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Consuming money

A young American who fell victim to Budapest’s konzumlány (consumption girl) scam have told their story in the hope that it will prove a warning to others.

Ethan Wang, a volunteer with the Peace Corps working in the Moldavian Republic, arrived with a group and his friends in Budapest on April 16. Staying in a local hostel, he read a notice warning of scams that frequently occur on Váci utca, cautioning US citizens to be aware of "friendly" men and women who offer to show visitors where the "good" restaurants are.

Once in the establishments they are charged exorbitant prices. There was also a restaurant blacklist, but Wang was unable to remember the names.

The next day he and his friends ended up in a tourist area close by the Danube, where they decided to get something to eat. They were then approached by two women who invited Wang and his friends to join them at a nearby "Irish" pub.

The women took them to a restaurant which had no name, just a red neon sign that read "Restaurant."

Although it didn’t look like a typical Irish bar, the women convinced Wang and his friends to stay and they ordered drinks.

When the women asked the men if they would like to order some food, they refused. The women asked if

it was okay if they ordered something to eat and they were told they could do whatever they want - the boys were assuming that the women were going to pay for the food themselves.

When a bill arrived for Ft230,000 ($1,000), Wang thought the waitress had made a mistake, but she confirmed that the it was for the right amount. "We thought it was outrageous for only five beers, two salads, two soups and a few cocktails," said Ethan.

The waiter told Wang he could use the restaurant’s ATM machine. When asked if they had any money to pay their part of the bill, the women said no. "That was when we realized we were being scammed," said Wang.

Remembering the warning he read at the hostel, Wang decided to contact the US Embassy for help and was put onto the Security Officer. She told him she knew exactly where he was, adding that the embassy had already warned that particular restaurant about scamming tourists.

Wang was told to let the waitress know he had contacted the embassy and that officials would arrive soon.

He did so and told the waitress she could either let them leave or deal with US officials.

To his surprise, the waitress told Wang that the police had already been called.

When Wang and his colleagues tried to leave the restaurant, a bouncer grabbed one of the group, stating that if they didn’t pay up they wouldn’t be able to leave.

When two police officers arrived, the waitress showed them the bill and told them that Wang and his friends had refused to pay. As Wang tried to explain the situation, he claimed the officers told him and his friends to shut up and show their passports.

Only Wang had his passport, but first he asked to see the officers’ ID. One of the policemen then pulled out

his gun and pointed it at Wang stating, "Where do you think you are, America?

You’re in Budapest and in Budapest I’m the boss and you do what I say!"

Wang said he was grabbed by the wrists, pushed against a wall and handcuffed. At about that time the embassy officials turned up.

The Embassy SO asked the police to remove the handcuffs and reminded the restaurant manager that the embassy had already complained to the owner about its treatment of tourists.

A compromise was eventually reached and the Americans ended up paying $200. The rest of bill was waived.

The police let Wang’s friends go, but insisted on taking him to the station. The Embassy SO accompanied

him to straighten things out.

In fact they only went as far as a police wagon outside.

When a translator arrived, he gave Wang a lecture on Hungarian law (that police officers had to do their duty, that compliance was compulsory and complaints could be made afterwards), before releasing the American citizen.

Police spokesman László Barta told The Budapest Sun, "Mr Wang filed a letter of complaint with the police about the incident,"

"The investigation established that the policemen carried out their duty in a professional manner, and without violating anybody’s rights.

"Mr Wang refused to show his passport, that is why the policemen had to use force. As for the alleged lines from the policemen, they are not included in the police report."

The US Embassy confirmed it has previously warned the Városközpont restaurant to stop charging exorbitant prices to foreigners.

"Embassy officials discussed this problem with Hungarian tourism industry representatives at a meeting organized by the embassy two months ago. The owner of Városközpont was in attendance," a representative of the US Embassy told The Budapest Sun.

"The Embassy may not take legal action in cases such as these. We can alert US citizens to such scams and advise them to avoid establishments that overcharge."

"Some victims call to inform us of the incidents but do not lodge complaints.

Since 2000, there have been dozens of such incidents but not all have taken place at Városközpont."

The Városközpont restaurant is not listed in telephone directories or relevant websites.

When we attempted to contact the manager in person, the restaurant’s separate elevator was out of order. The phone number posted on the elevator for table reservations was not answered.

Balázs Dóczy

Budapest Sun - 5 June 2003
 
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