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.
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.