This post is jumping the queue, but I think its important to share what happened. We will still post our last days in amazing Sri Lanka after this one. Enjoy!
When people talk about they travels in India they say it is not a vacation, it is a challenge. It took us 3 hours in Delhi to realize the truth of this statement. We got scammed, really really badly scammed.
Growing up in Mexico I consider myself above average in “street smartness”, and I was well aware of this scam happening in India to a lot of tourists. The problem is, it is so well executed and organized that once you are being a victim of it, there is absolutely NOTHING you can do and we were actually very lucky we were not injured as it seems to be very common with this scam (women get raped, men get beat up if they become aggressive). I’ll explain:
We arrived around 5:00 pm at Delhi airport which surprisingly was extremely pleasant, clean and efficient. Nobody is allowed near the airport without a boarding pass of the same day which makes the first impression of India to the first time traveler a little fake. I bought a sim card for my phone (only data because my phones mic stopped working) which requires a passport photo, a copy of passport main page and visa, a million forms, and a definitely touristy overpriced sim card. The key part here is that it takes from 3 hrs to 24 hrs to get activated.
There are several options to get to the city around 20 km away. You can take the metro and then figure it out with a rickshaw (those motorcycles with a little cart on the back), a normal metered taxi or the obviously best and most expensive option is taking an OFFICIAL airport prepaid taxi (we chose the official one). Once we were trying to purchase the taxi, there are several obviously fake taxi drivers that are trying to scam you into believing they are the official taxis. We ignored them and purchased the ticket at the official boot next to the police boot (ironic).
We jumped into the official taxi, Sarah was happy that it was actually an easy process and that we dodged the scam guy, I told her not to celebrate just yet… boy I was right. We show the driver the booking.com reservation which includes the address and a map (god bless whoever thought about including a map of the hotel when printing the reservation, that mastermind deserves the Nobel prize), the driver didn’t seem concerned of the hotel location at the moment until around 20 min driving where he asked about what block is the hotel in? Apparently, according to him the address was missing the block number, after repeated attempts of letting him understand that there is a pretty clear map of where the hotel is located, he refused to follow it and kept saying he does not know where the hotel is. He then proposed we go to a government tourist information center where we will be able to call the hotel to ask for the block number (the driver lied of not having a phone and our phone was not activated yet). We thought that maybe our driver was unaware of the location (unlikely) and he didn’t really know how to get there, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt and went to the tourist information center. By this time it was the night time, we were tired, and overwhelm by the amount of crazy things happening in the streets of Delhi (which is hard to explain, you have to see it to believe it)
We got to the sketchy tourist information center (but again, everything is ridiculously sketchy in India). Here, we got a very warm welcome by this guy who gave us a speech about how they love to help tourists and that he follows the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi and all that bullshit a pushy experienced salesman will tell you. He also said that due to some protests in Delhi, some streets at the city center where completely blocked by barricades so there is no way for us to reach it, he even showed us a google search of the protests happening (looking back, we didn’t really pay attention to the date, it could have been protests from 2013 and we didn’t have a clue). He called the hotel and after talking to our hotel guy (that’s who we thought he was talking to) he gave my reservation number and explained the situation to him. The hotel guy asked me to call him back in 10 minutes, he was going to check if it’s possible to get into the street at that time at night because it was closed during the day. We called back and got the same explanation that there is basically no way we can reach the hotel (not even walking). By that time I was 90% certain we were getting scammed, so in an attempt to reveal the scam I took the guys phone and started dialing my hotel (the previous times he dialed so I thought he was dialing another number), he aggressively took the phone from me and told me he will dial for me and I can watch him do it, he actually dialed the real number but thinking backwards I now know that the phone is connected to the scammers call center who act like the hotel reception you are trying to reach, it really does not matter what number you dial, the scammers will always answer.
I asked to use his internet for a few minutes but I was immediately denied to use it because apparently Booking.com does not work in India (couldn’t use my internet phone yet, still in process of getting activated), by this time we were 100% we were getting scammed and again, there was absolutely nothing we could have done right now, the other option was to leave the office with all our bags during the night in this very unsafe looking area in the middle of Delhi and trying to book another taxi that most likely will rob us as well).
The salesman actually didn’t offer hotel options, maybe as to sound more legit that he was actually trying to help us. He directed us and the imbecile of our taxi driver that was waiting there for his commission to the government hotel booking agency or something like that that sounded even more fancy that the first place.
By the way, this was going on in a very sketchy part of town of the city in pitch darkness.
We arrived to another sketchy agency that looked exactly the same as the other one. The new salesman, a little more rude, “confirmed” the protests going on in Delhi and offered to help us get an hotel. He was using facebook in his computer so I asked to use the internet for a few minutes, again I was immediately denied. The hotel prices he was offering were from $600 a night to $1500 a night, the fake calling happened again to several hotels, even from the lonely planet guide he had in front of him. The dialed numbers were legit and as I was still hoping someone real and honest would answer that phone, I was just greeted with “we only have the master suite available for $1100”. After multiple attempts and I obviously telling them there is no way I will pay those prices and that I knew they were lying, the discussion was getting heated and I needed to get out of there, and need to keep my cool and not get aggressive. Think Eitan, think…
My phone’s battery had died after multiple attempts of finding signal or hoping my phone was already activated. Then I had an idea, something that could actually help us get away safely from this scammers, we needed to go back to the airport, someone there would help us for sure, but there is a problem, you cannot go near the airport without a boarding pass and we didn’t have one anymore. The plan B was to get to an airport hotel, maybe a Intercontinental or a Hilton, the driver obviously did not know where are those super famous hotels (those hotels will not give him a commission so he has no motive to take us there) but at least offered us to get us to an hotel he knew close to the airport and obviously pay him to do so, we didn’t have any other option so we agreed on that deal.
About 40 min later we arrived at this airport hotel street where there where about 30 hotels in a row, it looked like he chose one randomly (most likely anywhere he drop us off he will get his commission). Surprisingly the prices were around $60 for a room so I asked to see the room and while walking with the hotel guy I asked if its true about the closed streets in Delhi, he looked at me like if I had just had a stroke so we went down and told the hotel’s manager the story, he was pissed we got scammed and offer to call our real hotel. He did and I spoke to the REAL hotel owner who told me they are waiting for me and confirmed the streets are open. The hotel reception guy called back the taxi driver that was waiting for his commission and yelled at him, probably something regarding his scamming. We didn’t trust anybody, we were already in high alert and paranoid, but the new hotel guys could have easily taken our money and continue with the lie, but they actually help us getting a super overpriced (their way of nicely ripping us off) hotel taxi to our original hotel.
Our driver was on drugs, the strong ones. The only English he could speak was “no problem”, very annoying. His driving was the scariest driving we have ever experienced, honking for 15 seconds at a time, going as fast as mechanically possible and even the psycho completely stopped in the middle of the freeway to take a piss, in the freaking middle of the freeway while cars piled up behind us, by the way, there are no emergency shoulder lanes here as you could expect. We were in awe but the psycho kept saying “no problem”. It was a very very scary drive with multiple stops for the driver to ask for directions but nobody really knew where the hotel was located. During this time we saw a rickshaw and ox traffic collision, only in India. After multiple attempts he stops the car, and another random guy jumps into the car with us, we thought we were getting raped tonight, this was probably the scariest part of the night as this is how they usually rob you in Mexico, but he actually sorprisingly was nice guy and called the hotel. With his better English and helpfulness we reached the hotel around 11:00 pm. Obviously the psycho asked for another $100 tip/payment for getting us to our hotel but I gave him the finger and kindly asked the hotel owner to get rid of him. We were finally safe in our original hotel.
We told the owner what just happened and he explained how these scams work, he said we were really lucky we actually got to the hotel and didn’t pay $1000 a night somewhere else. The crazy mind-blowing part was that somehow the scammers cancelled my reservation with booking.com from MY ACCOUNT. Don’t ask me how, I have no idea. I never logged in to booking.com in front of them, nor gave them my info, they must have some guy working for them at booking.com that with the booking number they can access the account information (remember the first “nice” guy gave the booking number to the fake hotel during the first call). The hotel owner showed me the cancellation request coming from my email address but explained that because this is so common, they knew it was a scam so they kept my room booked for me.
The next day we met the guy from the real hotel that answered the phone, to our surprise he told us the guys on the other other were trying to scam us (the guys we thought were honest), when they called my real hotel they hanged up after hearing the hotel is open, then the real hotel guy called back many many times but the scam hotel was hanging up on him immediately. They finally picked up the phone and they were threaten by our real hotel guy that if they don’t get us safe to our hotel they will send the police. Then, they complied.
Now ways to avoid it for whoever is traveling to India:
- book the hotel transportation, twice as expensive at first, but guarantees a safe arrival.
- when getting the prepaid taxi receipt, do not give it to the driver UNTIL he drops you off at your hotel. This piece of paper is his payment. No real hotel, no payment.
- somehow have a working phone to call the real hotel, hard for people who just arrived to India.
- threat to call the police if he doesn’t take you to the right place. Also, write his license plates.
- If you are a victim of this short kidnapping scam, do not panic and do not become aggressive. Follow what they say and be polite.
- avoid coming to India, go to Sri Lanka or Nepal instead. Or at least avoid Delhi at all costs.
The next day we hired a private driver from the hotel and went directly to buy a working phone. Now we know what to do, and hopefully we will not get scammed again (highly improbable).
And that was it, we were out of some money and a big scare, but thanks to Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh we were safe with all our belongings with us. Welcome to India….