The motorbike theft scam in Cambodia. What is is, how it works and how to avoid being a victim.
If you are intending visiting Cambodia and at some point renting out a motorbike then you should be aware of a scam that is often written about on Cambodia related blogs. The most common motorbikes rented to tourists are similar in style to a Honda Dream 125 and are called a Moto in Cambodia.
Scope of the motorbike theft scam in Cambodia
More often than not, the motorbike theft scam is reported mostly in the southern town of Sihanouk Ville, the main beach and coastal area resort. It is less often heard of occurring in the capital Phnom Penh because less motorbikes are rented in the city due to the dangers of driving on the busy and chaotic roads. It is also less likely to occur in the biggest tourist area of Cambodia, Siam Reap, the site of Angkor Wat. Being the main tourist attraction and therefore biggest money spinner for tourism, the authorities and business people there do not want to give the area a bad name so they tend to clamp down on any activities by individuals that could harm their income.
Sihanouk Ville is a slightly different tourist area. Many visitors will be younger backpackers and apart from the beach and drinking bars there are virtually no other main attractions. Smoking pot is tolerated to the extent that it is readily available and in most bars, especially along the beach, pot is smoked in the open. The town has little traffic so renting a motorbike to get around town is relatively safe and allows access to all the beaches and surrounding areas in the peninsular.
Because a lot of the travelers that arrive in Sihanouk Ville are generally less well traveled, they are a good target for criminals to take advantage of.
The motorbike rental scam
This is how the motorbike rental scam operates. Typically, a friendly tuk tuk driver will recommend a place to hire a motorbike. This will not be from one of the bigger trusted companies or hotels but generally a smaller one or two man band operation with cheaper per day rental prices. The motorbike will tend to be fairly new versions of the Honda Dream 125 or a similar type of low cc scooter. Backpackers are normally on a tight budget and will often be attracted to the lower rates, especially as the motorbike seems new and in good condition and by implication safer to use.
In order to rent the motorbike, the hirer is asked to complete the relevant documentation and leave their passport with the renter as a deposit for it's safe return. They will also tell you that motorbike theft is quite common and that you should lock the back wheel whenever you park it anywhere, so they will provide you with a chain and lock. Other advice is usually very reasonable and friendly and they will provide you with a contact number for any problems and instructions on what to do if you stopped by the police etc.. So far, so good.
Then the scam pops into operation. You are followed for a few days to see where you go, where you tend to drink and eat and which hotel or guest house you are staying at. At an opportune time the followers, who have copies of the keys given to you to start and lock the motorbike, will take the motorbike.
The motorbike scam sting
Once you realize that the motorbike has apparently been stolen, you will have no option but to call the person who rented you the motorbike and tell them the situation. Now most of the cards are against you, as the contract you signed will undoubtedly stipulate that you are responsible for the motorbikes safe return and liable for any loss. Plus you do not have your passport in your possession.
So, you will be asked to pay the full price for a brand new motorbike for one the stolen and told you can't have your passport back until you do. You could, at this point, simply say you're going to pay and then go and get a temporary passport and try to leave the country. However, you may be due to travel out soon and need your passport quickly and you will be unsure as to whether or not you will be stopped at the border. In order to get a replacement passport you will need to get to Phnom Penh and then find an embassy that can assist you. In any case, you may be unaware that it has not really been stolen as you were told that theft is common. So your options are somewhat limited. Normally the police will be involved but will be of little help to you. You signed the contract, the motorbike has been stolen so you have to pay. Simple. Often in an effort to console you and so it looks like the renter is being reasonable, after some argument and negotiating with the police, you will be often asked for less money than the amount you were first told you would have to pay. This, at first thoughts, will seem a relief and you are likely to stump up the cash in order to get your passport back, be on your way and put it down to a bad experience.
Your travel insurance
You may travel with some kind of travel insurance and think you can recover the money you paid but often special restrictions apply to countries like Cambodia, especially concerning the hiring of motor vehicles. Most travelers do not read all the small print of their insurance policies and if they do will often ignore it anyway. But you still should ask for and get a statement from the tourist police reporting the theft plus a receipt for any money that you have paid for the loss. These are the minimum requirements most insurance companies ask for but check your policy for guidance.
How to avoid the motorbike theft scam
1.Hire a motorbike from a reputable hotel or organize it through a travel agent. You can ask some of the many ex pats who generally know good local people to trust and take their advice.
2.Try to avoid leaving your passport as a deposit. Come up with any excuse, such as you've lost it and waiting for a new one or that your hotel is keeping it. Offer instead a copy of your passport or a cash deposit.
3.Be suspicious if it seems like you are getting a brand new motorbike for rental at half the price of other rental outlets.
4.Hire an older version of a motorbike. So long as it is safe to drive, which most are, then why be flash and drive a new model. This not only protects you more from the scam in terms of cost but will also cost you less if it really is stolen.
5.Take a photograph of the condition of the motorbike and it's number plate. If you happen to see the motorbike later, which was apparently stolen, somewhere then you can contact the police with some evidence to back you up.
6.Buy your own padlock. A good padlock and chain in Cambodia sells for a few dollars and although not impossible to get a duplicated key, it makes the scam more difficult to carry out.
7.Try and park the motorbike where you can see it. Obviously this is not always possible and you're out to have a good time on your vacation not out to be paranoid about the safety of your motorbike. Most public places will have some kind of security guard nearby and a tip of 25 cents or so will normally suffice to make sure they keep an eye on it for you.
Don't let this warning put you off too much though from renting a motorbike. There are many reputable and honest people in Cambodia but like anywhere else in the world there are criminals who will scam your money from you if they can.