Sleight-of-Hand at Every Corner
By Vyt Karazija
I have just read a fascinating report from the state news agency Antara that warns that up to 40 percent of Bali’s 146 moneychangers are operating illegally. This is shocking news – not because of the number of dishonest foreign exchange places, but because Antara seems to believe that there are only 146 moneychangers in Bali.
Legian alone probably has 146, and most likely a lot more. Seminyak has hundreds. Kuta, that bastion of ethical trade and commerce, may well have thousands. Every street, every lane, every seething market zone with more than 20 kiosks is festooned with those ubiquitous boards: “Authorised Money Changer. No Commission.” The rates look attractive, but only if you actually get them. And the “authorisation” has most likely been issued by the operator’s cousin, not by any known bank.
The reality is that there are not 146 moneychangers in Bali; there are thousands. And the registered, legitimate ones – 88 of them, according to Antara, are far outnumbered by the thieving rat-bags who live off gullible tourists, robbing them senseless and giving Bali a bad name. This would make the real percentage of illegal places closer to 95 percent.
Just about every first-timer gets stung. You suddenly realise you’ve spent most of your rupiah on T-shirts, bling, cheap massage and cooling beverages, and start looking around for someone to change 50 or 100 dollars so you can continue the spending spree. You see the sign – it says “Authorised,” so it must be legal. They don’t even charge commission. What nice people! Even the tout drumming-up business outside, sincerity oozing from every pore, solemnly declares, “No rip-off!” in earnest tones. And the rate – why, it’s much better than that fancy place your friends recommended!
So in you go, escorted at close quarters by the tout, only to end up jammed up against a tall counter, the top of which comes up to your neck. Behind it is an unctuous smile attached to a person of dubious integrity, who immediately begins the process of cunningly getting as much from you as he can while giving you as little as possible in return.
He asks how much you want to exchange; you tell him; he pecks on a calculator and displays a figure. For those unfamiliar with the vast number of zeros in Indonesian currency, this can be terminally confusing. He keeps up a high-speed patter designed to distract you from the discrepancy between what you see on his calculator and the rate posted outside on his board. If there is also a rate chart inside, it will often show a different rate to confuse you. If you happen to have a modicum of mathematical ability, you soon realise that the amount shown on his calculator is just plain wrong.
That’s because his calculator commences the calculation with a pre-set bias – and believe me, it’s not in your favour. Should you do the unthinkable and produce your own calculator, he will look at your result with utter shock and horror, apologise profusely and proceed to thump and shake his “faulty” calculator, blaming its “incorrect” result on the manufacturer, bad batteries and its advanced age. But the calculator trick is only Phase One of the con in these places.
Phase Two is a complex ritual which commences after the actual amount is finally agreed upon. The man takes your money and starts an intricate game of banknote-shuffling behind the high counter, during which he calls out a running total in hundreds, meaning hundreds of thousands. This is designed to both confuse you and lull you into a false sense of security. Meanwhile, his accomplice, the tout, stands uncomfortably close behind you, so you have to turn around to answer, and engages you in an endless stream of questions.
These continue unabated as the moneychanger suddenly slaps down a huge heap of mixed denomination bills on the counter and starts counting them out into piles, calling out the amounts. It’s during this part that tens might miraculously transform into hundreds, at least verbally. If you show the slightest sign of actually following the transaction, the accomplice will distract you with a very personal question accompanied by a friendly dig in the ribs. If this action causes you to take your eyes off the money for a spilt second, some of it disappears behind the counter. No, actually, a lot of it disappears behind the counter, typically between Rp200,000 and Rp400,000 in an exchange totalling perhaps Rp960,000.
By this stage, if you are the average first-timer, you are so confused by the unfamiliar money, the endless chatter, the unwelcome jostling and the oppressive heat that you tend to take the money and run. After all, you saw the entire amount being counted out in front of you, right? Wrong.
If your face betrays any sign of suspicion, the purveyor of dodgy rupiah immediately tries to disarm you by asking, no, insisting that you count out the money yourself. Which of course, you try to do on the only space available – the counter-top. Another barrage of questions and assorted distractions follows, particularly when you discover a discrepancy. Standard operating procedure at this point is for the con-man to say, “This can’t be right. Let me count it again.”
He then quickly picks up the money and arranges it into one pile again, at which point he expertly “fumbles” and drops some of the stack behind the counter. Amid profuse apologies, he retrieves both the dropped money and the previously stolen stash, counts it all out again – correctly this time – and gives it back to you to count again.
After you laboriously count out all the small bills and are finally convinced you have it right, he will grab the money in a lightning-fast move “to stack it for you” as the tout behind you distracts you once more. Needless to say, a goodly portion of your money disappears behind the counter again in a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre that is very difficult to see. Result: you are badly out of pocket.
So why do visitors even use these dubious places? Convenience is one reason – why walk to a legitimate moneychanger in Bali’s heat, when hey – there’s one right here! The other reason is simply greed, together with an inability to perform the simplest arithmetical computation. A rate of 9,600 looks good compared to the 9,450 offered at a real place. But if you’re changing $100, this translates to a saving of Rp15,000, worth about A$1.60.
At legitimate places – such as those registered by the Association of the Foreign Exchange Dealers (APVA), you get low counters, money counted out in front of you in high denomination bills, plenty of time to count it again yourself without harassment, a receipt and friendly, professional staff.
And the rip-off places? Well, as you can see, they’re very different. After a few years of living here, I went back to one of these dodgy places just to see whether I could outsmart the guy and make a whole extra Rp15,000. I changed $100, watched him like a hawk, called him on every trick, and finally counted out the money into the hands of my own accomplice without letting the shonk anywhere near it.
The previously friendly moneychanger stared at me aggressively, thrust back my $100, snatched the stack of grubby rupiah from my friend’s hand and snarled, “You f*** off. Not come back.”
Don’t worry, mate; I won’t.
Filed under: Vyt's Line