Anatomy of a hustle: a case study in how to stay safe from scams when you’re abroad

I should have seen it coming, but my guard was down. It was a setup from the moment I walked into Team Insiders Boxing Gym here in Makati in the Philippines. I was duped, rope-a-doped, and opened up for the knockout blow – and I’m not even talking about the punches that reigned down on me in the ring from my sparring partners.

Anatomy of a hustleNo, I’m talking about the way the trainer hustled me during my session in the gym. Although I can’t call it an outright scam, it was a brilliant yet common form of competitive strategy that travelers and foreigners find all over the Philippines , Southeast Asia, and the world.

While this same “innocent miscommunication” or outright grift may come in many different forms and variations, I thought I’d share it with you as an example of what you may experience abroad – so you can prepare and protect yourself far more than I did.

Walking to the second-story gym, everything looked kosher – at least as kosher as it can get in a dirty, smelly, humid, and cramped boxing gym (which are the absolute best kinds- that’s how you know real training is going on there!

When I walked in, I caught the eye of several of the trainers and fighters in there, as I’m an oversized foreign dude who looks like he may be able to hold his own (at least the first part is true). Everyone nodded a hello or welcomed me, but I was left wondering where I sign up to work out and who I pay.

A middle-aged local guy who was obviously a trainer eagerly ran over to me and introduced himself in broken English, then offered to take me into the office when I asked how much it cost to train there for one session. In the office, there was a price list on the wall so, despite our communication gap (by the way, English is not the first language here and many uneducated Filipinos don’t speak it well), I saw that a training session was 290 Pesos (about $6) and to borrow their gloves it would be another $1.

That’s on the high side for day use of a gym here, but it looked like a fun and active place. I was ready to warm up by myself with stretching, jump rope, and shadowboxing, but the trainer ushered me to the side of the gym where he started immediately putting me through a few light drills. After only 15 minutes, he wanted us to get in the ring for some very light sparring, which was super curious for the very start of a workout. I told him again and again that I really wanted to do some mitt work (where he holds the pads as I punch), and he did comply with one short round of uninspired coaching.

Usually, you do furious mitt work for a good 3-5 rounds, and that is the bulk of the workout, but after one round, he moved me from station to station for a little heavy bag work and then some other exercises like situps and squats. That was all ok, but I really was still waiting for the bulk of our boxing workout to begin.

Sweating like a hog, he brought over two boxes of coconut water. I did have the foresight to ask how much one box was, and since it was only $1, I agreed I’d buy ONE and drank it. Finally, after this herky-jerky and random station to station workout, he told me to lay down on a massage table and started stretching me, and then massaging the knots in my back and neck.

The whole time, he kept talking incessantly about Manny Pacquiao (he used to train him I guess) and showing me photos of him and Manny and a price list from Pacquaio’s gym.

That’s all fine but I told him I really want to do more boxing, so I hit pause by telling him that I wanted to do more shadow boxing on my own. By then, I was cooled down, so I just talked to the other trainers a little and asked who I paid.

The trainer ran back up and in his broken English that was amazingly getting a little better now, he started adding up out loud the 290 for the gym, 50 for the gloves, $1 each for two waters (he drank the other one!), $8 for sparring, and $20 for a massage. So the total bill would be just under $40.

What the hell?! He was hustling me, of course, and that’s why he just started doing all of these things with me as we trained WITHOUT telling me what they cost or that they were extra.

Slimy! To put that amount in perspective, a common Filipino could probably live on $200 a month total!

Of course, he was just getting me to play along and leading me astray as the cash register ching changed in his head the whole time we were working out.

The last thing I wanted to do was get into a beef at a boxing gym! So, I handled it by conferring with a few of the more civil trainers, explaining the situation and offering to give him a tip on top of the basic fees I did sign up for.

You’ll find similar scams a whole lot as you travel, where the prices will be nebulous, unclear, or simply not referred to at all, until you’re presented with a huge bill at the end. You can find this at restaurants, clubs, in bars (as girls and others start ordering on your tab), in taxis, and on tours. Be careful and ALWAYS get the prices up front and ask three times if you have to or even have them write down the prices, so they’re crystal clear!

Rate this post


Norm Schriever is a blogger, Amazon best-sellling author, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. His work appears in the Huffington Post, Business.com, Good Morning America, The Anderson Cooper Show on CNN, NBC, MSN, Yahoo, Hotels.com, and media all around the world.
Norm grew up in Connecticut and graduated from the University of Connecticut, where he was never accused of overstudying. After expatriating to Costa Rica in 2011, he started traveling the world and documenting what he saw. He now lives in Southeast Asia, writing his heart out and working with local charities.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *