Common Latin American Travel Scams
And how to defend against them.
As I write this article, I realize that I have been fortunate enough to avoid being scammed or robbed during my time living in Mexico. However, I recognize the importance of taking precautions with the gear I carry and remaining vigilant of my surroundings, having traveled to many countries in my lifetime. While I cannot guarantee that scams won't happen, I want to share some common Latin American scams and provide tips on how to minimize your chances of being a victim or how to defend against them. Interestingly enough, the only place where I have been pickpocketed was in Washington DC, which will be covered as scam number 9.
1. The pick pocket. Pickpocketing is usually a team effort where they target you and mark you as a tourist. Then, they choose a pocket to pick and distract your attention away from it. This distraction is typically done through a physical bump or shove or by you yourself getting distracted by walking into a crowded area during an outdoor event. Sometimes, they even mark you with chalk beforehand as a signal to their accomplices nearby. It's important to be aware of these tactics and keep an eye on your belongings to avoid becoming a victim of pickpocketing.
Defense: When you get bumped, it's important to immediately reach for your pockets and ensure your belongings are still there. Avoid walking into crowded areas if possible to minimize the risk of pickpocketing. Additionally, it's best to refrain from placing anything valuable in your back pockets.
2. The bag lift. You're sitting in a park or an outdoor cafe and you spot some keys or change on the ground. As you bend down to pick it up, you realize that your backpack, which you had left just a couple of feet away, has suddenly disappeared.
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. One common tactic used by pickpockets is to target individuals on crowded buses. They will wait for a moment when you are distracted by a commotion, then quickly slash the outside of your backpack. While you are unaware, they will reach inside in hopes of finding something valuable. It's important to be vigilant and check your bag frequently, as you may not even realize that your backpack has been slashed. Another variation of this tactic is when the pickpocket simply opens the zipper and reaches inside, so it's important to keep a close eye on your belongings at all times.
Defense: Put your bag in front of you when taking public transport.
4. The mustard spray. If someone ever sprays a condiment on you as you're walking outside, be careful of their next move. A common trick used by pickpockets is to have a polite accomplice approach you with toilet paper, offering to help clean up the mess. They may then suggest that to properly clean the area. This allows them to get close enough and pickpocket you while you’re frustrated and distracted
Defense: Walk with the mustard until you get to to a safe place and don’t let whoever tried to help yo on the street follow youl
5. The fake police. Beware of a dangerous scam run by organized thieves. They typically operate with an English-speaking accomplice who befriends you in a public space, like a bus station. When a "policeman" arrives to conduct a random check, they may discover contraband on your new friend and demand that you both come with them to a fake police station. There, you may be tied up and robbed of your credit cards and PINs, with the thieves withdrawing the maximum amount from your accounts over several days. Another variation of this scam is when someone shares a cab with you and a fake policeman pulls the vehicle over, discovering contraband on the new passenger. Remember, the success of this scam relies on your 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.
*Sometimes the police are real and they may plan drugs on you to get you to pay a fine. The first thing I would do in this situation is… argue. It sounds counter intuitive, but most of the time, the police want and easy bribe, they expect most foreigners to be quiet and go along with it.
Its always helpful to have the number to the local consulate or embassy in your phone, hell… you could have a fake number also. Because if they know they are wrong, they don’t want to take chances
6. The bus overhead grab.It's important to be aware of the risk of theft when sleeping on a bus, especially during overnight or night trps. There is a high likelihood that someone may sift through your bag in the overhead compartment or grab it and exit at the next stop. Additionally, thieves may also try to steal items from your jacket or fleece pockets while you're asleep, even if you're wearing them. Be vigilant and take steps to secure your belongings to avoid becoming a victim of this type of theft.
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.
Considering their multiple ride share apps these days, its often safer to use Uber,Didi or whatever the local app in your area is.
8. The bar tab. I’ve heard a scam where you meet people on the street and they invite you to a shady bar where your force to pay a massive tab. But whats most common is that you go to any bar and they overcharge you for things hoping you wont notice.
Defense: Make sure there is a menu with prices to order from. If a place has no prices on the menu, they shouldn'tt be trusted
9. The baby carriage. This one happened to me. They operate as a team. One person will be pushing a baby stroller and the other will pretend to be a clumsy person.
I was standing with a friend near a crowded monument and a guy tripped and fell bumping into me, right as a baby stroller went by. In the confusion. my wallet got swiped and even though I assumed the stroller lady was in on it.. the last thing I wanted to do was berate a woman with a stroller to pull back the stroller veil on a sunny day.
It's important to note that even if you are aware of common travel scams, there are still situations where you may be defenseless against physical attacks such as being held at knifepoint or gunpoint, or even random acts of violence such as being kicked in the head. These incidents often occur at night when you may not be carrying valuables such as your passport, jewelry, credit cards, or camera. In these situations, it is usually best to surrender your belongings to the attacker unless you have a weapon and are prepared to defend yourself. Stay aware of your surroundings and take steps to stay safe while traveling.
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