1. The ol’ banknote switcheroo
The bank note switcheroo is the scam you are most likely to encounter in Argentina. It works like this: you try to pay your taxi driver with a 500 or 100 peso note (or even a 50 for a short journey), he takes it, flicks it between his thumb and forefinger, then hands it back saying that he doesn’t have change. Later when you try to use that note to pay for something else, they tell you it’s a fake.
Taxi drivers have any number of ways to make extra cash on the job and there are a few bad apples who prey on tourists in this way, and are well practiced in the maneuver of switching your real note for a fake one that they have hidden in their hand. Also be careful when someone gives you a bunch of notes as change for a purchase, because they can sometimes slip a fake one in there, especially in night clubs and bars where it is dark and you’ve had a few too many mojitos.
How to avoid it: Familiarize yourself with the currency as soon as you arrive. The fake notes are made from a different, thicker paper and don’t have the security devices like the face you can see when holding the note up to light, or slightly raised print. Also, also try to have smaller notes on hand to pay taxis. Definitely don’t try to pay with new 500 note, although they are circulating widely now, so are a few fakes and the cab driver will probably laugh you out of his cab either way.
2. The art of distraction/mustard trick
Another very common way to rob tourists. There are variations, but the basic premise is this: you are walking along the street when suddenly you get sprayed with ketchup, mustard, or some other, less savory substance (excuse the pun).
It could have come from a window above,somebody running past, or you might not have even seen the culprit. Annoyed and surprised, you start to clean yourself off, and within moments a few friendly locals offer their help. Perhaps an old lady helps wipe off the offensive stuff with a handkerchief, or somebody who lives nearby offers to show you a place where you can clean yourself up. In all the commotion, you don’t notice that somebody has snatched your bag, wallet or purse. Even if you do suddenly realize, most of the people who were surrounding you take off in different directions, and you have no idea who to follow.
How to avoid it: Firstly, and this goes without saying, if you don’t look like an obvious tourist, you are less likely to be targeted. Sometimes you need to take a quick peek at your Lonely Planet in public, but at least try to avoid the Hawaiian shirt, socks and sandals ensemble. If you do find yourself in the situation above, however, just get away from the scene as quickly as possible. Don’t put down your bag to clean yourself off, and whatever you do, don’t follow anyone anywhere, because if they get you alone they will be able to rob you dry. The reason this scam is so effective is that you can’t be sure who is genuinely trying to help and who is part of the production, so just move away.
Walking around downtown Buenos Aires and some other cities, you will sooner or later see people offering passing males ‘special offers’ for nearby ‘cabaret’ bars.
If you are lonely or naïve enough to go down into one of these bars to accept your ‘free drink,’ you will probably find yourself in a situation like this: You sit down and the bartender hands you a beer. No sooner have you taken a sip than a couple of scantily clad vixens have joined you and are making conversation (or saying stuff in Spanish that you don’t understand).
You smile smugly, knowing you have no intention of giving these girls any money, no matter how much they jiggle. When you stand up to leave, you are confronted by some big oaf who claims that you have to pay. “No, no,” you say, “I had the free drink special.” The oaf explains angrily that you have to pay for the girls’ drinks as well, which total up to $400 pesos.
Laughing, you try to make your way to the exit, only to have it blocked by the gorilla and a couple of his friends, demanding your money. To cut a long story short, no matter how much you argue, the staff will physically intimidate you until you hand over as much money as they ask for. And don’t bother going to the police when you finally do get out of the place, because they will be strangely uninterested in your dilemma. For more information about the ‘cabaret’ bait and switch and to see a video of how it works, see Money Exchange & Other Hustles on Florida St..
How to avoid it: Don’t go into sleazy bars.
—by Nico Sol