Fake cocaine and seedy sex

Scam City is not your average travel show

If you ask well-seasoned travellers for advice before heading off on a trip to an exotic locale like Bangkok Marrakech or Istanbul one of the first things they’ll tell you is to keep a very close eye on your wallet. In addition to cheap hotels and delicious street food we’re told that these cities are full of savvy con artists bent on separating tourists from their money. But aside from tucking your passport and cash into one of those goofy pouches that fit under your clothing what can a traveller do to avoid being fleeced on vacation?

A new show called Scam City sets out to inform (rather than say scare) potential tourists before they head out to some of the most notorious cities around the world. The show co-produced by Montreal’s Handel Productions and the British Zig Zag Productions began airing this week on the Travel+Escape channel. The show follows enthusiastic British host Conor Woodman as he travels to 10 different international cities and knowingly places himself in a series of precarious situations all in the name of exposing hidden scams.

“When we think about pickpocketing it’s one thing” says André Barro one of the show’s executive producers. “But in the series we go further and we go into things that are really really organized. It’s not just individuals who are doing stuff to earn their living but there are often really brilliant systems. So that was going to be our main goal to discover the systems.”

While the first episode of Scam City — which takes Woodman to Prague — sometimes slips into the hysterical tone of a British tabloid program the show does expose some fairly outrageous and potentially dangerous scams. In addition to more standard rip-offs like receiving incorrect change or being double-billed by cab drivers Woodman is sold crushed-up stomach medication masquerading as cocaine and later finds himself trapped inside a seedy sex club unable to leave until he’s able to pony up a substantial wad of cash to pay off the doorman. While common sense would dictate that a visitor buying drugs or soliciting prostitutes in an eastern European city is probably looking for trouble Barro rightly argues that this kind of activity is hardly out of the question for many western tourists.

“Obviously when you cross the line you cross the line” Barro says. “But what we wanted to show is those places exist and what kind of dangers exist. If you are a normal tourist you have to be careful of things like taxi scams which are common but not hugely dangerous. But the minute you’re crossing the line you raise your risk that’s for sure.”

Despite coming face to face with thieving drug dealers and menacing sex club bouncers Barro says that the crew checks out the scams thoroughly before bringing Woodman in and is always mindful of the host’s safety even when he himself is not aware of how the scam will likely play out. After the scam is through the crew will approach the thieves who are often so co-operative that they’re willing to be interviewed on camera.

“They don’t want us to get the police and report them” Barro says. “By seeing that we caught them and we’re not going to do that they might be willing to talk to keep the peace. Some other people just want to tell their stories. Television is really strange — people want to tell their stories.”

Barro says that he would never want Scam City to put travellers off of visiting any of the cities featured in the show. He just wants people to take care of themselves and remember that some situations are too good to be true.

“When you travel don’t look like a tourist” Barro advises. “Keep almost no money on you. Only travel with what you can afford to lose. Obviously if you start to party and do weird stuff that’s where you can get in trouble. And if you’re an old man and a young girl approaches you and tells you she’s in love with you don’t believe her.”