Spot the difference

Spot the difference, real vs fake (hint: bottom 2 are fake)

Learning to spot the difference between real and fake bank notes in Colombia is an easy but important skill to have.

Regardless of how easy it is to spot the difference (and it is very easy by feeling the thicker paper and the pixelated print job), there’s a degree of difficulty added in. You can be awesome at knowing the difference and seeing the difference, but then environmental factors come in to play, which actually means you can get it wrong and end up losing money. Which is what happened to me today.

You see, when you are distracted or are just trusting, or naive, you are much more susceptible to falling victim to the bank note switcharoo.

Here’s how it happens.

You get to your destination and pay the taxi driver the fare. In my case, the fare was $6,900 and I handed over a $5000 and $2000 peso note, said thanks and then glanced down at my bag to pick it up and depart the taxi. I’d performed the transaction in a manner of ‘keep the change’.

Then the driver says, “This note is not good, please give me another one.”

I looked at the $5000 peso note he was giving me back, and sure enough, a single glance tells me it is fake.

I am surprised. I received it as change from Juan Valdez, and cashiers in stores are very vigilant about receiving fake notes. I don’t have another five thousand peso note to give him.

I then give the taxi driver a $20,000 peso note. He takes it and then says “Ufff, can you give me something smaller.” This is not an unreasonable request, although most taxi drivers can change a $20,000 note. I start looking in my purse and take the note back and shove it in.

I say I only have $4000 pesos. Taxi driver says “That’s okay, just give me that.”

I’m a little dubious about him accepting well below the fare, but give him the two $2000 peso notes and leave the taxi.

I was meeting friends for coffee so I showed them the fake $5000 peso note “Look what I got today!”

Later, as we were paying, I took out a $20,000 peso note out of my purse and as soon as I unfolded it, I knew it was fake too.

Scammed! I felt so silly and couldn’t believe that I’d gotten two fake notes totalling AUD$11.30 (a day’s minimum wage in Colombia).

In essence, the taxi driver had switched both the $5000 and $20,000 notes I’d given him for fake ones. He fooled me twice over, first by pretending I’d given him the fake fiver, and secondly by pretending he didn’t have change for a $20,000 note and switching my real note for a fake one.

I’ve only received a fake note once before, a couple of years ago when I got a $2000 peso note, also from a taxi driver.

Mistake #1 – taking a taxi in the street. Immediately upon doing this, you should pay a lot more attention to what’s going on. If you use a taxi app the risk of being fleeced is minimised and you can make a complaint because you have a record of the driver’s details. I should have taken note of the licence plate of the taxi I got in the street.

Mistake #2 – believing that I’d given him a fake $5000. No sir, that was not the case. You know when you have a fake note in your wallet. While you might not notice it when you receive it, you always spot the difference later when you go to use it for a payment.

Mistake #3 – not being on alert when the taxi driver handed me back money a second time after the first “this is fake” pass and paying closer attention to what was going on. Each time he only handed back one note so there wasn’t anything to compare between a fake and a real one.

Mistake #4 – thinking I’d been given the fake notes by a chain store (that had also given me a pamphlet about the security features of the new $50,000 notes about to be introduced, how ironic). If this kind of thing happens in a taxi, it’s far more likely that’s the origin of the fake notes.

So the take home lesson is be alert, be vigilant, and doubly so if you are a foreigner. It’s 78 days until Christmas, so robberies are going to go up and there are probably going to be more fake note scams going around. Keep your cash safe people!


The case of a little crash

On my way to work on the back of our motorbike today we were involved in a little scuffle with a taxi. No one was hurt, nothing was damaged, but this is what happens when you do have a little bingle.

After putting some air in the back tyre, we headed off along Carrera 19 towards Taganga, like we normally do. There is a bridge over a small river where I´ve seen people digging the silt out of the river to cart off to make bricks. This is illegal, but just the same as dumping used and broken concrete in whatever vacant lot is, it happens and most people turn a blind eye to it.

This bridge is just before a busy intersection, and what usually happens is the bridge becomes a traffic bottleneck. We hadn´t yet come to the bridge but had happened upon the traffic knotted in zero semblance of lanes. We were in the far left “lane”, next to a thin concrete median strip delineating the two directions and just before a gap in the median. We had come to a stop due to the traffic and the taxi beside us that had started to veer in our direction.

I thought the taxi would see us and stop veering, but no. While we were stopped, he turned over the top of us to do a U-turn. All of a sudden the taxi was brushing my leg and I put my hand out in front and banged on the back window because it was about to drive over the top of us.

The taxi driver stopped in the middle of the road and the turn, hopped out of his car and proceeded to start shouting at us. He said he had right of way, that he had his indicator on, that we weren´t allowed to pass on the left (last time I checked on this side of the world this is considered the fast and overtaking lane).

So mi novio started yelling back. “You didn´t even look before turning, you can´t do a U-turn here.”

Within seconds of the shouting we were surrounded by onlookers. People driving past suddenly pulled up their motorbikes and stopped to watch the argument. Colombia is a nation of sticky-beaks.

Another taxi drove by slowly and called out the window that the taxi had right of way. Other motorbike riders were throwing their two cents in saying the taxi was in the wrong. The taxi versus motorbike war had found a new site to battle on.

An unmistakable wine coloured stripe was smeared along the side of the taxi and further above that a longer black stripe that the taxi driver was claiming as our fault. Clearly the wine coloured stripe was from our bike from where the taxi had ridden over the top of us, but as mi novio tried to lean the bike away from the car, the higher black stripe was most likely not from our handlebars or bike. Needless to say, these stripes are easily removed with a slight amount of buffing and there were no permanent scratches to either our bike or the taxi.

The taxi driver wasn´t convinced, wasn´t happy and was in the mood to argue despite having passengers waiting to be delivered to their destination in the back of the taxi. He said he would call the police, although in these circumstances there is nothing the police can do; no one is hurt, nothing is damaged. The police just stand around and wait for the two parties to reach an agreement and direct traffic around the scene until such time.

As the taxi driver took down our number plate, I told mi novio to take a picture of the accident from our perspective on the bike. A photo to prove that the extent of the damage was only a washable transfer of paint and so that should the owner of the taxi come looking for us and ask us to pay for damages, we have grounds to refuse.

I´m extremely relieved that the little crash wasn´t any more serious. There are so many accidents in Santa Marta every day, and with the huge numbers of motorbikes on the streets, it isn´t surprising. Every day it is a struggle between cars, motorbikes and non-existent lane markings. Whilst we are in the motorbike camp and a motorbike is a much quicker mode of transport given that no traffic lights operate on a system giving the city good traffic flow, I do love every 10th and 25th of the month, when in Santa Marta it is dia sin moto. These are the two days each month where you can´t use your motorbike, and I relish the calm and peace in the streets.

I´m not a believer in the crack down and restrictions on motorbikes that are starting to come into effect for people, because I understand the importance of transportation in a person´s daily life and quite honestly, only a small percentage of people in Santa Marta can actually afford a car. We certainly can´t afford a car. But I do think that more efforts should be focused on making sure motorbikes have all the paperwork, including a license for the drivers, a roadworthy certificate and insurance. If all motorbikes met these requirements, I believe that the streets would be much safer, and maybe there would also be a greater respect for other road users and pedestrians.