When Sarah Bowles woke up in a Berlin youth hostel on a chilly morning just before Christmas, she felt both sick and relieved. Sick because she knew that her £6,500 life savings were lost and she would have to explain to her family why she was in Germany rather than travelling in India. And yet relieved that her ordeal was over, not least as she had avoided the real threat of ending up in prison.
Her story? She had fallen for one of the growing number of ingenious jewellery scams being perpetrated against lone travellers – particularly in the Indian state of Goa, but also elsewhere.
Back in the UK, the articulate, educated 28-year-old from Surrey can’t quite believe what happened. In an interview with Guardian Money, she reveals how she fell for a highly sophisticated scam in which the fraudsters were so confident of ripping her off that they gave her a plane ticket to Berlin and €500 in cash.
However, Bowles got off relatively lightly, she has since discovered. Another woman who was similarly conned reportedly lost $50,000. Her hope is that others will learn from her experience.
Bowles’s story starts last month. After travelling around India with a friend, who left to go home, she found herself alone for the first time, staying in a beach hut in Goa. It was part of a trip of a lifetime for which she had saved for years, and she was planning the next leg.
As she was walking through a market one day, Bowles was greeted by two young Indian men, who asked “how is your life?” They got into a conversation, and she ended up having tea with them. The well-to-do pair talked about their families and their lives as jewellery designers in Mumbai, further up the coast. They asked her why Europeans were friendly to Indian visitors to Europe, but standoff-ish in India, making her feel guilty.
The conversation then turned to a nearby market they would visit the next day. Bowles had been planning to visit it at some point, and so they agreed to go together. The following day only one of the duo turned up but her initial fears that he would try to hit on her came to nothing and, Bowles says, they passed a nice, relaxed day together. Returning from the market on the back of his scooter, he shot past the turning to her beach, announcing they would instead head to his cousin’s home for dinner.
Several other men were there, and during the meal they casually mentioned an opportunity to earn some money. They said several other tourists had helped them by shipping gems abroad using their duty free allowance of £10,000 – earning themselves £4,000 in the process. All Bowles had to do was pack up a parcel containing the jewels, then send it overseas to herself. She would collect it at the other end and hand it to their representative.
Bowles’s immediate reaction was that it sounded too good to be true and she wasn’t interested. At this point a smartly dressed, likeable, well-educated man arrived, who Bowles now knows was designed to give the venture credibility.
Each time she changed the subject, the conversation kept returning to the proposal. When she revealed she’d considered travelling to Australia next, she was offered a free flight. She said she’d sleep on the idea and finally, at 2am, was dropped back at her beach hut having agreed to meet them at 8am.
To this day, Bowles doesn’t really know why she met them again, but has put it down to her over-developed “English” sense of not wanting to let them down. She was shown the jewels but not allowed to touch them. A parcel was made up, and before she knew it she had agreed to travel to Berlin. The men took her to a local post office and handed over the parcel addressed to “General Post Office Berlin”.
All through the process the men repeatedly emphasised that they were trusting her with their very expensive jewels and begged her not to let them down.
While the parcel cleared customs (expected to take three days) the men insisted Bowles stay in their swanky apartment in Goa and she was accompanied at all times. But after two days she took a phone call that turned her world upside down.
An officious-sounding man, purportedly from Indian Customs, said he suspected her of jewel smuggling and wanted to know why there was no purchase receipt to accompany the customs form. He gave her 24 hours to prove that she had paid for the items, or things would “not be good for her”.
At this news, panic broke out among the group and in her words, they were all “visibly shitting themselves”, and talking about going to jail. She was told that their lawyer would deal with the matter, but it might be better for all concerned if they got her out of the country.
An old chip and pin reader was produced and she says it was clear that she would have to pay for the items – in effect to provide a receipt and avoid the prospect of being arrested. She was promised that the money would be reimbursed four days later. The gang knew she had £6,500 in her account, and that was the sum that was inputted into the machine.
The gang was concerned that her bank, Lloyds, would decline the payment, but it went through. The date, she ruefully recalls, was Friday 13 December.
Within hours Bowles was heading to the airport. The men provided the flight ticket and to give the scam credence, they gave her a bundle of cash – €500 – to pay for a hotel when she arrived in Berlin. She was reassured that the Indian customs officer had been bribed and it was going to be safe to leave.
When she arrived in a freezing Berlin, Bowles found a hostel and called her contact back in Goa. Her calls were not answered, but a text prompted a response asking her how she was. Within a day, all the Indian mobile numbers she’d been given went dead. Alarm bells had already been ringing, but the truth of what had happened to her finally became clear when it emerged there was no General Post Office in Berlin. After three nights she was forced to call her parents and say she was coming home.
“I now know, from reading various accounts online, that this is a widespread scam practised across different parts of India. I suspect it has survived because of its reliance on making the victim feel they are a guilty party and less likely to report it.”
Concerned that she had handed over her card details to the gang, and wanting to know why Lloyds had allowed such a large payment to go through, Bowles contacted the bank. However, she says Lloyds’s complex fraud department couldn’t have been less helpful. After a very brief look at her notes they asked her: “What did you expect to happen?”
Bowles was told that the payment had gone through unquestioned as it had been a chip and pin purchase, and that she would have to put the loss down to experience. However, Lloyds has since agreed to refund her the £193 overseas fees the transction incurred as a goodwill gesture.
The obvious question is: why did an intelligent woman of 28 fall for such a plan? Bowles pauses, then replies: “Right from the start alarm bells were ringing, but looking back on it they were very careful not to give me any time alone or with other travellers. I kept thinking there would be an opportunity to opt out but before I knew it, it was happening. Originally I felt that I had wanted to show the first pair I met that not all westerners were standoff-ish, and to this day I find it hard to believe that they weren’t genuine people. I was determined to believe that people are generally good and trustworthy, despite some negative experiences I’d had on the trip. I have learned a lot about myself, not least that I have to lose my fear of letting people down. I trusted people that I shouldn’t have.”
• Sarah Bowles is not her real name
What happens if you are forced to hand over your card details?
Bowles’ case raises the interesting question: does the bank have any responsibility if the cardholder hands over their details under duress and their customer loses out?
If you are kidnapped or physically threatened with violence and are forced to hand over your card and pin, the banks will often refund in full – although they will want to see evidence in the form of a police report. Disputes in this area often centre around what constitutes a physical threat, which is very case specific.
In Bowles’s case, she handed over her card to make the payment voluntarily (albeit under the perceived threat of ending up in an Indian jail) and in banking terms “authorised” the payment. Had she gone to local police and told them she been physically threatened, Lloyds would have been more likely to refund her.
A Lloyds spokeswoman told Guardian Money: “We have sophisticated fraud detection systems in place to protect our customers. However in relation to this case, as the customer authorised the transaction we were unable to help on this occasion.”
Bowles said a chargeback would have been highly unlikely to have worked in this instance, as a chargeback attempts to rely on the money being available in the benefiting account. Fraudsters are generally quick to move money on.
A spokesman for the Financial Ombudsman Service, to which consumers often turn after being denied bank refunds, says: “If a consumer has been forced, or compelled to hand over their card or pin number there are a number of factors that the ombudsman would consider when looking at the complaint. These range from the circumstances surrounding the incident, the involvement of the police/reporting of the theft and the subsequent actions of the bank.
“We have seen cases in the past where claims have been rejected because the consumer was not physically forced to give up their card. The threat – implicit or direct – that compels a consumer to hand over their card should always be considered seriously by a bank, as should any police report supporting this.
“However, we would not expect the bank or credit provider to be a source of compensation because a crime has been committed against a consumer. If you are the victim of a crime and your card is stolen, then the most sensible thing to do is report the loss of your card as soon as possible and contact the police. It is rare for the ombudsman to see a case where allegations of blackmail may be involved. Realistically, these cases are better suited to a court to address, in light of the complexities involved in investigating the allegations.”