STREET ROBBERY TECHNIQUE - Don't let this happen to you!!!

The following is a description of an attempted robbery my wife and I experienced in Quito, Ecuador in November 2008.  I hope this description will help others to recognise and survive similar robbery attempts.
My wife and I were both wearing backpacks while walking into the Old City area of Quito.  My backpack contained my digital SLR Camera, passport, jacket and other items. 

I stopped to take the camera out, used it to take a picture and then returned the camera into the backpack.  A couple of minutes later we were two thirds of the way along a busy narrow side street, on our way to visit a church named La Basilica, when someone behind me interrupted us to inform us that there was something on my pants.  We stopped and discovered about half a cupful of something clinging to the back of my pants.  It had an unpleasant appearance.  There was a smaller quantity of the same thing in the same location on my wife's pants.

This person immediately offered a prepared cluster of toilet paper taken from a small roll he was holding in his other hand.  I accepted it and began cleaning my pants.  Someone else then indicated that my backpack was also dirty.  I removed the backpack to examine it.  My wife was receiving the same treatment from these people.  She had smaller quantities of the same material in the same locations.

Once my backpack was off, someone attempted to take it from me, indicating he would take it into the shop, immediately in front of us, to clean it.  I refused to release my grip on it.  My wife was receiving the same treatment.

I placed my backpack at my feet beside my wife's backpack and, while maintaining control of it, returned to cleaning my pants.  After more unsuccessful attempts to take our backpacks, everyone around us began to indicate that we needed to look up.  Thinking that something (perhaps more of this material) might be about to fall on us, we both turned our attention upward.  There was nothing above that concerned me, so I immediately turned my attention back to my backpack and disocvered that it was missing.

I realised we had been manipulated by thieves and looked up the street in response to signals from the many bystanders around us.  Seeing nothing in that direction, I turned to check the street benind us.  

There were two policemen at the end of the street and one individual, separate from everyone else, moving across the street away from me and in the direction of the police.  He saw them and hesitated, attracting my attention and causing me to believe he was the culprit.  I hadn't yet spotted my backpack, but realising I had to react quickly, I immediately pursued him.  Since he was reluctant to get closer to the police and couldn't escape me by reversing direction, he halted and used a parked car to block the view of my backpack.  

I continued moving toward him and he reacted by dropping the backpack to avoid contact with me.  As he expected, I recovered the backpack first, allowing him time to escape.  With my backpack back in my posession, my next thoughts returned to my wife's safety and I immediately returned to her side.  Fortunately, there was no further interference with her.  

There were many observers on both sides of the street watching these events but nobody attempted to help us at any time.  We believe that three or more culprits were involved in this attempted robbery.  The police were obviously occupied with another event at the corner and never became aware of our problem.  With the confusion we had just experienced, the numerous participants and bystanders, and language problem, we decided to just get away from the scene.  

Within five minutes, we entered the Basilica which was our immediate destination.  My wife took her backpack off and sat beside it on a bench inside the church.  I took mine off, and placed it beside her's.  She then attempted to further clean her pants.  

Immediately, I was approached from behind by someone who indicated there was something on my back, again offering a prepared cluster of toilet paper from a roll in his other hand.  My wife came to my side and found some liquid yellow material on the back of my shirt.  This individual then indicated that the same material was on my wife's pants.  Again two people offered to help by cleaning our backpacks.  We refused any assistance, maintained a firm grip on our possessions and cleaned each other.

We noticed that both of the people involved vanished quickly, causing us to believe it was another attempted robbery.  They apparently entered the church behind us and left quickly without looking around inside.  We didn't see them again.

Our next objective was to find a washroom to wash our hands.  We asked the officials at the church entrance where we could find a bano (washroom) but weren't offered any assistance.  However, two young women (unable to speak english) offered assistance.  They led us down the block and around the corner, where the street was lined with small retail businesses.  We were taken into an exercise gym where they wanted us to leave our backpacks behind and then go to the washrooms at the rear.  At that point we were totally disillusioned, had no trust in anybody and decided to just get away from all of these people.

We believe the event in the church was a second attempt to take our backpacks, but are unsure what would have happened at the gym if we had allowed ourselves to be separated from our posessions.

I have heard may stories of bad experiences by others and thought that I was being careful enough to avoid a loss.  This experience has shown me how effective confusion and distraction can be and how quickly and easily I could be manipulated by skilled thieves and separated from my posessions. 

I hope that this description of our experience will help others avoid becoming the victims of similar attempts.

Ted Branton
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
November 2008

I have read of similar things before. One thing I would add is to always keep your passport on your person in a concealed body wallet, or better still leave it in the hotel safe. It is a lot easier to replace cameras than passports.


I wish I had read this before I went to Morocco last week as I was relieved of my bag containing passport, camera, phone etc in a very similar way by just one polite young man who approached me on the seafront in Essaouira offering a tissue to clean off the substance on my back which he indicated had come from birds. thinking about it now it was more like saliva than bird droppings.  A few minutes later he spoke to me again and pointed out a similar substance on the back of my trousers and small haversack type bag which he indicated should be dabbed off rather than wiped, and having got his hands on my bag he yanked it and was off on a bicycle through the narrow alleyways.  This resulted in me having to stay behind when my group left at the weekend until I got an emergency passport - definitely using a waist bag in future!



 We had a very similar experience last year in Buenos Aires just after arrival when we had cash stolen from zipped and velcroed body pouches by a very professional gang even though we had been warned earlier by another tourist , it was a case of distraction, very sympathetic plausible help offering and extremely light fingered technique I think we were fortunate to lose so little!It was a horrible experience which we immediately reported to police but it could have totally ruined our  ensuing trek.I will only carry minimal cash and that as concealed and close to my body as possible leaving passport etc in safety deposit box when in city in future and definitely be suspiscious of anyone offering unasked for assisstance - sad but necessary.

This also happened to me and my friend in Buenos Aires when we were having a few extra days after a wonderful trip to Antarctica. I think it is definitely a South American scam and apparently it is also operating in Madrid. In Buenos Aires the thieves are known as 'Mustardos' as they normally plaster you with mustard but it can also be mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, or anything else unsavory! It is definitely a dsitraction technique and some other fellow travellers were quite badly caught and lost a lot of money. Luckily for us, we had been warned and were not carrying back packs or anything valuable. My light grey trousers had a nasty tomato keychup stain on the backside all day though. However I reckoned that was telling other potential thieves that I'd already been 'done'! Just be aware and certainly leave everything back in the hotel safe if you can. I used a cheap camera which I kept in my handbag and the handbag was zipped and I kept it under my arm with the strap over my shoulder. Don't believe anyone who offers tissues to clean you up or tells you that there is a poisonous bird in the tree who has just splattered you! I was traking photos of birds at the time when I had lost concentration of who was artound me, which is why it happened but when I turned my camera onto the perpetrators, they didn't like that and soon ran off.


I'm afraid that this is an old chestnut.  When travelling, never let anyone you don't trust within three feet of you.

B Cooper

The same type of incident occured to me Buenes Aires but I realised what was happening and retreated. The plan was to take my money belt which was virtually empty since I had left most of my valuables in the room safe. This is quite a common ruse across South America and they even attack local people, an aquaintance living there told me of an attack on herself.

As I left the area, two Norwegians were walking towards me and I warned them and related a similar experience in La Paz.



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