If a young woman with tatty clothes and baby in arm approaches you on the street and asks you not for money but for baby formula, chances are you would help the young mother out, right? After all, you’re buying something her baby needs, not handing over money that could be spent elsewhere.
If you help the mother out, you are no doubt a kind-hearted person, but you could also be taken advantage of.
The baby milk scam is popular in Southeast Asia. Once you’ve agreed to help the woman, she will lead you to a grocery store of her choosing where you will buy her the baby formula for a seemingly large price and you’ll bid each other farewell. But, as soon as you’re out of sight she will re-enter the store and, as per her relationship with the owner, she will give the baby formula back for a cut of the profits.
The scam is especially popular on Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with travellers on TripAdvisor discussing the places where it is most common and how to overcome it.
“We have been approached by these young girls with babies over the past week. If you wish to contribute, buy a ‘popper’ of milk, open, insert straw and hand it to them,” one traveller commented.
“We also saw several young girls quietly holding (quiet) babies… they were just sitting on the fence till they saw us. They then both stood up, pinched the babies – which as you might imagine made them cry, and approached us for money,” another said.
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According to author of Move to Cambodia, Lina Goldberg, a guide to living and working in Cambodia, the baby milk scam is run by a mafia of sorts and the babies are rented and borrowed to use in the scam.
“When a young girl carrying a baby asked me to buy her milk recently and I declined, she scratched and pinched my arm,” Goldberg wrote on her blog. “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.”
It’s a common practice to use children and babies to gain sympathy from passersby in many countries around the world. The best thing to do is to say no and familiarise yourself with the Childsafe Movement’s tips for travellers.