Bolivia: The Story of the Uncle and Other Scams

They are often the oldest tricks in the book, yet people still continue to fall for them. In Bolivia, like other South American countries, a scam or attempt to con is often called “El Cuento del Tío” (The Story of the Uncle). According to Wikipedia [es], this term comes from a story told by a crook, who says that he or she received an inheritance from an uncle, but needs money to make the long trip to pick up the money. The crook asks for a loan with the promise that it will be repaid well above the amount lent. Naturally, the crook never returns from this ‘trip.’ There are many variations of these types of scams, but they all result in someone being swindled out of money or other valuables.

Several Bolivian bloggers started a meme inviting others to admit their own stories of being conned. Even though they can look back now, and even laugh at the unfortunate series of events, they serve a lesson for others. In El Alto, Alexis Argüello writes about his experience at buying a used mobile phone in one of the city's markets [es]. These marketplaces that are understood to sell stolen merchandise are notorious for being a place where one can get scammed. Argüello was prepared and took every precaution to make sure that the mobile phone he would purchase would be fully functional. After negotiating a bit, they settled on a price:

“Te doy 250″ le dije, “noooo, hazme una mejor oferta. ¿A cuanto encuentras este equipo en las tiendas?” me dijo mientras ponía las cosas en su lugar”, “yo sé, pero es lo que puedo ofrecerte” le dije, “mmmm, ya ni modo, porque recién lo he jalado” dijo, “vale, pero ojalá no sea yo tu próxima víctima” dije mientras sacaba el dinero y le pagaba. Así, recibí el equipo, miré de un lado a otro para cerciorarme de que no me vengan luego con el cuanto del tío “ese es mi celular joven y este el ladrón…”. Inmediatamente tomé uno de los vehículos de transporte público con rumbo a La Paz.

“I'll give you 250″ (approximately US$35), I said, “noooo, make me a better offer. How much do these phone cost in stores?” he said while putting the things in place. “I know, but that is all that I can offer,” I said, “mmm, ok whatever, because I just stole it,” he said. “OK, but I hope I am not your next victim,” I said while taking out the money to pay him. I was given the phone, I looked around to make sure that someone would not come with the Story of the Uncle saying “that is my mobile phone, young man and you are the thief…” I immediately took one of the public transport vehicles towards La Paz.

When he arrived to his office, the phone would not turn on. After some fiddling with the case, it broke open and he found that the phone was filled with putty. So despite being careful in order to not be the victim of an accomplice coming up to him after purchasing the phone, Argüello did not check the phone carefully. He says that even though he lost money on the deal, he can look back and laugh because life is too beautiful to get upset.

Many of these scams prey on people's emotions, in particularly, one's own sympathy towards others. That is what happened to blogger Pepe Fuentes in the city of Sucre. It took place at his office, when a woman approached with tears in her eyes saying that her son had died in a nearby town [es]. She needed money to bring the body back home for the burial. However, she only needed the remaining 80Bs. (approximately US$11) for the full amount.

fue tan convincente y tan emotivo que mi corazón de piedra se volvió por un rato humano, saque los 50 bs que tenía en mi billetera y se los di diciendo que con gusto le hubiera dado más si hubiera tenido, la otra me abrazo me agradeció y se fue.

(she) was so convincing and so emotional that my heart of stone turned into a human heart for once, I took out the 50Bs. (approximately $US7) and I gave it to her saying that with pleasure I would have given more if I had it, she gave me a hug of thanks and left.

It was only after the woman had left did Fuentes started to wonder whether he had been scammed, but just to make sure, he went to other nearby offices and asked if a woman had come in. Two other offices also gave money, but he still wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, until he saw something outside that convinced him otherwise.

pero después la veo en la tienda a media cuadra comprando una botella de trago riendo con un tipo, me ven, se suben a un taxi y se hacen pepa. Yo tenía razón!! Si me mamaron!! Claro que el tener la razón no me hizo sentir mejor, me dejo sin un mango en mi billetera y con una desconfianza ante futuras situaciones similares.

later, I saw in the store half a block away, the woman buying a bottle of alcohol and laughing with a man, they saw me, hopped in a taxi and drove away. I was right!! I was scammed!! Of course, being right did not make me feel better, it left me with an empty wallet, and distrust for future similar situations.

However, it is not always adults who try to scam money out of unsuspecting individuals for alcohol. Mario Durán of the blog Palabras Libres [es] came across a child who made up a story, and another who eventually revealed the true reason for the act.

Plaza Eguino. 1 pm. Joven, joven – escucho una voz que se dirige a mi. Miro y veo un colegial.
– ¿Que cosa?, respondo.
– Lo he perdido mi pasaje y vivo en El Alto, me dice con rostro compungido.
– ¿Cuanto necesitas?
– 3 Bs.-
Le doy las monedas… es dificil no tener pasajes y vivir lejos.

Camino unos pasos… digo para mis adentros “que caiman, he sido”. Retrocedo mis pasos, el mismo adolescente cuenta la misma historia a otro caiman, el adolescente me mira, le miro, empieza a correr y se pierde entre los automoviles.

La siguiente vez que escucho la misma historia con otros protagonistas, respondo “ya, cual minibus es, te embarco y te pago el pasaje”… algunos son cinicos y me responden “plata no mas quiero”. pregunto ¿y en que vas a gastar?, “en el tilin (juegos electronicos), pues”.

In Plaza Eguino. 1 pm. “Young man, young man” I hear a voice speaking to me. I look and see a school boy.
– “What?” I respond.
– “I lost my bus fare and I live in El Alto” (about a 20 minute drive from La Paz), he says to me with his sad face.
– “How much do you need?”
– “3 Bs.” (approximately $US0.40)
I give him the coins… it is difficult not having bus fare and live far away.

I walk a few steps… and say to myself “I was victim.” I retrace my steps, and the same boy is telling the same story to another victim. The boy looks at me, I look at him, he starts to run and he escapes among the automobiles.

The next time I hear the same story with other protagonists, I respond, “ok, which is bus is yours, I'll embark you and pay your fare” … some are cynical and respond, “I just want the money.” I ask, “and what will you spend it on?” (and they respond) “on video games, of course.”

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