Monday, February 12, 2024

Identifying with the Victims: We Can’t Always Avoid Being Scammed!

Beginning in the Old Testament, God tells Moses not to mistreat foreigners, to use only honest standards with all, and to deal honestly with others in business transactions (Lev 19:33-35; Deut 25:13-16). Proverbs 11:1 explains, “The Lord detects dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him” (TNIV). God summarizes: “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another…Do not defraud your neighbors or rob them. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight” (Lev 19:11-13 TNIV). “You shall not steal” and “you shall not defraud” are part of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus repeated to the devout rich man (Mark 10:19; Exod 20:15, 17). Moreover, thieves do not inherit God’s kingdom, according to the apostle Paul (1 Cor 6:10).

Nevertheless, whenever we travel, Bill and I can be sure of two things: we will get lost and we will lose money. In our latest visit to the Dominican Republic, just before we left the lovely Caribbean beach in Boca Chica, we fell for a “bait and switch” scam. We lost between $20-40, depending on how you calculate it. I thought it would be lovely to eat our last lunch at the beach side on the sand overlooking the turquoise sea. The prices of the seaside restaurants are higher than the prices of the inland restaurants, but we found one posted on a fence that was more reasonable: 500 pesos (c. $8.60 US) for grilled chicken and one side dish. That sounded good. As we looked, some young men ran up to us and offered us some comfortable seats right there at the edge of the beach. I mentioned in Spanish that we wanted two grilled chicken meals and one bottle of water, as directed by the posted menu. They showed us a menu quickly and I nodded. “What side dish would we like?” we were asked. “Rice and beans, fried potatoes, or fried green plantains?” We went for “rice and beans.”

It took a while to get the meal, but meanwhile we enjoyed our view and the gentle trade winds. Eventually our meals came, dry, over grilled chicken, each meal with a small amount of rice and a smaller portion of beans and our water. We had to wait longer for our silverware. When we were finished, we asked for the check. To our shock, it announced 3,300 pesos ($56.90 US). How did a maximum $22 meal turn into $57?

The men (now there were about four of them, all in official looking blue shirts) showed us another menu and explained that the menu posted on the fence was for a different restaurant (the Beach House) than the one for the tables in front of the fence on the beach itself. In their menu, the chicken had one price, the rice another, and the beans another, plus the taxes, and the tip came up to their new price, 3,300. We were furious! After complaining to the servers, I yelled aloud in Spanish to the other customers that we were being robbed! No one said or did anything. I crashed two seats hard onto the sand in anger to create a ruckus. One of the servers told me to be respectful of the chairs (but I guess not respectful of tourists!)

Finally, all we managed to do is get them to lower their price 500 pesos to 2800 ($48 US) in order to quiet down our protests. (Bill noticed a third beans charge had been slipped on the bill as the last entry, so that justified a reduction.) This discount was shown on our server’s cell phone. We emptied our wallets and paid and, after complaining to the servers again, left in anger and frustration.

We mentioned to our hotel receptionist what had happened as we left. She said she had warned us about doing any business with men in blue tourist shirts. Somehow, I had not seen the transaction as a business deal! These men had been on the beach every day. How could they be thieves?

Later, I thought of other options we could have done.

1)   Taken their menu, added up their overpriced 750 +750 pesos meals and 50 pesos for water and 100 pesos taxes and 155 pesos tip for a total of  1805 pesos ($31 US) and refuse to pay separately for the rice and beans.

2)   Give them 2000 pesos ($35 US) and walk away. (I did offer them 2000 pesos but they refused to accept it!)

3)   Complain to the police or tourist center. But, not all police in the Dominican Republic are trustworthy. And, unfortunately, the server grabbed the bill before we left, and gave us no copy.

At least, we were not stupid enough to charge the difference, as they suggested!

What did I learn from this humiliating experience? I learned to be more empathetic with people who are scammed. Thieves are often professionals. They get you angry, frustrated, and confused.

I mentioned the scam to a friend in the Dominican Republic who shared with us a recent incident of tourists in a luxury hotel in the DR who were robbed $8000 from their hotel room. Without written proof for the money, the hotel would not reimburse them.

Then I read in the local Diario Libre newspaper about a new software called Deepfake where an investing corporation in Hong Kong lost over 25 million dollars. Artificial Intelligence had imitated high-ranking officials in a conference setting.[1]

Our loss could have been much greater!

We need to remember that the responsibility for the theft rests with the thief, not the victim (or the mark). The person scammed may do his or her best to avoid the theft or just stumble into it, but before God the thief is responsible. Scamming is stealing. Scamming is defrauding your neighbor. A wronged neighbor is not the cause of the theft. Unfortunately, in our post Christian societies, creative ways to steal continue and increase.

 It is easy to flow with culture and adapt current morality, but, rather, let us do all we can ourselves not to steal and let us try to help one another not to be robbed. Remember, while God condemns theft, honesty finds favor with God and keeps us in God’s kingdom.



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