The shopworn phrase “You never know what might be around the next corner” might have been invented for Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. This beautiful metropolis whips together gourmet cuisine, awesome shopping, and frenzied nightlife.
However, amid seemingly endless streets and twisty little cobblestoned alleys—each perfumed with a unique blend of blossoms and barbecue smoke—lurk some unique scams that can catch even experienced tourists off guard.
Heading to Buenos Aires for vacation? Here’s what to watch out for on your next trip:
1. A taxi driver swaps your change for fake money
After arriving at your destination, you hand the taxi driver a 100 peso note (about U.S. $7). As he shuffles through a fold of bills to give you change, your driver slips in one or two counterfeit notes that he'd purchased on the black market.
Another method used by taxi drivers is the old switcheroo: Your driver will exclaim that they don’t have change for the large note you’ve handed them (anything over a 100 peso bill can be difficult to break), but takes the chance to quickly swap your note for a counterfeit bill before handing it back.
Either way, you’re none the wiser until it’s time to spend the change elsewhere—when you’ll be told that the money you have is fake.
Taxistas in Buenos Aires are known worldwide for the array of scams that they perpetrate against unknowing tourists. These scams happen in a flash—drivers are very practiced in the maneuver of switching your real note for a fake one that they have hidden in their hand. Even worse, taxistas are often so aggressive that even wary travelers tend to feel too rushed to properly examine their change.
Image via The Argentine Experience
There are a few tips to reducing your chances of falling for this scam:
- Familiarize yourself with some of the common traits of counterfeit Argentinian pesos here—particularly the watermark.
- Ask your driver if they have change for any denomination before handing it over.
- Say the denomination of each bill out loud, as you count them to the driver one by one.
- Note the serial number of each bill you pay with, snapping a picture with your cell phone if possible.
Usually seen: In taxis, but be careful whenever someone gives you a bunch of bills as change for a purchase. This includes dark nightclubs and bars.
Most likely victims: Tourists who are unfamiliar with what the local currency looks like.
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, try to have smaller notes on hand to pay taxis.
If it happens to you: If you’re still in the cab, call the driver out on the switch—this is where photos of serial numbers come in handy.
2. Your driver is charging you more than what’s on the meter
Some taxi drivers will try to convince you that you owe more than is shown on the meter. This is almost never true, but there are some exceptions. If you call a cab, there are fare minimums and the company will also charge a call-in fee. However, they should tell you how much this is on the phone so you know upfront.
Some companies will charge you an extra fee if they take you into the suburbs of the city so that they can cover the gas back. That’s a pretty bad business practice, but not exactly illegal. Once again, the extra amount should be discussed upfront. If the fee was not mentioned at the beginning of the ride—don’t pay it.
Your best bet to avoid being over-charged in Buenos Aires?
Never take a cab that isn’t labeled “Radio Taxi.” Cabs marked “Radio Taxi” are registered with the government, have unique cab numbers and are required by law to post certain laws and regulations related to taxis in their cab. While Radio Taxis are yellow and black, plenty of unofficial cabs have adopted a similar paint job to earn the trust of unsuspecting tourists, so be sure to double check.
Usually seen: In taxis.
Most likely victims: Tourists who are unfamiliar with charges.
How to avoid it: Try to only use official Radio Taxis for transport.
If it happens to you: If you ever encounter a driver who tries this scam, write down the cab number (which by law must be on display) so that you can call their Radio Taxi company to report them. Not only will this usually scare the taxi driver into giving up on the scam, but you can also try to keep them from scamming others.
3. You’ve got something on your jacket
You’re walking down the street when, suddenly, you get sprayed with ketchup, mustard, or bird droppings from an unknown direction.
Annoyed and surprised, you start to clean yourself off—but a stranger or two immediately appear to offer their help. Perhaps an old lady helps wipe the offensive stuff away 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 that something is wrong, most of the people who were surrounding you take off in different directions, leaving you with no idea who to follow.
This has happened again and again and again over the past few years. The reason it’s so effective is that you can’t be sure who is genuinely trying to help and who is part of the production, so your safest bet is to just move away.
Another version? A large group of people enter the train at the same time and surround you. As the train rocks from side to side, they use this as an excuse to gently bump into you. While one person is busy distracting your attention by bumping into you, another can be opening your bag or pockets.
Both of these pick-pocketing scams depend on two things: that you allow yourself to be distracted by one person, and that you are too polite to immediately clutch your belongings when surrounded by others.
Usually seen: On the sidewalks or subways.
Most likely victims: Anyone who’s easily identified as a tourist.
If it happens to you: Instead of allowing strangers to help clean a mess, get away from the scene as quickly as possible. Whatever you do, don’t put down your bag to clean yourself off, and don’t follow anyone anywhere—if they get you alone, they will be able to rob you dry.
4. Spotting the Viudas Negra, or Black Widow
You’re out for a drink, and an attractive woman takes the stool next to you. You start chatting, but almost too quickly, she suggests that you both return to your room.
Once there, the attractive young woman will wait until your back is turned, then slip a drug, usually benzoate, into your drink. The concoction will knock you out in under ten minutes, giving her plenty of time to take all your belongings and escape.
One of Argentina’s more common scams, the black widow plow is so brazen, it sounds almost like detective noir. However, the women of Buenos Aires who prey on single males are both numerous and brazen—one was recently arrested after expanding the usually-in-person scam to Facebook.
Usually seen: In bars and nightclubs.
Most likely victims: Men who are sitting alone.
If it happens to you: Watch your drink, and don’t be too quick to allow anyone to accompany you back to your accommodations. If you find that you have been drugged, call the police immediately. (Local contact information for police can be found at the bottom of this article.)
Use Moderate Caution—But Keep a Close Eye on Your Electronics
Like all big cities, Buenos Aires has its share of problems. The economic crisis of 1999–2001 plunged a lot of people into poverty, and street crime has subsequently risen.
As a tourist, you’re much more likely to be a target of petty crimes like pickpocketing and bag-snatching than armed robbery or kidnapping. Be careful on crowded buses, on the subway and at busy ferias (street markets). Don’t put your bag down without your foot through the strap (especially at sidewalk cafes), and even then keep a close eye on it.
There’s just one exception: Know that in Buenos Aires, your electronics might make you a more tempting target than your wallet.
That’s because buying a smartphone, especially an iPhone, is extremely expensive in Argentina due to import restrictions—and they’re not widely available. So, if you do bring your smartphone, don’t flash it around unnecessarily or leave it unprotected somewhere. This goes for iPads, iPods, and laptop computers too.
The takeaway? Staying safe in Buenos Aires mostly comes down to street smarts: Watch your belongings and keep strangers at an arm’s length. To avoid being overcharged or handed counterfeit bills by a taxi driver, familiarize yourself with different areas and the country’s currency.
Finally, if you do run into trouble, don’t hesitate to contact the Argentine police. There is a 24-hour police helpline in English for tourists in Buenos Aires, which can be accessed by dialing 101.
Tourists can also contact the Comisaria del Turista (Tourist Police Station) Corrientes 436 on the multi-lingual toll-free number 0800 999 5000 or by dialing directly on 4346 5748.