National Police warn Cuenca expats and tourists about common street crimes and scams

May 27, 2024

The National Police are stepping up efforts to catch thieves and con artists who prey on tourists and expats in Cuenca’s historic district. To be successful, however, they say they need help from those who have victimized.

Distraction is a common tactic of street thieves.

“We need foreigners to be vigilant for the common scams used by the thieves and to protect their belongings, especially cell phones,” 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 in contrast to the sky-high numbers on the coast, Avila says. “The city’s murder rate is one of the lowest in Latin America. On the other hand, the rate for petty crimes, pickpockets and scams, has remained constant, and we must remind foreigners and citizens alike to remain alert to protect themselves.”

In particular, Avila warns of one type of crime that rises above the level of petty crime. “We have investigated three cases in 2024, two of them involving foreigners, of robberies after individuals have withdrawn substantial amounts of funds from local banks,” he says. “In all the cases, the victims were approached by two or three armed men as they walked alone within blocks of the bank. One man was on his way to his attorney’s office to deliver money for a real estate closing. Another had withdrawn funds to pay an attorney for visa fees. It is very, very important never to carry large amounts of cash. If funds are needed for a major purchase, a real estate closing, payment of a debt or whatever, always insist that it be transferred electronically.”

Avila said one arrest was made in a late February case but the money — about $11,000– has not recovered. He added that robberies following bank cash withdrawals are sometimes an “inside” job involving bank employees who observe the transaction and then contact associates outside the bank. In other cases, he says, the thieves pose as bank customers and observe transactions within the bank.

Avila says the vast majority of crimes committed in Cuenca, are pick-pockets and common scams that occur in popular public areas such as Parque Calderon, and the market areas around Feria Libre, Nueva de Octubre and Diez, de Agosto.

These are the most common scams to be on alert for, 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 your surroundings and vigilant of strangers who approach you, 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.”

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