Meet the ‘Brunei millionaire’ — and run!


So you thought you’d take a trip to Southeast Asia to get away from the pressures of modern life, including the spam that clogs your e-mail daily, especially those Nigerian scams that ask you to give your bank account information. As if you’d be so daft. So you plan a short trip to an exotic locale, such as Bali, Malaysia or Thailand, where you can escape from it all and refuse to even check your e-mail.

You arrive at your exotic locale and are walking around the city when someone comes up to you and asks where you’re from. You sense immediately that you have become the target for this person to practice their English. But the man seems nice enough, and his English is pretty good, so you just follow the conversation. You know from experience that these types usually have some kind of connection with the English-speaking world, such as a brother studying in the U.S. or a cousin living in London. This man is no exception. His sister will soon be going to your country to study nursing. Would you mind giving her some advice?

You accept the man’s invitation to his house for tea and a chat with the sister. After all, it would be a nice opportunity to experience some local culture. You arrive at his modest house and are introduced to various brothers, grandparents and caged birds — the whole family, in fact, except the sister. It turns out that the sister has just left to take her mother to the hospital, but she’ll be right back. In the meantime, you have a few laughs with the family while exchanging cultural information and drinking tea.

The man asks, “Would you like to play cards?” Hmm, well, OK. After all, you have nothing else to do and your host wants you to play. After a few games of blackjack, the man says, “I’ll teach you a trick: How to win every time.” In the next few games, you indeed win every time.

“Today, a friend is coming to our house,” says your host. “He is a millionaire from Brunei. As you know, Brunei is a Muslim country, so he is not allowed to drink or gamble there. So he likes to vacation here. He will bring lots of money, and I’m sure you can help us win it playing blackjack. As a matter of fact, he’ll be here any minute.”

As if on cue, the millionaire from Brunei arrives and, lo and behold, he looks just like a local! He sits down at the table in his T-shirt and jeans and lays out a large sum of $100 bills. Your host also brings out a stack of bills, gives you some, and everyone starts playing. Luckily, since you’ve been taught the card trick, the stack of $100 bills is building up quickly in front of you.

But soon, the tide changes and you are losing! Your host gives you a signal that you need to talk privately, so you leave the table and talk in the bathroom. “We need more money,” he says. “Don’t you have any?” You explain that you don’t because you didn’t plan on gambling with a millionaire from Brunei when you went walking through the city this morning. He asks if you can’t take out a cash advance on your credit card, but you say no. At this point, you escape through the back door of his house.

I’ve heard this story several times in the past month from people who have traveled in Southeast Asia. One guy told me that after being exposed to this scam, he was walking around a different city in a different country a few days later, when a man came up to him and called him by name. “Simon, remember we met on the boat the other day?” Simon vaguely remembered the man. They talked a while and the man said, “My daughter is having a birthday party tonight, would you like to come?”

When they arrived at the man’s house, the daughter wasn’t there. “Oh, she’s gone to take her mother to the hospital, but she’ll be right back,” he said. “In the meantime, would you like to play cards?”