I thought I had advanced street smarts when coming to South America, but then I got pick pocketed on my third day. Here’s a list of popular scams I’ve learned about.
1. The pick pocket. This is usually an organized team effort. You are first marked as a tourist and a pocket is identified for picking. Success depends on you being distracted away from the pocket being picked, and this is usually done by a physical bump or shove. Or you do all the work distracting yourself by walking into a crowd at an outdoor celebration. Sometimes you are discreetly marked with chalk beforehand as a signal to nearby pick pocket accomplices.
Defense: Reach for your pockets when you get bumped. Don’t walk into crowds and at the minimum don’t put anything valuable in your back pockets.
2. The bag lift. Either sitting in a park or outdoor cafe, you notice keys or change on the ground. As you pick it up, the backpack you left a couple feet behind has disapeared.
Defense: Don’t take your eyes off your bag. Everyone who had their bag snatched says they only looked away “for a second.”
3. The bag slash. Usually on a crowded bus, someone slashes the outside of your backpack while you are distracted with some random commotion. Once slashed, someone sticks their hand in hoping to find something valuable. You don’t realize your bag has been slashed. Variation: Instead of slashing they just open the zipper and reach inside.
Defense: Put your bag in front of you when taking public transport.
4. The mustard spray. Someone sprays a condiment around your waist as you are walking outside. A very polite accomplice with toilet paper then offers to help clean up the mess but to get it out all you need to do is take off your backpack. You never see it again.
Defense: Walk with the mustard until you get to a safehouse.
5. The fake police. This is a particularly dangerous scam operated by organized gangs that involves an English speaking confederate who befriends you in a public space like a bus station. A “policeman” arrives to do a random check and finds out your new friend has contraband, and demands you come with him to the fake police station where you tied up and relived of your credit cards and their PINs. Sometimes you are held for days as the robbers withdraw the daily maximum amount from your accounts. Variation: You are in a cab and someone wants to share the ride with you. Almost immediately, a fake policeman pulls the cab over and discovers contraband on the new passenger. The key to this type of scam working is you making the decision to voluntarily follow the fake policeman.
Defense: Ignore a lone officer by pretending you don’t understand him. Don’t follow any policeman unless multiple vehicle backup arrives and it’s obvious they are real. Two Austrian tourists were victims of this scam in Bolivia and were killed.
6. The bus overhead grab. Once you fall asleep on the bus someone either sifts through your bag in the overhead or grabs it and gets off at the next stop. Nearly 100% chance of happening on overnight buses in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. A variation is grabbing things from your jacket / fleece pockets as you sleep (while you are wearing it).
Defense: Keep your bag on your lap or check everything in underneath the bus, where it will be safer. Putting your bag on the floor is a poor defense if the robber gets in the seat behind you.
7. The taxi runaround. If you are coming out of a bar or club at night piss drunk, a crooked cab driver will disorient you by driving around. Then he pulls into an alley where an accomplice with a weapon relieves you of your money and clothes. This is an opportunistic crime because the cab driver selects people who he thinks wouldn’t notice being driven in the wrong direction.
Defense: Don’t get so trashed that you don’t know the route home. Speak up if you think something is off to let the cab driver know you won’t be an easy victim. If you are certain he’s driving you into a trap, get behind his seat and go apeshit. Sitting next to a cab driver is a poor defense because accomplices can get in the backseat.
8. The bar tab. An English speaker befriends you and tells you about this really great bar down the street. You get there and see two girls at the table next to you raise their glasses in salud after opening an expensive bottle of wine. Your tab comes and turns out you bought that bottle of wine and several more for the many mediocre ladies in the bar. Burly bouncers won’t let you leave until you charge an exorbitant sum to your credit card. Primitive variation: You are led into a “bar” (abandoned building) where you are immediately relieved of your goods.
Defense: Don’t follow someone you just met on the street into a bar or club unless it’s a really hot girl.
9. The found money. You are walking down the street and a man walking next to you finds a large roll of cash on the floor. He offers to split it with you. Out of nowhere an accomplice enters and claims it was his money and there is a significant amount missing. The man who found the money pays up and urges you to do the same to avoid serious trouble.
Defense: If it’s too good to be true…
10. The switcharoo. A guy on the street is hawking cheap cameras that seem legit. Vendor is long gone by the time you realize you bought a box of rocks. Sometimes even stores will give you a box that is already opened.
Defense: Examine the goods.
Even if you know every travel scam, you will still be defenseless against a mugger with a knife or gun, or someone who randomly karate kicks you in the head. This usually happens at night where you are not carrying things like passport, jewelry, credit cards, or your Canon digital SLR camera. It’s best to give up the goods when attacked unless you have a weapon of your own and want to battle.
Bottom line: Be skeptical of people and use your brain but don’t but don’t let paranoia rob you of what could be a sexual experience with a local. Not everyone is trying to rob you.