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.

63 Responses to Cambodia scams: The powdered milk scam

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    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.

      Lina says:

      I would definitely like to hear more!

      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.

    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%.

    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 :'(

    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

      sam says:

      can we be friends? so rare to find SMART women

        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…

    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.

    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.

    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.

    newbesttop10 says:

    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?

    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.

    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.

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