Card sharks stalk tourists

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 (L-R) Four Filipinos, Estreuta M. Debelem, Aserdin Cadion Eduardo, Pineda Sevilla Regina, and Elizag Jovito Corpuz, were arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on May 3, 2010 in a gambling con investigation. They were released and not charged with the crime.

Last May, Ho Chi Minh City police arrested four Filipino nationals as they were escorting a Japanese tourist back to his hotel in District 1.

The authorities later raided the group's rented apartment in Binh Thanh District, where they said a man named Gaspar Gaudenecio JR. Mariano (AKA Gado) had hustled the tourist out of US$73 in a rigged card game.

Police say the gang had lured the Japanese man to their home by asking him to translate a letter they'd received from a relative in Japan.

Once there, they convinced him to engage in a "friendly" game of poker. When he ran out of money, they escorted him back to his hotel to obtain an additional $1,000, so he could keep playing their game.

A year later, most of those suspects remain active on HCMC's streets. In March, the Filipino Embassy directed all inquiries about the matter to the HCMC police. The police declined to comment on the matter and indicated that the case remained under investigation.

More recently, Nguyen Huu Tai, chief of the Pham Ngu Lao Ward Police, said that the district had helped develop flyers listing cases in which Asian card sharks had lured travelers into gambling traps and then escorted them to ATMs to pay off their debts.

The flyers, which were distributed to hotels, rented homes and passing foreigners were seldom read, he added.

According to the findings of an independent investigation, provided to Thanh Nien Weekly, between 50 and 60 individuals are currently operating in cells throughout HCMC, and others have branched out to Nha Trang and Hanoi.

The ruse has persisted again and again throughout Vietnam. Tourists are invited into a friendly game of cards and either conned or coerced into betting unbelievable sums of money and valuables.

Based on interviews with five confidential sources and three years of surveillance, a reporter was able to determine that most card sharks are from the Philippines. Some of these cells have enlisted Vietnamese accomplices to work as taxi drivers or lookouts.

At least six tourists have independently come forward, claiming to have fallen victim to what is known as "Filipino Blackjack." All the victims alleged that groups similar to the one arrested last year have used the threat of physical violence to coerce them to hand over large sums of money in the final stages of their con.

LOOK OUT

The con artists scout for potential victims on Pham Ngu Lao, Le Loi, Dong Khoi, Nguyen Hue, Hai Ba Trung, Le Thanh Ton, Ly Tu Trong, and Le Duan, all in District 1.

Specifically, they operate at: September 23 Park adjacent to De Tham Street and the New World Hotel; in front of Vincom Shopping Center; the square between the Caravelle, Continental and Rex Hotels; Bach Tung Diep Park in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum; April 30 Park on Le Duan; around the Notre Dame Cathedral; in front of the Reunification Palace and outside the War Atrocities Museum.

They wait every day, most often from 8 a.m.-11 a.m. and 1 p.m.-4 p.m.

One man claimed to have lost as much as $12,000 in an afternoon spent with the gang.

Another had been driven to an ATM where he withdrew as much money as he could to hand over to the conmen, fearing for his life.

"He was so terrified," an official from the British Consulate said on condition of anonymity. "He insisted on flying out of the city the next day. I told him he had nothing to worry about. [The sharks] had already moved on to another mark."

He confirmed that a number of British subjects had run into the consulate, seeking refuge.

"It's been going on forever," he said.

Released for lack of evidence

A similar case was reported in 2009 in Hanoi, where police arrested and convicted a Filipino husband, wife and son for perpetrating a similar card con on a French woman.

The hapless tourist exchanged her laptop, camera and cash for an attaché case filled with bundles of paper. She had been told it contained $50,000.

Last October, a Manila paper carried a story about an American who lost $20,000 in a hotel room card game in Manila. The paper reported that he had first met the group in HCMC.

In his March letter, Filipino Ambassador Jerrill G. Santos claimed that, as of December 2010, the embassy was aware of five cases involving nine Filipino nationals awaiting trial on criminal charges in Vietnam. The embassy declined to divulge the details of these cases, citing privacy laws.

Ambassador Santos further advised that the embassy is not privy to all arrests.

"Only arrests that progress into court cases are officially conveyed to the Embassy for appropriate consular assistance and representation," Ambassador Santos wrote. "It is not the Embassy's function to pry into individual, private businesses of Filipinos in Vietnam - be they tourists, businessmen, or contract workers. The Embassy renders consular service, as determined by Philippine law, to Filipinos who approach the Embassy for assistance."

The arrest of six Filipino nationals one year ago grabbed major headlines across Vietnam.

Police said they assembled a special investigative task force in April 2010, after complaints from mainly South Korean and Japanese tourists that they had been conned out of large amounts of money by "Asians speaking English."

Police said one Japanese national had allegedly lost $8,000. A South Korean victim had lost $20,000 in the con.

The special investigative task force arrested six Filipino citizens who had entered the country on tourist visas: Eduardo Cadion Aserdin, 44, Regina Sevilla Pineda, 32, Corpuz Jovito Elizag, 32, and Estreuta M. Debelem, 40. They also announced the arrest of two Vietnamese citizens, who were never named.

Tuoi Tre reported that in the two years the gang had spent fleecing tourists, each member had saved around $20,000.

Police described the group as a roving band of con artists who'd made their way through Thailand and Cambodia executing similar schemes.

"Gado," the alleged ringleader and card shark, evaded their grasp, according to media reports on the subject.

Sources say that, lacking evidence and unable to apprehend the ringleader, the police released everyone arrested in connection with the case.

Last week, Aserdin and Elizag, could be found hanging around the Vincom Center, soliciting the attention of Western visitors. Pineda was seen loitering in front of the HCMC Museum.

The con

Travel warnings regarding these cases have been posted on the UK, US, Australian and Canadian embassy websites. Representatives from the Canadian and US embassies declined to comment on the specifics, citing embassy privacy laws.

"Be aware that gambling outside of licensed casinos is illegal in Vietnam," the advisory on the US Embassy site reads.

However, listless groups of touts can still be seen clustered outside HCMC destinations. They are never selling anything or attempting to solicit rides. Instead, they seem to target lone tourists who appear naïve and new to Vietnam.

Some stand as lookouts for security and police, or scout for potential victims. When they spot a potential mark, one of the individuals approaches the foreigner and strikes up a conversation, complimenting and coaxing the tourist into a comfortable rapport.

Eventually, the con artist invites the foreigner to the gang's house for dinner or coffee. Usually this invitation is under the false pretense of meeting the con artist's "sister" or "daughter." They may claim the relative is going to the victim's country to study in university. When they arrive at the home however, the relative is never there.

Instead, a group of strangers arrives. Inevitably they all sit down around the victim and start gambling with cards. They pressure the victim into playing. In some cases, the host will "lend" his guest money that he will then feel an obligation to earn back as he begins losing.

The gang rigs the game and force the victim into a precarious position. The victim loses enormous amounts of money or personal possessions.

Victims complain that the groups eventually pressure their victims to pay off their debt by escorting them to banks and hotels. In some cases the victims are tricked into withdrawing funds while others are coerced.

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