There has been a lot of news coverage about a scam at Manila’s NAIA airport, in which security staff places a bullet in travelers luggage and then extorts a “fine” from the traveler or threatens to jail them if they don’t pay. This can of course be nerve-wracking and spoil your trip. I have traveled more than 50 times in and out of Manila’s airport in the last two years and have some tips how to handle this – read on!
First of all, you will find corruption like this in the Philippines and most of South East Asia, with police men or others trying to get you to pay a bribe when you are “caught” doing something illegal. And some shady characters will not stop from accusing you of a crime you haven’t committed and even planting the evidence. The Manila airport scam falls into that last and worst category. Apparently, security staff at the airport drops a bullet into a traveler’s luggage, “finds” it during a search, then will threaten with jail (it’s a serious offense to carry weapons and ammunition) and offer to release the traveler when they pay a fine, reportedly as much as PHP30,000 (approx. $640). A Filipino overseas worker and a foreign visitor were even jailed for a short time, before being released on bail!
This has received a lot of local attention and is considered an embarrassment to the current administration which has made the fight of corruption a banner issue and made some progress to stamp it out. With millions of travelers going through Manila’s NAIA airport and a handful of cases reported, the chances of this happening to you, are very small, especially now that the spotlight is on this issue and action is being taken to find the bad apples in the security staff! If you are nervous about it, here is what you can do:
1. Lock your luggage
Regardless of where you travel, you should always put a TSA safety lock on your luggage, both check-in and carry-on luggage. Theft (or scams like this) are crimes of opportunity and the less opportunity you provide, the better off you are. A lock cost a few bucks and is put on in seconds, making it well worth the peace of mind you get in return. If you are very paranoid, you can have your luggage wrapped in plastic – it’ll make it impossible for anybody to insert anything into the luggage or any unlocked, outer pockets!
2. Watch your luggage
Keep an eye on your luggage as long as feasible. For example, at Manila’s NAIA, you go through security at the terminal entrance. Place your luggage on the belt, watch it disappear through the scanner and step through the metal detector at the same time, so you can watch it come out the other end. When you drop off the luggage at the check-in counter, watch the staff attach the luggage tag and watch it go done the belt. You will go through another security check on your way to the gates, so follow the above procedure again!
3. Be confident, stand up for your rights!
Scammers look for easy targets, unfortunately they will look for elderly people, single travelers or anybody they think they can easily frighten into paying them a bribe, without causing a lot of trouble. So, know your rights and be firm in demanding them, without being rude! If the staff wants to usher you through the scanner before your luggage is going through, just smile and wait. If they are taking your luggage for further inspection, ask them with a loud and firm STOP! Ask them to wait till you are there, ask what they are doing and why. If they want to open your baggage for further inspection, go to the next step!
4. Request a supervisor and ask another traveler to assist you
The last thing scammers want is other people to witness what’s going on. So, make it difficult for them and ask loudly for a supervisor to be present. Stay polite, but firm! If your luggage is locked, they will have to wait for you to open it. Also, ask anybody traveling with you or anybody nearby to assist you and observe what’s going on. Filipinos are super-friendly and social media savvy – chances are they have heard about the scam by now and will want to help you. They have no tolerance for these scams either! With a supervisor, you and other travelers watching, it will be difficult for a scammer to place a bullet in your luggage without anybody seeing it. Chances are, the scammer will pass on you and try their luck with someone else!
5. Know the process, request assistance
If security staff was somehow successful in planting a bullet and is asking for payment, know the process: No police officer is authorized to fine you or ask for bail at the site! Bail orders are issued by a judge and fines require formal paper work – any payment requested on the spot is a bribe, nothing else! Remain calm, polite and insist on the formal process and ask for assistance from the public assistance desks throughout the airport! Ask for a supervisor or airline staff to assist, so you are not alone with the security staff in question. Request a call to your embassy for help or ask another traveler to call on your behalf. All of these actions are likely to tell the scammer that you won’t be an easy victim, bringing this to a quick end!
You can find some of the local coverage here and here! Like I said above, chances that you will encounter this scam are very small. Just by using a lock and keeping an eye on your luggage, you will make it very difficult for this (or other scams) to be successful. I recommend to do both wherever you travel, it’s cheap and easy insurance.
Lastly, don’t let you discourage from traveling to less common destinations. The Philippines and other South East Asian nations are beautiful countries with some of the most friendly people you’ll find anywhere. Don’t let the scams of a few bad apples that get a lot of media attention spoil the trip! Safe travels and enjoy the journey!