One thing I always stress to expats living in Costa Rica is to trust your instincts. If something just doesn’t seem right, don’t just sit back and assume everything is okay. You really owe it to yourself to investigate. This includes anything you are doing – whether it is buying a house, conducting business, buying a car or renting an apartment.
The local news reports constantly of scams in Costa Rica. The Spanish word is “estafa”. In fact, if you Google the key word “estafa Costa Rica” you will see 178,000 search results. The OIJ has been in my house asking questions about my former neighbors, who were wanted for grand larceny and fraud. Many of those boiler room call centers, that were broken up in the 1990′s in the US, found a safe haven for operation in Costa Rica. These small call centers sell everything from real estate, to lottery tickets, to oil and gas expeditions, to coffee vending machines. Here is an interesting article http://amcostaricaarchives.com/2011/05/advance-fee-lottery-scam-earned-40-million-judiciary-says/ which describes the government breaking up some call centers in 2011.
When I first moved to Costa Rica, I was working as a consultant that required me travel to the US weekly. I needed to solve a couple problems that were created by my heavy travel schedule. First, I needed to pay my bills in Costa Rica. On more than one occasion, I would return to find that they had cut off my utilities. Online bill payment was not available then in Costa Rica. So, you still needed to receive the bill and go to a grocery store to pay it. Secondly, I was slightly concerned that someone was going to learn my travel pattern and steal my personal belongings while on a trip. I had no security system, so it would have been an easy job! I was in a bar that expats frequent explaining my situation to somebody. Bud was in the circle of people and told me he needed a roommate. At first, I was completely repulsed by the idea. I didn’t know much about Bud. After living single for so many years, it just felt like a step backwards. However, I was also concerned about the two points I mentioned earlier. Over the coarse of weeks, Bud continued to sell me the idea. We came to an agreement while I was on a trip via email. He explained that he would take care of paying utilities and keep the house guarded, while I was on business travel. I was never around anyway, so it seemed a practical idea.
When I arrived in Costa Rica, we shook hands on $400 monthly rent and I moved in about two weeks later. However, right away, a couple of things happened that just didn’t seem write. First, I grew tired of him cleaning out my liquor supply every week. He never replenished anything in the kitchen. This seemed very one-sided and I didn’t like it. Second, It seemed that I was paying all of the utility bills. The only difference was – he was actually making the payments in the grocery store. So, there must have been some ambiguity with respect to utilities, because I thought we were splitting the bills and he was just making the payments. Third, I noticed that there was a lot of office furniture, phones and computers around the house suddenly. It felt over crowded. I asked Bud about the office equipment, and he explained to me that they were remodeling his office and he was helping by storing some of the furniture. He stressed that it was temporary. But, somehow, I didn’t feel like he was telling me the truth.
I was not comfortable with this, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. I stayed and the following week I decided to make some changes to my travel plans. I wanted to relax on Monday and fly-out Tuesday. I told Bud that I had changed my flight to Tuesday. He kind of stuttered and told me he would be flying to Panama and some people might come in from the office. Again, I felt that he was not being honest.
On Monday, my girlfriend woke up first. She went to the kitchen to make coffee and told me there were people outside in the living room. I walked outside to find three guys working on computers and making phone calls. The place was also littered with brochures and photos of things related to Panama. I got some coffee and walked over to one of them and asked “What are you guys doing here?” His answer was “What the fuck are you doing here? We are working!” This made me jump back. He was rude and this felt very uncomfortable. I had no idea I would have to share an apartment with complete strangers who were extremely rude. I wanted peace, quiet and privacy.
My girlfriend and I went to my room to speak privately about what to do. But, we could still hear them outside. She told me she thought they are doing something bad. To me, it sounded like they were selling property in Panama. Actually, it sounded like they were raising money to invest in property in Panama. Huh! This was not part of our agreement. So, I walked outside again and asked if I could have a few minutes of their time. I told them that I was renting this apartment from Bud and was not aware that I needed to share the apartment with them. They laughed! They said Bud is renting this to you? This is our office. He is not paying rent. How can he even charge rent, its included in his salary. Heck – he is not even paying utility bills.
I contacted Bud via email in Panama and asked some hard questions. Of course, I received nothing but a bunch of bullshit explanations. So, instead of flying the next day, I decided to move back to my old apartment.
Now, what do you think was going on in that apartment? I’ll tell you what I know. They were selling investments in condominiums in Panama that didn’t exist. Have you heard of this business model before in Latin America? I’m not going to write anymore detail about this, because I want nothing to do with it. However, this is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning.
I found this book very interesting. It was written by a retired police officer that work in fraud detection. He explains many of the tactics that con artists use. Its a quick and interesting read.
I also liked this book. It explains how the boiler room call centers work and the type of people that work in them. This is exactly the scenario that I woke-up to in that house. Even the characters seem the same.