RIGA - Last May Toni Lahtinen walked into a night club in Riga's Old Town and immediately knew he hated the place.
Lahtinen, who was visiting the city from his native Finland, only stayed for about 20 minutes before going to the bar to settle his 10-lat (14.2-euro) bill and leaving to find a club more to his liking.
He paid the bill with his debit card, quickly punching his PIN code into a portable machine. But the payment didn't go through. The barman said there was probably some "trouble at the lines" and that he should try again. The second time it worked.
"Later, when I was back in Finland, [it was] exposed that I accepted a 654-lat transaction. Nordea Bank found out that the first try was for 988 lats, but [it] was rejected by the system," Lahtinen told The Baltic Times.
The tourist still hasn't been able to get his money back.
Lahtinen's story is one which is becoming increasingly common. Cases in which tourists are defrauded of huge amounts of money at Riga's bars, nightclubs and restaurants are on the rise.
"If I remember correctly, there have been 35 cases of credit card fraud [so far this year]. Most of the cases came from one club 's 19 cases were from one place," Edgars Dudko, head of the Riga Regional Police Department, told The Baltic Times.
There have been so many cases that the Finnish authorities are preparing to send their Latvian counterparts a massive file involving information on dozens of victims who suffered similar incidents while visiting Riga. Finnish police said the total value of fraud against tourists from that country alone is more that 100,000 euros.
Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish publication, reported that the case involved a large number of night clubs and even a few restaurants, including a popular sushi bar that tried to charge 500 euros for two drinks and threatened the tourists with violence when they refused to pay.
The Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, which is in charge of gathering the cases to send to Latvian authorities, has issued a travel warning to tourists. The bureau said that anyone visiting Riga should stick to cash payments when visiting bars and night clubs.
But Finnish tourists aren't the only ones suffering from the fraud. Similar cases have been registered by visitors from all over Europe and North America.
In some cases the victims even claim that they were drugged and robbed under the threat of violence.
"When one [member] of our party went missing one night and still hadn't appeared at midday we asked the receptionists at our hotel, the Monte Cristo, to call the police. They were helpful but told us not to get the police involved because they would try to get money off us and would always side with Latvians," Luke Stewart, a British accountant who organized a stag party in Riga, told the U.K.-based Times Online.
"So we went looking for him on foot and found him in a park on a bench. He was disorientated and his pupils were dilated 's he thinks he was drugged. He had recollections of suddenly feeling very drunk in the club and going out for some fresh air, then was taken by a group of men to a cash machine and forced to withdraw money. It was six hours before he was feeling normal again," Stewart said.
The problem has become so widespread that the United States Embassy in Riga has released a "black list" of clubs that tourists should avoid at all costs. The clubs are reportedly some of the worst offenders with regard to credit card fraud and other forms of abuse.
On Aug. 1, the Latvian-language daily Diena reported that there were four clubs on the list. The clubs were Foxy Lounge, Roxy, Groks and Pink Panther. Groks has recently shut its doors, but it is unclear whether the club had to close because of allegations of fraud or for other reasons.
The Baltic News Service, meanwhile, reported that other embassies have similar "black lists," but that most were unwilling to make the lists public. They reported that embassies have received numerous complaints of credit card fraud and of police inaction in combating the problem.
Nightclubs defrauding customers became a major problem for Riga following an influx of tourists after Latvia joined the European Union in 2004. One year ago, however, the problem had been almost completely eliminated.
"We have won a very important victory. Actually, we have not received a single application stating that someone was swindled using this service. Of course there will always be frustrated people, who think they have drunk less than they are charged, but there are no crimes of such kind," Riga Criminal Police chief Ints Kuzis told BNS in July of last year.
With the Latvian economy mired in stagflation and tourism on the rise, the problem has now come back in force.
"The problem seemed solved until this year, when similar problems appeared again. It is because there are an increasing number of tourists visiting Riga, and because we stopped our work with clubs for the moment because we thought the situation was okay," Dudko told TBT.
Dudko said the police had now resumed activities specifically targeted at combating the problem.
Riga City Mayor Janis Birks has vowed to see an end to the practice. He also said, however, that the tourists themselves need to be more careful and not become senselessly drunk while visiting night clubs.
"I would say that all those nightclubs mentioned before are really strongly examined now. I will insist on the active performance of the responsible authorities to diminish these kinds of situations. We shall really work hard to eliminate these cases," the mayor said in an exclusive interview with The Baltic Times (see Q&A Page 14).
"We also have to talk about the behavior of tourists and their culture. Unfortunately those going to these nightclubs are using alcohol excessively. We all know what excessive drinking means and what the consequences are," he said.
The police have already begun taking some action in stopping the practice. On July 31, the State Police arrested three employees of an Old Town nightclub for extorting more than one hundred lats from two German tourists.
A heated argument began after a waitress gave the tourists a huge bill. The tourists pointed out that they had not ordered many of the drinks they were charged for and refused to pay.
Nightclub staff then reportedly threatened the customers with violence if they refused to pay.
The three nightclub employees have been charged with "extortion in an organized group with the involvement of violence" and could face five to 12 years in jail if convicted.
The police action represents a start to solving the problem. The German tourists, however, have lodged a complaint alleging that the officers did not investigate the situation quickly enough.