I’d been in Chiang Mai a week when it happened.
I’d done a lot that week: found an apartment, had a tooth pulled, moved into said apartment, lamented the humidity, lamented the rain, discovered kao saow, talked to a few fellow backpacker/nomad/online folk.
And, by the end of the week, I felt that perhaps I didn’t hate Chiang Mai after all. True, the place was too hot and there were too many people wearing elephant pants, but it was comfortable. Cheap. Easy. And ever so slightly more lively than Dalat.
Then ‘Paul’ zoomed up to me on his scooter one morning, and things went to shit.
You hear about other folks being scammed. Sad old pensioners looking for love and getting swindled by Nigerians; bored stay-at-home mums buying into multi-level-marketing schemes; gormless bachelors paying for their online girlfriend’s plastic surgery.
You hear about them, and you think, idiots! How did they not SEE it? How could anyone be so stupid??
Well. It’s really very easy.
It was Sunday. I was walking into town and suddenly a guy stopped his motorbike in front of me.
“Hey, sorry – do you speak English??”
He was a Brit. Solid, bald, smiling, jovial. He introduced himself as Paul. And he had a problem. He’d been drunk the night before, lost his ATM card, lost all his money. He desperately needed to ring his bank in the UK to make a Western Union transfer. To do that, though, he needed cash. Two thousand baht, he said – the phone call would take a long time.
I stood there, and listened. It was hot. I had a hair appointment. And I’m stingy.
He kept chatting. He was desperate, he repeated. He’d have my money back within a few hours. Please, he said.
Ahh, umm. I said. don’t know.
His face fell. He looked sad, hurt. He said, “So, you can’t help me? You don’t trust me.” He began to drive off.
And a voice in my head said, what if you were in this situation? Wouldn’t you want someone to help you?
Oh, alright, I said.
He’s jubilant. He thanks me, over and over. I’m saving his holiday, he says. He gives me his number and promises to call in a couple of hours. He rides off.
I feel odd. I’ve done something right, haven’t I? I’ve helped someone. Of course, he’ll call.
And he does. He calls when I’m at the hair salon with chemicals in my hair. He calls, and thanks me again, and tells me he needs more money.
He arrives at the salon while I’m still having my hair done. He’s holding a piece of paper. He’s sorted it with the bank, he says. Arranged for a hundred and sixteen pounds to be transferred. But they need him to pay a transfer fee. Otherwise, dammit, there’s a wait of three to four working days.
Two hundred pounds, he says, to make the transfer. Then he can give me all my money back within a couple of hours. But has to hurry, because the bank is closing soon. And in the same breath, he’s telling the hairdresser that we need to “pop out for five minutes”, and that we’ll be right back.
We’ve got to go quick, he says, ushering me out of the salon. Just lend me this bit more, then I can pay it all back in a few hours.
And that’s how we wind up at another ATM.
Idiot, idiot! I can hear you saying.
It’s here that the universe lends me a hand. Or, rather, ANZ does. My card has been blocked. We try two or three machines, but no go. I can’t retrieve the amount he needs for the transfer. We stand outside 7/11 in the simmering Thai afternoon, and I think, phew.
Then he says, “How much have you got in your wallet, then?”
I tell him I need that money. To pay the hairdresser, to pay my rent, to live.
“But I’m giving it back to you! I just need it for the transfer. I’ll come straight back here and pay it all back!
He’s pleading. He’s impatient. And he has to hurry, he tells me for the fourteenth time.
It’s so hot. I’m still covered in hair goop. I want my two thousand baht back. And, in those desperate minutes, my confused little brain tells me that if I don’t give him this money now, I won’t get any money back at all.
And that’s how I give him nearly everything in my wallet: six thousand baht.
I’ll call you soon, he says, and strides off.
That’s the last time I ever see Paul.
Yes, I know. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl.
I can’t explain the anguish of the rest of that afternoon. I sat in the hairdressing salon having my hair straightened – a treat I’d looked forward to for months – and sobbed. I wanted to believe that he’d back, but I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.
When I called him again, he wasn’t jovial anymore. He didn’t have the money yet, he said. The bank had closed. He’d sort it tomorrow.
And stop fuckin calling, he said. He hung up.
I did not sleep well that night.
The next morning, I turned to Facebook. I posted the whole sorry saga to a Chiang Mai girls’ group forum and asked, what should I do?
The responses came in almost immediately.
OMG – this guy did this to me this morning, one girl said.
The same thing happened to our friend, said another. And then, This guy came up to me and my boyfriend but we didn’t believe him.
The messages kept coming. In total, about six or seven girls who’d been in Chiang Mai over the past year said they’d been approached the same guy – a solid, bald Brit claiming to have lost his ATM card and needing to borrow cash.
Well. I’d been screwed.
The money lost was one thing. I’m a scrimper-saver. I eat at street food stalls and wear torn shorts. I’d spent weeks hunched over my computer, typing out articles to earn that few hundred dollars. And I’d lost it.
Worse, though, was the fact that I’d lost it of my own free will. Handed it over, just like that, to some ugly bald Englishman with an alcoholic paunch.
The weirdest part was that he kept up the game. He called me almost daily with new twists to the story. The bank had stuffed up. Western Union had put the money in the wrong account. He needed to get a new PIN on his card. He had to go to Chiang Rai. And then, he said didn’t have the money anymore; he was an alcoholic, and he was going home to the UK, and if I’d just give him my full name he’d transfer the money to me from there.
You’re a scheming prick, I told him.
That was over a week ago. He hasn’t called again.
I don’t know where ‘Paul’ is now. I don’t care. As much as I’d like to deliver a swift kick to the most sensitive part of his anatomy, I also never want to see or hear from him again. I just hope nobody else is as slow-witted as I was to fall for his scheme.
Lesson learned, folks. Don’t trust anyone. And don’t be so f**king stupid.