By David Hennessy
Investigative journalist Conor Woodman has travelled to different cities all around the world and been scammed by hustlers so that you won’t have to be when you’re on your next holiday. The second series of Conor’s Scam City is currently airing on National Geographic and has seen Conor fly to New Orleans, Mexico City, New York, Jerusalem, Mumbai and Amsterdam, encountering their dark side. Fake relics, pickpocketing, kidnapping and a high stakes game with rules only the most suicidal of gamblers would take on are just a few things encountered by Conor. Befriending professional scammers, Conor learns their techniques and methods so that you know what to watch out for and what the warning signs are.
Undoubtedly the darkest moment on Conor’s journey was in New Orleans when searching for a mysterious game called the Razzle Dazzle, he ends up in a dark room alone with two people, both armed including a masked man who is holding a bat.
Conor tells The Irish World: “Anywhere where there’s guns involved generally makes me a bit nervous coming from a non-gun culture as we have here in the UK. I’m always a bit spooked when someone gets their gun out but in America, everyone seems to walk around with guns and quite a few people that we met during the New Orleans episode were packing.
“A lot of the travelling community that descend on New Orleans around the time of Mardi Gras bring these street gambling games with them and the one that I’d heard about was called the Razzle Dazzle, sometimes called Cajun Bingo and it’s an illegal gambling game played in back rooms. It’s invite only and there’s a shadowy reputation to it. I thought it sounded right up our street, exactly the kind of thing we wanted on Scam City.
“It was a dark room in the back of a house in the French Quarter, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was led in, she was armed, another guy appeared wearing a mask, he was armed and carrying a baseball bat. It was all about intimidation and I had to place my bet before I was told the rules of the game, that was one of the conditions which I’d agreed to before I went in so I placed my bet. Minimum of $1,000 so I put my $1,000 on the table and then the rules of the game were explained to me: It was a single bullet and a six shooter so essentially it was a game of Russian roulette.” After a pause at this point in the story, Conor adds: “I sort of lost interest in the game at that point.”
I think anyone would feel the same. Conor got out in one piece but it’s worth thinking how such a deadly game ends if one does decide to play: “I’m still not sure and I don’t think I ever will be sure exactly at what level the scam was. If I’d played, what would have happened next? But the fact was I was down $1,000. There was no way I was going to put that gun to my head so whether Holly had orchestrated that as a scam or whether that was really the Razzle Dazzle or it’s changed and morphed over time, who knows? In that situation, you’re not going to find out are you? With two people pointing guns at you and one’s also carrying a baseball bat and you’re in a dark room: ‘Okay, that’s it. I’ve been scammed in a way that any tourist could be’. The way those guys operate is that they look for what they call ‘high marks’, they look for people who have got $1,000 to lose and who want to get into something a bit dark and a bit mysterious and they happily took $1,000 off me. It was pretty scary. I was pretty glad to see the light of day when I walked back out through that door.
A hustle that no one goes in search of (well, except Conor) is the intimidating kidnapping that is now rife in South America: “In Mexico, they call it ‘The Kidnap Express’ now. Basically it’s a quick kidnap. It can be anyone: It can be locals, it can be tourists and it’s generally done with taxis.
“Taxi drivers are very numerous in Mexico City, they’re not very well licensed, people can borrow taxis from each other and drive them around. They tend to target people they find between the hours of 11 o’clock and midnight. You get into a taxi, suddenly the taxi stops and picks up another guy and he’s got a gun and he says: ‘We’re going to the ATM and we’re going to take out whatever your maximum is, $500 out of your ATM.’ And then they’ll just sit with you in the car until midnight ticks over and then they’ll take you to the ATM again and take another $500 because you’ve got a new limit after midnight. You’re down $1000, they’ll kick you out on the street, say ‘thank you very much’ and off you go. The whole thing is incredibly intimidating but they call it ‘The Kidnap Express’ because it might take half an hour and the number of people who have fallen victim to this is absolutely staggering.
Some people may wonder if Conor’s footage or information is forwarded to the police but this is not how Conor combats the scammers. An imprisoned hustler is a small victory while the scam will continue. Educating people on how the scam works so that they may avoid it is more effective: “I get the interviews often on the basis that I won’t take the information to the police. That’s a calculated decision by us. I think I do more good for people at large by highlighting what is going on, who these people are and how they work and broadcasting that through the national geographic channel globally than I would do by putting one more guy in jail. The whole point of this show is to show people how they operate so being forewarned is forearmed next time you go on holiday. We can only get that access if we agree a certain degree of anonymity to the people that are involved in the show and I think sometimes that frustrates police forces around the world and I can understand that. But they’ve got their job to do and we’ve got our job to do and our job is far more journalistic. It is to get the message out and it’s to inform people.”
39-year-old Conor was born in Galway before his family moved to Birmingham when he was aged eight. He is the author of The Adventure Capitalist, Unfair Trade: The Truth Behind Big Business, Politics and Fair Trade. His previous TV work includes Around the World in 80 Trades for Channel 4. What advice does Conor offer to anyone going on holiday to avoid being cheated? “General advice is to be as you would at home. I think what a lot of people do is go on holiday and leave their common sense at home. You go to a place where the sun is shining and the wine is flowing, you think it’s paradise. It may look like paradise and you can have a great time there but you still have to be as cautious as you would be at home and I think if people just exercise as much caution on holiday as they would at home, they wouldn’t fall foul of half as many of these things.”
For the full interview, see the January 25 Irish World.
Scam City, Thursdays at 9pm on National Geographic Chanel.