Lessons from my biggest ever money mistake

I got scammed overseas, well. I was 24-years-old at the time, it was 17 years ago. It is still difficult to write about. I have never told anyone.

The social sharing portions of the internet tends be more of a highlight reel than a realistic commentary. Not many of us are posting about our failures, we are too busy inflating our small successes. Which is obviously fine, and fun. And understandable.

However, with DownunderDad I am building an archived collection of financial lessons learned, so it would be ridiculous to overlook the blunders I have made. It is in our mistakes and regret where the real learning takes place.

And this was my biggest ever financial mistake.

I consider myself reasonably intelligent, well-travelled and un-gullible. However, on one day in Bangkok in 2003 I got sucked in – big time.

The courage for me to openly admit to this devastating fuck up has come largely from an episode of the ChooseFI podcast I heard recently featuring Tiffany Aliche who is famously known (at least across the USA) as the Budgetnista. She explained that if nobody dies it is usually time to forgive yourself. Perhaps in writing this post I can take some steps towards being OK with what happened, seems a fair way off though. It still hurts.

Let’s see how I go.

It isn’t even about the money, it is the losing of the game. Kind of like getting a parking ticket or paying a cover charge to get into a bar that turns out to be shithouse… or full of dudes. I just don’t like my opponent winning, beating me despite my best efforts.

Above all else, this story was always generating a deep feeling of embarrassment for me. However, yesterday I looked it up on Google and quickly discovered it is a real (and ongoing) confidence trick. I have strangely found some solice in learning I am not alone. Does that make me a prick, maybe?

It is bizarre to have harboured this regret for nearly two decades and then just look up the details online.

Buyer beware, always.

I figured in order to write this piece I would need to delve into my distant memory of the sordid affair. I would need to reluctantly rack my brain to recall what transpired. Nevertheless, thanks to the web I can easily just copy and paste it from Wikipedia! No kidding. In all seriousness and to my recent surprise, there exists a step-by-step account of how I got conned all those years ago.

Before I outline what happened to me, the negative experience I had and what is evidently happening to others, I need to reiterate my feelings right now. It is bizarre to have harboured this regret for nearly two decades and then just look up the details online.

We all make mistakes, some more expensive than others. (Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com)

There was no Google, TripAdvisor or even mobile phones when I fell victim, and as I will elaborate later things could have been much worse for me than they actually were.

Here goes.

It was a hot, sunny and busy day in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand and I was keen to do some sight-seeing, get my culture on and take some killer photos with my digital SLR. Alone. Like a lamb.

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And this is how Wikipedia outlines the steps of my demise…

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.

– Yep. I was at Siam Square.

The tout will be dressed as a student or official gentleman and 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.

– Yep, textbook so far.

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.

– Yep, this happened.

Sometimes this gentleman finds out which country the mark is from and informs the con man at the next layer about it.

– Yep, they did this to me.

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.

– Yep, lucky they only wanted me for my money!

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 jewellery duty-free and make a profit when the gems are returned to their home country, maybe adding that today is the last day of this scheme.

– Yep, there was some story about a special local religious holiday or something.

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 jewellery store.

– Yep, I remember two Westerners sitting down and chatting to me. One older guy from Europe somewhere and a younger Aussie. I was given the (fake) names of jewellers in both Sydney and Melbourne who happily purchase from returning travellers.

Thailand tuk-tuks (Photo by Don Tran on Pexels.com)

At this point Wikipedia talks about the mark (that’s me) getting to a shop and being pressured into buying something expensive, distraction tactics and switch-a-roos. But none of this happened to me at all. I was keen to make a quick profit when I returned back home to Australia, so I rather pleasantly went along with everything.

Princess Diana style ring. This one is available from Michael Hill for AU$3,499, probably different to mine!

The jewellery store was buzzing, no doubt some other marks in there getting sucked in like me, but I bet now it was mainly “plants” selling the story further as I carefully surveyed the situation. I had a good look around, took my time only to make a terrible travel decision. I spent AU$1,200 on a Princess Diana style ring which was gold with one large sapphire surrounded by diamonds, at least so I thought.

I spent AU$1,200 on a Princess Diana style ring which was gold with one large sapphire surrounded by diamonds, at least so I thought.

Wikipedia continues…

The mark returns to his home country, only to find the jewellery to be worth far less than he paid for it, often due to inferior quality of the stones or gold.

– Yep. How is this? I tried to sell it for $299 on eBay (because eBay was a thing back then) and my listing did not get a single bid. I ended up giving it to a “lucky” girl I was seeing at a certain time many moons ago, only after carrying it around and cursing it for over two years.

Sigh. Meh. Ouch.

Despite all of that, despite everything I have shared above, despite being swindled out of twelve-hundred bucks, to this day I still realise that the worst part was that I paid with my ANZ credit card. LIKE AN IDIOT…! Things could have gone much, much worse than they did.

The truly annoying thing about this story is that I travelled to Thailand regularly and was mostly escorted around by locals. Super friendly and giving people who were generous with their time and became true friends. I was well looked after, treated exceptionally well, protected and chauffeured around.

I never had the balls to tell them this truth.

Looking back, I don’t remember specifically the moment when I realised I had been swindled out of my vulnerable money. It was probably some two or three weeks after I returned to Australia, once I had time to think it over logically. It was a creeping realisation more than anything. An unfolding admission of cluelessness.

It was a creeping realisation more than anything. An unfolding admission of cluelessness.

I made a few phone calls, did some internet searching, and then had a good hard look at myself.

I do vividly remember the eventual feeling that overcame me when I got wise to what happened, it was an overwhelming sense of anger. However, realistically I could not be furious at anybody other than my stupid self.

Thai temples represent purity, honesty, respect and peace. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Technically, the guys involved did not do anything illegal. Hmmmm, maybe I should refresh that thinking. It probably is deemed illegal, even if my recent internet research all implies that government agencies and police departments are most likely aware and involved. However, I suppose what I am claiming is that they did not do anything aggressive, forceful or dangerous. Maybe I was lucky in that regard.

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I appreciate that this might seem weird, and I do dread to think of the other stories that might have transpired differently to mine over the decades. Nevertheless, they safely transported me around as promised, they were friendly and did not pressure me, they were even happy to stop for water and a snack. In fact, I could not help but admire the entire operation, I guess I am weird like that. I admit that I now have a strange feeling of loathsome admiration… good on them.

I could not help but admire the entire operation, I guess I am weird like that. I admit that I now have a strange feeling of loathsome admiration… good on them.

If something seems too good to be true when it comes to money, it is statistically probable that it is a scam.

I am reminded of a common and comforting mindset that outlines the value in making a twelve-hundred-dollar mistake to avoid making a twelve-thousand dollar mistake in the future. Undeniably that is the lesson here.

When I was conned in Bangkok I was young, single and free from ongoing financial commitments like a home loan, income protection insurance, council rates and generally providing for a growing family of four. In fact, I was probably at the height of my disposal income curve.

If this experience has made me more cautious and taught me value my finances then that should be seen as a positive. That is if I can treat it as a lesson learned, rather than being angry at myself and the wonderful nation of Thailand.

If nothing else, I like to think that my $1,200 “donation” has been used to further the progress of some local Thai community in need. As though (or as if) somewhere on the outskirts of the megalopolis there is a small school that has been erected thanks to my generous funding. Maybe they named it after me?! Or that six families are now ploughing profitable rice fields due entirely to my gullibility.

The reality is certainly much more sinister.

I hated myself for a long time over this error in judgement. Writing it all down like this has been therapeutic as hoped. I am ready and due to move on, pick myself up and have a laugh about it.

If you can think of a funny side to all this, please let me know.

Downunder Dad: Independent, Aussie and Personal undefined

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