Imagine that you’ve just touched down at Ezeiza international airport. It’s the middle of the night. You’re tired, dazed, confused, and just looking to get home. You’ve just stood in line for upwards of an hour at customs, and you’re ready to get on with your life. You stumble into a cab with your luggage, and stammer your address.
This was the very situation I was in three weeks ago at EZE, having just spent a full two days traveling. I was basically comatose at this point, with my headphones in, when I hear my cab driver mutter “flaquita Americana” mid-sentence over his radio (just for the record, I’m actually Canadian, thank you very much). But then, I noticed the meter wasn’t turned on. I continued to follow the conversation with the cabbie. “She speaks a little bit of Spanish, she used to live in Rosario,” she mentioned in Spanish over the radio. “I wonder if she knows about the drug scene! Hah! I will charge her the fixed rate.”
And sure enough, I was overcharged for the cab ride. He asked me to pay AR $1,200. Did I fight it? Nope. When I tried to dispute the charge, he insisted, and then locked the car doors. A wave of terror washed over me and I shut up and paid faster than you can say “chanta!”
This got me thinking: how many other people have also experienced this? How many might not even have realized it happened? How many are too ashamed to talk about their experiences? So, I went on the hunt. I asked friends, friends of friends, Facebook groups, and Reddit threads, in search of people willing to share their tales of being scammed in Buenos Aires…
…And I found four stories that represent different kinds of scams you might see in the city. Hell, there’s even an entire film dedicated to the fine Argentine art of scamming (It’s called Nueve Reinas and you should most certainly watch it).
Hopefully the fruits of my labor will give you a leg up the next time you encounter a potential scam.
The Taxi Scam
Let’s get this straight: there are taxistas in BA who will… Rip. You. Off. Not all of them, but there are surely bad apples all over the city. Along with my experience above, I got word from a woman over Instagram who mentioned “taxi drivers who ‘don’t know the way’ to the place where you’re going, charge you extra. Or harass you if you’re a woman. This happened to me many times.”
As a non-native Spanish speaker, as a woman, or as someone new to the city, taxi drivers can see you as vulnerable, potential bait for overcharging. The most helpful solution I’ve found for this is to confirm with a local how much a cab could cost from the airport before you arrive. That way you’ll have an estimate of how much you’ll need to spend, and have an idea of a bargaining point if you’re overcharged. Or you could use Uber or Cabify, but there a whole host of other potential issues if you go that route.
Another common taxi trick is to switch out fake bills with legitimate ones when you’re trying to pay. You might hand over AR $100 to the driver, only for him to rearrange the cash in his wallet and say “Oh I’m sorry, this bill is counterfeit, do you have another?” In the meantime, he’s switched out your genuine bill for a fake. If he’s *really* cheeky, he might even offer you advice on how to get to the bank to have your counterfeit bills exchanged; meanwhile he’s taken several hundred of your authentic pesos for himself.
You can minimize the risk by paying with the smallest bills possible for your trip (harder to do with inflation these days, I know), and keeping an eye on the driver when handing the cash over to pay. If you feel like something’s fishy, don’t be scared to stand up for yourself. Ideally, you’ll be in a registered Radio Taxi and can take down the name, license plate, and car number to report it directly to the company. Another way to decrease the chance of this happening – if you aren’t already using Uber or Cabify, that is – is to order cabs via the official BATaxi app.
If you are victim of a taxi scam in within the limits of Capital Federal, report a scam here. If you are outside the city, check out the provincial government’s corresponding website for more information on how and where to report.
The Kidnapping Scam
In my research, I received a disturbing story about a targeted robbery scam using the personal information of a family member to extort victims into handing over cash and valuables.
According to one woman’s account: “[The robbers] called home saying that my dad (they said the full name, probably got it from the phone book) had been in a car accident. Once they got me all worried, they got information from me. ‘What’s the model of your dad’s car? Oh yeah, that’s the one […] but if you want to see him again you need to give me all the money you can get. Your dad wasn’t in an accident. […] So I’m not gonna ask you for a lot of money, as much you can get. Your dad says you know where he keeps the cash in the house. Take all of it. Cameras and computers too.”
She continued: “…at some point they asked for my cell number, and I bought the whole story, so I just gave it to them. They called back and the extortion went on: ‘Put it all in a supermarket bag and leave, now. Start walking to the park that’s near your house. Lear the bag next to that tree. Now turn, don’t look back. Your dad will be home soon.’ I came back and called him, his cell was off. He returned from work four hours later; his cellphone just ran out of battery. Nothing happened to him, he was working all day. Horrible experience. We learned the next time we must hang up the phone, and don’t pick it up if it rings again quickly. If something really happened, they’ll call again later.”
This story has a couple of key elements. First, the extortionists used personal information, like this woman’s living situation (with her dad), her approximate address (near a specific park), and her dad’s full name to target her specifically. Like she said in the story, these are details easily accessed from the guía telefónica, and could be used to target anyone. Typically, those making the calls are behind bars in local prisons, operating with the help from accomplices on the outside who are able to pick up the valuables once they’re dropped at the agreed upon point.
You can’t always avoid having your public data available, but be wary when receiving phone calls from unknown people claiming they know friends or family, or have information about them. Often times these “secuestros virtuales” operate based on luck and manipulation of information you’ve already given them. They could just be waiting for you to mention simple details like names, neighborhoods, and relationships in order to use that information against you. Chances are, if something really happened, another family member, close friend, or the police would be calling you.
According to an interview criminal lawyer Gabriel Iezzi gave to Infobae, only 3 out of every 10 of these cases are reported to the police. Most victims are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been duped, even to their own family members. To report these cases, if you’re able to act quickly, call 911 immediately. If it’s after the fact, you can go directly to the Poder Judicial de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, or your nearest local police station (comisaría). If you live outside of Capital Federal, you can report crimes your province’s local judiciary or local police station as well.
The Price Change Scam
In contrast to more targeted scams, I received a story from a woman who was pressured into spending more money by a door-to-door knife sharpener, or afilador, after having already agreed on a price. In her story, shared with us through Instagram, she recalls: “Yes. [I was scammed] by the f*cking afilador with his goddamn silbatito (referring to the whistle most use to make their presence in the neighborhood known). Told me over the intercom, that it was AR $30 each knife. When he was done with the three knives I gave him, the figure changes to ‘AR $230 each.’ Huh? I’m standing there with my front door open, my wallet, with a man with three knives in his hand, who’s starting to get agitated. I didn’t give him the total, but still, he basically robbed me.”
These types of situations, not always pre-meditated, reflect the possibility of a normal transaction to turn into an opportunity for a scam. Perhaps it comes with a door-to-door salesman, or maybe it’s in a verdulería or even in at the entrance to a club. Often there’s an agreed upon price, and then someone attempts to intimidate you into paying extra.
It’s tricky to get around these, particularly if you’re a woman, because the other person might present a potential physical threat. Other than getting someone else to verify the price, or calmly refusing, there aren’t a lot of options here. As the woman in the story did, firmly assert the agreed upon price and there’s a good chance whoever it is will back down.
Though potentially not valid with door-to-door afiladores, you can read up on your consumer rights and report price fraud for products or services with the Defensa de Consumidor de Argentina.
The Housing Scam
The most complicated of all these scams are rental scams. There are a lot of potholes to navigate while searching for housing, particularly as a newcomer or non-native Spanish speaker. I received a story from a man through Facebook who was scammed out of a deposit and first month’s rent by two people posing as real estate agents, when they were in fact the current tenants of the apartment.
After getting paid, they used their contract to evict their unsuspecting new tenants. This is only one of many (let me use caps for a sec: MANY) potential rental and housing scams. They can vary from dubious Facebook posts, renting without a contract, violating Airbnb agreements, and taking advantage of non-native Spanish speakers to slip additional clauses and loopholes into the contract.
Similarly, with rental fraud you can contact the Defensa de Consumidor, who will guide you regarding next steps and your rights.
All this isn’t to say that it’s your fault for being scammed. Like my own story with the taxi driver, I would have sooner handed over my entire backpack than have this strange man drive me around in the back of his cab all night. Safety is always paramount, and even though there are preventative measures that can be taken, safety comes before anything else.
Keep your eyes peeled for other types of scams you may encounter along the way. There’s the well-publicized “Water Scam” wherein a stranger in the street will spill something on you, sometimes water, sometimes food, (I’ve actually heard of mustard or fake pigeon poop, so there’s that), and an accomplice will distract you by trying to help clean it up, while the first pickpockets you.
There’s also an entire NatGeo documentary, as well as many articles that chronicle the “B-Girl” scene in Buenos Aires which involves young women taking either drunk or drugged foreign men to apartments or hotel rooms in order to steal their cash and valuables. However, I didn’t obtain firsthand accounts of either of these scams and those sources are based on rumors and word of mouth, so do what you will with that information.
It’s easy to get worked up and worried about the myriad of potential scams of which you could be victim in a big city like Buenos Aires, and as much as it’s essential to be prepared for potential scams, it’s also important to just live your life. Don’t prevent yourself from going out and having fun just because you could be scammed, otherwise you’ll spend your whole time inside researching the crimes instead of actually enjoying yourself. Though I do think I’ll stay away from taxis and give the Subte a try for a while…