Conor Woodman adopts the role of undercover journalist in new National Geographic TV series, Scam City. Exposing the criminal underworld in tourist hotspots around the globe, Conor picks up the tricks of illicit trades and gets a taste for what it is to be victim to some of the cleverest con artists from Istanbul to Bangkok. Earlier this week, IMPACT’s Richard Collett and Helena Murphy sat down to chat to Conor about shady bars, hidden cameras, pick pocketing and prostitution.
Tourists and travelers are often at risk in unfamiliar, strange cities. Organised gangs and criminal opportunists are always on the mark to take full advantage of the unwary and naive. Each country and each city inevitably has its own cons and tourist traps, and, in this new documentary, Conor attempts to expose the inner workings of these shady yet profitable worlds.
In Barcelona, he finds himself outlandishly undercover, as he dons drag to work the streets with the pickpockets of the city. “Prostitutes were one of the main pick pocketing groups in Barcelona, and to get close to them I became a tranny”, he told us. “I’d befriended a transsexual from Ecuador who gave me a glimpse into her world, but only as long as I didn’t expose her”. Spending a night chasing down the streets of Barcelona swiping wallets in the guise of a woman, Conor made it clear that all of the belongings they stole were returned to the rightful owners – being a responsible citizen and working with National Geographic, it was important not to aid the already lucrative crime scene.
The show however, doesn’t attempt to involve the police or the authorities in any of the situations Conor entangles himself in. He explains that “my role was to document what was going on – I needed to win the trust of these people. I had to put myself in their hands, operating in their territory. I was relying on the good will of the scammers to make sure I’d be alright. I wasn’t going to hand them over to the police and they wouldn’t steal from me. We wouldn’t have got access to what we needed otherwise”.
This all sounds extremely dodgy to us, if not downright dangerous. Posing this question to Conor elicits the immediate response, “yes”. No hesitation. “Criminals are unpredictable people, and a few times we wondered if we got ourselves into heavier situations than we wanted.” A terrifying anecdote follows whereby Conor describes the scene in which he entered a shady bar in Prague and didn’t manage to leave in quite the same condition as he arrived in. “The bill was a lot more than we thought it was”- promptly realising they weren’t getting out until they coughed up. “A large gentleman threw me up against a wall, gave me a few slaps. The ordinary tourist in you thinks ‘God, I want my mum!'”
While researching his book, Unfair Trade, an ethical take on the relationship between third and first world economics, Conor went undercover in the Congo and found that this approach got him into certain areas he never could have been to if he’d been open about what he was doing. In Scam City he takes the same approach to reveal how criminals target tourists. “Camera technology has gotten so small, it’s possible to go in completely undercover and get good quality images of people breaking the law. We can film it using cameras hidden in buttons and bags”. As a result, Conor and his team can catch criminals in the act and gain revealing insights as to how they run their scams.
Having touched down on four continents during the making of the documentary, Conor has gathered a comprehensive feel for the various tactics used by a diverse range of con-artists. The most frequent swindle seemed to be the taxi scam, where the driver will insist on taking the passenger the long way round, often trading in counterfeit money and putting the wrong rate on the meter. We asked Conor if he picked up on differences in the way criminals operated between the various countries. “Culturally there are differences between the countries. Barcelona is more discreet than say, Arab cultures, such as Marrakech in Morocco. A lot of the scams in Marrakech were based on misinformation rather than outright nicking things”.
After listening to all of Conor’s horrifying stories we ventured to ask the best way to prevent being scammed when travelling abroad. “Scams in each city are different. Take the time to research what scams are in that city before you go. There are forums online where people share this type of information.” Although Conor has experienced a wealth of dangerous scenarios, from theft and physical violence to being drugged and misled, he still claims that travelers shouldn’t be put off. “It’s easy to watch the series and think the world is a terrifying place, but don’t be scared, be prepared. Enjoy yourself but take the right precautions.”
After what must have been a riotous journey from the souks of Marrakech to the dizzying hustle and bustle of Bangkok, we asked Conor what’s next on the cards for him. “Writing another book, doing another TV show, and who knows, potentially a second series of Scam City…”
Scam City starts on National Geographic Channel on Wednesday 17th October at 8pm.
Helena Murphy & Richard Collett