Over the years many foreigners have fallen victim to scam artists in Thailand. Some are well known, like the tuk-tuk drivers around Sanam Luang with a hidden agenda to bring customers to shady jewelry shops, taxi drivers who say their meters are broken and jet-ski rental outfits that claim their machines show fresh damage when the customer brings them in. More complicated frauds centre on investment schemes and call centres that target locals as well as tourists and even people outside the country.
Recent years have seen the introduction of increasingly sophisticated, credible and sometimes nearly undetectable scams. One of these involves the sale of supposedly vintage, reconditioned Italian-made scooters. After a British expat businessman who has resided in Thailand for 18 years fell victim to this scam he contacted The BigChilli and agreed to tell his story on condition of anonymity.
Online and on the make
“There’s a well-known website that advertises the sale of second-hand goods in Thailand,” the expat began. “That’s how I originally learned of this phony bike company. The website is respectable and it offers a lot of good deals. I bought some second-hand musical equipment through the site and everything went well. But unfortunately they don’t check out the sellers. Anyone can place an ad. Some advertisers have links to their own sites. I clicked on a headline that read ‘Fully restored brand bikes for sale’. That turned out to be a big mistake.
“The description of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas and the restoration work done on them was very impressive. They broke it all down in detail and guaranteed the bikes had been restored to excellent condition and all parts were genuine. I decided I wanted to purchase a classic, sexy reconditioned bike to cruise around Bangkok on the weekends. I picked out a 1963 Lambretta, which is a nice piece of machinery. The bike in the photo (see photo) appeared to be just what I was looking for, but the photo was all I got.
The expat said that particular website quoted prices underneath photos of its reconditioned scooters in English pounds. He later observed that there was another site with an almost identical design, and even the same email address and opening and closing hours, but the prices were in US dollars. Another difference is that the shop was located in one large town in southern Thailand.
“I sent the shop in the Northeast an email identifying the scooter I wanted. I got a response right away from someone calling himself ‘Mr Pierluigi M-------, Head of Sales’. I later realised that Pierluigi was most likely the victim of identity theft and had nothing to do with the company. Apparently the scammers wanted someone with an Italian sounding name to make it seem more authentic. He wrote: ‘You are in luck, we are giving big discounts at the moment. The bike is only 70,000 baht, plus 3,500 baht for the shipping costs.’
“Before signing the contract I was sent by email copies of Pierluigi’s passport, the company registration and Certificate of Importer-Exporter Code issued by the Ministry of Commerce. Everything looked legitimate to me. I felt foolish when I learned it was all fake. The phone number printed on the Ministry of Commerce certificate doesn’t exist.
“I told them that I was based in Thailand and asked about the baht-to-pound exchange rate they were using. I was then asked to transfer money for the bike to an account belonging to a Thai woman. He sent me a copy of her Thai ID. I made the transfer. In hindsight, I should have transferred only a deposit, not the whole amount. I now have some information about the woman and the bank account.
“I got an email saying the money was received, thank you very much. Shortly after that I received an email from Pierluigi saying his boss was asking for an extra 40,000 baht to register the bike. I then spoke to Pierluigi on the phone for the first and only time. He refused to send the bike to Bangkok without the green book, or registration. He said, ‘We can’t do that,’ to which I replied, ‘You certainly can’. I was pretty angry after the call. There wasn’t any small talk with this man. We spoke in English. He sounded like an African to me. I am sure he had an African accent. Since our conversation a new contact mobile number has been on put on the website, which is still running. They are still using the same email address.”
“It became clear to me I wasn’t going to get the bike for the price originally quoted, and any money I sent for registration would be lost as well. I filed a complaint with the Thonglor police station in Bangkok.
The expat then went to a branch of the bank which operated the account he had transferred the money to. After hearing his complaint a bank officer gave him some information on the account. Apparently the account contained considerable amounts of money at times, but it had been emptied a short time before the expat went to the bank office.
“I took the police report and other documents issued by the Thonglor police to the bank and after a lot of explaining and pleading they agreed to close the account. But by then there was only 100 baht left. I wasn’t allowed to actually see the deposit and withdrawal details, but the bank officer told me that the account holder had been doing pretty well.
“I wasn’t the only one sending money into the account. Money was being transferred from other individuals and from other banks, which makes it more difficult to trace. A lot of money went through the account, but it didn’t stay there. They were too smart for that.
“I have to say I got very good cooperation from the Thonglor police and from the bank. I don’t think that the owner of the account played a major role in the gang, and I learned that the account had been taken out under the name of a woman who reported that her Thai ID was stolen. The ID showed an address in Suphanburi province.
“What I think happened,” said the expat, “is that ‘Pierluigi’ or another member of the gang paid a casual acquaintance to open the bank account and afterward took the bankbook and ATM card and told her to report her ID stolen.”
One government official told The BigChilli that there are ways to open a bank account with a stolen ID and added that stolen Thai IDs can be purchased on the black market.
The expat said he is worried because the scammers had his passport and may try to use his identity in their nefarious schemes. “They asked me for a copy of the main page of my passport and I sent it to them. I reported the whole incident to the British Embassy in Bangkok and I told them these crooks had a copy of my passport. I also notified a fraud department based in the city of London to tell them that my passport might be used in a scam.
“I also sent an email to the Italian embassy telling them that it was highly likely that Italian passport holder Pierluigi M-------, born in 1963, was the victim of identity theft. He was not involved in the scam, I know this with a fair degree of certainty. What I think happened is that Pierluigi tried to buy a bike from them and they asked for a copy of his passport just as they asked me. They are using his name, and it makes sense. If you are going to buy an Italian bike then you want to buy it from an Italian. So this was kind of a good marketing move. Now they may be using my passport copy to lure victims in this or another scam.
“When I look back I see some things that should have thrown up a red flag before my eyes. For one, I sent an email asking the correct fuel-oil ratio for this old bike. The reply was, ‘I will answer your questions later.’ He obviously didn’t have a clue. Anyone with any knowledge of these classic bikes would have given the answer straight away. He fumbled around when I asked another basic question as well.
“There’s not much I can do now except try to get the word out about this
rip-off so no one else gets burned. I have been doing an honest business in Thailand and to lose money this way really rankles. I wonder how many more people have fallen for this scam. I am sure they don’t care if their victims are expats or Thais as long as they get the money.
“Some friends of mine in Bangkok showed an interest when I told them I planned to buy a reconditioned Italian scooter. I gave them the link to the website, but fortunately I was able to sound a warning before any of them transferred any money. That’s the only good thing to come out of all this,” said the Brit.
He added that he had seen an advertisement on the second-hand goods website offering expensive breeds of Japanese dogs for sale in Chiang Mai. The mobile number given was the same one used in the scooter scam.
Following are excerpts from emails sent by ‘Mr Pierluigi M----, Head of Sales’. (Editor’s Note: We have left the emails in their original form, including incorrect English, to help potential victims identify suspect scam messages they may receive).
Purchasing procedure for Thailand based potential customers.
But on the contract is states that you paid 73,500 THB. He said that the biggest boss at the transport office who signs the green book has refused to sign and approve your green book processing today. He says the boss wants the amount paid for bike to match the cost price of the bike on our website. So says his big boss converted 2600 GBP to THAI BHT and the amount was = 113,171 THB. He says his boss says in order for him to approve the green book to be produced and released today, you need to pay another 39671 THB in order to complete the total amount.
He explained me that protocol which the boss wants to be followed and that in the past he did not often take close look at the figures but of recent he has started looking at the figures on every sold bikes website dealer before signing and approving the green book.
So my contact says, since we are okay with 73500 which you sent already and we don’t want any more money. We should tell you yo send another 39671 THB to our account and send us the receipt. Once we receive the receipt, we send it to him, so the boss can approve the green book to be processed. I can transfer back to you the 39671 THB to your account.
Treat it as a matter of urgency and let me know when you send it by emailing to the receipt okay.
The Brit replied:
Pierluigi. The full amount of 73,500 needs to be returned to my bank by midday.
No excuses acceptable. If I don’t get an alert from my phone by 12.01 I will assume I have been scammed and proceed with legal action. I have your passport copy (if that is indeed you) so I suggest you reimburse me and get the money from your boss.
In earlier message the scammer explained:
N.B. The prices in British pounds are for INTL customers.