San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Don’t let thieves steal your Christmas bonus!

This year, almost 1.5 million Costa Rican workers will receive mandatory Christmas bonuses, known as aguinaldos, starting on Dec. 2. But they’re not the only ones looking forward to a holiday payoff: Thieves are on the prowl, too.

Employers from public and private sectors will distribute some ₡879 billion ($1.7 billion) this holiday season. Costa Rican law stipulates that employers must pay the aguinaldos by Dec. 20.

“We’ve seen an increasing trend of scams [during the holidays] as a direct result of better public security measures [targeting street crime] and low incidences of other types of crimes,” said Alonso Vásquez, president of the Costa Rican Banking Association (ABC).

Although most scams are well-known, people still fall victim, and worse, many do not file police reports because of embarrassment.

Here are some of the most common scams to look out for this holiday season:

You are the winner! 

Prepaid cellphones are the preferred method for this scam, which often is committed by prison inmates and is one of the most common ploys.

The scammer calls and says a recent purchase in a store or at a shopping mall has automatically entered you in a raffle, and “you have won a prize.”

The main objective is to obtain personal information from bank accounts, which “must be provided as a requirement to collect the prize.” Your data is used almost immediately to make purchases or transfer funds via bank call centers, with legitimate information.

The fake messenger

Scammers conduct surveillance of companies to establish payments patterns, schedules and procedures. If they detect weak security protocols involving collectors’ identities, the criminals will show up on payday posing as messengers. Don’t hand over the checks!

“The mistake here is that some employees do not verify the identities of messengers and fail to follow proper security protocols,” Vásquez said.

Stolen IDs

Criminal groups buy stolen IDs and use them to purchase merchandise, mostly on credit, at stores that simplify credit requirements to attract holiday shopping with aguinaldos, particularly those that sell flat-screen TVs or other consumer items.

Crooks also use stolen IDs to withdraw cash from payday lenders who usually have minimal approval procedures.

Stolen blank checks

Some gangs target businesses that are closed for the holidays in order to steal blank checks (in addition to whatever else they can carry). They use the checks for Christmas purchases. Some stores will accept these checks without further proof of identification. Because the businesses are closed, “There is no one there to validate the checks, so committing the fraud becomes easy,” the ABC expert said.

The fake bank employee

This type of fraud is usually carried out at big bank branches with crowds of impatient customers. The scammer approaches mostly elderly customers or single parents with children who are waiting for their numbers to be called. The scammer introduces himself as a bank employee and asks, “What kind of service will you be requiring from the bank today?”

If the client says a cash deposit or payment, the crook offers to speed up the process, asking for the money and an ID “to perform the transaction at a special window.” Thieves often ask the victims to accompany them, but then disappear into the crowd.

Some banks do have extra staff to help speed up transactions, but customers are generally guided to a special window before any exchange is made. Those extra employees will never receive money or ask for personal information.

Traveling, must sell car immediately

The Chamber of Used Car Importers recently warned that the holiday season always brings an increase in used-car scams.

The most recent car-related scams use social media profiles and free classified ad websites that have little control over posted ads.

“There are car-scamming groups both locally and abroad,” said chamber president José Carballo Vargas.

International gangs advertise cars at surprisingly low prices, then use an email address or a phone number from abroad as contact information.

When an interested buyer contacts them, the fraudulent sellers claim the auto is up for sale because the “seller” had to “leave the country in a hurry.”

Another tactic is for the thief to pretend he or she is an expat who had to return to a home country, and now needs to sell the car bought while living in Costa Rica.

Thieves usually ask the victim for a cash advance to secure the deal, as they “cannot risk traveling back to Costa Rica” unless they are certain of a sale.

The victim then either sends the money to a foreign bank account or via a money transfer service and never hears from the “seller” again.

Fake buyers

Local thieves look for car classifieds and call to set up an appointment to inspect a vehicle. While on a test drive, the “buyer” will claim to hear “a weird noise” and tell the owner to check the engine. Once the owner steps out of the car, the thief drives away – incredibly cowardly, but effective.

Fake sellers

The other side of this scam is when buyers contact fake car importers who post ads offering great deals on used cars from the U.S. Buyers are asked to bring a small cash down payment.

“People give money to strangers in a surprisingly naive way,” Carballo noted.

In addition to scams, December and January traditionally register the highest number of car thefts. Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) records show that in 2012 a total of 4,060 police reports were filed on stolen cars, 339 of them in December and 392 in January.

ATM skimmers

ATM skimmer

ATMs should not have any device attached to the acceptance slot. Courtesy of FBI

Just like a legitimate card reader, an ATM skimmer reads a credit or debit card’s data and then stores the information. The device usually fits over the top of an ATM card slot and in some cases inside of it.

Scammers who glue skimmers onto an ATM frequently place a hidden camera pointed at the ATM’s keypad to record customers’ personal identification numbers (PINs). In more advanced models, the camera is actually attached to the skimmer.

U.S.-based security expert Brian Krebs, author of the blog Krebs on Security, says newer skimmers have a PIN pad overlay, a flexible piece of circuit-embedded plastic that fits perfectly over the ATM’s PIN pad.

The most basic skimmer has at least one flash memory, a battery-powered data-storage device, somewhere inside it, meaning the thief has to come back and retrieve the device in order to get the stolen data.

ATM skimmers also are going wireless, with Bluetooth-enabled models capable of transmitting up to a few hundred meters away. A thief across the street or in a parked car can access the information without having to retrieve the device.

The most recent models even are capable of sending text messages to mobile phones, allowing thieves to sit at home and wait for the payoff.

Security operation

The National Police and the OIJ on Monday will launch a special surveillance operation in downtown San José and at central cantons in each province.

The operation includes putting more officers on street patrols, and at key locations and sites prone to large crowds.

An increase in the number of tourist arrivals during the holidays also means the Public Security Ministry will add more police officers to patrols at popular tourist destinations and in high-traffic areas such as bus and taxi stations, restaurants and other locations.

During the holidays, tourists are mostly targets of criminals with counterfeit dollars, or those looking to steal cash, traveler’s checks, passports, and credit and debit cards.

Security officers at the Costa Rican Banking Association will join the surveillance operation by adding staff from 27 public and private sector banks and finance companies.

The security strategy will continue through early February, when employees – mostly from the public sector – will receive an educational subsidy known as the bono escolar.

Avoid scamming

Experts recommend very specific actions to avoid becoming a theft or scam victim:

• Do not carry large sums of cash, and use debit or credit cards only at well-known businesses.

• Watch for suspicious people at banks or in ATM lines.

• Do not use an ATM if the card slot look suspicious or has any object attached.

• Use indoor ATMs and avoid those that are poorly lit.

• Sign the back of your debit/credit card immediately upon receipt.

• Immediately report any stolen ID, or credit and debit cards to the bank and to the OIJ.

• Make sure you keep your bank balances safe and make sure to completely destroy ATM receipts or bank statements.

• Confirm the accuracy of calls or messages saying you won a prize.

• Trust online classified ads only from well-known websites.

• Never schedule meetings for buying or selling at remote locations or in crowded public areas, and never go by yourself. Be careful with personal information posted on ads.

• Never give or transfer money without professional advice, even if the offer seems too good to pass up.

• If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Contact L. Arias at

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