I done been had!

I spent this afternoon walking around Barranco, a Bohemian neighborhood in Lima. I was with a Canadian girl from my hostel and we’d been wandering hopelessly for about 2 hours looking for a crafts market we’d heard from hostel staff existed, but for which we declined detailed directions. As we were walking by a park, a taxi pulled up next to us and the driver asked me if I had change for a 20.

Apparently his passenger (a woman in her 50’s or 60’s) didn’t have bills smaller than 20 and they needed two 10’s. I had a 50, a 10, and some change. I was digging through the change to see if I had 10 soles’ worth and the woman said she could give me three 20’s for the 50 and 10, so I said alright. We traded the bills and I felt good about helping this woman out of a jam (entirely in Spanish, no less!).

The astute reader has probably figured out at this point that this was no ordinary bill breaking, but in fact… a scam! I tried to pay for lunch later using one of the 20’s and the waitress rejected the bill as “raro” (“strange”) but she couldn’t say for sure it was counterfeit. I clung to the hope that she was just confused; the bills seemed real to me. They had watermarks when held to the light and had special shiny ink in the right places. I tried someplace else and they said the bill felt wrong and wouldn’t accept it. Back at my hostel, I showed the bills to the staff at reception (both native Peruvians) and one guy said the bills were fine, just newly printed so they felt weird. Hooray! Sadly, the girl working with him immediately burst my bubble. The bills were definitely counterfeit. On real 20’s, the little purple/orange box in the lower left-hand corner has a subtle “20” in it when you look at it at the right angle and these bills did not.


So it’s official: I got scammed. I was taken for 60 Peruvian soles (about $22). I feel kind of stupid, but not that stupid. As far as scams go, I think this one was fairly non-obvious. At the time, I was aware of the fact that this could be a scam, but it seemed unlikely. I thought, “This requires a 30something cabbie to be in cahoots with this 50 or 60 year old woman.” If it was just a cabbie by himself I’d have definitely said no, but the tricky old woman / young man pair bamboozled me.

I had an inkling that something might be wrong when I went to hand over the 60 soles and the driver, not the passenger, was who traded the bills. Also, the president pictured on the 20 was FDR instead of Andrew Jackson, which should have been a big tipoff.

I asked at the hostel if this is a common scam and they said yes, but I’m not sure they understood the situation. They speak English, but not perfectly and once they realized I got scammed, they kind of assumed I was just an idiot.

Me: Is this a common scam? A taxi driver with a passenger?
Staffer #1: Oh, yes. A lot of taxi drivers give fake bills.
Me: No, I mean it was another passenger. I wasn’t in the cab. The cab pulled up and he had a passenger and the passenger needed change.
Staffer #2: Well, you should never get in a cab where there’s already a passenger inside. They’re going to do something bad to you.
Me: No, I wasn’t going to ride in it. They just wanted change. Is it common for taxi drivers to drive around with a passenger and pretend they need change?
Staffer #1: Oh yes. Sometimes they know each other.
Me: Okay…

I’m not totally convinced it was a planned scam. There’s an alternate explanation: the woman herself got scammed and had only counterfeit bills to pay the driver. The driver didn’t want to get stiffed on the fare, so they drove around looking for some stupid looking gringos to pawn off the money on. In any case, I’ll write it off as a $22 lesson in being a little more skeptical in my travels, which, as far as scams go, is pretty cheap.

This entry was posted in travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink

10 Responses to I done been had!

  1. If you haven’t been scammed, you haven’t traveled. Next time, just be prepared to out-trick the tricksters. Carry around your own counterfeit bills just in case. I can foresee nothing going wrong with that.

    When I was in Thailand, I just wanted to be able to walk around exploring like I could in Europe without someone asking me to come see a “Thai factory” to benefit the “Thai school children.” One day this guy asks me if I need directions, I say no, he insists on giving them to me, then calls over a tuk-tuk to take me there. I say no thanks, and then they give me a whole spiel about how it’s a special Thai holiday, so any tuk tuks with a red banner are free to ride in and they’ll give me a tour of the city. I know it’s a scam, but I’m like, hmmm I wonder if I can get a free ride out of this. So I said okay, but first I have to pick something up from my hotel. I went back, asked at the front desk whether or not this was a scam and if I would get my head chopped off if I went with them. The concierge said yes to the first, but no to the second. The “scam” was that they were going to take me to yet another one of these goddamn “Thai factories” in hopes that I’d buy some merchandise, and then the store owners would pay the tuk tuk drivers their gas money, but I’d still get to see the sites.

    So I hopped in the tuk tuk and away we went. After each site, the tuk tuk driver would be driving along, and then he’d hit his head dramatically and go, “I’ve got the best idea! I’ll take you by this amazing Thai factory!” After the third time that this happened I said to him, “Look, let’s be honest here. I know you’re doing this for gas money. Cut the act, just drop me at these places, I’ll pretend to be interested for five minutes, you get your gas money, and then we can go. Okay?” Deal. And so I ended up having a great free tour of Bangkok.

    This also lead to a joyous experience in one of these said Thai factories where a racist salesman asked if black people lived near me and I got to say, “Dude, they’re EVERYWHERE!” But that’s a story for another day.

    Hmmm… not sure what my point here was. I guess…. take advantage of the scammers before they take advantage of you! Although, that’s also a good way to get killed…

  2. Al Al says:
    yo Leah, no offense, but wtf. stop hijacking Mike’s blog. You totally counterblogged him within his comments. Comments are reserved for things like, “omg that’s so amazing. I totally plan to travel” or “im so jealous you’re so free out there.”
  3. Olivia Olivia says:

    OMG that’s so amazing. I totally plan to travel after I’m done posting 148,923 more posts about my work this busy season. I’m so jealous you’re so free out there.


  4. I know. It started out simple, then just kind of grew. I hesitated, then pushed submit anyway. I’m a douche.
  5. Carolyn Wakefield Carolyn Wakefield says:

    I did not know these rules about blogs. So glad I was informed before it was too late! I nearly commented about the time I took Jessalyn to Paris to see her book that was part of an art exhibit a few years ago and ALMOST got scammed by a young girl with a fake wedding ring that she “found.” But guess I now know I will just have to start my own blog to tell that story.

    Thank you Al!

  6. Carolyn Wakefield Carolyn Wakefield says:

    However Leah, I appreciated your story and now know how to workit when I get to Thailand.

    UMMM. at the risk of breaching blogging etiquette, anyone care to give me a very brief description of scams to watch out for in the Dominican Republic?

  7. Mike Mike says:

    @Carolyn – A friend sent me this blog post before I left and I found it useful. It’s based on South America in general, but I’d imagine it’s good to watch out for in DR as well.


  8. Carolyn Wakefield Carolyn Wakefield says:
  9. Al Al says:


    I’m excited that so many of these comments somehow refer to me.

    @Carolyn – I once made a friend named Jessalyn! It’s probably not the same person though.

  10. McKenzie McKenzie says:
    this is a great blog. hilarious and informative!

Comments are closed for this post