The Complete Bankers

Wine, women and song are popular local options to part visitors from their money, but there’s a less fun and more expensive alternative. Gareth Mason learns the hard way…

Credit card fraud is big business in South America and many of the exponents in Quito are masters of their craft. And when you compare the Ecuadorian minimum wage with what can quickly be extracted from the average gringo bank account, the sophistication is unsurprising. Hidden cameras, false card slots, and well-practiced sleight-of-hand head the favourites. And a drug that removes the willpower of those whose drink it’s slipped into sounds like a collaboration between Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. (But actually it’s made in Colombia.)
My own personal financial tragedy transpired one afternoon at Banco de Guayaquil on Avenida Amazonas. It was a classic combination of audacious, planned teamwork, and criminal technology.

As I strolled to the glass-fronted annex housing its cash machines, a young woman drifted alongside me. I held open the door for her and she entered first. But instead of approaching one of the machines, she stood instead in the rear corner with her back to the wall, while waving me towards one of the vacant dispensers.

A minute later, cash in hand, I went to leave. But the door was blocked from the outside by a sweaty, gurning man, who pointed inside to a swipe machine on the wall beside the girl. With her encouragement, he gestured for me to swipe my card to open the door. Ever keen to help, I did it seven or eight times, up, down, back to front – I’d have performed a traditional dance if it helped. It seemed to work and the man opened the door as if I had successfully triggered the lock...

It didn’t seem quite right, so the next evening, I checked by bank account just in case…
Wealth redistribution is all very well, but 2,000 dollars in less than 36 hours exceeded my charitable instincts. My card had clearly been copied in the machine temporarily ‘installed’ in the bank. Every few hours, withdrawals were made up to my cash limit and well into my overdraft. Only on an academic level am I interested in how large the deficit would be if I had not pursued my paranoia instinct.

Less surprised were the bank staff where the heist took place – or in its main branch on Avenida Colon. My tale of criminal genius didn’t raise an eyebrow, let alone an apology, or the effort to pick up a pencil and record the details. ‘Your bank can get the money from our bank,’ I was told in a flat monotone by the woman from customer relations as she contemplated the more urgent state of her fingernails. We agreed on one point only – that the bank generally didn’t mount swipe machines on its walls.

Thankfully, she was right about the money. Within a few months, I got it all back. Many others have lost much more, and never seen it again depending on their bank and how quickly it was reported. Perhaps it helped that I wrote my own police report – stamped without being read – and in Spanish so deliberately bad that it wouldn’t make sense to anyone in England, even if they spoke the language, and knew where Ecuador was.
Not all card-carrying gringos are so lucky.

Quito Sun 2004