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.
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.
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