Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Fes Carpet Scam

These guys are good.

I arrived by train in Fes and found a small hotel near the station. After I checked in and got situated I went down to the lobby to go out for a bite. There, "Sammy" came up to me and started talking. Not pushy or anything, just chatting. He was meeting his friend "Tony" from Barcelona. While we were talking, Tony arrived and Sammy told me he was driving Tony to the medina and I could come along. Since I came to Fes without a guidebook or map, I decided to go, even though I sensed a scam coming - I was curious where it would hit.

Sammy took us to a riad owned by "a friend of his father's" for a very nice dinner. There, Tony and I talked for a while and Tony told me he had come to Barcelona to shop for some rugs for his new beach house and that he knew Sammy from prior visits. Tony showed me photos of his daughter, told me about his life and said Sammy was from a well-off family here in Morocco.

Sammy returned from visiting the folks in the riad and said his dad just called the owner and the meal was free. He told Tony in front of me that when they go to the "government house" tomorrow to look at the rugs, just trust whatever they tell you and that the price is fixed and the best around. After that, he drove us back to the hotel and said he was taking Tony around the medina tomorrow and I could join him. Heeven had a friend who would show me around the medina(old town enclosed by a wall) and souks(markets.)

The next day, I met Sammy and Tony and we went to the medina, where we met Mohammed, a "friend of the family" and an imam (muslim religous leader) in training who would show me around the old town. He seemed like a nice guy and we walked all around and went to the brass manufacturing, tannery, and various other sights and shops. At each of the places there was a brief tour followed by a moderate sales pitch until we arrived at the carpet shop. There, things turned up a notch.

When we arrived, Tony and Sammy were already looking at rugs. Mohammed was on the phone fairly often up to our arrival at the shop - I believe he was orchestrating the arrival. At the shop, Tony had selected a few rugs, but as soon as I started looking at a certain type of rug, he suddenly changed his taste to match mine.

Here is how it works at the rug place. You sit on nice cushions drinking tea while the salesmen parade rugs in front of you very quickly. They ask you to sort them into yes/no piles. The salesman and Sammy kept saying how a person could just take one of the rugs back to the their country and sell it to pay for all of the rest and still make a lot of money.

The salesmen told us this was a special, half-price day! Tony finally selected five rugs and they quoted him a price of 140,000 dirham - over $16,000. I had five rugs in my like pile and Tony asked me what they would cost - the sales guy said 105,000 dirham and Tony acted very surpised. He then left to "purchase" his rugs.

The rug salesmen kept asking me how much I would be willing to pay for the rugs and I kept telling him I was not in the market for a rug. They kept saying I could make money by selling one rug. Finally, after trying to get me to give a price, they resorted to the line - "give me shocking offer, please, just shocking offer, shock me! I replied that "free" would be shocking. At that Mohammed returned and we left for lunch.

At lunch, I was depositied in a riad(nice palace or home converted into a hotel-like operation) (Tony and Sammy did not show) and Mohammed left for some reason. As I was being served lunch, I asked about the price - $200 dirham - over $20! Now, you should understand that I have been eating in South America for a while and $3 seems pretty steep to me. Too late to leave, I ate. It was a nice lunch, but not worth that much. When I finished lunch, guess who showed up - the salesmen from the carpet shop. They led me back to the shop where they tried to get me to make an offer. Finally, frustrated, they offered me a rug for 5000 dirham ($600) I said no thank you and that ended it. After that, Mohammed returned and we went to the pottery place and then Mohammed dropped me at the hotel. Sammy called as we where driving to the hotel and said he would come pick Tony and me up at 8 PM. Of course that never happened and he was never heard from again.

So here is my assessment. These unauthorized guides prey on unaware tourists by taking them on "tours" which consist of high pressure sales at manufacturing shops. I am sure the shops are legitamite, but they try to sell things at very high prices and the "guides" get a kick back. My "guide" always stayed several steps ahead of me on the street and never paused unless there was noone else around. Once a policeman stopped him and I think he slipped the policeman some cash as unofficial guides are not allowed unless they bribe the officers.

The Creme de la Creme is the carpet shop. By trying to establish my trust with the Sammy/Tony scam, they tried to get me to believe you could actually resell a carpet and pay for everything, ridiculous as that sounds. Using Tony - a guy from Barcelona who works with people in Morocco and happens to also speak some arabic - they establish trust. The free dinner also helps. Then if they can get a high price for the carpet, they all get a share.

It also works at a smaller scale at the potery shop, tannery, apthocary, tailer, etc.

I knew it was a scam from the beginning (except lunch, where I got sucked in - oh well, made up for dinner) but it was fun playing along with them. While Sammy and Tony were obviously not entirely honest, I think most of the people you run into in Morocco are some of the warmest, most genuine people you will meet, even the touts.