think we all need to expose their tricks and stand up to them!)

I'm not sure who is behind this blog, but it's a really good wrap of Cambodian news. I found this story on the USD250 bounty on three gangster monkeys hilarious:

USD250! In a country where the government officials earn around USD40 a month! Let's just say I'm surprised no one's caught the little terrors yet.


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