Scam Artists Extraordinaire
Roatan is a heaven for scam artists and it has been for a long time. Maybe from the times of the pirates, maybe even from the time of the Spanish slave raiders that earned the trust then kidnapped the local Paya Indians to sell them on slave markets of Cuba in 1500’s. On Roatan everyone has a chance to live out their dream, no matter how plausible or damaging to others. If they wanted to be an electrician, but didn’t go to electrical school, or bothered to become license, no problem. If you want to do a development, do a phonebook, save some orphans, that’s just great. Roatan is the place for you, no matter how little experience, or bad intentions you might have.
Few of us get suckered by rude, ugly and suspicious. The scammers we should all be most careful of are the ones that are charming, well spoken and charismatic. The most successful “matchstick men” and women of Roatan are the ones that evoke association with large established organizations or announce their goal as helping children abused or sick.
Child Sponsorship International, an orphanage project in Sandy Bay has left a legacy of both financial and psychological abuse. B, a charismatic founder of the project was run off the island in disgrace. A few months later B begun repeating his scam in Kenya. His website is full of pictures of B smiling and hugging Kenyan children and asking for donations to “support required to sponsor a child [of] $29” so he could continue to do so just like he did it on Roatan.
Ironically, in many of the photographs from www.kenyakids.org B is wearing a shirt with a clearly visible “Honduras’ Policia de Tourismo” logo- a souvenir of Police support from his six years on Roatan, and only reference on the website he has ever been to Honduras.
As there are no active organizations that protect us from the constant and growing tide of scammers. The situation is even more difficult considering that the government officials itself engages in “scam like” activities. For example, some tourists might find that the Honduras immigration is a scam designed to extract and punish you for visiting the country. One day of overstaying your 30 day visa will cost you $150 and no receipt.
Some scammers set out to scam their victims, others just fall victim to their own unpreparedness and lack of ethics. The Smart Pages, a phonebook project that ran well in the hands of its founder in 2003-2005, dwindled and turned into an object of dread when ran by D, a person that took it over.
I believe that D became an involuntary scam artist and never wanted to run away with clients money that was paid to create a 2008 phone book. She just focused all her energy on convincing people to buy advertising and had no energy, nor money to actually print the book itself. Either way, hundreds of Roatan business paid up-front for something they never saw and it left a bitter taste in their mouth.
The best scammers work in teams. They produce a smoke and mirror aura of legitimacy; association with organizations that are big, legitimate and work for a “good cause.” No one controls or checks if they work with a business license have legitimate experience in their field or a represent a real company.
In the last decade, by far the most common on Roatan has been the land and development scams. Hundreds of people have put money down for projects that never saw the light of day. If you say you’re representing a big foreign company doing a project here, few will check if it is really true. You put your $50K down and expect an international resort. Too often years go by and development is nowhere.
Even I fell for a tax shelter scam that pretended to help abused girls on the island. It all begun when I found myself trusting C, the person on the ground for Kids Matter International (KMI) responsible for organizing and fundraising. With the benefit of hindsight vision I should have known better.
The board of KMI flew in on jets from US, partied and walked Roatan’s beaches. They gave away tee-shirts with fancy logos and cried crocodile tears about how they are here to help the abused girls.
Unfortunately, Honduras is a country where too few people understand what professional ethics is. Morality is weak and laws are made to be used for individual’s benefit. “I’m hiding in Honduras. I’m a desperate man. Send lawyers, guns and money. The sh– has hit the fan,” sings Warren Zevon in his 1978 album. In many respects little has change in Honduras since and perhaps that’s why many people have been attracted to this place. [/private]