Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware.
Unfortunately, Sam, a young American man on a dream trip to Bangkok, forgot this familiar Latin phrase. While walking towards a planned tour of the famous Grand Palace, a short, thin, local man with a toothless grin stopped him, saying the Palace was closed for renovations today. However, Sam’s new friend knew of another must-see temple: The Lucky Buddha. Patting Sam on the back, the local waved to a nearby tuk-tuk driver and negotiated a bargain ride of 20 baht (about $0.60). For no extra charge, he was told, the driver would be happy to show Sam the Shiny Miner, the place to find the best deals on precious Thai gemstones.
As Sam admired the remote shrine, another 20-something American man approached. It was refreshing to see a similar fellow traveler, so Sam relaxed into a conversation. He asked if the other man had heard of the Shiny Miner. Yes, he learned, you can get great deals on quality gems there. In fact, this young man pays for his adventures by selling gems back home for over twice what he pays for them here.
With that confirmation, Sam allowed his tuk-tuk driver to take him to see a couple more must-see sites, ending at the highly anticipated gem store. He saw several other foreigners there, admiring vast displays of sparkling jewels.
Sam was so captivated by the great deals, he decided to charge $3,000 to his credit card for a kingly cache of rubies and sapphires. He figured he’d pay that off in a couple weeks and cover his next trip with the profit. After signing several official-looking documents affirming the value of the jewels, the saleswoman packaged them and offered to ship his treasure directly home, to avoid the high tax levied by the Thai government. Our unsuspecting young tourist gratefully agreed to this supposed convenience and further savings.
You already know what happened when Sam got home. What he hoped would net him thirty or forty Uncle Benjamins was almost a total loss. Several appraisals confirmed these sparkly rocks were worth no more than $200.
I’ve combined several true stories into this piece of historical fiction to make a point. The Thai gem scam is notorious, and you can find hundreds of similar rackets online. While we’re excited by elaborate plots like these in movies, we hate to be victimized by them in real life.
Now that you know about this scam, you would be less likely to be taken in. But if you’re to avoid being taken in by another, you need to understand why this and many other scams work. Here are four lessons to learn:
First, the scammers acted deliberately. Many people were involved, with scripted lines and perfectly timed appearances. There was the initial contact person, the tuk-tuk driver, the foreigner conveniently standing by in the alternate shrine, the gem shop owner and employees, and the gem forger who made the counterfeit jewels. This cast of characters had to design, practice, and execute their part of the charade with precision and care. Presumably, they either had to avoid law enforcement entanglement or pay them off well enough to keep their scam going. This didn’t happen by accident.
In order for the scam to work, the prospective buyer must remain unaware of many details in order to be willing to part with their hard-earned cash. The fun of an exotic vacation and the potential for making a quick profit overwhelms many tourists’ common sense. Without prior knowledge of the scam’s design, the mark misses the relationship between the cast of characters and accepts the “convenient” direct-ship option that keeps him from inspecting his purchase while he’s still in town. To him, it all unfolds naturally, like it was “meant to be.”
The contrast between these first two lessons is key: the scammers are intentional, but the mark is unaware. Anytime we’re on the wrong side of an intentionality imbalance like this, we’re going to be sad.
Short Term vs. Long Term
The scam worked so well because it offered the buyer a trade we often accept: short-term pleasure for long-term regret. In Bangkok, the gem buyer felt great, like he was getting the deal of his life. In that moment, it was all pleasure and excitement. Even the risk of something going badly brought an immediate thrill. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last very long. The hangover started as soon as the reality of what he’d done was exposed by time and a clearer perspective.
Don’t most of our bad decisions trade short-term pleasure for long-term pain? In the moment of our mistake, we feel something we enjoy. But later, when our vision is clearer, we wish we would have forgone that immediate thrill so that later, we’d avoid the regret and have more time or money for something better.
Outcome Reveals Reality
When we are unaware of a scam, we’re vulnerable. Naivety is rarely profitable. And there are only two ways to learn about scams: from someone else’s experience, or from our own. The former is always better.
Either way, we don’t need to know how the scam works or who designed it to know it was a bad idea. We learn that by the ultimate outcome. When we are alone after the short-term pleasure has worn off, reality sets in, and we see the transaction for what it was: a big, sad, mistake.
We can use this rule whenever we’re unhappy about the outcome of anything in our lives. While we may not know how it’s happening or who (if anyone) is behind it, we know that something isn’t working when we see negative outcomes. When you find yourself unhappy about the way something turned out, listen to your dissatisfaction and increase your awareness about what’s really going on.
Jesus said that we can know a tree by its fruit. Good fruit comes from good trees, and bad fruit, well, you know.
We’re going to have to become better fruit inspectors if we’re going to avoid being taken in by anyone or anything that wants to lead us somewhere we regret.