How to spot scams and shysters in South America

Aug 08, 2016 • By • 281 Views

We've all probably experienced it at some point on our travels.

Someone claiming you can't go to that attraction because it's closed, or you need to pay more money because you don't have the right ticket or papers, or even getting squirted with some dubious substance.

Nothing ruins a trip more than being scammed.

Scams are unfortunately a cold, hard, fact of travel, no matter where you traipse around the globe. Scam artists use ingenious ways to separate you from your cash and valuables, and if you don't have your wits about you it's easy to become a victim.

During a long stint traveling across South America I was a target of a handful of scams, from rip-off taxis to a robbery, bizarrely, involving a giant packet of candy.

It's important to know what types of tricks shysters can and will play on you, so here are a few scams to be on the lookout for if you're planning to travel across the continent.

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The squirt attack

You're minding your own business walking down the street when you feel a squirt of something hit you. It could be mustard, ketchup, ink, bird poop, dog poop or even, horrifically, human excrement. A Good Samaritan will quickly appear to help clean you up with some tissues, and in the process rob you of your valuables. This scam is common in big cities including Quito and Buenos Aires. If this happens, get away as quickly as possible, do not let anyone assist you and do not let go of any of your bags. Clean yourself up somewhere safe like a nearby shop or bathroom.

The swift bag swipe

This happens when you're laden with luggage and getting on and off the bus, both on the street and at the station. Do not set your bag down without putting your foot on it, even just to check your tickets or glance at your watch. It will quickly grow legs and run away. I saw this happen to a fellow bus passenger and his expensive camera in Santiago.

Paint the town red

In Argentina, similar to the squirt scam, someone will dab paint (usually a bright colour like red) on your bag. Of course they will be very apologetic and try to wipe it off before grabbing it and running off with your worldly possessions. Again, if someone does this, hold onto your bag tightly, tell them you don't need their help and move away fast.

Dodgy taxis

Some of the most common scams are inflating fares and tampering with the meter. I had this problem in Rio de Janeiro when a quick trip which should have cost 30-40 reais soared to 95 reais (almost 30USD), thanks to a meter which ticked over at light speed. Also, passengers who hail taxis on the street have been assaulted and robbed in major cities such as Lima. Street taxis are not well regulated and are often used as a front by criminals to rob unsuspecting victims. Always travel in licenced taxis, take note of the details of your cab or driver and, if possible, agree on a fixed fare.

The fake cops

Well known in Bolivia, this scam usually begins with a ‘fellow tourist' either offering help or asking for it. Someone claiming to be a plain-clothed, undercover policeman will then approach you both and ask to see your passports. The accomplice will comply and advise you to do the same, claiming he's been through this before. When you hand over your passport, the pair will make off with it and any other valuables you handed over. Bolivian police do not approach tourists. Hold on to your belongings and walk away as fast as you can.

The sweet distraction

Someone approaches you in an attempt to sell something. They distract you with the merchandise then swipe anything you may have lying around you, like a phone or wallet. This happened to me in an internet café in Cusco - with a huge bag of sweets. The scammer attempted to ‘sell' me his candy, covered my desk with his goodie bag and then took off with my purse which I had thoughtlessly left near my monitor. Never leave your valuables lying around. Keep them in your bag or somewhere close to your body at all times.

The cunning border crossing

You've crossed the border, have all the right documents or visas but the guard claims you don't have what he needs, or there's a mistake with them, or a new ‘tourist fee' will suddenly appear. And of course you will need to pay (a bribe, that is). This can happen at any border including within Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Read up on potential scams before your border crossings and be aware of what charges, if any, may apply. If in doubt, ask another guard and attempt to corroborate the story you're being told. Sometimes the easiest way out is to just hand over the cash, but at least bargain down further. In Latin America, all prices are negotiable.

While bad things can happen on holiday, it doesn't mean you need to travel shrouded in fear and paranoia. One of the biggest challenges for any traveler is striking the balance between being safety conscious and being too closed off to the people and culture you came to experience.

Familiarizing yourself with the scams that take place where you are traveling is the best way to remain open, while still having the knowledge to recognize a suspicious situation when or if it appears.

Have you ever been scammed on your travels? Tell us about your experiences below. If you enjoyed this article, please share via the share buttons below.

About the Author

Roberta Mancuso Roberta Mancuso

An experienced writer of 15 years, Roberta has perpetually itchy feet and has been exploring the world for a decade. She has travelled to...