Despite the stories, however, Montira Cherdchoo, Phuket Airport Customs Director says she encounters an average of two similar scam stories every week involving women seduced online into giving up large sums of money.
The scam is similar to the classic “Nigerian scam” whereby victims are offered a share of huge amounts of money if they first pay an “administration fee” of some sort.
It has the additional twist that the fraudsters seduce their credulous victims over several months so that, believing themselves to be in love, they give up the money more easily.
Ms Montira said, “From questioning these Thai ladies, we found that most of them had known their guys only three or four months, from chatting online.”
There are three variations on the scam, she said. In the first the scam artist tells the victim he has sent her a large amount of cash in a package, but that it has been stopped by Customs at the airport, and a fee or fine must be paid, in Thailand in Thai baht, to release the cash.
The second version is very similar but in this case the package contains expensive handbags or other luxury items, with duty owing on them.
In the third version, the scamster claims to have been arrested by Customs at the airport for carrying too much money into the country while on his way to meet his beloved.
In each case the victim gets a call from a Thai woman, sometimes posing as a logistics company employee or, often as a customs officer. The woman tells the victim the details of an account into which the “fee”, “fine” or “duty” should be transferred, and the amount, and assures the victim that after payment is made, the parcel will be sent on to the victim, or the boyfriend will be released.
Once the payment is made, that’s the last the victim hears from her “boyfriend”.
Ms Montira said that, despite the fact that the scam may seem obvious, she sees an average of two women a week – typically from Thai provinces far away – who come to her office to claim their “packages”.
She told The Phuket News that she wanted to warn Thai women about the scams. She believes that there are many more victims but, embarrassed and down at heart when they realise they have been cheated out of money, and feeling foolish that they have been cheated in love, they decide to take no action.
She explained Customs regulations. “If you are paying duty on goods, you must [come here to] see your package before you make any payment.
“At the Airport Customs office, we will check official documents such as an ID card or passport. We will see if the name on ID is correct and matches with the name of the recipient of package.
“You cannot pay by bank transfer. The only way to pay duty is in cash at the Airport Customs office.
“Also, we do not provide any service for sending packages on to people. They must come and collect the package themselves or they can send someone with a written power of attorney to collect it for them.
“Most of the Thai women who were swindled live in other provinces; it makes it easier to cheat them because it is more difficult for them to come to the airport in Phuket and check that the parcel actually exists.
“Some women do call telephone us to to check what’s going on [and avoid being cheated] but others don’t check; they just transfer the money right away because they want to get the gift from their ‘boyfriend’, or to see their beloved’s face.
“Some of them don’t believe they have been cheated, or they want to be certain, so they fly from home to Phuket to see for themselves what really happened. Some even bring a lawyer with them.
“That’s when they find out for sure that they have been deceived.”
The scammers by no means confine themselves to using Phuket Airport Customs. At Chiang Mai Airport a Customs official who asked not to be named told The Phuket News they come across three to five cases a month.
The scam artists do their homework, she said. They use the actual names of Customs officers – which are freely visible to the public on a board at the airport or in the Customs website – to make the scam more plausible.
At Suvarnabhumi Airport Customs, an officer who also asked not to be named said they get about three cases a month. Last week, a man and a woman came from Southern Thailand to help the woman’s the woman’s “boyfriend” who was supposedly locked up in Customs cells after trying to bring a large amount of money into the country.
The Customs officers at Suvarnabhumi told them that they were not holding anyone – that they do not even have cells – and that in any case anyone may bring as much money as they wish into the country. The only rule is that if the amount is more than US$20,000 (B600,000) it must be declared to Customs. Even then, there is no fee of any kind.
So what is the remedy for victims? In Phuket, Pol Col Sermphan Sirikong, Superintendent of Phuket City Police Station said, “If we receive a report about this kind of fraud, and we conclude that the report is plausible, then, for sure, we will take legal action.”
But if no crime has actually taken place in Phuket – which certainly seems to be the case – will Phuket police have the power to investigate? Come to that, where did the crime actually take place? In the victim’s home province? In the location of the bank account? Somewhere overseas?
An official at the Bangkok Damrongtham Centre, who asked not to be identified, suggested that victims either call the centre on 1567, or send the centre a letter. Damrongtham officials will then investigate and try to find ways to help the victim.
When The Phuket News finally got through on the 1567 hotline, we were advised to contact the Consumer Protection Board at 1166. The CPB referred us to the Consumer Protection Police (1135), who said victims should contact the Tourist Police in the province where the crime took place.
This, they said, would be the place where the non-existent parcel should have been – Phuket, Bangkok or Chiang Mai. The Tourist Police should be contacted because a foreigner was involved in the scam.
The Phuket News contacted Pol Lt Ekachai Khuru of the Phuket tourist police, who said, “People you think they may be caught up in a scam can call us on 1155 if they are suspicious about the existence of a parcel. The police will help verify with Customs at the airport involved.
“In the case of the victims who have already transferred money, they should report the crime to the provincial police.”
But, he added, “This kind of case is difficult for local police to handle because it is a transnational crime. I think the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) in Bangkok might be more able to help the victims better than we are.
“But I would like to warn people, Don’t be too quick to trust others,” he added.
The Phuket News tried repeatedly calling the TCSD in Bangkok at 02 1422 555. There was no answer.
It seems that help is not exactly at hand for the heartbroken and ripped-off victims of the seductive scam artists.