The whole process of money exchange looks easy… all you have to do is count your cash, do the maths, hand the bills over and count the cash you get in return. Unfortunately, not here in Bali.
Cheated in Bali at Kuta Money changers
I usually don’t trust money changers on the streets at all. Except the ones which are located inside big airports or official Banks which give receipts every time you change the currency with them. It’s what you read and hear everywhere, that mostly people get cheated at such shops. And my trip to Bali only confirmed it more when i got cheated in Bali.
When I was in Bali for a 9 days trip I looked for all options available to change money… Bali International Airport was offering much lower exchange rate than what I saw on my android phone application. So as we cleared the customs I decided to have a small amount of money (100 US $) exchanged to Indonesian Rupiah so as to pay the taxi fare to hotel and buy a local sim card. The whole process went fine and we managed to get around just 10 US $ short of what the popular website showed as currency conversion rate for the day. Not a real bad deal considering that I badly needed local currency to pay taxi fare!
So once we settled in hotel and decided to hit the road to do some local sightseeing, we searched for the options to get local currency. The hotel was not offering a good deal either, so I thought I should just check the rates on the streets.
There is an abundance of Money Changers in Kuta, Legian or Seminyak along the main tourist routes, like Jalan Dhyana Pura, Jalan Legian or Jalan Raya Seminyak. Piece of cake you might say. They announce their rates on billboard signs standing by their shops. On the above mentioned roads you can see them every few meters.
So while walking down towards the famous Discovery Mall, a billboard catched my eye. The sign displayed the conversion rate of US Dollars to Indonesian Rupiah which was far-far better than my android phone showed on the trusted website.
Proudly I walked in, thinking I made a smart choice for choosing this shop… and asked the guy sitting on the small counter the exchange rate of 200 US $. He picked up his calculator, typed some random numbers and showed me the amount I will get in local currency in exchange of US $ 200.
His friend also joined him and started asking me from where I came and how long I’m staying in Bali. Then the guy sitting at the counter told me that if I give him large denomination notes for 200 dollars or more, I can get an even better deal. Very happy to hear that, I decided to exchange 300 dollars for now, fearing I may not get this rate tomorrow.
More fingers being pressed on the calculator and the money exchanged hands, the guy at the counter counted twice the big chunk of notes (as the local currency amount was more than 3 millions for my little 300 US$) in front of me while his friends talked about bollywood movies and Shahrukh khan’s last visit.
I was all happy in my mind thanking my stars that I really struck the gold for getting such a good deal at the better rate than the trusted website showed on my phone. Satisfied after counting twice each and every note in front of me by the guy on the other side of counter, I finally decided to put 35,93,055 Indonesian Rupiah notes in to my pocket fast & reach the hotel straight as quick as possible.
Finally back in hotel when I arrived safely without being followed by anyone or looted, I handed over the big fat chunk of 3.5 million Indonesian Rupiah to my wife & told her how I got the best deal on Earth. Impressed by my smartness she started counting the notes and that’s when the Tsunami came… Not the real Tsunami of course, but I truly felt it when my wife asked me what I bought for half a million Indonesian Rupiah on the way back to hotel?
Confused on hearing the question I denied of any purchase made… Feeling panicked I started counting the huge chunk of 3.5 million Rupiah myself….and there indeed whole 0.5 million notes were missing… (Now that’s a big amount in Indonesia considering the number of zeros you put: 5,00,000 which is equivalent to almost US$ 41).
I counted again and the result was same… I mentally retraced my steps from walking out of money exchange shop up to the hotel (thinking a case of pick pocket), but no, nothing happened. I came straight to the hotel and no mishaps occurred while on the way. Suddenly things started getting clear in my head… it was the exchange guy who did some cool hand trick while counting and wiped out my half million rupiah. No point in going back and fighting the cheater guy in the foreign land… I cursed him and opened the bottle of Bintang Beer.
Next day we both decided to go back to the same shop for further exchange of another 200 US$… Again the whole process went similarly smooth, one guy counting the notes while the another guy tried to talk and distract us. Then in the end as the guy handed over the notes to us we started counting ourselves before keeping them in the pocket. Seeing this, the exchange guy got nervous and tried to stop us from counting but we carried on and found out the money given to us was short of what promised to us.
He looked confused and then started counting himself and that’s when I caught his trick. While counting for us he quickly slipped the missing notes back to the chunk and gave back to us. We again counted and this time the amount was full as promised. Thanking him we walked out of his exchange shop while he cursed me in his native language.
While talking about this incident to other fellow travelers we found that almost every one had a similar story in Bali. Almost all money changers on street tried to cheat. With pretty obvious tricks though:
First, they almost always come in a pair of 2 guys, who run a Money Changer shop. So one is always trying to keep you busy, by asking questions like “Where you from?”, “What you do?”, “Where you stay in Bali?” and other standard chit-chat.
The other one will quote you a rate, sometimes more than advertised. They type you the local sum into a calculator, which could be rigged too. If you didn’t walk out by now already, you are ready for the main show.
After handing over your 50 Euro, 75 US$, 100 SG$ or whatever other currency, they will count the local agreed equivalent right in front of your eyes. It matches perfectly the agreed sum. Now it’s your turn. You count and everything is fine usually. Hold the notes tight – because now he wants to count them again! Don’t let him!
They mainly try to hold it close to their belly so notes can easily be slid out and fall under the high desk on which both sides the 2 of you are standing. All while the other guy is pumping up his ‘chit-chat’ attack, maybe even touching your arm, showing you something he want to sell or jumping around next to you, so you can’t but look at him from time to time.
Very quickly you have the double-counted money back. Deal done? No. You can bet that you have much less than the agreed sum, especially, if you changed for than just a few dollars or if the sum is pretty uneven.
When you insist to count the money in front of their eyes again, they will begin to make some puzzled expressions or telling you, that *YOU* want to cheat *THEM*. You might say “Excuse me? I just want to count my money again.” and that’s basically it.
They will grab the money away from you and will quote you another (much lower) rate, say that you have to pay a 5% (!) commission or that they have to ask their boss, if you are allowed to change money with them. Their money is withdrawn.
You can walk out now! 😉
The trouble with those guys is, that their offer is too good to be true. Their motto is “I give you a good rate, if you let me cheat you!”, but a bad rate if you want a fair deal. They all announce ‘No Commission’, ‘No Tricks’, ‘No Cheating’, but on the contrary, it’s basically all you get.
I wonder, if anyone is still doing business with them?
So, how NOT to get cheated in Bali while exchanging money ?
So, If you really still want to use a Money Changer, here is what you should do:
- Use them only, if absolutely necessary
- Change small amounts only
- Use extra precautions, like walking in with a friend who can keep the 2nd guy busy and watch the counting process for dirty tricks.
- Count, count, count!
- Don’t give the money out of your hands again, after you counted it and the returned amount was correct.
- Take some rubber bands or paper clips with you. Rubber bands are best because they cannot just slip off, or be slipped off. After the money changer counts a nice big number, say Rp 1,000,000 (that’s 20 x Rp 50,000 notes which is very manageable) put a rubber band around them and put them down close to you and say out loud “1 million”. Then after you both count another million, do it again.
Better Tip: Use your Banking Card at an ATM of a well-respected Bank instead. There are plenty in Bali (BCA, BNI, BII, Citi, Bank Negara, Permata and others) and elsewhere. This way, you will most of the time still pay a fee for every exchange, but you will likely get the Standard Interbank Rate of the day and therefore more ‘Bang for the Buck’.
The other advantage is, that you don’t have to bring larger amounts of hard currency with you, which might get lost along the way. If you have a Bank Card of a partnering bank, the fee you have to pay is usually lower or even completely waived.
After learning the lesson the harder way, next time I wanted money changed I worked out a simple plan. The most likely places to be short-changed are at the changers who offer the best rates. So if you insist on going to the money changer with the best rate instead of a bank, or hotel, or airport, try this:
Know the rate you should get, and use a calculator or piece of paper to work out how much cash you should get. Write it down, with spaces so you can easily tell how many of what notes you should get. Write that down too. On Bali, I have decided I will only accept Rp 50,000 or Rp 100,000 notes for most of the cash. If I am only offered Rp 20,000 notes I will only change a small amount, or find another money changer. If you want to change a large amount, put a rubber band around the lot about every Rp 5,00,000.
Have you have faced a similar situation while traveling in some other part of the world? Did you managed to get out of the situation ? What lessons you learned from such experiences?