Travel is one of life’s great pleasures, but sometimes being a new face in a strange place can make travelers vulnerable to local scams. Argentina is no different in this respect. Luckily, many of the common tricks played on travelers to relieve them of their money are here are well-known. Becoming acquainted with them makes one much less likely to become a victim.
Forewarned is being forearmed, so read on to become familiar with the most common swindles in Buenos Aires, and to a lesser extent, the rest of Argentina.
1. Counterfeit Bills & the Banknote Switcheroo
The bank note switcheroo is the scam visitors are most likely to encounter in Argentina. It works like this: you try to pay your taxi driver with a 1000, (or even a 500 bill for a short journey), he takes it, flicks it between his thumb and forefinger, then hands it back saying that it’s counterfeit or that he doesn’t have change.
Later when you try to use that note to pay for something else, you find out it’s a fake — the taxi driver switched your legitimate bill with a fake one.
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 or slicker paper and usually don’t have the security devices such as the embedded metallic strip, the watermark face visible when holding notes up to light, and slightly raised print.
Also try to have smaller notes on hand to pay taxis. Definitely don’t try to pay with new 1000 note, although they are circulating widely now.
Those who do try to pay with a large bill may find that the cab driver laughs you out of his cab because he actually doesn’t have change. It’s best to ask the driver or any merchant, ‘¿Tenes cambio?’ (Do you have change?) before handing over a larger bill.
You could also avoid dealing with taxis and paying in cash altogether by using Uber, Cabify or another ride-hailing service.
2. The Art of Distraction: the Mustard Trick/Bird Poop Scam
Distraction is another very common way tourists get robbed. There are variations — the ‘mustard trick’ is also sometimes called the ‘bird poop scam.’
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) that you may presume is bird poop.
It could have come from a window above, somebody running past, or you may not 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 older lady (the accomplice is usually female) comes to help wipe off the offensive stuff with a handkerchief, or somebody who appears to live nearby offers to show you a place where you can clean yourself up.
In all the commotion, you get distracted and don’t notice that somebody has snatched your bag, wallet or purse. Even if you do suddenly realize your stuff is gone, most of the people who were surrounding you take off in different directions, and you have no idea who to follow.
This scam is usually attempted in Buenos Aires around the Obelisco, along Avenida de Mayo (especially near 9 de Julio), the Plaza de Mayo and in the area around Recoleta Cemetery. It is sometimes also perpetrated in smaller cities around the downtown area.
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 phone in public, but at least try to avoid an 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.
It can’t be emphasized enough that if someone else approaches you to help in the aftermath, especially if they try to lead you to a second location by saying something like ‘there are police nearby’, they are likely an accomplice and working on their ‘Plan B’.
3. The Distressed Traveler/ Fake Emergency Scam
* in Buenos Aires’ Case: the Dutch Guy who was Robbed
This one happens anywhere in the world where con artist addicts need a fix. In Buenos Aires it goes like this: a disheveled, overweight guy with sad blue eyes approaches you speaking excellent English. He says he is Dutch or Belgian and seems friendly enough.
He then explains he was robbed of everything including his money and passport, and wonders if you could help him out. The man in question is Fabian, a Dutch national who lives on the streets in Buenos Aires.
Sanja Haan from the Dutch consulate says, “We’ve known Fabian for years.” She has gotten him emergency passports, helped him get admitted to the hospital to detox and also put him on the phone in an emotional phone call with his family, to speak with them for the first time in years. A few years ago, some generous fellow compatriots bought ‘Fabi’ a ticket home, but between the time he was released from the hospital and had to get on the airplane, he got drunk and ended up missing the flight.
He first operated in Mendoza for many years, starting in the mid-2000’s. We’ve been hearing about him for years, several readers even sent us their personal story (one of which you can read here, if interested) and we have talked with him many times.
Many unsuspecting foreigners have given this Emmy Award-level scammer some ’emergency cash’, but it’s really for his beer fund. He is in the late stage of alcoholism, and it is taking a toll on his health, especially since the antibiotics he is prescribed can’t be taken with alcohol.
Having missed his true calling as an actor, unless he changes, he will most likely meet a unpleasant fate on the streets of Buenos Aires.
Another distress scam seen less these days is women from ‘gypsy gangs’ begging in the street with small children. A lot of state funds are put aside to help homeless mothers and children in Buenos Aires particularly. In most cases these women are involved in criminal gangs, who earn money by sending women and children out to beg.
How to avoid it: Obviously be wary of anyone feigning distress and asking for money on the street anywhere in the world.
Offer logistical help, such as making a phone call to the consulate or social services, if anything. In Buenos Aires users can call ‘301’ to get social services assistance, including shelter.
In Fabian’s case, he has received plenty of help from strangers, his consulate and many public hospitals but needs specialized treatment. The best any good Samaritan who comes across him can offer is to escort him to the hospital to detox, but if history is any indication, he will soon return to the streets and be out scamming for beer money again.
The best way to help the homeless or down and out is to donate to legitimate charities.
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. The flyers are also sometimes pasted to telephone poles.
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 $50 dollars each.
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.
How to avoid it: Don’t walk into sleazy bars or brothels off the street without being forewarned
*Editor Update: Official Cabarets were outlawed in Buenos Aires 2016, which basically took this scam further underground. Now there clubs called ‘privados’ that essentially function as walk-in brothels throughout the city. They are advertised on the internet and via little flyers with sexy pictures that are posted on telephone poles.
In general, outside of these establishments, men should be wary of most women that approaches them with an unusually aggressive and sexually suggestive demeanor (see below).
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.. Cabarets still operate in other areas of Argentina, so the above advice holds true in the provinces.
5. The ‘Black Widow’ Scam
Everyone has heard stories and been warned about being drugged by strangers. Usually it is women who are warned to be careful when accepting a drink from a new acquaintance.
The usual advice is to not take drinks from strangers and always watch a bartender pour the drink.
In Buenos Aires it is men — gay or straight — who are more likely to be victims of a drug-facilitated robbery.
Most often when men are drugged in Buenos Aires it is by ‘Viudas Negras‘ (Black Widows) — criminally-minded prostitutes that they bring home, either men or women.
Sometimes they pose as normal people on dating apps such as Tinder, and they often prefer foreigners, who are perceived to be wealthy and disoriented, as potential targets.
When innocently getting to know someone, the perpetrator will spike the victim’s drink, knocking them out. Hours later the victim wakes up to find all of their items were stolen.
In one case, an Indian citizen living in Buenos Aires was killed, apparently due to an overdose, after he was slipped a sedative during the course of the crime. Usually victims are drugged with benzodiazepines such as crushed up Clonazepam or Valium ,which is put into their drink.
Although NatGeo got busted scamming themselves — presenting scripted segments of their program ‘Scam City’ as real incidents — the TV show clip below gives insight into how the Buenos Aires ‘Black Widow’ scam works.
Not as common in Argentina, but the drug Scopolamine is also used to facilitate robbery. Scopolamine is a powder that can be added to a drink or blown into the face of a victim, rendering them disoriented and ‘zombie-like’.
Derived from Datura Stramonium, it is used in medicine to treat Parkison’s disease, nausea and motion sickness but it hampers short-term memory.
A reader of this website, believes he was drugged with Scopolamine (aka ‘Devil’s Breath’ or burundanga) after striking up a casual conversation with a Venezuelan citizen in a cafe/bar in the Retiro neighborhood.
Our normally street savvy friend describes falling into a childlike state, with no free will and being led around to different ATM’s, to remove the maximum limit at each one, until his bank account was empty.
His story was corroborated by cameras at the ATM’s and he was reimbursed by his travel insurance for the theft and luckily was unharmed.
Scopolamine is often referred to as the world’s scariest drug, as it is tasteless and odorless. It was used by governments as a truth serum during the Cold War and Josef Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ was reported to send it back to Germany after escaping to South America.
The scopolia plant is native to Columbia, and scoplamine’s use in robberies is more common there.
Its use in drug-facilitated robberies in Buenos Aires is not believed to be common, but even detecting it, much less prosecuting cases of its use is difficult due to victim’s complete amnesia.
How to avoid it: Don’t turn your back on your drink. Also don’t take people you don’t know well —especially professional sex workers — back to your apartment or hotel. That’s what Argentina’s love hotels, known as telo’s are for!
• What to do if you are a victim of a crime?
Those who are a victim of a drug-facilitated robbery should get themselves to an emergency room as soon as possible to make sure they are okay and to get toxicology tests, hopefully within the 12-hour window within which most date-rape type drugs can be detected. It is also wise to contact one’s embassy to inform them of a serious crime.
Argentina’s public hospitals serve the public (even foreigners) for free throughout the country, but those with travel insurance may choose to go to a private hospital to be seen faster. If injured, calling 911 for ambulance service is also free, but the wait for an ambulance to arrive may be long. If possible, it is best to make one’s own way to the hospital.
Those who receive counterfeit bills or are relieved of their money due to a false sympathy plea or small-scale extortion, probably won’t receive much help from the police as these types of crimes aren’t pursued. Making a police report may not help catch the criminal, but may be necessary for travel insurance claims.
Victims should go to the closest police precinct if they speak Spanish, or in Buenos Aires, make their way to the Tourist Police (below), who have English-speaking officers who will accompany victims to the correct precinct to make the report.
—by Nico Sol
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Buenos Aires Tourist Police
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