Petty Crime in Buenos Aires and Techniques for Avoiding It. Be Aware, not Scared
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 (remember: opportunity makes a thief). 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 downs. 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.
Below is a list of the most common scams found operating in Buenos Aires and, most importantly, how you can avoid them. But first let’s look at the dangerous areas to avoid all together:
View Very Traveler Friendly Areas and Bad Areas for Exploring in Buenos Aires in a larger map
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 the brand “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 an application on your smartphone called Safertaxi. If you can not find a Radio Taxi or order via your smart phone, you can still take an unmarked taxi with caution — don’t just hop in a cab that looks particularly beat up, with a simple number on the side of the door. Generally, the better taken care of and well “decorated” cabs are more reliable. Check out our detailed article on taxi scams in Buenos Aires that you should keep your eye out for for more travel tips.
Tip: Bill Swapping is most commonly committed with $50 and $100 peso bills. You give your taxi driver a 100, they secretly swap, and show you the bill you gave them is fake, thus making you pay 100 pesos + the additional fare. 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.
3. Accidental spills AKA the “Mustard Scam” or “Bird Poop Scam”:
Mustard, ketchup, ice cream, bird poop, paint or any other substance that a stranger may “accidentally” spill on you…”keep your head in the game”. Yes, I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s a common and innocent enough looking technique to trick you out of the wallet in your back pocket or your purse sitting down by your feet.
The mustard/ketchup/bird poop scam follows a simple procedure. This is a group effort in which someone, somewhere, is hiding with a liquid substance like mustard or something that resembles bird poop. As you walk past, thief #1 squirts said substance on you. A seemingly friendly passerby or couple (thief #2 and #3) comes to your aid by miraculously having 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 (let’s keep it clean here) they pick pocket you, or the partner in crime comes past and swipes your bag. Sometimes, they even offer to take you around a corner where there might be a faucet to clean up with. Don’t go. If something all of a sudden spills or gets squirted on you you’re better off walking into the nearest restaurant and taking care of it yourself.
Be aware of pick-pocketing when in crowded areas, especially like the subte (subway) or the colectivo (bus). 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. 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. Security Deposit “Chau-Chau”:
Be careful when dealing with an independent renter/owner. There have been reported cases of people being cheated out of security deposits, so unless you’ve heard about an independent renter from someone you know you can trust, it’s best to go through a reputable company. We recommend our friends and partners for apartment rentals in Buenos Aires BYT or using the site AirBNB.
Example: Here is an example of one particular owner to look out for. Apparently, this woman has tricked more than one visitor to Buenos Aires in the past and she recently started renting the infamous apartment again. Our friends at BA Expats, also a great source of information on Buenos Aires, and their community has done a great job of researching and trying to prevent anyone else from falling for the same trap!
“Oops my money” trick:
This is a relatively new scam that has not been very frequent, but worth knowing about just in case. An individual (scam artist #1) drops a small amount of cash and the good samaritan (target) picks it up. Scam artist #2 hovers nearby to make sure that the mark picks it up and follows nearby. When the good samaritan catches up and gets the attention of scam artist #1 he claims there was more than what the samaritan is trying to return to him. What follows varies, but basically #2 joins in and both try to pressure the samaritan into giving up whatever the difference is. Lame, yes. Picking on a good, honest person- even lower.
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: January 4, 2013