Gem scam account: A typical tale

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Gem scam account: A typical tale
    Below is an account of the scam from the Bangkok Post, December 13, 1999. In this story the tourists get their money refunded, but one has to wonder why this scam is so prevalent after so many years. I can go to any major tourist spot in Bangkok and within a half hour find myself confronted by a friendly tout venally promoting the purchase of blue sapphires. Who is profiting from this? It must be a big business.

Bright shining lie
    We would like to file a complaint against the Bangkok Trade Centre and a temple officer who introduced himself as Prof Yong Saephong of Chulalongkorn University for conspiring to sweet talk us and lure us into buying jewelry.
    We are Amparo Adelina Umali, a Filipino doctoral student in Kyoto, Japan and Masahiro Goto, a Japanese company employee in Nagoya, Japan.
    Last February we had a weekend stopover in Bangkok. On the Sunday we got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up in a temple.
    Two very helpful men, one claiming he was a temple officer, said it was closed. They said major temples close until 2 p.m. on Sundays because of Buddhist ceremonies.
    But they said we were very lucky to be in Thailand because the Government had launched an Export Factory Promotion and we should drop by the exhibition.
    They said the government had told tuk tuk drivers to charge a minimal fee to visit four temples and the exhibition to encourage tourists to go. The men flagged a tuk tuk down for us. At one wat a "temple officer" introduced himself as Professor Yong Saephong of Chulalongkorn University. He said we were at the Marble Temple. He told us government employees who speak foreign languages work in temples on weekends to help tourists.
    He asked us how we had got to the temple and we explained about the Export Factory Promotion and said the tuk tuk driver was waiting for us.
    He said it was difficult for professors to go abroad because of their low salaries, but that he has travelled several times thanks to the Annual Export Promotion which sold tax-free jewelry to Thai nationals to help them finance trips abroad. The principle being to resell the jewelry overseas for 100 percent profit.
    He said this had enabled him to travel to Japan. He said he sold his jewelry to Mikimoto store in Ginza at a 100 percent profit.
    He said he was doing the same thing in a few days and he showed us the receipt of his recent acquisitions from the Bangkok Trade Centre, which he said was participating in the exhibition.
    He said export promotion has been extended to tourists--to encourage them to come back and spend more money in Thailand.
    He said we should look into it and he wrote down Bangkok Trade Centre for us.
    The tuk tuk driver took us there and a representative at the centre gave us a crash course on Thai blue sapphires.
    He said their quality, grade and carat are the best in the world and there is a big demand for them. He said the centre supplied blue sapphires to Mikimoto, Japan. He said their shop (among others) was authorised to sell 1,000 pieces of tax-free jewelry to tourists, as part of the Export Factory Promotion. He encouraged us to participate and resell the jewelry to Mikimoto for 100 percent profit.
    We asked why Mikimoto would buy from tourists.
    He said Mikimoto did not qualify for the tax-free service and if Mikimoto sent staff to Bangkok to buy jewelry it had to pay for air tickets, hotels, allowances and expenses. So Mikimoto preferred to buy from tourists. Besides, he said, the centre was Mikimoto's supplier.
    We said it sounded like smuggling. But he said it was perfectly legal and had the blessing of the Thai and Japanese governments. And he promised the centre would give us the supporting documents.
    We said we didn't have the money, but they accepted credit cards.
    The prospect of being able to return to Thailand by selling rings sounded too good to be true and we decided to risk it. We thought even if the Mikimoto story turned out to be a lie, we would still have the rings.
    The man said many Thai nationals in Japan had bought sapphire jewelry recently and we were advised to offer our rings to Mikimoto in about three months. The centre's representative gave us a calling card.
    That evening we saw an ad placed by the Tourist Assistance Centre in Look Magazine warning people about jewelry shops.
    We were scared. We called the Tourist Assistance Centre and they confirmed there was an Export Factory Promotion but they could not tell us whether the Bangkok Trade Centre was authorised to participate.
    They suggested we call 694-1222. There was no answer. We tried again the next day from the airport but still couldn't get through.
    We decided to trust the Bangkok Trade Centre. Three months later Mr Goto took the rings to Mikimoto store in Nagoya to offer them for sale. We are disappointed and embarrassed to say they didn't even look at the rings.
    They said several people had approached Mikimoto with similar intentions. They said Mikimoto had never had such a deal with any Thai jewellers.
    Frustrated and shocked, Mr Goto had a ring checked for authenticity. The sapphire was not a Thai sapphire but an Australian one. Mr Goto was told the ring was overpriced by about 70,000 yen (25,200 baht)--the amount we had paid for the rings.
    We are writing this with our hopes of reselling the ring and financing our next trip to Thailand dashed.
    It took us some time to recover from the shock. We can't believe seemingly decent men in seemingly decent places could use the names of respectable institutions like the Thai government, Chulalongkorn University and Mikimoto to deceive us. We hope you will investigate this matter for us.

Editor's note:
    Outlook Consumer contacted the Tourist Assistance Centre and asked if they could or have looked into this case. Here is the reply from Pornthip Onnoom, director of the centre.
    After getting this letter we contacted the shop and the owner has agreed to take the jewelry back and give the complainants a full refund. We are now in the process of contacting them so this matter can proceed.
    Please note the jewelry problem has never been ignored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand as international tourist arrivals are a major source of our national revenue.
    A large amount of money paid by tourists is spent on shopping for gems and jewelry, garments, handcrafted souvenirs, decorative items, etc.
    Among the various troubles tourists find themselves in is jewelry fraud.
    Currently there is no standard control for the production of cut and set stones. The quality and prices of gems and jewelry produced for retail sale in the Kingdom is settled by the shop-owners and producers.
    This is a good opportunity for self-interested shops to sell their products to foreigners at inordinately high prices.
    Kindly understand the Tourism Authority of Thailand, along with the Tourist Police Division, consider this practice a serious matter.
    We are continually looking for ways to tackle this problem.

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