How I Fell For The Popular Colombian Scam: Street Shoe Shining
Living here in Bogota, I pride myself for blending in with the locals like a chameleon. I’m not blonde, I’m not tall, and I dress just like everyone else. As a matter fact, no one can tell I’m not from here until I open my mouth to speak. And truth is, I love it. Plus, if I avoid words with the letter ‘r’ I even sound pretty authentic.
Blending in avoids making me a target in the city full of petty theft. Not to mention, it helps me get good deals instead of tourist prices.
Nonetheless, this didn’t exempt me from being a victim of what I later found out was a common scam in Bogota.
Shoe Shining: The Popular Colombian Scam
You will see shoe shiner’s on the streets all over the city. For me, this concept was new. Although it seems old-fashioned, I found it nonetheless, amusing.
One day I was running errands and knew I would be going to Andino, a popular mall in the city. I wore my dirty leather ankle boots on purpose with the intention of having them shined.
As I come out of a store, I see a man shining his shoes and decide to give it a go myself. As the shoe shiner is finishing up polishing his client’s shoe, I ask him the price and he tells me, “tres mil” or about $1USD. So I say OK sure, why not. I confirm the price as I see that the client hands over a $5,000 COP peso bill and the shoe shiner hands back $2,000 COP.
Confirmed. It was $3,000.
I’m up next. I put my foot on his little stool and he gets down and starts polishing boot #1. While he’s down there, he mumbles to my shoe but I don’t answer as I don’t understand a word he was saying.
All of a sudden I see my boyfriend, a local bogotano, who just so happens to be wearing leather shoes as well and thinks it’s a pretty good idea to join me and get his shoes shined as well. I tell him it costs only $3,000 COP and another colleague of the shoe shiner rushes over and starts working on his shoes.
I finish first but as I’m about to handover my shoe shiner at $10,000 COP bill, he tells me the final cost is $26,000 COP, about $8.50 USD!
I freaked out and tell him he told me it was $3,000 COP. But he replies telling me I misheard and that is was $13,000 COP per shoe! Of course, he was obviously taking me for a fool and playing on the fact that I was a foreigner, saying that I didn’t understand.
I’ve only been speaking Spanish for the past 10 years…but OK.
You would think that I threw a fit. But there’s something funny that happens inside you when you know you are being scammed in the moment. Every person reacts differently. For me it was fear. I knew I was being scammed, yet I was unable to stand up for myself. I froze. I looked at my boyfriend in hope that he would save me but I had no such luck. He didn’t know what to say as he wasn’t there when the shoe shiner told me the price.
I was scared that if I didn’t pay him he would pull a knife on me or who knows what else. He didn’t have anything to lose after all. So foolishly, I paid him the $8.50 USD. Ouch. That really hurt.
But even worse, my local Colombian boyfriend also fell into the popular Colombian scam. He felt obliged and he paid his shoe shiner $20,000 COP. We both walked away red hot and furious. I don’t know why we didn’t approach the police on the street corner or make a scene as we were out in a very commercial area. I guess fear just took over.
A few months later, I was decided that I wouldn’t let the shoe shining experience be the last of it. Once again, I went to another popular area where shoe shiners set up shop and approached one of the men asking for the price beforehand.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. The guy was unable to give me a total price for both boots and quoted me for half the boot, the full boots, both boots.
He was playing stupid so I simply walked away. Angry. But at least I hadn’t gotten ripped off. I’d just clean my dirty boots at home myself.
And yet again a year later my boyfriend also gave it another go. Same price: $3,000 COP. But once again, the shoe shiner upped the amount. Unluckily, he only had a $50,000 COP bill on him (about $17 USD). The shoe shiner snapped the bill right out of his wallet and gave him back $30,000 pesos.
My boyfriend didn’t put up a fight as he was alone with two men. And out of anger, he starts taking pictures of the guys with his phone, telling them he would denounce them. Not very smart. One of the guys almost stole his phone.
After sharing our unlucky shoe shining stories with friends and colleagues, we found out this was a very popular scam in Bogota. We weren’t the only ones.
It’s happened to tourists and locals alike. So if you’re visiting Bogota and feel enticed to try to get in on the shoe shining experience, take my advice and save yourself the trouble.
It’s not all that anyways.