Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Common Scams in South America... and Ways to Avoid Them

Just about everyone is excited to travel and explore new places. Although I would always recommend a new, fulfilling experience in South America, there are people who are only looking to gain access to your money. Sometimes, these people are just plain dishonest and walk away with your cash that they obtained illegitimately.

Children talking to a reporter in Bolivia
Many of us have heard of the extremes of what could happen to visitors, which include kidnapping for ransom or even murder. However, that's not likely for the average person, so this post isn't about emphasizing those extreme cases. 

In other words, these are the sort of things that visitors are likely to encounter, either directly or indirectly because they're so common. These are the scams to look out for on a day-to-day basis.

Check out these true stories about some of the negative parts of my adventures to countries such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia!



This is when you're shopping, go to buy something, and then the seller "forgets" to give you all of your change back. This is easy to fall for if you're not paying attention, or you're in a fast-paced situation where you have to think quickly. It's also difficult to protest in a foreign language. In the worst case scenario, they'll just laugh, make fun of your accent, then shoo you away.

While these people make lots of "mistakes" with my change, they never mess up and give me too much money!
In Ecuador, they use the US dollar

For example, in Colombia, I used to ride the city buses a lot in Bogotá. The small buses, called colectivos, don't handle money electronically or by machine. You basically hand your fare to the driver or someone else in the passenger seat. I know that I always have to be careful with the change, and always count it. A 12 year-old boy shortchanged me once on a crowded bus during rush hour. I immediately challenged him. After acting like he couldn't hear me, I made sure I was loud enough so that the whole front of the bus could hear exactly what he owed me. They proceeded to run the same trick on an older local woman, who lectured the boy and the driver on honesty.

The moral of the story? When you pay for something, calculate your change ahead of time and count it yourself in your hand before turning around or away. If you've been shortchanged, challenge the vender immediately before turning away, nice and firm. It doesn't even have to be in the local language. The magic of facial expressions and body language will do the communicating for you.


We all know about pickpocketing. It's when thieves find a suitable excuse to get close to you, then pick valuables out of your pockets or purse. It's a quick crime, and it's difficult to catch the thieves before they have gotten away.

I've personally been pickpocketed twice, but I'll tell a story about someone else. During my summer living in Buenos Aires, I was doing an internship. Part of my job was to help newly arrived foreign tourists get settled, and help them navigate the city. One day, an man in his 30s came in visibly distraught.
La Boca in Buenos Aires

I asked him what was wrong, to which he answered that he had lost his wallet. He explained that when he went to pay for fruit, he realized that his wallet was gone. "I think I've been pickpocketed."

I then asked where he had kept his wallet. He hesitated a bit before admitting that he had his wallet in his back pocket. His back pocket had a zipper, so he assumed that no one would be able to steal his wallet without him noticing. Wrong.

He had taken the subway to get to our building, and the subway during rush hour is brutal. The trains are packed tightly, and new passengers had to gently push other riders just to fit inside the door. In a situation like that, you are pressed by people on all sides, making it easy for would-be thieves. Believe it or not, just a few days before that incident, the same man had ignored my advice on avoiding getting pickpocketed. He insisted that he would have been able to feel it.

The moral of the story? Don't keep anything valuable in your outside, easily accessible pockets. It doesn't matter if they have a zipper or snap. In a crowded situation, the thieves can pick your stuff. Don't forget that they're skilled at what they do. When you encounter any crowd of people, carry your book bag in front of you and hold your purse in front. Purses should close all the way properly, and not just have a simple button or snap.

Purse Snatching

This one pretty much explains itself. Thieves take purses from unsuspecting strangers. Usually, this is done when the target isn't looking or paying attention. However, a thief can also sneak up to you, take your purse right off your arm, then cut and run. Some criminals carry scissors or knives in order to cut a purse off its straps in order to keep the victim from noticing.
Cerro Santa Lucia in Chile

This personally hasn't happened to me, but I've seen this happen to others. Once, I was talking to a tourist who had been traveling through both Chile and Argentina. She told me a story of how she lost her purse the week before. Like most of us, she found herself exploring the nightlife in Santiago. She was at a dark, crowded bar and had a few drinks. However, when she went to pay, she was in for a shock. She discovered that her purse was gone, and she only had its straps!

Her problem was that she was hanging her purse on the back of her chair, which is not a smart thing to do in areas where there are lots of thieves. Someone had stolen her cloth purse by cutting it off the straps, all without her noticing until it was too late.

The moral of the story? When I'm in a place with a lot of crime, I never hang my purse on the back of my chair in bars or restaurants. I don't leave it on the table either, because it makes it easier for someone to swipe it and run, especially if I'm dining or drinking outdoors. I keep it snugly in my lap! I also avoid cloth purses, or those with thin straps. I stick with tough, thick material like leather or metal. That's not easy to cut.

ATM problems

In a given country, finding ATMs that accept foreign cards can be tricky. It's even worse when they don't work right.

Usually, when an ATM doesn't work or doesn't accept foreign cards, the machine just spits my card out and I move on. A common theme in Buenos Aires was that ATMs frequently ran out of money, meaning that the ATMs often had no more money to dispense. In those cases, the ATM would claim that my account didn't have money, and then just eject my card. I panicked the first time this happened for obvious reasons. Then I learned that this was common. The machines were saving face, perhaps? No harm done.
A daycare in a Villa, or Shantytown in Argentina

However, beware of ATMs that malfunction. Once, I was caught up in a situation where I had to pay a deposit for rent to move into an apartment. I went to use an ATM. The machine accepted my card, and moved forward with my withdraw. Then, there was a problem. I saw that the machine had opened up to dispense cash, but no money had come out. When I walked inside the bank, they had simply given me the run around. I was out $250, which really hurt, as I was a broke student at the time! After confirming that the money has been withdrawn out of my account, I called my American issuing bank, which credited the money back into my account (probably out of insurance).

There's another problem that's more simple. Sometimes people, locals and tourists alike, are simply robbed at ATMs. This seems to happen more frequently at night, and with ATMs that are outside. In those cases, it's easy for a complete stranger to just walk up behind you and threaten you with a weapon.

The moral of the story? I always try to use ATMs I have already seen work, or machines that were recommended to me. I avoid using machines that are located outside. ATMs located inside doors that lock on the inside are best. I also use machines only in the daytime, since there are more people around and the bank is more likely to have staff nearby in case something sketchy happens. 


Taxis are great because they get us from one place to another. The problem is that there are so many things that can go wrong in a taxi! Taxis can look different in different countries. Also, depending on the country or city, taxis either have meters or they don't.

In taxis that do have meters, the most frequent problems I had were related to the taxi fare being more than it should be. A taxi driver can forget to turn the meter on, then demand a certain amount, probably way more than it normally costs once you get to your destination.  If a driver sees a naive tourist, he can always take a longer route than the direct one in order to run up a meter. That's especially true when you're riding at a time where there aren't many people hailing taxis on the street.
After exploring a mine in Potosí, Bolivia

In taxis that don't have meters, drivers may "forget" the price you agreed on. Or, if the tourist forgets to negotiate, a dishonest driver and charge them way more than the normal price. Once, I had a run - in a taxi driver who tried to charge me more than the negotiated fare, then pretended he didn't have change when I gave him money. I knew it was unlikely the driver had no change at all, and I argued him down to finally giving my change back. I got what I wanted, but it was a headache all around.

The moral of the story? Get familiar with the taxi norms of the country you're visiting. What do they look like? Are they safe to hail from the street? Or is it better to call? If the taxi has a meter, make sure that the driver turns on the meter as soon as you're en route to your destination. Regularly observe the meter to make sure it isn't climbing too fast. If the taxi doesn't have a meter, it's better to negotiate a fair price before getting into a taxi. Make sure the agreed price is crystal clear.

In general, it's safer not to allow additional passengers to get in with you. Do not get into random, unmarked cars claiming to be taxis -- this can be flat out dangerous. If the area has an extremely high crime rate, consider locking the doors. It's also better to carry small bills or exact change. It always helps to look alert and knowledgeable, not clueless.

Beware of Good Samaritans

While you shouldn't look like you have a chip on your shoulder, it makes sense to stay alert and be suspicious when unlikely situations occur with someone more than willing to "help" you.

When I first arrived to my country of choice for my study abroad program, Argentina, I had to buy some toiletries. I went to the nearest Farmacia or pharmacy, which was much like a CVS in the US.  I stood out from the locals and I looked lost and confused. That's when I was targeted by an employee who offered to help me, but who ended up picking my pockets. She made an excuse to get close to me, and quickly put her hand in my jacket pocket when I wasn't looking. The crime was fast and the scene was bizarre.
Ceviche, served in Ecuador

There's also the famous mustard scam, where scammers "accidently" squirt mustard (or a similar substance) on your back. Like clockwork, Good Samaritans approach offering to help clean off the stain. Of course, this gives them an excuse to be inappropriately close and they end up fiddling through pockets, bags and purses for valuables.

Here's another true story: in Bogotá, I had a friend who lost his phone at a crowded concert that took place at night. Since he had been drinking, he didn't realize his cell phone was gone until the next day. Thinking that he probably had dropped it at the concert, he called his phone number to see if anyone had it. Luck would have it that a man would answer the phone. He told my friend that he dropped his phone at the concert, and that he picked it up for safekeeping. My friend eventually learned that he could stop by an address and pick up his phone at a certain time.  When he told the story of the helpful Good Samaratan to us, we advised him not to go, and just to get a new phone. That's because he didn't really drop his phone, he was actually pickpocketed while he was intoxicated. The "nice man" was likely setting him up to rob my friend again, just as he did the first time. This is a scheme in Colombia.

The moral of the story? Be aware of your valuable items and guard them safely. Be suspicious of strangers that are super eager to help you, especially immediately following an unlikely event. If a stranger claiming to help you feeds you a story, check it our with friends first to see if it's legit. This goes without saying, but don't allow strangers to "help" you at an ATM. If you lose your card in a machine, notify bank employees ASAP and if necessary, call your bank to freeze your card. A stranger may "help" you by putting a knife or gun to your back while demanding money.

Accomodation Schemes

As a traveler, or a resident, you'd probably need some sort of accommodation. Since a place to stay costs money, this provides an opportunity for locals to separate you from as much of your money as possible.

I've stayed at far more hostels and hotels than I can count. Since I choose my bookings carefully, the biggest problems I've had with those are unfriendly staff, at most. The biggest issues have to do with rented accommodation, from whole apartments, to home stays to residencias or peer housing similar to unofficial dorm rooms.
Puerto Madero, in Buenos Aires

The majority of my time in Buenos Aires was spent in a home stay. I had a host family, but I booked this one on my own to save money. When I moved in, the rent was something about $180 US per month. However, after the first two months, I had already settled. Now, she wanted me to pay $200 US per month. I complied with the request, thinking it was going to stay. Then, the following month, she wanted me to pay $250 US per month, claiming that it had something to do with taxes. I almost left, but an ATM mishap prevented me from leaving.

In Bogotá, I arrived during la semana santa, or Holy Week. It was a bad time to look for housing! I looked at just a couple of places, and took a room in a residencia that appeared to be clean and quiet. I agreed to stay for a certain amount of months, then it would be month to month after that. After I moved in, I was in for a shock. That nice, clean place got dirty fast. My neighbors cooked food, and left it in the pots and pans for mold to grow. The bathrooms became nasty with soiled toilet paper all over the floor, and the toilet often didn't work. Once, a neighbor bled all over the bathroom sink and floor -- and didn't clean any of it up. The guy living in the room across from mine blasted his music so loud that I couldn't hear myself think.

 I desperately wanted to leave, and frankly should have, but stayed to fulfill my end of the bargain. Then, eight months later, I informed the administrator that I was leaving. First, he claimed that I had signed a contract for several more months. When I called BS, they resorted to threatening me, claiming that they'd have me arrested at the airport (also BS). When I asked what the issue was, I was informed that "The landlord thinks he wouldn't be able to find someone else to take over the room."

The moral of the story? It's best to agree on a length of stay and a price for every month that you're there. If they try to change things with the old bait and switch, inform them that since they broke their own agreement, that you will be leaving for elsewhere.

Just Plain Ripoffs

Everyone knows that haggling a little is best, and that's not what this section is about. Sometimes, goods are just plain misrepresented at lots of artifacts on sale are not what they are claimed to be. Believe it or not, even services at recognized American or European brands can be misrepresented.
A street in Colonia, Uruguay

Anyone who has traveled and shopped in multiple countries in Latin America can tell you the same thing -- many of the goods for sale are either exactly the same, or they're very similar. Open-air, indigenous markets or artisan markets sell many of the same nicknacks. There is traditional looking clothing, bookbags, purses, magnets, frames, wallets, ashtrays and seemingly everything else under the sun. The promoters and sales people seem to always tell you the items are hand made and unique. There's a reason why the exact same items are everywhere -- it's because the vast majority are actually machine made in places as far away as China.

When I was in Bogota, I sold my car. This involved me having to mail an important piece of paper to my father back in the states. I looked up courier prices and made my way to the closest FedEx. There was one lady who just happened to be working at that time, and she quoted me a price that was a good 50% more than the price I found on the internet. Turns out, she wanted me to purchase a more expensive service for my sheet of paper. When I asked for a cheaper service, I was told that nothing else was available. Even after I explained to her how much the FedEx prices were (and that I had done my research), the lady still didn't budge. At least, until I got out of my chair to leave, then she suddenly found the cheapest option available.

The moral of the story? Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. It's important to do your due diligence.  I talk to people and ask for their recommendations on the quality of goods and services. I try my best to be familiar with what I am looking for and how much it should cost. I also do my shopping away from tourist traps, which are known for inflated prices and unscrupulous salespeople.


Despite what I've listed here, I've had a wonderful time overall to each of the places I've been to. The list above isn't meant to scare off anyone. I am looking to inform potential travelers of the many different things to watch out for, and make each trip even more pleasant!

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