Cambodia scams: The powdered milk scam

If you’ve been to Siem Reap’s Pub Street, undoubtedly you’ve been approached by a bedraggled young mother or child holding an empty baby bottle and toting a sleepy-looking infant. “The baby is hungry,” they plead. “I’m not asking for money, just formula for my baby.”

Powdered milk scam Siem Reap

Got scammed? Don’t fall for the powdered milk scam in Cambodia.

Every night, well-intentioned tourists fall for this scam, thinking that the $30 canister of formula they are buying is going to feed that drowsy baby, allowing both she and her caretaker to head home. Unfortunately, that’s not really what’s going on. All of the formula that’s purchased is promptly returned, with the proceeds being split with the store (Huy Meng Minimart under X Bar on Sivatha Blvd at the bottom of Pub Street is a favorite).

Now you may be reading this and wondering what’s the big deal? This desperately poor family is getting some much-needed income, so why does it matter if they trade the formula for cash?

The truth is much darker. Local expats speculate that the baby-beggars are run by a mafia of sorts. If you get a cup of coffee on Pub Street in the early evening before sunset, you’ll see seven or eight young women descend on the street at the exact same time, each of them carrying a bleary-eyed baby slung to her hip, many of them blowing cigarette smoke in their faces. Women don’t always carry the same baby, indicating that the babies are merely rented or borrowed for the night. Many of the babies are carried by older children and the babies are uncharacteristically docile.

Siem Reap milk scam

Children and women carrying babies all descend on Pub Street at the same time, carrying half-empty bottles.

Local child protection organizations say that they haven’t seen evidence that the babies are drugged, but it seems entirely possible in order to assure their pliability and make them seem more pathetic and sympathetic. Personally, there’s only one baby I’ve seen on Pub Street that seems alert, the rest are scarily mellow, especially when one considers the fact that they are there for up to 12 hours at a time.

Expats who have tried to warn tourists that are falling for the scam have been threatened with violence. When a young girl carrying a baby asked me to buy her milk recently and I declined, she scratched and pinched my arm. It’s not hard to imagine the desperation these young women must feel–after all, they likely need to pay for the baby they are renting and if the mafia theory is correct, their handlers may be watching to make sure they bring in enough money each night.

For tourists, handing over $20 or $30 to buy a can of formula is a quick, feel-good experience. Just a few days ago I saw a tourist taking photos of himself posing with a canister of formula and the bedraggled street kid he was buying it for. He probably went straight back to his hotel to post about the experience on Facebook, and no doubt received an appreciative response from his friends, who were just as clueless about the reality of the situation as he.

powdered milk Cambodia

This baby formula has probably already been bought and returned several times today.

But there are more reasons than just losing their money that tourists shouldn’t be participating in this scam. For one, think of the babies. These babies are likely being drugged, kept up all night and even being deprived of food to make them look more desperate. Toddlers that are swaddled for hours upon hours long after the age of infanthood do not learn to walk properly. And tourists are the ones supplying the demand for these abused babies. If no one was willing to reward these scammers, they would have no motivation to keep these babies on the street.

“The scam is a albeit slightly more lucrative version of begging,” James Sutherland of Friends International, explains. “Poor mothers and vulnerable infants are always at risk on the streets, and scams like these keep them there, day in, day out.”

Children are also used in this scam, often toting the babies themselves. Because they have more value as beggars or scammers, they are kept on the streets all night, instead of sleeping and going to school in the mornings. When poor families have financial incentive to keep their children out of school–especially when there are addiction or gambling problems in the home–many choose to keep their children on the street.

Cambodia milk scam

Just say no to sleepy babies in Siem Reap.

Recently in Thailand a gang of children selling roses on a busy nightlife street were discovered to be trafficked, sold or rented by their families and then never heard from again. It’s hard not to think that if tourists just said “no,” this market in child beggars would not be so prolific.

Buying formula does not help these babies, it does quite the opposite. Buying powdered milk (or, indeed, buying anything from children on the street) only gives their parents reason to keep those children on the street. In this case, where it appears that a much more sinister situation exists than families merely begging for money, you must understand that by participating in any way, you are contributing to the abuse of these children.

“We believe that well-meaning people should not perpetuate that cycle, but should rather direct their attention to getting families like these off the streets and out of poverty and that can be done by supporting organizations working to do that, with education, training and income generation programs,” James Sutherland of Friends International, a local child-protection organization, told us.

What should you do if asked to buy formula for a baby?

Just say NO. Tell your travel companions and guesthouse about the scam. The more people that know about it, the less prevalent it will become. Familiarize yourself with Friends International’s ChildSafe Traveler Tips, who suggest that you not give to child beggars, buy postcards or items from children selling on the street or visit orphanages in Cambodia.

60 Responses to Cambodia scams: The powdered milk scam

  1. Florian says:

    Too late Just got caught by if…. (And am not the only one)

    Maybe night time spray on the floor “powder milk scan” in front of the shop…

    • Vincent says:

      Maybe get the Guest Houses, Hotels and Hostels to start getting involved and handing out info upon check in. It will take a Khmer leader like the Temple group family empire to get it rolling. Maybe some NGO to go door to door with flyers printed. That being said, probably won’t happen. I do like the painting the sidewalk idea but probably get arrested in the process.

    • Marc ~ Phuket says:

      Florian,

      Your heart was in the right place..

      The scam exists because it works.

      Best you can do know is pass on the experience.

      It’s highly doubtful the Cambodian authorities..
      (I laughed when I just wrote that) would ever do anything.

      Its up to us expats to help get the message out to those visiting.

  2. Neil says:

    I was approached in Siem Reap with this scam. I didn’t think it was a scam at first, and I felt sorry for the baby. When I was paying, I thought maybe this is a scam and the store are in on it, and she returns the powder. I google my concerns and here it is. Now I feel like shit, encouraging the abuse of the babies.

    • Lina says:

      Don’t feel bad. Many people fall for it every night! If you see someone else debating whether to buy the milk, tell them to go to their hotel and Google it before they decide!

      • Marc says:

        12 years in SE Asia.. I recognize the scam at the start. Don’t worry you didn’t. It’s highly successful.

        Go forward with the knowledge. Tell a friend.

  3. Egg Nogg says:

    pleased to hear others got the scratch-pinch

    Because no one seems to have logged in later to say they now dead from the arsenick.
    And I got it tonight. Feisty!

    Just a thought, but the similarity of agro suggests its a tactic rather than real desp/fear/panic. Probably to deter getting a cop/retaliation.

    Also if she was genuinely frantic she would have been off to the next target, not chasing you around just to shout abuse. So i wouldnt feel bad for the women, except poverty of course.

  4. Sus says:

    February, 2016, the scam continues. Our story is similar to all of the others. I should’ve known when they suggested a specific market, something was wrong. Once I bought the $8 (that is the cheapest at the store) powdered milk, she took it and was on her way. The little boy who my boyfriend refused to buy the $30 can for, was furious at us. So furious he punched me in the stomach. We are here for a week, and continue to run into him where he spouts out “f*ck your father, F*ck you”.
    What we have noticed, that I haven’t seen in the comments of these posts….. We have watched these acts take place (since being scammed ourselves) and we have seen children and women give money to local juice/smoothie carts. Personally (I am no expert) I believe they are working together. If this isn’t the case, regardless, don’t fall for this. And avoid the vicious kid (maybe 12 years old) that is violent when you say “no” to him.
    Also….. (This is a lesson for myself) This is not the entire Cambodian people doing this. Yes, it’s bullshit. Yes, it will piss you off. It did me. But I’m learning not to judge a culture for the wrong doings of s few. The rumors may be true….. These women and children could be taking pennies on he dollar and giving the majority of their proceeds to a boss or “pimp”. A local woman whispered to us when we asked about the scam “the babies are on the water, the juice, to look tired”.
    It’s a sad sad scam. The more travelers know about it, the less there is a market for these actions.

    • Vincent says:

      Unfortunately it happens under the watchful eyes of the tourist police too. I personally never shop at those few markets who are part of the scam. I live here so many know me as I say f..k off which gets a similar response as you might expect. I am sorry for the babies when they get too big to be, well, babies.

  5. Bree says:

    Thank you for sharing. I was wondering as I saw this at Angkor Wat. Interesting you mention the blowing of the smoke in the babies faces. I’ve been warned of meth-laced cigarettes here – warned to not take a puff of anyone else’s cigarettes or get one from anyone. Perhaps that is how they are drugged?

    • Lina says:

      Friends International reports that they do not believe the babies are being drugged, and I tend to believe them (for the most part). If they were drugging the babies, they would be giving them sedatives to keep the babies calm and docile, not methamphetamine which would have the opposite effect. I also have never heard of meth-laced cigarettes in Cambodia during my five years here.

  6. Stan says:

    Wow, we just got scammed by the woman in the first picture above. She had a different baby though.
    Thought it was odd that she didn’t have any milk in the bottle after when we looked down from 3rd story Soup Dragon Restauarant on the corner across the road from this Minimart! Noticed too that the child was too big to be carried around and too docile to be sleeping with all the noise going on around them. Will more than likely see her tomorrow and have a piece of mind to see the young cashier girl that serves in the Minimart everyday!

    • Vincent says:

      Take the cashiers picture as well as a picture of the outside of the mini mart and post because she will just get a dumb look on her face and not understand a word of English.

  7. z man says:

    They also pick pocket the tourist and hide their money with the Vietnamese lady that sells rice porridge in front of blue pumpkin across from X-bar. They hide it with her and later come back to get the money. She also acts as a look out. As so does all the lady boys. The police have their own scam going with the tuk tuk drivers. The tuk tuk tries to get the tourist to buy drugs and then turn the tourist to the police. Two days ago the police ask a backpacker for $500 to be let go. But his friend gave everything she had, which was $150. They came and sat next to me and we’re talking about. I said next just walk away. Then tell them that you will talk to the new paper and tell them everything if not left alone.Don’t trust any tuk tuk drivers. One old expat was taken by a tuk tuk driver to pick up weed and she was brought to a dark alley and was told to give him $50 or he’ll take her straight to the police. It was a tuk tuk driver outside of KNN mini-mart. More stories to come if you want. I walk the streets every night.

    • Vincent says:

      Very interesting but not surprising. Another scam, if you like younger boys or girls (under 18) Friend got taken by a guy who said he was 18 and only wanted $10 but after said he was 16 and would go to the police if not given $100. And the list goes on. Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder.

  8. Marc ~ Phuket says:

    Saw this last weekend in going on in full force, under the watchful eye of tourist police near Pub street. As a Expat of 12 years in Asia, I immediately knew it was some sort of scam, and finding this site after a quick google, I was right.

    Saw 1 single boy, and then 2 young girls with babies.

    We have our share of corruption and scamming in Phuket, so I don’t look down @Cambodia at all for this. However, it would seem a simple matter to clean up if the powers that be were so inclined.

    • Vincent says:

      Truer words were never spoken “so inclined”.
      Best guess would be this is very profitable, tightly controled and dollars to share with the “powers to be”. Still think we should target the stores that share in it via a refund at 50%.

  9. jessica says:

    Currently in Siem Reap and just witnessed this tonight. It absolutely broke my heart seeing the babies so out of it. One child I saw being held must have been at least 2/3 years old with her eyes rolling back in her head, as read in a earlier comment she probably is deprived of walking etc… she certainly looked too old to be carried as a baby. Can’t stop thinking about it now… such an awful life for children. Will be sure to warn as many travellers as possible in hope they don’t contribute to this :'(

  10. Lissa says:

    I know this is a scam and all but there are so many more important scams out there. Like when multi-billion dollar companies scam us every day. Look around you, the computers we are on are over priced. The internet we’re using is so over priced its ridiculous. Internet should be free. Everything we buy is some how a scam. Down to the jobs we all have. We all should be making more money. And the extremely wealthy ceo’s of all these scam companies should make less. I would focus more energy on that than the poor people who scam very little in comparison. IMO

      • Vincent says:

        Sam,
        At first I thought you were joking so read your silly words 3 times. Almost not worth a reply. So rare to find a SMART man and no I don’t want to be your friend.

    • Lina says:

      I think it’s fair for you to say that because there are bigger problems in the world, you choose not to care about this. But who are you to say what other people should care about? Can one never care about any problem if there are worse problems in the world? Should we not care about malnourished children in one country if there’s a genocide in another country?

    • Sven says:

      So, there are babies “used” (deformation, drugs, etc) to make a few $ over 12h. But you find the scam that you had to pay $4000 rather then $3500 for you iMac more newesworthy? hmmm…

  11. Jasmine says:

    I just fell for this….I’m so pissed off right now. The common advice I’ve always heard when it comes to begging is to give the begger food instead of money, so this seemed like an innocent enough solution. I’ve heard of babies being drugged to appear docile while the “mother” begs for money, but the baby that was with the mother I bought formula for was happy and animated so I thought i was legitimately helping out someone in need. It was seriously only 2 minutes later when I passed a sign warning me about the scam. Terrible timing, but at least I was prepared for the next scammer I met. The child that this mother was holding was obviously drugged though. Head rolling around on his shoulders and eyes rolled back in his head. It still makes me sick to think about. I may not be able to change the past, but I can warn everyone I know about it and put it on as many travel sites as I can, which is exactly what I’m going to do.
    I also mentioned this to the supervisor on duty at the hotel I’m staying at….she acted like she had no idea what I was talking about.

  12. Ida says:

    Siem Reap.
    Just 5 minutes ago, I bought a 8$ Powdermilk bottle to a little gir, Pian or something, with a 2 yo girl. When she told me to get the 25$ bottle, she got aggressive and looked as she was about to cry in fear.
    She lost all interest in me after i’d bought it, and i ran to Cafè Central to look it up, and I found this article. I feel horrible! I’v been travelling for 4 months now, and never fell for a scam. But this time “we dont want money”, I did.
    Thank you so much for posting this!
    Im just sitting here, thinking of ways to help this grusome side of fear and poverty.

    • Vincent says:

      I still think the focus needs to be placed on the markets that are giving the refunds (50% off) and the newspapers have to make more of it by printing the names. Hostels,Guest Houses and Hotels need to advertise the scam to their guests with a handout upon check in.

  13. Lilly says:

    I bought the girl milk.

    I regret it with all my heart now. I have been in Siem Reap for 2 days and when a boy approached me the 1st night my husband saw through the scam and refused. The boy became desperate crying and pleading and holding on to us. My husband said no and the boy then became very angry and swore at us and followed us swearing for a few paces.

    His desperation shook me up and I wasn’t myself all evening. The following night my husband questioned a lady in the market whether this child was genuine. She said yes, because if they beg for money they don’t get enough for the milk which is expensive. This theory seemed reasonable to me…

    A few minutes later on the street the girl with the baby came – she spoke good English so perhaps she is the one mentioned above. My husband agreed to buy the milk – but asked for a marker so he could scribble permanently all over the canister first – and then told the girl to go home. He was uneasy about the whole thing but wanted to avoid what had happened the previous night. As the girl was leaving, a boy entered with 2 tourists – he had the same story and wanted the milk. We realised we’d been scammed.

    We asked the tuk tuk about it later & he confirmed the scam, but told us we that if we confront the kids, we must not mention that he told us – his fear in my opinion confirms the involvement of some form of mafia.

    I regret that I was so easily sucked in… But will definitely now warn others.

    It still feels like a lose- lose situation to me though, because either those kids are incredibly good actors, or they are genuinely afraid of not successfully getting a milk purchase – are they beaten if they fail? Because then buying and not buying the milk is a horrible outcome… Change in the system needs to come from higher up – should proper support or temporary shelter be provided for the homeless, so that they could make a life for themselves, I would support a crack down on all forms of begging as well as scams… Right now it seems the poor have little choice.

    Thank you for this informative article. I’m just sorry I looked this up too late.

    • Vincent says:

      Share your scenario with as many Cambodia related travel blogs as possible. I still think the local Khmer and expats could help by NOT spending money at the few markets that offer the refund. PUT THEIR NAMES IN PRINT if proven.I have, however, yet to see a photo of an actual refund being processed. Hotels, guest houses and travel agents could play a roll with a simple handout explaining the scam. Airport does have some information as rule ONE is don’t give anything to the “street” kids under any circumstances.
      Yes the kids are good actors and yes they are afraid but mostly the former.
      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  14. Nice article and I learn a lot from this post.It is very sad and as you say the baby are often traded or rented out 24 hours a day. I hope all people around the world also government should take more attention on it and put more policy to deal with it.

    • Anura says:

      I have been to Cambodia many times, I have seen a lot but never see this Baby scam, I think begging is OK it happens in US too, but when baby’s are involved to beg government must do something, when it comes to Cambodian government they too are beggars so how can they stop real beggars?

  15. Mr.X says:

    I’ve heard that it’s even worse than you think… The babies are being bought at the local hospital for $100. The babies are left behind by their families and nobody cares about them. So the hospital is involved too. That’s what I’ve heard and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. Welcome to Scambodia…

    • Vincent says:

      With all due respect Mr. X, it is probably better to steer clear of hearsay and “someone told me” and “I heard” unless you have the facts to substatiate. There are many Hospitals and Clinic here in Siem Reap. Unless you have specifics, your comments damn the entire medical system and professionals , many of who are Western educated.

  16. José Kirchner says:

    In my home town, many years ago, there was a “baby mafia” who would “adopt” babies from rural poor people with promises of city education, etc. They would then bind and deform the babies and rent them out by the day to beggars who would call them their own, and solicit money from (especially) visiting tourists who sympathized. (Of course, those who took activist stances would soon be dealing with the mafia itself, in other ways.) It’s another form of human trafficking and a tragedy, carried out by desperate out unprincipled people.

  17. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this. Today I watched a tourist nearly get scammed on pub street and I walked over and told him he was getting scammed. The child with a baby came over afterwards and sat outside the restaurant threatening me with violence and tell me he or she (we couldn’t tell), was going to “fuck me up” as soon as I left. The child sat outside the restaurant for a solid 15 minutes uttering threats before vowing to come back for me later. The whole time the baby he/she was holding was entirely docile and glazed over. In terms of travel, I’ve been to over 40 countries around the world and am not easily phased but I can certainly see how that could be a very unpleasant experience for an inexperienced traveler.

    • Lina says:

      Jessica, that child is the same one that scratched and pinched me (I think she’s a girl, but am not certain). Her command of English swear words is certainly impressive.

      • Jessica says:

        Lina, her English was impressive! If only she could put it good use for a legitimate purpose. It’s fairly disturbing that a child that young would resort to violence and has been socialized to think assaulting persons is okay. Pinching and scratching at 8 years old is generally harmless, but I fear for what that child is going to become when it gets older.

        • Vincent says:

          Sometimes the tourist police and “undercover/plain clothes” police round them up in an alley but it is short lived as they come back the next night. You can tell when you see 3 or 4 ,with baby in tow, running down an alley. With all due respect to the police, I’m sure they just take some money.
          Maybe we should just target the places where they can get a “refund” like the markets mentioned.
          No source of revenue would cut it down dramatically.
          Just a thought!

          • Lina says:

            The expat group in Siem Reap has discussed that quite a bit. The issue is that the stores are getting half the profit, so they have no incentive to stop. Expats boycotting them won’t matter, because they make all of their profit from tourists. Not sure what the solution is other than to educate as many visitors to Siem Reap as possible.

            • Vincent says:

              Get a picture of the “refund” in action. I’ll volunteer to stand outside for a couple of hours each day and speak to tourists. Or would that be illegal?? Maybe just the attention of “P P Post” might help a lot. Take the revenue from the street girls and stores and they start another thing but maybe without the babies??
              Believe me some negative press that continues will help.I don’t think Lucky or Angkor Market partake?
              I’d even donate a few bucks to have Tuk Tuk driver take them to another market.

  18. vincent says:

    Well put together piece of information. Wish there was a way to get it to the incoming tourists at the airports or land border crossings. I’m not a fan of Pub Street after living here for a couple of years but I do see it often even outside of that area. Be nice if this info could be distributed at “check in” at the major hotels and guest houses.
    Keep up the good work in getting the information out.
    Vincent

  19. Kate Liana says:

    Thank you for writing this, it’s such a different experience being an expat compared to being a tourist. It’s hard to explain the bigger picture/context to visitors who are understandably swayed by their emotional response to the poverty around them. You and organizations like Friends do a great job getting the word out, but I’m sure to so many tourists it’s so counterintuitive not to buy that can of formula or postcard. It’s a great idea to get guesthouses, hotels and travel guides (like this one) to help spread the word, I would’ve easily fallen for the ‘tea house’ scam in Beijing if I hadn’t read about it on travel websites first, those poor college students from the countryside seemed so sweet!

  20. Kip says:

    If you are unsure if this is really a scam or not or are a newbie too guilt ridden to resist, then the thing to do is to open the powdered milk container before handing it over to the girl. This renders it unsellable, and her reaction will tell you if she is a scammer or not.

      • Lina says:

        There is no doubt they are scammers. They do this all night, every night. Buying the milk and opening it just means that you’ve spend $20 to see the look on a poor woman’s face when you ruin her scam. Better to just say “no thanks” and walk away.

  21. Janis says:

    I am glad to see this being posted…I visit Cambodia at least twice a year & only last year nearly fell for this …when I queried the shop assistant, she admitted it goes on all the time, so I confronted the young girl & told her I would have no part of it…she abused me in no uncertain terms in very good English!! So yes please don’t feel bad about refusing you can do a lot more positive things with your donations!

  22. Linda says:

    We wittnessed this everyday we were in town and we even wittnessed the young girl handing over her takings to some guy on a motorcycle. Another girl with 2 tins of baby food jumped on the back of the bike to go and sell the food no doubt. we had been warned about this scam, so sad to wittness thi Those poor babies.

  23. David says:

    Great to see the truth out on Facebook…. Lets hope all travellers get to hear about the scams and just say “NO” if there is no money in it for them perhaps it will deter them, But the reality is they will probably think up something else. What can we do, Give no money to children at all full stop. If you want to give them something, buy the a drink or something to eat or an ice cream thats it.

  24. Jean says:

    Yep…for info price for baby renting was a few years back about 10RMB/day/per kid in China so roughly 1.5$ a day or so….twins comes from 15RMB….Sorry for the sad info, but….

  25. There is a rent a wheelchair mafia on Riverside in Phnom Penh. I’ve witnessed $40 being handed over for a wheelchair. Then the fully able-bodied client sit and wheel the chair down riverside begging.
    That being said, there are folk confined to wheelchairs on riverside too.

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