Scams & Safety
Cuenca, 29 Dec 2008
On Tuesday, I stopped in the plaza to study my Spanish language book a little before going to class.  It was a perfect day.  The temperature was just right and there was a bit of sun.  I was sitting on my favorite bench in front of the monument.  OK, so you know something bad is going to happen, right?  Well, a little old man shuffled by and I heard some keys drop.  Being the nice guy that I am, I took the 3 or 4 steps to pick them up and then a couple more steps to give them to him.  When I turned around, my small backpack had disappeared from the bench where I had (stupidly) left it.  I looked around and somebody nearby was pointing in one direction.  I looked in that direction and didn't see any obvious perps.  I looked around again and somebody else was pointing in the same direction as the old man had been walking.  I ran down in that direction and saw my bag sitting on the ground with one of the local security guards and a young guy just sort of staring at it.  I picked it up and then took the half dozen or so steps to catch up with the old man.  I grabbed him by the sholder and spun him around and said in a loud voice, "Malo. Muy malo".  He just gave me a shrug like, "Hey. I don't know what you're talking about".  I returned to the bench to reflect on what had just happened.  After a while, I laughed out loud - it had been a pretty good scam.  And I was VERY lucky that I didn't lose my bag (which had my laptop in it).  I figure there were at least 3 in the scam - the old man, the kid, and probably the first person who was pointing in exactly the wrong direction.  One of the vendors there who saw the whole thing asked me what had happened.  I explained it (although I'm guessing he had probably seen it many times before).  Then, I think to try to recover some shred of dignity, I told him that I will be in Cuenca for 2 months and if I see them again, I have a "golpe" waiting for them.  In hindsight, I should probably have asked the guard to detain the kid while I tried to collect up the old man.  And then gotten the police involved.  Oh well, I was lucky and it was a good lesson - the universe is a dangerous place.
Many of the travelers I've talked to (who tend to be pretty experienced - on anywhere between 2-3 month to 2 year trips) have either been robbed or have met others who have.  This is a wonderful place to be traveling but you do have to be careful.  See references below for some lists of common scams.
Watch out for the catsup/mustard scam (someone told me it happened to them twice in Quito within just three days - once in Old Town and once in New Town.  They were aware of the scam and did not stop).
Use a money belt to hold your passport, credit cards, and extra cash.  Keep only a small amount of spending money outside of this (as much as you're willing to lose).
Be wary of money changers on the street and at the border crossings.  One person who had been living for several weeks in Iquitos, said he changed some money on the street.  He said he can't figure out how he did it but the money changer counted out the 100 Soles (Peru's currency) and gave it to him to count.  He then counted it, put it in his pocket and went down to the store to buy some shoes.  When he took the money out to pay for the shoes there was only 10 Soles!  He said he'd really like to know how the trick worked - it was like magic.
That traveler also said he had had some things taken from his hotel room - some articles of clothing, a pair of shoes, and a necklace that he had made.  He had guessed it was done by the hotel staff.  He said that when he complained to the owner, the owner acted like he didn't understand him.  I'd suggest buying those little locks (they're for sale in lots of the little stores in Quito and the other cities).  They won't stop a serious thief who could easily cut them off or cut into the luggage, but I think will deter the casual housekeeper.
There have been 2 students in the language school here in Cuenca who have received counterfeit money - both said it was from ATM machines.  I saw the bogus money one had received - a 10 dollar note and a 20 dollar note.  They were very good fakes.  Comparing them with other notes, the color was slightly off and not all (but most) of the ink was raised where it should have been.  For the most part they looked the same.  The fakes even had the little security strip embedded in them.  There was a little crease on the surfase of the bill where the strip had been pressed into the paper and the ends of the strips stuck out very slightly.  I thought the "snap" was a little off.  The notes were detected when the school tried the marker on them (when the students innocently tried paying for their classes).  One student said he had gotten the money out of the ATM machine on the plaza next to the iTur office.  I'm not sure what to suggest.  Maybe try to pick an ATM machine like you would a restaurant - use one that seems to be popular with the locals (it might be worth it if you occassionaly have to wait in line).  I have been using the Pichincha ATM machine on Bolivar between Cordero and Borrero (which often has a short line BTW) and haven't had any problems so far.
Most of the stories I hear are about people having their bags stolen happens when they set it down.  Try not to.  If you do, try to keep in physical contact with it.  Sling your bag around to the front of you if you think you're in a dicey area.  The locals do.
My friend, Gene, in Guatemala was one of the most good-natured and friendly people I know.  He didn't speak Spanish that well, but would go into a bar of locals and pretty soon be great friends with everyone there.  One time we were talking, over beers, about safety.  He started raving about the country and the people - how friendly everybody was.  Then, almost as an afterthought, he told me the story of being in Antigua (the old colonial original capital of Guatemala) and having somebody put a gun to his back in what sounded like a busy area near the market.  Gene had been a cop for 20 years.  He spun around, knocking the gun away.  He said he then gave the guy a pretty sound beating (complete with broken ribs).  He said his only mistake was in not picking up the gun.  Apparently somebody else in the crowd got it first.  Maybe just as well.. if the police find you with a gun onboard, they reportedly will confiscate your boat.  There are stories of boats that had been confiscated being stripped down before the owner knew about it.  My impression is that Ecuador has a fair amount of petty crime.  In Guatemala, the guards in many of the places of business in Guatemala City usually have a sawed-off shotgun.  You go into a McDonalds and the guard at the door has a shotgun.  It is a little unnerving at first then you sort of get used to it.  [Hmm. I have a point to make here, but need a bit more time to express it.]
  Updated: Sucre, 8 Sep 2009
As we were waiting for the rest of the group to surface, the 2 fellow travelers and I started chatting - where we came from, our experiences in travelling through South America, etc.  As often happens, the talk turned to safety.  It turned out that both the young man from Germany and the husband of the young woman from Australia had had their cameras stolen the day before.  And it had happened, although at different times of the day, in roughly the same spot in the crowd watching a parade in Potosí.  The German had had somebody try to slit open his backpack shortly before but felt the would-be-robber nudge him and turned to stop him.  He said he was feeling pretty good that he stopped that thief (except for now having a slit in his backpack).  But then sometime later, somebody got his camera from his pants pocket.  He said he didn't know who - just the 10 second or so window of time when it occurred.  The young woman said her husband was aware of the theft as it was occurring but could not stop it.  They figured it was 3 women who sort of swarmed over him in the crowd and lifted his camera - also from his pants pocket.  He seemed to be very fit, I think either a soccer player (a.k.a. football) or soccer manager/coach.  His wife said that he had shouted to her, "I think I'm being robbed" as it was occurring but he couldn't get his hands down to fend off the thieves.  Jeez!
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