Fraudulent card transactions and money scams are not uncommon overseas – we recount a recent experience of an ex-colleague who learned the painful way in the Land of the Rising Sun.
On my last day in Tokyo, my business meetings ended earlier than expected. My flight back to Singapore was set for next afternoon, so I still had about 20 hours to myself.
They say no trip to Japan is complete without visiting the colourful Shinjuku – the vibrant center of entertainment, and also the cozy Izakayas (gastropubs) in the narrow alleyways. A quick Google search later, I found Omoide Yokocho, one of the most popular Izakayas that’s just across Shinjuku’s West Exit.
Little did I know that was where my troubles would brew.
After a quick nap at the hotel and an inexpensive bento dinner, I strolled to the famed narrow alleyway and was treated to a sight of rustic, traditional shops. White kanji signs and red lanterns illuminated the wooden and bamboo shop fronts, as rain started to drizzle lightly into the alley.
I was already onto my second bar, enjoying the same warm hospitality by the tiny gastropub owners. By my third highball, a group of young Japanese men and women, in distinctive white shirts and black bottoms, sauntered into the homely gastropub, faces flushed from laughter (and probably alcohol too).
The lively bunch sat two seats away, engrossed in their afterwork chatter. It wasn’t long before one attempted to converse with me.
Surprisingly, they spoke in fluent English, despite a distinct Japanese accent, and asked if I would like to join them in a drinking game, because they were short for an even number. They seemed to be a dynamic but modest bunch, and the night is still young, so why not? I gladly obliged.
We hit off pretty well, and it turned out some of them had worked in Singapore before, so we had a fun time chatting about delicacy favourites. After a few rounds of games, they suggested a “bigger bar few streets down”. Though already tipsy, I was interested to explore more of the local bar scene, so we set off.
And they were right. The new place, in contrast, was big and shiny, but it had a dancefloor – it’s definitely a club, not a bar. Despite its sleek deco, the underground club was unusually sparse.
Maybe it wasn’t the time of the night for parties yet?
The group then offered me two shots from the counter, insisting something along the lines of “it’s for you”. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying exactly with the thumping music, but they were cheering me on excitedly.
“Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!”
Two shots never hurt anybody, so I downed all of it.
Shortly after we took our seats in a booth, a staff came up with a bill of JPY ¥17,000 (approximately SGD $200), stating that it was for the two shots. Confused, I sought the help of my new Japanese friends.
They stared at me, while uttering Japanese phrases that I couldn’t understand. Was I drunk beyond comprehension? Or did they just lose their ability to speak English?
My consciousness slumped as I tried to make sense of the situation.
“Pay! Pay!” the staff demanded.
Sensing things were amiss, I propped myself up and trailed after him to the counter.
One second my head felt like it was being squeezed by a tightening band, and the other a hammer pounding against the insides of my skull.
I didn’t want any trouble, especially not with this crushing headache. Retaliation was definitely out of the question, I wouldn’t want to get jumped by anyone in a foreign land.
My best bet was to pay the extortionate shots and get out of there quickly.
Once at the counter, I handed my credit card over out of habit.
What did I get myself into? 200 dollars for 2 shots? And why do I feel so nauseous?
My throbbing head was spinning in and out of awareness. The reverberating music only made things worse.
“Card no good.”
“Card no good, declined.”
He returned my card and requested for cash. Card declined? Dang, have I hit my spending limits already?
Fumbling through my pockets, I felt a sense of relief that I still had some Japanese yen on me.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I managed to salvage JPY ¥17,000 and passed them over carefully. He inspected the notes briskly, and signalled an ‘ok’ to me. I stumbled out of the club and onto the streets. All I wanted was to lie down and get rid of this splitting headache.
Welcome Home (or Hell)
I woke up slightly past seven, still feeling sluggish from last night’s episode. After a quick shower and light hotel breakfast, I made my way to Haneda Airport and boarded my 11am flight smoothly.
The next seven hours were occupied by me bothering the stewards for orange juice every 30 minutes, as I desperately needed a supply of zest to soothe my migraine. But apart from that, the flight was rather quiet. Some two movies later, we landed in Singapore.
I thought nothing of the incident last night, and was grateful for this uneventful day – but boy was I going to be in for a rude awakening…
Upon reactivating my local mobile card, I was bombarded by a slew of text messages, the usual card expenditure notices, but one immediately caught my attention.
“A txn of SGD9,032.54…”
Wait, what? 9,000 dollars? DOLLARS?
I stood frozen on the travelator.
What did I buy…?
“…on 28 NOV 22:02 SG time. If unauthorised, call…”
That was last night… I think? The bar? The club?
I was thrown onto a rollercoaster of emotions – shock, confusion, anger, as my heart started to pound and my ears were almost ringing. I felt sick to my stomach, and instantly regretted having that much OJ onboard. Now I could almost taste them again in my mouth.
The card wasn’t rejected at the club.
It was swiped. Decisively.
My next few days were spent disputing the charges over the phone. The bank was quick to assist my case, but due to the large transaction amount, they also forewarned that it’s highly unlikely that I’d be successful with the dispute. Nonetheless, I still called everyday for updates, hoping that the chargeback would go through.
It’s been more than a month since the night in Shinjuku, but I’m still pretty bummed about it. Not just because I’d probably never see the money again, but the fact that I could have avoided all the trouble if I had been vigilant – just as I should be on every overseas trip.
I’ve ridiculed my friends for falling for scams throughout their travels, but hell, I don’t think anyone would top my $9,000 for two shots for a long time to come.
General Reminders from YouTrip:
1. Avoid putting yourself in unpredictable situations.
2. Ask for a void receipt when a merchant claims that a transaction has been declined.
3. Set an overseas spending limit on your debit or credit card before you travel.
Have an unusual travel story? Drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll interview you!
Utilise your YouTrip card to safeguard against uncontrolled transactions.