Story of a Failed Scam

I’m not a storyteller, and I have a couple of other articles that I should be working on, but this story deserves to be told fresh so that no details are forgotten.

So far, this day has been the most adventurous since the beginning of our trip. I’ll do my best to show you why.

One month into our 60-day Indonesian adventure, we were leaving the amazing Mount Bromo in a 16-person mini-van older than me and in questionable conditions (let’s just say I felt sorry for everyone taller than 5.2ft, or 1.6m) to catch our next bus at the Probolinggo Bus Station, to get to our final destination of the day: Surabaya.

Mini-bus driver accommodating our bags and waiting for an extra passenger at Mount Bromo. ( N  ot the scam artist. )

Mini-bus driver accommodating our bags and waiting for an extra passenger at Mount Bromo. (Not the scam artist.)

After napping for an hour on what has become one of our most used modes of transportation in Indonesia, we got to the bus station. Fortunately, we weren’t forced to make this journey alone, as we had met the coolest German couple along the way – Linda and Lukas. We became quick friends within the 48 hours leading up to the Failed Scam.

The four of us had been traveling Asia for several months and we thought we knew one of most basic rules you learn at the beginning your trip: DON’T TRUST ANYONE WHO IS TRYING TO DO BUSINESS WITH YOU. Well, I think we got a solid reminder of that lesson today.

When we arrived at Surabaya, we left the minivan and rushed to the station, dodging all of the men trying to sell us tickets and transportation for our next destination, because as we “knew,” we shouldn’t be trusting of anyone. Seconds after walking into the station, another man came running and screaming at us, hurriedly:

“Surabaya? Surabaya?”

He was trying to let us know that the bus was leaving and that we should get to it now if we didn’t want to wait. So, after a rushed $0.15-pee at a public, squat-toilet bathroom next to the station, the four of us got into the bus with a man we thought was part of the bus company.

Rushing through the Probolinggo Bus Station.

Rushing through the Probolinggo Bus Station.

This man and the rest of his “team” assured us that we were taking the “express bus,” which meant there would be no stops and that we should arrive at our destination in two hours. Everything sounded nice until they made us pay right away, requesting 60,000 rupiah ($4.5) for the two-hour journey, which sounded weird considering we had paid less than half for similarly-distanced routes before. However, since I hadn’t done my due diligence this time and checked the price online, I wasn’t really sure and didn’t want to complain.

Fifteen minutes after the bus started its route, it made its first stop – yes, the non-stop express bus now included stops. A couple of minutes after the second stop, all signs pointed to us having been scammed, as we saw an oncoming passenger pay only 20,000 rupiah ($1.5) to a different bus official, the ticket seller. The mysterious character who had originally sold us our tickets was gone; he literally walked out the front door at one of the first stops. Surprise! He didn’t belong to the bus at all and was just bringing people along as a third-party agent to collect his hefty finder’s fee.

With all of this evidence, Lukas took the initiative and demanded an explanation from the real ticket-seller as to why this other man, who was now gone, had charged us three times as much.

We wanted our money back.

All of the people there had been witness to what had just happened (especially the driver, the ticket-seller and a few of his passengers/friends who were sitting near us), understood and acknowledged it, and yet didn’t stop the scam. Linda and I joined in on the argument while Robert was in the process of waking up from his nap.

During the entire argument, the surrounding audience members literally laughed in our faces and pretended that they weren’t understanding what was happening, even with the help of a kid who was trying to translate what we were saying.

After 20 minutes of constant arguing and ultimatums of threatening to call the police, we decided to stop trying to get our money back (at least for the moment). No matter what we did, it was a lost cause. Meanwhile, I was trying to contact some of our Indonesian friends through Whatsapp as a last resort, with hopes that they could help us in translating our complaint to the ticket-seller and his friends.

Then, just a few minutes later, the bus stopped in front of the police station.

Now, you can go to the police and complain,” the ticket-seller announced proudly.

Lukas got off the bus and I immediately decided to join him – those who know me know that I’m that I’m the defender of lost causes, I can’t help it. In the meantime, Robert and Linda stayed on the bus protecting our honor and our bags.

When we got into the police station, I found myself in one of the most surreal situations of my life. Nearly 20 people surrounded us, including the police and the non-police (family? friends?), staring at Lukas and I, taking hidden-yet-obvious pictures of us while we were trying to explain everything that had just happened.

We got carried away with the moment and wanted to let everyone at the station know the truth of the matter, but the reality is that if they decided to stop the entire bus at the police station, it was only because the bus “team” thought they would have the upper hand. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.  

Thirty minutes into it, through the random conversations about our nationalities and our experiences in Indonesia, and explaining to them several times that they owed us a total of 160,000 rupiah ($12 – detailed mathematics annotations included), the police forced this man to give us back our money and to apologize for the inconveniences, BUT we would have to leave the bus and take a new one, with new tickets in hand (at the actual price). We still didn’t fully understand everything that had happened, but we happily agreed and felt our faith restored in that there are still plenty of good people out there.

Our adventure mostly came to a close with us getting on a new bus about 20 minutes later, along with ALL the people that were on our previous bus.

Yes, all of them.

After our “little incident” and the delay that it caused, the driver made everyone take the next bus. They said that when the bus is delayed, they cannot continue the trip. We’re still trying to understand this part.

An hour and thirty minutes later, in a crowded, 5-people-per-row economy bus with no air-con, “live music” and the usual Indonesian traffic, we made it to Surabaya – happy, and with 3 extra dollars in each of our pockets.

You must be thinking… What sense does it make to argue for two hours over $12? When looked at it from that perspective, maybe not much.

Yet, when you’ve made the conscious effort to take public transportation and travel like locals to save money and stay within a strict budget, avoiding the comfort of a private car or taxi, the last thing that you want is someone taking advantage of you financially.

So, it goes beyond the “how much.” After a few months of traveling, you quickly get tired of the constant overpricing, and believe me when I tell you that you can spend easily 20 minutes trying to bargain with someone (or several people) for $0.50. Just the feeling of knowing you’re not being taken advantage of is completely worth it.


Moral of the story:

  1. When you take a public bus or minivan in Indonesia, don’t pay until you get on the bus, and give your money directly to the bus driver (or whomever is selling the ticket to locals).
  2. Double check prices, if possible, through online forums, Google, friends, fellow travelers, or a trusted local.  
  3. Try to get to places with extra time so that you’re not going into unexpected territory in a rush. If we would have taken the time to figure things out, this would have not happened.
  4. Don’t lose faith in that you will always find good people willing to help you!


Have you ever been scammed while traveling? Tell us about your story!