Backpacking Scams: The distract & Grab in Ecuador

There I sat in Quito, Ecuador with an egg McMuffin in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Needless to say I was a happy girl.

backpacking scams

We were 2 weeks out from the end of our 7-month backpacking trip in South America. Having explored the beauty of Machu Picchu and the vastness of the Salt Flats, I felt immensely happy that we’d conquered so much on our trip and on the other hand I felt incredibly excited at the thought of going home to see our families and friends.

Before leaving for our trip, and having heard countless horrifying stories of other people’s experiences in different parts of South America, our safety was something that we were very concerned about.

scam in quito

Feeling annoyed and embarrassed that we got scammed in Quito

Would we get kidnapped in Brazil? What are the chances of us getting mugged in Colombia?

Well, having travelled in Brazil and Colombia as well as lots of other ‘dangerous’ countries, we actually felt relatively safe and we hadn’t encountered any problems. Granted, there were a handful of situations where we walked a little faster or switched carriages on the subway to escape the presence of someone that we may have felt uncomfortable with, but not once did we feel threatened.

So, as I sat eating my egg McMuffin and sipping my tea, I felt like we’d just jumped the last hurdle and we were heading for the finish line. We’d survived yet another trip without losing a phone or getting mugged – or so I thought we had anyway.

Little did I know that someone was planning to steal my phone, and that someone was sitting just a few seats away from me.

The reason for the trip to McDonald’s (apart from the McMuffin of course) was they had free Wi-Fi of course!

We had arrived in Quito the previous day and we had a nagging inbox of emails to get through.

My phone was perched beside me and our 2 laptops were open and our fingers were tapping. We were half way through the emails when suddenly I got a tap on my shoulder from a lady telling me that my coat was dirty.

Having inspected my coat after removing it from the back of my chair, I noticed that my coat was dirty. In fact, it was covered in what I thought was some sort of off-colour chocolate sauce.

Hmmm…well this is strange I thought to myself. I didn’t order anything with chocolate sauce on it.

As I was in the middle of replying to an email, I thanked the lady for telling me about the chocolate sauce and I turned back to my laptop to finish the email.

A few taps of my keys later, and I felt a second tap on my shoulder. Getting a little annoyed at this point, I turned around to see the same middle-aged woman dressed in a business suit pointing at my jacket again.

This time she had a tissue in her hand and began wiping my jacket while holding her nose with her other hand. She was obviously signifying that my coat was smelly and I should be doing something about it.

Hmm…smelly brown stuff.

Surely the brown ‘chocolate sauce’ wasn’t…

It couldn’t be…could it?

Oh yes – you better believe it!

After inspecting my coat a little further, the lady (and I say that word lightly) was right. Here I was sitting in McDonalds with a coat that was covered in what could only be described as diarrhea (sorry if you’re eating!).

After proclaiming my disgust to Carlo and dismissing his claims that the brown smelly brown stuff was in fact bird poo, I hit off to the bathroom to clean up – just like that ‘lady’ wanted me to.

Whilst I was gone, Carlo began to hammer away at the laptop. It was nearing lunchtime now and the place was buzzing with office workers who were coming in to get their fix of processed fatty food.

Moments later (while I was still tending to my ‘shitty’ jacket in the toilet), an older man who was also well dressed tapped Carlo on the shoulder and pointed to some keys on the ground.

Without giving it a second thought, instinct kicked in and Carlo bent down to pick up the keys. As one does. Subconsciously he knew they weren’t his keys but he bent down to pick them up anyways.

Literally 2 seconds later, the head popped up from under the table and he put the keys beside him on the table with the intention of handing them in behind the counter when the queue calmed down a little.

I emerged from the toilet about 10 minutes later with a wringing wet jacket and a “what the hell happened” look on my face.

Before I even sat down on my chair, I noticed my phone was missing. After pleading with Carlo to give it back to me (he likes to hide things on me sometimes), I knew by his stern reaction that he wasn’t playing tricks on me this time.

My phone was gone.

It couldn’t be gone Flor. I was sitting here the entire time. I didn’t leave my seat for crying out loud.”

“Did you bend down to pick up anything, or at any point did you take your eyes off the table?” I asked.

“Well I did bend down to pick up some…”

That’s it!,” I said. “We’ve been scammed.”

scam in ecuador

Sitting in a cop car on the way to file a pointless report

Backpacking Scams: The distract and grab scam in Ecuador

We called the manager immediately and asked to see the footage from the security cameras that were pointing right on our table. To make an extremely long story very short, here’s what we saw when we eventually got access to the footage:


We were being watched from the moment we stepped our hungry asses into the building. There they were – 3 men and one woman, all middle-aged to elderly and dressed in suits – watching us as we sat and stuffed our faces.

The 4 of them were huddled in the far corner plotting their distract and grab technique. We were oblivious to the fact that one of the men sat directly behind me and threw a bag of shit on my jacket. I do not like to think about where it came from or how he even got it into a plastic bag. Ew.

As the poo settled and he made his exit, the woman approached me to tell me that my coat was dirty. As stated above, I fobbed her off as I genuinely thought it was chocolate sauce or some other kind of runny brown sauce.

Not satisfied with my response, she moved from her seat behind me to tell me again that my jacket was not only dirty, it was smelly too.

With feelings of anger and complete “oh my god, you’re such a fool”, I watched myself get up from my chair and go to the toilet.

At this point, I knew what was coming next.

Impassive to what just happened, Carlo can be seen hammering away on his keyboard. A moment later, he is approached by the third man who points at the ground in a casual ‘pick up your keys quickly’ kind of way.

The fourth man was standing close by our table pretending to be on his phone, and he took his cue perfectly. While Carlo bent down for literally two seconds to pick up the keys, the fourth man snatched my phone off the table and hit for the door.


We had done exactly what they wanted us to do and boy did we feel like fools. I had watched people getting pick pocked and scammed on TV shows before and more often than not, I thought, “how could you be so stupid?”

Now, here I was phoneless in McDonalds saying it about myself.

The police were called and we were taken to the police station to file a report but we knew that I’d never get the phone back. It was just a matter of formalities at this stage.

With us having very little Spanish and the tourist police having virtually zero English, the police figured it would be best if I wrote my own police report and asked me to sit behind the desk when we got to the station, which is exactly what I did!

Imagine having to file your own police report!?

scam in ecuador

Florence typing up her own report much to the amusement of the police!

Having done a little research online afterwards, the ‘distract and grab’ scam is quite common in Ecuador. Well, I sure wish someone had told me about it!

Scammers use everything from ketchup, mustard and poo (obviously!) to distract tourists while a second accomplice grabs whatever the hell it is that they want.

Had I known this, I certainly would have been a lot more cautious when the woman approached me to tell me that my coat was covered in poo. I certainly wouldn’t have thanked her nicely and skipped off to the toilet like a good little girl while her accessory to theft stole my phone. Well, I hope I wouldn’t have anyway!

At the end of the day when all is said is done, it was only a phone – a Galaxy Note 2 that has since been replaced. Luckily, my photos were all backed up to my Dropbox and Carlo was able to lock the phone as soon as we figured out what had happened.

I just felt violated after it happened. How could someone throw human poo (or any kind of poo!) on some ones jacket?

Let’s just say I was glad to be leaving Ecuador after that happened. But I wasn’t going to let it ruin the end of our trip or taint the great few days that we had just spent housesitting for a lovely couple in Cotacachi, a small town in northern Ecuador.

And considering the fact that we were told that we’d probably be kidnapped by a taxi man and mugged at gunpoint, getting a phone stolen in McDonalds isn’t actually all that bad. As well as muggings and kidnappings, there are plenty of other backpacking scams that we could have fallen victim to so things could have been a lot worse.

We managed to get a few pictures of the fiasco, but excuse the not-so-great quality as they were taken with Carlos phone.

Apart from me obviously, have you ever heard of anything like this happening to someone else in Ecuador or South America? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!