Scams in Ethiopia: My Afternoon with a Con Man

by wheretheroadforks

In this article, I describe an interesting afternoon that I spent with an Ethiopian scammer that I met while wandering around Addis Ababa. Throughout the day, he attempted various scams on me and explained some of the cons that he pulled on tourists to make his living. He was a full time, professional scammer. Throughout the story, I scatter useful tips and info about the various common scams in Ethiopia and how you can avoid them. 

After exiting the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum during a day of sightseeing, I began walking through Meskel Square in central Addis Ababa. As I was walking, a balding, middle-aged Ethiopian man approached me. The man was well dressed in a striped polo shirt with slacks. He wore a flat cap.

The man introduced himself and casually informed me that I was being followed by a group of pickpockets. The man’s flawless English skills immediately struck me. He spoke with a slight Irish accent. He suggested that we walk together for a moment so the robbers leave me alone. They would look for a different target if they saw that I was with a local.

Meskel Square, Addis Ababa Ethiopia

Meskel Square in central Addis Ababa. I met my scammer buddy near here.

Usually, when someone approaches me on the street in a foreign country, I automatically assume that they’re either a scammer or trying to sell me something. In my travels, I’ve encountered so many con men that I can usually call them out the moment they approach.

This guy was unique. Because he spoke such excellent English and appeared to be pretty well off, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and started walking with him. Besides, I didn’t want to get pickpocketed. (As a side note, I ended up getting pickpocketed in Tanzania a few months later.)

We began strolling around the city center. After just a few minutes of speaking with this guy, I realized that he was incredibly well informed. He knew western politics, science, current events, and even pop culture. The guy loved American mob movies and kept quoting ‘The Godfather’ to me every chance he got. I felt like I was talking to an Irish backpacker. His knowledge of the west surprised me. 

After strolling a few blocks, my new buddy suggested that we go into the Mausoleum of Menelik II which we were passing. This church, which was built in 1917 to house the tomb of Emperor Menelik II, is also a museum. It’s one of the main tourist sites in Addis Ababa. 

I agreed to go even though the suggestion immediately put up a red flag that this guy was a scammer. Why would an Addis Ababa local want to go to a major tourist site? Now I knew what I was dealing with. He was attempting a scam that is common all over the world. One that I have encountered in Cuba, India, and China.

This class of scam is pretty broad. The scammer begins by acting friendly in order to get the target to put their guard down. Once comfortable, the criminal begins attempting various cons. These guys have a toolkit of scams that they run. If they pull one out and it doesn’t work, they move onto the next. If a target is not profitable, they look for someone else to con. More often than not, they’re successful. 

In this case, the scammer ended up wanting me to pay him $10 plus the cost of entry for him to guide me around the mausoleum. Essentially, he was trying to sell tour guide services. While this particular scam wasn’t vicious, it was still a scam. A tour guide was not necessary here. I told the guy that I didn’t want to pay a guide. He didn’t even react. He just walked the grounds while I viewed the mausoleum and church. 

After leaving the compound, my new buddy invited me to go have a coffee with him at his favorite shop. I recognized that this was another attempt to scam me but the guy was pretty interesting so I figured I’d go along. I knew that I would be the one paying for everything but a coffee only costs like 15 cents in Ethiopia so I was fine with it. It was nice to have someone to talk to for a bit, anyway

By this time, we had a pretty decent conversation going. We talked about Ethiopian laws and crime. He explained how gay people were treated in Ethiopia which was pretty shocking to hear about.

During a break in the conversation, I decided to tell my scammer buddy that I knew what he was up to. Surprisingly, he was fine with it. He admitted that he ran scams on tourists like it was no big deal.

At this point, the guy started telling me his life story. He claimed that he worked for an Irish nonprofit for many years. That’s how he acquired his slight Irish accent. He also claimed to have worked for an oil company in Somalia. He shared some crazy stories about encountering road pirates while driving workers between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu. I believe that most of his story was true. After all, his Irish accent had to come from somewhere. 

He also told me about his personal life. His brother, who was a minibus owner, had died of a heart attack just a few months previously. Evidently, he made a pretty good living and developed a habit of overeating. Sadly, he left behind a wife and daughter. Later, he pulled out his phone to show me a photo of his girlfriend. She was an attractive lady who appeared to be quite a bit younger than him.

At this point, he asked me if I wanted to go meet his girlfriend and hang out at her place for a while. I knew following a scammer to an unknown destination was a bit risky, but I was up for an adventure. Sometimes we take chances while traveling. We left the coffee shop. The bill was only a couple of bucks for 2 coffees each and some pastries. You could say he scammed me at this point, but I was complicit.

As a side note, one scam to be aware of that these guys often run is the tea, coffee, or drinks scam. Basically, the scammer invites you to a bar or cafe for a drink or two. When the bill comes you notice that the drinks are extraordinarily overpriced. $100 per drink, for example. At this point, the scammer, owner of the establishment, and possibly a ‘security guard’ demand that you pay the ridiculous bill. They may physically force you to go to an ATM to withdraw enough cash to pay if you don’t have the cash on you.

This scam is common all over the world. Particularly in China with tea houses. I have also heard of fellow travelers encountering this scam in Eastern Europe. In my case, this scam wasn’t attempted. The bill was correct. 

In Ethiopia, there is a variation of this scam where the scammer invites a tourist to chew chat (khat). These are leaves with a mild stimulant effect. They are sold on the street al over Ethiopia, Somalia, and much of East Africa. A bundle cost just a dollar or two. The scammer buys the leaves then charges the tourist upwards of $100 for the experience. 

Anyway, after a short walk down the street, my buddy hailed a minibus. We opened the door and crammed ourselves in. The packed bus weaved its way out of the city center. My new friend paid my fare.

A minibus station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

A minibus station

During the ride, he handed me a small booklet bound together with a staple. I was  filled with coupons printed on newspaper. He explained that each coupon was worth a meal for a hungry person. If someone approached me begging for money, I could just hand them a coupon instead of cash. Famine still affects millions of people each year in Ethiopia. This was a nice little program, I thought. I put the booklet in my pocket and forgot about it.

After a few bumpy miles, my buddy knocked on the window to signal to the driver that we wanted out. We crawled through the crowd and out of the minibus. When we exited, I had no idea where we were. The environment was still urban. A few tall cement buildings stood scattered around.

We walked a few blocks over rough dirt roads to a small roadside stand. My buddy seemed familiar with the guy running the stand. They joked around in Amharic while we picked through a shelf of items for sale. We bought a few glass bottles of coca cola, a 2 liter bottle of water, and a few small newspaper sacks of peanuts.

After making our purchase, we continued trekking a few more blocks until we reached a triangular plot of land. A tall, incomplete concrete shell of a building formed one side of the triangle. Two intersecting dirt roads formed the other sides.

The triangular plot contained a small slum. The homes sat packed in wherever they would fit. They were made out of scrap lumber, sheet metal, and a few tarps. Narrow, flooded trails between the structures allowed us to pass through. There weren’t any roads inside the slum, just muddy pathways.

We meandered through the area until we reached our destination. The home looked just like all of the others in the area. When I stepped inside, an attractive young woman welcomed me. Her young daughter sat on a bed in the corner. Neither of them spoke any English. The woman motioned to the bed offering me a seat next to her daughter.

The inside of the home was fairly clean and tidy for what it was. The bed was made. Kitchen utensils and clothing were hung on the walls in an organized fashion. The floor was dirt. A small crt tv sat on a stool in the corner. A Bollywood movie was playing. They even had electricity, I thought. Overall, it was a surprisingly livable place. Cleaner than some of my friends’ apartments for sure.

While we sat around chatting, the woman started a small coal fire in a metal bowl inside of the house. Once the flames died down, she began roasting some fresh coffee beans over the hot coals. After they were done, she transferred the beans to a bowl where she ground them with a stone tool. She proceeded to make us each 3 cups of coffee. Each one slightly stronger than the previous. Evidently this was an Ethiopian tradition.

My buddy explained that his girlfriend ran sexual education classes for women living in the slum. Most of the women living there were single mothers with zero education. Many worked as prostitutes. Many were HIV positive.

When I first arrived, I was feeling pretty nervous. After all, I was sitting in a small slum house in an unknown location in Addis Ababa with a scammer. Really, it was pretty risky and stupid of me to follow this guy here. Luckily, he turned out to be cool. We sat around, drank coffee, watch a part of a Bollywood movie, and chatted for a few hours.

When the sun started to go down, we decided to head to a nearby bar to drink a few beers. Before we left, I handed the woman a few birr as a thank you. Probably around $5 worth. After all, she had made me some killer coffee and welcomed me into her home for several hours. I slipped the kid a small bit of money as well. Just enough to go buy herself an ice cream cone. She looked thrilled. 

Just a street in Addis Ababa. I’m not sure where

We weaved our way out of the slum triangle and walked along a dirt road for a few blocks. Eventually, we reached a rod iron gate which led to a courtyard. Inside was a small bar with a few tables set up on a patio. A few groups of guys sat around drinking. We sat down at one of the tables, ordered a couple of beers, and continued talking.

As a side note, Ethiopian beer is pretty great. While traveling through Africa, I tried to taste the local beers in each country. Ethiopia’s are the best that I’ve tried so far. My favorite brand was called Habesha. It comes in a bottle with a black label. It’s cheap too. I think I only paid around 50¢ per beer.

After a couple of drinks, my buddy began talking about the scams that he runs on tourists. Surprisingly, he didn’t really pull anything too elaborate or vicious. By the way he talked earlier, you’d have thought that he was some kind of criminal Mastermind.

Really, the most successful scam he told me about was when he helped a German girl buy a scarf at a market. He assisted her with the negotiation with the sales lady who didn’t speak any English. He convinced the German girl that she was getting a good deal while she was really overpaying. The scammer received a $20 commission in this situation.

To be fair, $20 is probably a monthly salary for millions of Ethiopians. Even then, this guy acted way too impressed with himself for pulling that scam.

Other scams he pulled included selling the little meal booklets that he handed me earlier. He just printed them up and put them together himself. They were worthless. He also befriended tourists and got them to buy him things like I had done. Overall, the guy’s scams weren’t too sophisticated.

I can’t imagine he made much money on me. I probably spent less than $10-$15 on him all day plus he paid for all of my minibus fares and a round of beers. All he got out of me was a few free drinks and some snacks. No cash directly, but maybe a couple of bucks from kickbacks. I’m not sure.

After he bragged about his scams in detail, I asked him, “do you think westerners are stupid?” Of course, he replied yes. He explained how westerners are gullible and that they spend money like crazy. He talked about how easy it was to convince a western tourist to trust him or buy him something. After all, he made a living doing this.

Of course, being a westerner, I disagreed with him. I explained that most tourists think nothing of spending a few dollars on a drink or museum ticket. For a German tourist, spending an extra 20 bucks for a souvenir is nothing. She probably never noticed that he scammed her. 

In my opinion, this guy could have made much more money by going legit with his business. He could have set up a free walking tour, similar to what you find in most European cities, and worked for tips. He could have even charged a set rate for tickets. After all, Addis Ababa doesn’t have much tourist infrastructure. Some people may feel intimidated to wander around the city on their own. Many travelers would be happy to pay $20 for a day of authentic sightseeing in the city with a guide who was fluent in English. The guy definitely had the personality for it. He was pretty charismatic. 

Anyway, after a couple more drinks, he admitted to me that the woman we met earlier wasn’t really his girlfriend. She was the wife of his brother who had recently passed away. The one he had told me about earlier. The young girl was his niece.

He claimed that he was helping them out as much as he could because they had very little income since the breadwinner of the family had passed. His family was against the whole thing. They found it inappropriate that he was spending so much time with his late brother’s wife.

While this is understandable, it’s nice that he was lending a hand. The woman and child most likely would have ended up in the street otherwise. With his help, they were able to maintain a roof over their heads, even though it was in the slum. Their living situation wasn’t ideal, but it was reasonably comfortable.

Of course, my buddy probably had ulterior motives. After all, the woman was young and attractive. He implied that they were together now but nobody could know because of the circumstances.

This story could have been an attempt to appeal to my emotions in hopes that I would give him some money. I tend to believe the story though. 

After an hour or so, we left the bar and caught another minibus back to the city center. Again, my buddy paid my fare. Once we arrived back to where we had met, we decided to stop into a bar for one more beer before calling it a night.

The remainder of the night was pretty uneventful. Before parting ways, my buddy reminded me about the little booklet that he had handed me. He hinted that he wanted me to pay him for it. I just took it out of my pocket and handed it to him and said thanks but no thanks. He kind of smiled. At this point, we both knew it was a scam. I caught the train back to my hostel. My buddy caught another minibus to wherever he lived.

The following day, I decided to return to the city center for more sightseeing. I had been sidetracked with my adventure the previous day and hadn’t been able to visit the National Museum of Ethiopia, where the Lucy skeleton is on display. 

As I walked toward the train tracks to head into the city, my scammer buddy flagged me down from across the street. He surprised me. Evidently, I made the mistake of telling him where I was staying. I believe he had been waiting there for me to pass by. I pretty much had to walk that way to get to the city.

A view of the city from my hotel in Addis Ababa

He was sitting in a cafe by himself eating some breakfast. I crossed the street to say hello. He invited me to sit down with him to share his meal. I ate a couple of bites of injera and ordered myself a cup of coffee.

While we are, he showed me the restaurant menu. It was two-sided. One side was written in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. The other side was in English. He pointed out how both sides were the same, except for the prices. The English menu was significantly more expensive than the Amharic menu.

I found this pretty funny. The restaurant wasn’t even trying to hide it. The top of the English menu even said ‘foreigner menu’ or something like that. I’m sure this scam is pretty common around the world. Other countries probably just do a bit better job of hiding it by printing separate menus.

While we talked, I asked my buddy where I could buy a ticket to the South. My next destination was the Omo Valley to visit the tribes in the region. After breakfast, we caught the train to the city center. My buddy walked me to the ticketing office for Selam Bus, the main bus company in Ethiopia.

I purchased my ticket for the following day while he waited outside the office. After that, we walked to a nearby cafe to enjoy another cup of Ethiopian coffee. He had some big plans for the day but I wasn’t interested. After all, I had to finish my sightseeing in Addis Ababa before leaving. My buddy suggested that he tag along but I preferred to spend the day by myself at the time. We traded emails and went our own ways. The following morning, I caught my 4 am bus from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch.

In the end, I realize that I fell victim to the Ethiopian scammer. Over the course of the day or so that I spent with my scammer buddy, I probably spent $10-$15 on the guy. I bought him a few beers, some snacks, and a soda. He bought me a beer, 3 minibus rides, and a bag of fries. In my mind, it was worth it. I learned so much about Ethiopia and enjoyed a good conversation. Visiting his girlfriend in the slum was also pretty interesting. 

Have you encountered any scams in Ethiopia? Share your experience in the comments below!

To read more about scams that I’ve encountered in my travels, including a coupe more scams in Ethiopia, check out my guide: 19 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them.

More Africa Travel Guides from Where The Road Forks

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