The National Police are stepping up efforts to catch petty thieves who prey on tourists and expats in Cuenca’s historic district. To be successful, however, they say they need help from those being targeted.
“We need foreigners to be vigilant for the common scams used by the thieves,” says police captain Jorge Avila. “We also need them to file police reports if they have been victims,” he adds.
The good news for Cuenca is that violent crime has been dropping in recent years, Avila says. “The city’s murder rate is one of the lowest in Latin America. On the other hand, the rate for petty crimes has remained relatively constant and we must remind foreigners and citizens alike to remain alert to protect themselves.”
According to Avila, scams in Cuenca are most common in parks, especially Parque Calderon, and the market areas around Feria Libre, Nueva de Octubre and Diez de Agosto.
These are the most common scams, according to Avila.
Tales of hardship. The victim is approached by a single person who tells a story of personal hardship. The stories vary, but usually involve an alleged robbery or injury or illness to a family member or friend. “The stories are well-rehearsed and are often very convincing,” says Avila, “but they are lies.” If they are successful, the victim hands over pocket money and occasionally takes the thief to an ATM machines to give him larger amounts of cash. The scammers are often other foreigners and almost all of them speak the language of the victim.
Lottery scam. In this case, called loteriazo, the thief says he or she has a winning lottery ticket worth thousands and shows it to the victim. At this point, the story can take several forms, including the thief suggesting he leave the ticket with the victim while he runs an errand in lieu of good faith collateral put up by the victim. It is the easiest scam to spot.
Group scam, or paquetazo. The victim is approached by one of the thieves, often a woman, but she is working with one or two others. The conversation can take several forms. The thief will have a question or offer a comment, will have money she says the victim just dropped, or will notice something on the victim’s clothing and begin removing it (the “mustard trick”). While the thief is talking to the victim, the associates are busy picking the victim’s pocket or taking items from his bags.
Take my baby. Although there have been only two cases of this crime reported, both in Parque Calderon, they occurred recently. A variation of the paquetazo, a woman with a baby will approach the victim and literally thrust the baby into his arms, saying she has an emergency and will be right back. As this is happening, her accomplices are taking his money and belongings. As they are leaving, one of the accomplices takes the baby too.
All of these scams can be avoided by simply being aware of them, says Avila. “If you are approached by someone you don’t know, be alert, and if there is any suspicion at all that they are scammers, leave immediately.”