After 7 months of traveling through South America- from north to South – We had many attempred scammings on the journey. Here I will list some of the most common scams in South America, some of them I have been subjected to, the other scam I have heard from people I met,or from people working in local hostels.
Some scams are probably common also on other continents, particularly Asia.
It is very convenient to learn about these tricks, so that you can avoid falling into the trap and getting your whole experience of this amazing continent ruined.
I had an experience where I came extremely close to losing my passport,credit card,laptop,hard-drive containing 10 months of travel photos. In short; all my valuables !!
Resourcefulness from me and Torunn was the only thing that prevented the disaster that time. If something like that can happen to a moderately cynical person like me,it can happen to anyone!.
Here is a small list of common scams in random order:
1. Friendly local person who only wants to practice English
A nice local person comes up to you and starts to ask all the classic questions; What country are you from? Is this your first time visiting ………..(the current country) ? Do you like staying here? Etc
At this point most people think that this is probably someone who is warming you up a bit before presenting whatever it is that they are selling.
This is probably true in most cases, but some are more clever than that.
They will become very defensive when you insinuate that you don`t want to buy anything from them, and then go on to explain that he just wants to be friends,and maybe get a chance to practice his English.
Then they will quickly proceed to start guiding you around the area of the attraction,or city that you are in.. They claim that they certainly don`t want any payment, maybe just a little tip at the end. After a short tour they suddenly ask for an insanely high tip of 500 norwegian kroner(100dollar) or a similar ridiculous sum. They can get quite aggressive and assertive if you refuse to pay. Many tourists will probably pay just to get rid of them..
One time I was driving around on a moped in the Dominican Republic then 2 men drove up beside me and asked me where I was going. I said I was heading towards the city center. Before I could say anything more they drove in front of me and started “directing” me through the city. They also made an attempt of guiding, telling me about neighborhoods etc.. It was totally unsolicited, but it was hard to get rid of them. Afterwards, they obviously wanted money. It was lucky that I had brought an empty decoy wallet with me that day!! I showed them the empty wallet, and kept driving.
How to Deal With Them?
The best is probably to be quite confident and clear that you have no interest in their service from the beginning.. Do not let them start guiding you"!
Of course some people just genuinely want to talk and get to know you, so you cannot go around being cynical all day, but merely make a judgement in each situation. It does`nt hurt to have a conversation with people coming up to you, but once they start providing a “service” for you, then you can end up in an uncomfortable situation where you feel you need to give them money when they start nagging.
One of the worst places I experienced this was in Jamaica. There I was walking happily toward an ATM when a local person came running,and pointed to the ATM and said ” That`s the ATM,just continue walking straight forward 50 meters , give me money since I helped you find the ATM”.They would often follow me over long distances to “help me” to find the post office,restaurant or whatever I was heading towards. You have to really be careful not to accept “services” that you don`t want or need..
2.The attraction / hotel / restaurant is closed or shut down
This is a very common trick, especially among taxi drivers. They get commission from some hotels / restaurants that pay them for taking customers there. Even if you have a booking that is only 2 days old, they will argue fervently that it was closed that evening, or burned down.
At some tourist attractions some tricksters, who are looking very official, tells you that the attraction is closed that day . Obviously, this is before you get to the main entrance. Then they take you to their shop where they might ave lots of nice souvenirs related to the attraction you were going to see.
How to Deal With Them?
Ask the taxi driver to drive you to the address you have been given whatever they tell you. Go all the way to the entrance of the attraction, and see for yourself that it is not closed.
We experienced some scammers on the streets of Quito. They saw us with the big backpacks, and tried to convince us that we were going to the wrong hotel.
3.Mayonnaise, ketchup, coffee trick
Someone spills something on your jacket / t-shirt ,
ohh my !!
and then they become very apologetic ,and want to help clean your shirt or trousers. In the process they steal all your valuables.
How to Deal With Them?
Do not let people into your “personal zone” .. Explain that you can wipe it off yourself. If they start cleaning before you get a chance to comment you just have to pay close attention to where their hands are, and keep your hands firmly on whatever valuables you have .
4. “Assistant” on the bus
In South America there are lots of different bus companies that run between cities, and between countries. Many of these buses have several employees, who each have their own little job, running back and forth between the bus and the office. Often these people don`t have any uniform to distinguish them, one can only assume that they are working for the company as they are doing what looks like work..
My experience happened on a small,dilapidated local bus in Chile. One of the “Helpers” came over trying to “help” me with various things. Me and my girlfriend Torunn were the first passengers on this bus, and he was there ready to show us to our seats.
Then he disappeared, but kept coming back with new information of sorts. Eventually, he told us that we had put our hand-luggage in the overhead compartment. The reason for this was “police checks and narcotics” which was all the Spanish we could understand. He was quite assertive, and seemed like he had things under control. even though I always keep my hand luggage close to my body , I put it on the overhead cpmpartment, since this was what we had been told…pretty naïve …
A little while later the same man returned with a note where we had to write down our details,name,Address and lots of stuff. This would obviously be completed while he was standing right next to us, putting various stuff on the overhead shelf..
The next thing that happened was that he walked out of the bus with his coat well stretched from his body. The note he had us filling out was a distraction, while he was busy stealing my bag. Torunn got up and checked the overhead shelf,and saw at once that he had replaced my bag with an empty bag of the same size. Torunn was very fast in running after him. I ran after them, but it happened so fast that I ran the wrong way. After 30 seconds I found Torunn with my backpack! Amazingly, she had caught him just as he was heading into a car with my backpack. She walked toward him, and he tried to toss the bag behind the car while saying “All is well,no problems !” in Spanish. She ignored him,went straight over and grabbed the bag,and told him to go to hell. After that we removed the rest of the luggage and went to find another bus. Although he didn't work for the bus, the others who worked there must have seen what he was doing, maybe they even got commission . Read the full story here: http://stigsworld.no/del-30-ranet-i-chile-og-punktering-i-verdens-torreste-orken
How to Deal With Them?
Do not take everything you are told to be true,even if it is from someone who seems like an authority,or one that appears to work there. We should never have put our valuables in a place where we had no control over them. Never listen to anyone who asks you to part With your valuables. Always be conscious when someone shows to much interest in your valuables,and spend time close to where it is.
The bags are`nt always safe even on the floor by your legs. I read a story about someone who was on a bus in Ecuador and was distracted by a pretty lady that had various questions. As he answered the questions her friends crawled under the seat, cut holes in his bag and stole all his camera equipment.
5. taxi drivers
It doesn't matter which country you are in,One thing is always certain – Most taxi drivers will try to trick you. Taxis in South America costs almost nothing, but can get very expensive if you`re not paying attention.
I have been scammed by taxis many times, and it will probably happen in the future as well,since it can be very difficult to avoid. There are many ways that they can fool you; driving long detours while the meter is running, Having a rigged meter that moves 10 times faster than the normal rate,not using the meter and making an absurd price on arrival, drive you to the wrong hotel and assert that it is correct,but has changed its name so they can get commission etc etc.
Taxi in South America
Many times I have been tricked into paying much more than the normal fare, But the worst experience was one taxi I took in Vietnam.
How to Deal With Them?
The best option in my experience is to avoid taxis as far as it is possible! There are usually local buses,opportunities to rent a scooter, or just walking if the distances are`nt too great. If you still need to take a taxi you need to turn on your “Cynical mode” right away. In most situations when traveling abroad I would advise people to be open and approachable, but when dealing with taxi drivers , one must unfortunately be cynical from the start. It's too late to start asking questions after the drive is over, At that point he can take charge any crazy amount for the trip.
Always do a little research about how much a taxi ride should cost in the city you are going to. Talk to locals. If you have the opportunity to connect with a local you can get him to help. If a local hails the taxi and talk in the native language,the driver is much less likely to scam you.. Check that the car is a licensed public taxi, and not counterfeit.
Insist that the meter will be turned on,or if there is no meter try to agree on the price beforehand.
6.The tourist and the policeman
This is a classic scam in South America. A friendly co-tourist (most times of South American origin) come over and have a chat. Often they need directions to some attraction. After a few minutes arrives a plainclothes “Policeman ”. He instantly flashes a small badge, and asks to see your passport and inspect the bag of your new friend. This guy does everything that the policeman ask him to do, and everything is going very smoothly.
Then the policeman wants to see your passport, and check your backpack, and your new friend promptly informs you that it's fine,and this is routine.
Then he goes through your bag, and steals your money and your creditcard while “the tourist” distract you with nonsense chatting. An alternative way to implement this scam is that the police officer retains your passport until you pay a hefty ransom to get it back.
How to Deal With Them?
There are very few plainclothes policemen in South America, and it is very unlikely that they would run around taking passports from random tourists. You just have to stand your ground, refuse to show them your passport and bags. Tell them to discuss it at the police station, but not on the street. Do not get in a car with these people, as it can be very dangerous. I would leave them on the street, and start to cry and draw attention if they tried any physical action.
Some of them will also ask to see your wallet to check for counterfeit bills, This is obviously not something you let them do!
Everyone knows that you have to watch out for pickpockets when visiting the big city, but it is important to be well prepared,not just have it in the back of your mind. pickpockets in South America can be spectacularly cunning and skilled at what they do. All the time when I traveled through South America I was uber-careful with my valuables. every time we stood in a crowd, or a full bus, I kept both my hands over my pockets. I also had a “secret” zip-closed pocket inside the regular pocket. Here I kept passports and credit cards.
Despite this, me and torunn still got pickpopcketed 2 different times. The first time was on a fully loaded bus in Quito,Ecuador – http://stigsworld.no/del-22-ranet-i-quito. As we ere busy reading our Lonely Planet book, trying to figure out the opening hours to some museum – the perfect distraction for a pickpocket. Torunn noticed that the wallet was gone the second we had exited the bus. In retrospective we realised that there was a young girl who got a little too close. We only lost 4-500 Norwegian kroner(14$) ", but the experience was still enough to ruin the whole day, as we had to run back and forth to find a police station.
The second time was on a subway in Buenos Aires. Then we were talking about something that made me loose focus,and loosen my grip over the pocket with my camera. It was only 30 seconds that I lost focus, but it was enough – The thieves stole the camera containing all the pictures from the amazing Iguazu Falls,and all the images from the city. It was enough to destroy the whole week for us.
How to Deal With Them
There are many who use money belts. This can be a clever idea,but it is still possible for the bad guys to cut it gently with a knife. I've heard of thieves who cut through the trousers of tourists to access the “secret” pockets inside, all this without the tourist noticing.
There are some underpants and T-shirts with secret pockets http://www.clevertravelcompanion.com/, which is a pretty smart idea!
Have constant focus your valuables every time you are in a crowd or on public transport. We met a guy that had chains on all valuables that was secured in the trousers. He often experienced all of his valuables hanging out of his pocket after a metro-ride in Buenos Aires!
8.Friendly local who wants to take you to the pub
This trick is in most cases aimed at young male backpackers. There is usually a sweet local girl who greets you on the street. She wants to practice English,or to learn about your country. When you say you're from Norway she obviously has some relatives living in Oslo – see how much you have in common !
Coincidentally, she knows about a great local pub nearby, where you can have a drink together.
Expensive alcohol at the pub..
The pub workers are obviously a part of the scam. You stick around for a while, talking and drinking with this great person. The girl disappears to the bathroom, or something, and the tourist is left with a huge bill for the drinks which are priced 10 times the regular rate. The bartender, and his enormously large friends, are more than willing to follow the confused tourists to the nearest ATM etc.
I have heard several versions of this scam. A backpacker who I talked to told me that he was into a group with 9 other youngsters. They became acquainted with a nice young man who everyone got along with. He was decent enough to take them to a local pub. There the whole group was offered to try a marihuana cigarette. The cigarette went round to everyone in the group. When the last tourist took a puff of smoke 6-7 policemen jumped out from their hiding place, and explained that this was illegal, and now had everyone had to go to prison,or pay a hefty bribe. They ended up paying an insane amount of money to be released -4-500 dollar per person. The policemen and the young man who tricked them into the trap made 5000 dollars on such a simple and devious trick.
What to do?
Do not trust cute girls who approaches you on the street wanting to spend time with you,just because they evidently "like" you, It can get very expensive and very dangerous. Have a healthy skepticism towards people who suddenly have the urge to show you the various “good” places. Don`t accept pot cigarettes from strangers in strange countries !