Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gringo con-man

Abby's post on how living in Santiago has forced her to be less gullible made me think back to a particularly memorable experience I had while living in Quito. One afternoon, I was preparing to board the bus to go to work when a gringo approached me and said, in English, "Hey, I'm really sorry to have to do this, but some guys just stole my friend's and my jackets on the bus. Our passports and all our money were in the pockets. Do you think you could help us out with a few coins?"

It wasn't that hard to believe. Petty street crime is relatively common in Quito, and most of my friends -- Ecuadorian and foreign alike -- who had lived there for extended periods of time had had a cell phone or wallet swiped at some point. Fortunately, I went an entire 14 months without losing so much as a quarter -- unless, of course you count all the times I was charged the "gringo price."

But back to this particular gringo. Like I said, what he was claiming was completely conceivable. And I'm all for lending a hand to another foreigner in need. Still, I didn't give him any money because 1) my bus was about to leave, 2) I didn't feel comfortable pulling my wallet out on a busy street corner and 3) call me cynical, but something about the situation just seemed off. There was something a bit too unshaken and a bit too practiced about the whole thing.

"I'm really sorry that happened to you. Good luck," I said to him as I boarded the bus.

Later that day, I mentioned what had happened to my coworkers. "Yeah, there's a gringo that does that," one of them said.

"You mean he makes up stories about getting robbed to get money from other gringos?" I demanded, taken aback.

"Yep. He hangs out in La Mariscal (a touristy, bar-filled area of Quito) and does that."

Holy crap. I had considered the possibility that the guy had blown all his money partying the night before or something like that, but it had never occurred to me that tricking other gringos was the way he financed what apparently was a long-term stay in Quito.

I was pissed. I began preparing a speech for the next time I saw him. It went a little something like this: "Hey, did you ever find your jacket? Oh, that's too bad. I know how frustrating it is when someone tries to take advantage of you just because you're foreign. But Quito's still great, isn't it? I like it so much that I decided to live here. I have a lot of gringo friends who did, too. You know how we support ourselves? We got jobs, which is pretty damn easy for gringos to do here. With that in mind, don't you feel a tad bit guilty about tricking other people into financing your awesome vacation in a country where there is so much real poverty? So no, I will not help you out with a few coins."

Unfortunately, I never saw the guy again. So if a short gringo with dirty-blonde dreadlocks asks you for money in Quito after feeding you a story about a jacket, would you mind giving him the speech for me?


Kyle said...

The same thing, same guy with same story (although it was actually a Tico who had just learned really good English and barely had an accent, and when I questioned him on it he said he was from New Zeeland. Ha! He so wasn't) happened to us in Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, it's taken me a lot longer to lose my naivete and I did give him a lot of coins. Looking back, I'm like, wow, was I really that stupid?!?

Ale Gomez said...

I saw him a couple months ago and I trusted him. I felt terrible because I didn't have money at these time. But now I know the truth!!! Thanks Leigh for the advice, your blog is great. I read it always. ;)

Leigh said...

I can't believe he's still at it! Scamming gringos must be quite lucrative. The next time you see him, would you ask him a little about himself? I'm curious. Then you can tell him what a jerk he is.

Leigh said...

And Kyle, having faith in human goodness doesn't make you stupid! I wonder sometimes if I haven't let cynicism get the better of me. I'm afraid that someday I'll ignore someone who actually needs help because I'm so worried about making sure I don't get taken advantage of. It's a hard balance to strike, and I don't think I've found the way to do it yet.

Julie said...

I look at it this way... If I helps someone, believing they really need help, and they are scamming me, that's on them not on me. I still did the right thing. Same with giving to a charity. If I believe I'm helping someone by donating to a charity, but the charity is misusing the money, I can't help that. My initial donation was done for the right reason. That's not to say I don't try to give to organizations that use donations wisely. My cousin had a great idea, he saw someone with a sign on a freeway off ramp with a sign asking for money for food for his children. Instead of giving money, (not knowing if the money would really be used for food) he went to a fast food place and bought a bunch of food and took it back to the person.

Sara said...

Another blogger who I read said he was approached in Brazil by a homeless, American beggar. The guy just ended up staying there and begged for a living. He gave him a hard time about not giving him any money too. People suck.