Safety, Crime & Safety

Buenos Aires Tourist Scams and Crime

Elaine Tannous

By | December 17, 2010 | 13 comments

The most common scams operating in Argentina. The best tips to avoid fake money, the bird poop scam, dishonest taxis and more tourist targeted crime.

Yes, it’s true. Like any big city, Buenos Aires has its fair share of thieves (ladrones), punks (pendejos) and silk tongue sweet talkers (chamuyeros) looking for opportunities to take advantage of the unsuspecting traveler, tourist or local alike. Overall, Buenos Aires is a safe city full of very helpful, honest and friendly people with most robberies or petty crimes happening out of necessity or because an opportune situation arises. Someone struggling to support his family may see a quick purse snatch as an easy way out. Violent crime is extremely rare, so don’t get too worried about kidnappings or shoot outs. Here, if you face any crime, you’ll mostly be exposed to pick-pockets (pungas) or distraction tactics, so your best defense is to simply remain aware of your surroundings. Heed these few tips to better enjoy your travel to Buenos Aires.

1. Counterfeit money scams:

Mostly circulating in the form of $100 and $50 peso bills, these fakes can be relatively easy to spot if you know what to look out for. Most of the time, someone looking to slip you a fake bill will do so in a dimly lit situation. Taxis, clubs and bars are prime spots to pass off these bogus bills to someone in a hurry, with a few drinks in them, or both.

How to detect a counterfeit bill: Typically they’re pretty easy to spot, it’s just a matter of paying attention and inspecting them a bit. Earlier we wrote a very detailed guide on how to spot a counterfeit bill in Argentina, so feel free to do some research.

Counterfeit money in Argentina

2.Taxi scams:

98% of taxi drivers are honest, hard working fellows. However, that remaining 2% can certainly cause a little hiccup in your trip. Counterfeit bill swapping, running the meter fast, taking a few extra laps around the block, or a little “confusion” about payment when coming from the airport are all scams you should be aware of.

Your best bet when hailing a cab is to either call ahead or look for a company affiliated car like “Radio Taxi”. It is the most well known company here in BA and will often have a sign on top and on the side. You can also use the apps Easy Taxi or BA Taxi. Uber is a controversial option as well (the taxi union hates Uber and they have been in and out of court).

Tip: Bill Swapping is most commonly committed with big bills. You give your taxi driver a $500, they quickly swap, and show you the bill you gave them is fake. This little swap or switcheroo takes place fairly quickly. It’s best to be prepared to pay for taxi rides with smaller bills because an exact or close payment makes things easier for everyone. Try leaning forward, maybe fold a corner and show them you are paying attention.

3. The “Mustard Scam” A.K.A. “Bird Poop Scam”:

The mustard/ketchup/bird poop scam follows a simple procedure. This is a group effort in which someone splatters the mark with something that resembles bird poop as you walk past. A seemingly friendly passerby or couple (thief #2 and #3) come to your aid with tissues or a bottle of water, some napkins and some serious stain removal knowledge. In the midst of the laughter/panic/confusion due to the embarrassing stain and all of the rubbing and wiping they pick pocket you or another cohort comes past and swipes your bag. Sometimes they offer to take you around a corner where there might be a faucet to clean up with.

4. Pick-pocketing groups

Just like any big city, when in crowded areas, especially the subte (subway) or the colectivo (bus) be aware. Almost all Argentines have their backpacks in front of them for a reason. If you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a commotion, surrounded by people nudging or pushing you around, put your hands on your belongings because this is a pick-pocketers’ most common approach. Once again, it’s a distraction technique and a possible group effort. Taken off guard by all the pushing and shoving, your attention is drawn away from your belongings and to the commotion around you and your attempts at re-balancing. Word to the wise: only bring you with you the essentials — there’s no need to have lots of cash, credit cards, and passport on your person.

Example: A few weeks ago, one of our writers was pick-pocketed on the subway. As the subway stopped and the doors opened, a group of men who seemed to be confused as to whether or not it was their stop were hopping in and out of the subway car and were pushing our writer back and forth in the crowd. It all happened very quickly and by the time the doors closed, the men had left the train, and her wallet was missing from her purse.

5. Cabarets or honeypot scam:

A common international scam, an attractive female invites you to chat or in for a “free” show. Both end up with a massive tab of drinks and services you may or may not have received. The available staff will assist in ensuring you pay your bill.

6. Motochorros

The city government has come down hard on these motor cycle riding thieves (there are laws against two men riding motorcycles), but they are still prevalent. A team of two, the passenger hops off to make a quick snatch and grab of a phone, purse or lap top. They usually target heavily trafficked tourist areas, sidewalk cafes and the wealthier neighborhoods with good exit points. Be conspicuous with your valuables especially near the street and avoid leaving your phone or lap top on the table at any outdoor cafes near the street.

General rules of thumb: Areas to avoid like the plague and great areas for exploring

This list is not meant to discourage you, but to inform you. Think about these tips as becoming aware of a sleight-of-hand magic trick. If you already know how the trick works, what are the chances you’ll be fooled?

A culture craver’s candy land, Buenos Aires is, overall, a safe city. Full of helpful, friendly and very hospitable people who are sure to make your stay here more than comfortable and fun! This is not a city to be missed for fear of a few tricks and scams. Just remain aware of petty crime while traveling and enjoying the many splendors of this beautiful city.

Updated: October 2017

Wow! Don't forget to check the 'Activities you might like' right here

SO FAR, THIS ARTICLE HAS 13 COMMENTS!

  1. Mike D

    23/12/2010 - 4:53 pm

    I owe you guys a “thank you”. I read this 2 days before I got to Buenos Aires and just today, while checking out the casa rosada the mustard scam was attempted on me. Successful prevention of their scam! Thank you LandingPad.

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  2. webmaster

    23/12/2010 - 10:29 pm

    No problem my friend!

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  3. Monica

    21/05/2011 - 4:34 pm

    I owe you guys one too! Thank you-

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  4. leah

    20/10/2011 - 12:53 pm

    Forget radio taxi tip. Followed it to avoid scam and got scammed anyway.

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  5. Leticia

    24/11/2011 - 8:42 am

    Dear fellow travelers, ex-pats..

    If you have been scammed in Buenos Aires and would like to share your experience in a documentary, contatc leticia.meruvia@zigzag.uk.com

    We’re currently in production on a series about scams that occur in cities around the globe for European television.

    We want to provide an informative travel show that emphasizes each city as a travel destination but at the same time aims to make tourists aware of popular scams like the ones mentioned here.

    Many thanks!

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  6. Waddo's

    17/06/2012 - 8:04 pm

    Hi all, just to advise the mustard scam is still alive and well.
    Got done today just outside Belgrano station. They sprayed my wife and I and managed to remove my wallet and replace it sans credit card whilst helping me with the cleanup. Sucked into them they picked the preloaded card with no money left though. It’s a weird feeling wanting to punch a cute old lady, so if you dont want to go there be careful. I’ve had my wallet in my front pocket all through Peru and Ecuador and finally felt comfortable having it in the back. Bad move

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  7. Mary stalker

    24/06/2012 - 2:10 pm

    Just got ‘bird pooped’ in San Telmo- but they got nothing from us but it did take us by surprise. Really thought it was Bird poo but there was just too much. Luckily we were only a block from home so we kept walking. Googled it and got to this site. Good wake up call

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  8. webmaster

    25/06/2012 - 11:55 pm

    Great to hear that you guys avoided it! Spread the word and not the poop.

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  9. Helen

    05/08/2012 - 7:14 pm

    I got mustarded/bird pooped (smelt like v strong mustard) just around the corner from the Plaza de Mayo near Bolivar subway. Someone had clearly been waiting behind one of those little green cabins that look like they sell sweets etc when they’re open. I was on my own and had a cross-body bag which I doubt they could have got from me. I didn’t realise it was a scam but knew it had been done deliberately as it completely covered me-disgusting. I still can’t get it out of my jeans and the rest of the holiday was spent in a coat stinking of (and covered in) mustard or something. Why do they need to use so much? Anyway, a woman and man who looked like tourists approached me with a tissue but I am way to cynical to stop and accept anything from a stranger and I had tissues on me (an as a lone woman I wasn’t about to stop and get chatty for love nor money). Ha, foiled them, but so annoying to have it all in my freshly-washed hair, it’s a really upsetting thing and the police should stop it.

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  10. CynthiaVS

    07/12/2012 - 12:39 am

    I’ve never heard of the bird poop scam before But here’s are some that weren’t mentioned:

    A couple of bucks fall from a guy’s pocket right before the corner. As soon as that guy is out of sight, guy #2 appears and suggest each take half of what was found. He then tries to check out your wallet or where you put it away. Then guy #1 comes back, makes a scene, claims more money fell and guy #2 accuses you of stealing. With people gathering up, guys #1 and #2 force you to open your wallet and conveniently what you had on is what the guy lost. It seems like a lot of effort but it has been done a lot lately.

    Here’s an oldie, just in case it got back into fashion: A group of guys appear out of nowhere and start congratulating you on your birthday (very loudly and even singing). They circle you and other people can no longer see you and everyone will think they are your friends. While surrounded, they will take everything out of you and then quickly run separate ways. I’ve seen this one several times in Microcentro, near Diagonal Norte and Florida.

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    1. webmaster

      26/12/2012 - 2:21 pm

      I have heard of both of these, fortunately neither seem to be common here in Buenos Aires!

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  11. kathleen walsh

    11/05/2013 - 4:58 pm

    Good grief – we got squirted twice today! The first time we were just a block away from our hotel and so instead of accepting assistance we retreated to the hotel to clean up, thinking, but slightly suspicious it was bird poop. Certainly smelt strange
    and we suspected that a bird the size of dinosaur might have been easy to spot!! I then checked the internet and found this site and your information. Thank you. But lo and behold on our way back at the end of the day it happened again just meters from the first spot. Needless to say there was a bit of swearing (on our part) and the helpful passerby escaped pretty quickly in a cab. Beware the corner or Moreno and Defensa.

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  12. webmaster

    13/05/2013 - 4:41 pm

    WOW! Twice in one day!!? Thank you for the heads up on the location. I hope you can go 24 hours without any bird poop scamming.

    Reply