When we arrived in the Costa Blanca, one of the more common words that I often heard bandied around was the word, ‘denuncia’. Usually the word was uttered as the ultimate threat at a time of great anger and stress, and usually the recipient was likely to be builders, property developers or Telefonica, the Spanish telephone company – not necessarily in that order!
When the word was used, one was expected to look suitably impressed and feel comforted that this hidden magical legal process would somehow solve the problem – any problem. How wrong I was...Firstly, let’s have a closer look at the word ‘denuncia’. It sounds much like the English to ‘denounce’ and could be regarded as being a very unpleasant thing to be involved in. However, this Spanish word really means ‘to report’ or ‘to declare’; in other words, it is a police report. If you had property stolen you needed to make a report – a ‘denuncia’.
If your neighbour threatened to ‘denounce’ you, it only meant that they were going to report you – you were not likely to be pilloried in the nearby shopping centre. Well, maybe not immediately! Needless to say, ‘expats’ often tended to misunderstand the situation completely, because issuing a ‘denuncia’ was part of a criminal process and was rarely connected with civil proceedings against private companies or individuals.
In the Costa Blanca, I often heard these threats being issued to builders, Telefonica, bars and restaurants. It usually made the person uttering the threat feel so much better, yet nothing was ever likely to happen in terms of retribution. Even so, the ‘denuncia’ process was a useful and well considered one.
I once registered a ‘denuncia’ when my wallet was stolen. I made the ‘denuncia’ by telephone to an English speaking police official in Madrid. A short time later it was sent electronically to the police station nearest to my home for me to read, agree and sign, and that was that. ‘Denuncias’ could be also made on the Internet in Spanish, so it is probably just as well that officials are not interested in complaints about neighbours or dog poo!
I remember one reader contacting me just after we launched the Gran Canaria newspaper concerning doubtful business practice in one of the well-known commercial centres in Playa del Ingles.
Locals who knew the area would not, in the main, consider purchasing any form of electronic item from shops in the tourist areas of the south, but preferred to purchase cameras, mobile phones and all manner of electronic items in one of the major electronics stores, department stores or smaller retailers in the capital of Las Palmas, or in shopping centres in Spanish towns such as Vecindario or Telde.
Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, Playa del Ingles and Puerto Rico had at that time more than its fair share of camera scams. It was an even larger problem in the neighbouring island of Tenerife, and the authorities in Gran Canaria were keen that this island did not allow such illegal business practices to continue and undermine tourists’ confidence.
The problem stemmed from an earlier time when many Indian family businesses, in particular, specialising in cameras and electronics products established themselves on the islands.
For many years, because of considerable tax advantages, they were able to offer low priced deals to tourists from cruise ships, customers of tour operators, as well as those travelling independently. When Spain joined the European Union and with increased Internet and global trading, these retailers found that they could no longer offer such competitive prices.
Competition on the islands increased with too many traders chasing a smaller number of tourists willing to pay the less competitive prices. The result was that some of the traders decided that ‘conning’ the tourists was the best way forward, knowing full well that in most cases tourists would not return to the shop, and in any case would be on the island for insufficient time to take any legal action. Consumer protection law was extended both in Spain, as well as the Canary Islands, to stop irresponsible and fraudulent companies, and gradually the camera scams were stopped.
Tourists were often told that there were many bargains to be had on the island, and particularly for electronic goods. This was partly true, but tourists needed to be aware that although they would certainly make savings in the reduced tax charged for the items in the Canary Islands when compared to the UK and Peninsular Spain, it could be at a ‘knock down price’.
The equivalent of VAT (Value Added Tax), known as IGIC in the Canary Islands, was just five per cent as opposed to seventeen and a half per cent VAT in the UK and sixteen per cent IVA in Peninsular Spain. So when tourists were offered a ‘massive saving’ of more than ten to fifteen per cent off the usual recommended price, then there was something wrong, and alarm bells should have been ringing. No one ever really gets ‘something for nothing’ – and that is the first point to remember.
One tourist affected by the usual scam – let’s call him John – went to a ‘specialist camera dealer’ as he was thinking of purchasing a video camera. John had already checked out prices for similar models in the area, and was willing to pay no more than one hundred and fifty euro for a digital video camera.
The final decision came, when John passed through one of the commercial centres in Playa del Ingles early one evening. At this particular shopping centre, the shopper was greeted by several characters all shouting the usual, “Hello, where are you from?” in several different languages and who then would often hold up a camera, shouting, “video camera, video cam-e-r-a!!” This was probably the first sign that this shop was the kind that was best avoided. However, John went inside...
The shop inside was packed with glass display cases and mirrors – each and everything covered with a fine layer of dust. John wanted to buy the cheapest version of the Sony DV Handycam, and was offered a price of one hundred and seventy euro which was soon reduced down to one hundred and fifty euro. The salesperson had written out the credit card slip in seconds, and swiped John’s card using the now old-fashioned carbon imprint credit card machines.
Tension started to build when the shop assistant invited John to sit down by his counter and wait for ‘authorisation’. The salesman then started telling John about the latest camera received in the shop while he waited. It did look like a good camera, much smaller and worked using an SD card (no tape). He showed John the quality difference on a TV. Admittedly on the TV it looked like a better output, but John was sure that he was tricking them by showing him the preview (low quality) TV output.
Soon the shop assistant was tapping away at his calculator, much faster than John could see – comparing the two cameras, and again mixing up terms and language into a technical slur from his mouth. John was an IT professional in the UK, but didn’t know much Spanish. Although he knew most of the terms that the salesman was using ‘they were thrown at us and very fast, he basically wound us in a very exciting lie, just grounded in enough technical terms to be believable’.
John ended up buying the ‘JVC branded’ all-new DV camera, for four hundred and thirty-five euro, including case and did a deal on a genuine looking SD card. Suddenly, the salesperson pulled out a digital point of sale credit card reader and swiped the credit card through the machine a couple of times. He ripped up the old carbon copies and told John that the shop should keep the box, because John would never get it through customs.
John wondered what he had got himself into and anxiously left the shop, clutching his new purchase. Back in his holiday apartment it was time to check the camera.
John started filming immediately using the half charged battery provided, but it was dark and he couldn’t see much at all... in fact he could hardly see anything. The camera didn’t come with an optical zoom, which the salesman said it had, so every time the zoom went further, John realised just how low quality the camera was.
John saw the lights were off in the shop when he returned to complain, and so decided to do some more testing elsewhere. In a bar, John ordered a stiff drink to calm his nerves, and checked the contents of his black plastic bag.
The camera did ‘kind-of work’, but ‘dropped out’ terribly in the dark. The manual had no JVC logo on it and there was no mention of the company anywhere. By now, alarm bells were going off in his head, but there was nothing he could do as the shop had closed early.
Further analysis revealed that the JVC logo was badly stuck on the bottom of the unit, and the logo itself was printed on a red gradient (something JVC never do!). John went to the hotel lobby, and used the Internet to search the JVC website, and there was no such model listed. John could not understand how he could have been conned so easily.
John commented that, ‘the answer was in the unscrupulous sales tactics and the salesperson’s capacity to lie so easily and profusely. He used the language barrier to hide any gaps in his web of deceit, and diverted my attention from his dodgy financial transactions’.
John went back the next morning in hope of a refund and was told that it was “absolutely not possible”. When confronted with the accusation that it was a fake, the sales assistant finally agreed and said that he never actually said that the unit was a JVC (but he had!) and they were a new batch in from China. No refund was offered, but he could offer a swap, but suddenly all the cheap Handycams were out of stock, and none of the others looked worth the four hundred and thirty-five euros that John had paid.
With no choice but to go for a slightly newer Handycam model, he paid a further seventy euros because ‘the retail price of the unit was higher’, but he did throw in a fake-branded travel case and set of five tapes. It seemed like it was the only way out and the trader was getting nasty, so John closed the deal again, hoping that this camera was legitimate.
“I took the box this time and had a stamped guarantee, but was still aware I had been totally ripped off!” Afterwards John checked the recommended retail for the camera. Sadly, it would have actually been cheaper to have bought the camera in the UK, with much less worry and from a sales person who would have known what he was talking about without lying, and proper guarantees. The incident spoiled John’s holiday, and he had wasted a lot of holiday time. There were many good bargains to be had in the Canaries, but if it was too cheap – then there was probably something wrong with the deal and best avoided.
A few weeks later I had a telephone call from Tony, a friend of ours, who owned one of the large drag queen show bars in the south of the island. His elderly mother, Mary, had arrived in Gran Canaria for a short holiday and to see her son’s new business. She was proud of what her son had achieved on the island, and wanted to take happy memories of her holiday and her son’s new business back home to Blackpool.
Mary went into the shopping centre to look for a new video camera, something small that she could keep in her handbag. By chance, Mary found herself in the same shop that John had been in a few weeks earlier. She found a video camera at a good price, agreed to the deal and paid by credit card.
After a lengthy wait during which Mary was being encouraged to ‘upgrade’ to a more expensive model, she was finally given her new camera, without a box, but carefully wrapped in tissue paper and bubble wrap instead, “because of the customs,” she was told.
When Tony got home, Mary proudly opened her purchase, and mother and son were dismayed to find that it was not the branded model that Mary thought she had purchased, but one that Tony recognised as a much cheaper model. Tony remembered the earlier report that he had read in the newspaper, and was furious that the same con had happened to his mother.
Tony immediately went to the camera shop and demanded that Mary be given a full refund. This request was refused with the salesman and his boss claiming that Mary knew full well what she had purchased, and that she had merely changed her mind.
“She only bought it to take some video before she goes home. She never intended to buy it, only to borrow it. We don’t hire out cameras for the day, Sir,” was the response.
They had chosen the wrong person this time. Tony was furious and stormed out of the shop. Unfortunately for the shop, Tony was a man to reckon with and he would never take ‘No’ for an answer.
Later that evening, just before his drag show opened and whilst the camera shop was still open, a group of twenty or so drag queens, in full costume and make-up, appeared outside the shop. Their chants, raucous songs and general abuse drew a large crowd and, within minutes, Tony and Mary had been given a full refund and an apology. The one thing that most people learn very quickly in Gran Canaria is ‘never to mess with a drag queen’!
From 'Letters from the Atlantic' by Barrie Mahoney