Cambodia scams: US dollar and currency scams

Foreigners living in large cities in Cambodia have the distinct advantage of using US dollars to pay for most goods and services (for now). Americans especially will appreciate being able to withdraw funds from their US bank accounts without having to ponder the classic currency exchange question of the ages — do you withdraw in local currency or USD?

However, the lack of currency import and export controls, and other relatively loose financial regulation, leaves several traps for the unwary, and can lead to expensive and embarrassing transactions. This is not a new problem, but one that seems to bubble up especially around major holidays and during tourist season. Here are some classic Cambodia currency traps:

Ripped bills Cambodia

Ripped, torn, or worn: These US dollars were all rejected in Cambodia.

Real money in bad condition

In Cambodia, US dollars that are not in pristine condition are often rejected. If a vendor is willing to accept them, or if you take ripped or worn bills to a money changer, you will usually get 5-10% less than their actual value. Don’t worry, your worn riel are probably fine as long as they are in one piece!

Business owners and shopkeepers tell us it is because they cannot get full value for money in poor condition from money-changers, and given what a hassle it is to reject customers making large purchases we are inclined to believe them. In the United States, banks can send ripped or torn bills back to the government to have them exchanged for new bills. Banks in Cambodia do not have that option, and for that reason, most will not change ripped or torn bills.

While refusing to accept ripped or torn bills is not a scam, many vendors and stores will try to pass off ripped and torn bills on tourists and expats, knowing those bills will not be accepted in Cambodia. Don’t fall for this; inspect your change!

Look for:

  • Rips or tears of any size (seriously, the small ones will get you!)
  • Writing or stamps on bills
  • Old bills that may not be ripped but have heavy creases from use

Old bills or denominations

The older US dollars (with the smaller presidential portraits) are not accepted in Cambodia, nor are most of the pre-2010 $100 bills without the latest authenticity features.

The US $2 bill used to be considered good luck in Cambodia, but now they are often not accepted.

Look for:

  • “Small head”-style US bills
  • $2 bills
Cambodia spirit money

The top bill is counterfeit and the bottom is a fake — “spirit money.” It actually says “copy” on it!

Counterfeit bills and “spirit money”

Spirit money is ceremonial bills made to be burned as an offering in religious ceremonies and for festivals. Usually, the bills are obviously smaller than real bills and are printed on different paper. If you see a $100 on the sidewalk around Chinese New Year, chances are it’s not your lucky day!

However, “good” fakes are also in circulation, and some unscrupulous cashiers may try to pass off fake or bad condition bills to tourists and foreigners, especially those under the influence. These photos come from friends who were having a good night in Sihanoukville until they woke up the next morning to find that their change from drinks purchases was essentially worthless!

Look for:

  • Any stray characters (see khmer script on the $50 bill above)
  • Bills that are a different size or texture than your other dollars
  • Obviously small bills that are blowing like tumbleweeds down the street or being burned in a small can
  • Marker lines (see photo below) that might indicate that the bill has failed a counterfeit-detecting pen test
counterfeit money Cambodia

The black marker line on this $100 bill means that it did not pass a counterfeit test.

Changing money at the border

If you cross a land border in Cambodia, you may be told that you need to change money into riel, or that there are no ATMs in Siem Reap. This is a scam. If you change money at the border you will be given an atrocious exchange rate. Know that there are ATMs in Cambodia that dispense US dollars and that you will be able to use US dollars all over the country. In fact, when you get your Cambodia visa you are required pay in US dollars.
Look for:

  • Shady dudes trying to talk you into changing money into riel

Currency exchange

Most money changers in Cambodia— apart from at the airport — give very good rates, often better than what you would get abroad. So if you’re tempted to change US dollars into your country’s currency before heading home, be aware that some money changers will use the opportunity to pass off bad bills.

The editor of this website has ruefully admitted to being suckered twice at a currency exchange place in Siem Reap. The first time she was give a $100 bill with a corner cut off, which was not accepted by merchants in Cambodia. The second time she was changing dollars into British pounds and was given bills that while still valid, were out of circulation and not accepted in stores (they had to be exchanged at a bank). So heed her advice and check your bills carefully (and make sure the amount is correct) before leaving the currency exchange counter.

Look for:

  • Old bills
  • Worn, ripped or torn bills
  • Count the amount — they will often round down and not give you the change

Find out more about money and currency in Cambodia.

11 Responses to Cambodia scams: US dollar and currency scams

  1. Bob G says:

    I had the same experience and Terrence Peter Fisher at the same bank! I made a withdrawal on November 9th and took out $180, got one counterfeit $100 and 4 real $20 bills. I saw the video, you couldn’t see the serial number on the $100 bill, so the evidence is also inconclusive. The bank denied the ATM gave it to me. But most likely it came from them.

  2. Terrence Peter Fisher says:

    On 12 October 2018, whilst staying in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I used an ABA Bank ATM, machine. I withdrew $150US. I received one $100.00, 2 X $20.00 and one $10.00. When I went to use the $100.00 I was told it was counterfeit. I reported the matter to ABA bank. Later interviewed at head office, video footage was shown to me of transaction. Evidence inconclusive. Bank officials denied that it was counterfeit money that came from their machine.
    On 23 October 2018, I again used a different ABA Bank ATM. I withdrew the same amount and received the same denominations. When I went to use the $100.00 I found it was counterfeit. Contacted the same Bank Official, a meeting was held with the bank personnel, video shown, evidence again inconclusive. Bank denied that the money I had received from ATM was counterfeit. No compensation paid. Matter has apparently been referred to Security personnel, for follow up.

    • Lina says:

      Have you reported it to your home country bank? If money was withdrawn from your account but you were given something other than actual currency, you have a case that your account should be credited back.

  3. David gill says:

    Recently at Phnom Penh airport I am sure good 20$ bill was exchanged for fake copy at the massage area upstairs from departures. They took the money. I was 5 mins into massage when they came back to say it was fake. I am sure it was switch but could not prove it

  4. J Johnson says:

    One other situation to be careful of which I have dealt with, I attempted to pay with a $100 bill at Tours les Jours in Phnom Penh. I had just gotten it from the ATM machine. They took the $100 to the back to have the “manager” look at it. Then they brought me back a different $100 which was fake and said it was fake and they couldn’t accept it. Actually, the changed the bill. Take a picture of the numbers on the front before you pay. Otherwise, very expensive mistake.

  5. Ang Wee Kiong says:

    Other than at the banks, how do I change old US Dollar notes into new notes? Does the U.S. Embassy facilitate that?

  6. KHneo says:

    Recently i encountered 2 situations of my USD100 being rejected/attempting rejected by Brown Coffee. 1st incident, my USD100 (new bill in old condition) the surface looks kind of faded and the bottom edge kind of scratchy, the Brown Coffee cashier rejected.

    2nd time, my USD100 (new bill good condition) was attempted rejection by the Brown Coffee cashier as they told me it has 2 stamped chops on it, I tried ask them why but they do not tell or they don’t know how to put up the explanation. Anyway, may I know what is that stamping means? And why they’re tends to rejection in Cambodia?

    • Just Stace says:

      Found this in an article about fakes floating around and what the banks are trying to do to keep up with it…thought it might help to answer your question about the chop stamps.

      {snip}

      No one really knows how many fake dollar bills are circulating in Cambodia. But Canadia tends to re­­ceive a small handful of fake $100 bills each month, Ouk Bo­nath said.

      The bank stamps the notes twice with an ‘F’ for fraud inside a circle about 0.5-cm wide, then hands them back to the customer who presented them.

      [end snip]

      Apparently, they hand them back because they do not have the right to keep the bill, fake or not. Only the National bank can apparently slap a red stamp on the face of the portrait AND keep the bill.

      Here’s the link to the article, if you’re interested.

      https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/local-banks-struggle-to-identify-fake-us-dollars-48303/

  7. Greg says:

    The EVisa is very much a “worthy idea” to carry out, even though it is minutely more expensive, it saves you from the mad scrabble at the airport Visa Counter, and waiting in a huge throng of pushing sweating people to get your passport back, then lining up at immigration to try get through.
    Where, if you have made the effort, and paid the extra US$10 online, you avoid all this inconvenience and go straight through the immigration checkpoint, leaving the maddening crowd well behind you.

    Another point with torn or worn out US$ Bills is that as long as they are legal tender (not Counterfeit) you can exchange them for new US$ Bills at any ANZ Bank over the counter, no problem

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