11 tricks & scams in South America that you need to be aware of
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One of the things that worried me most about travelling long-term was the risk of being caught out by tricks & scams in South America. As in turns out, I needn’t worry as I barely experienced any real trouble, but perhaps that’s because I was aware of scams and careful about the situations I found myself in.
Being armed with the knowledge of tricks & scams in South America definitely helped me stay alert and avoid issues.
So half for actual advice, and half for the fascination of some of the ways that people catch tourists out, here are some known tricks & scams in South America. Let me know in the comments section if you’ve heard of any others!
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To kick off this list of scams in South America, this rapid method of petty crime involves literally cutting the strap of your bag with scissors and running off with the body of the bag. It’s often done in crowds or in situations where someone has to push up against you (beware of being ‘bumped into’ and swarmed) so that they can make the change in weight on your shoulder less obvious.
To counter it, keep super alert of your things in crowds, holding onto the body of your bag where possible, and splitting your valuables into separate locations, such as a second small wallet in your pocket.
2. The taxi driver with the right contacts
For this scam in South America, a taxi driver quotes a price and makes you pay upfront, but then they lock the car and demand more money at the end.
When you refuse, they take you to the police station where you expect to find justice, but instead you are met with a fine that gets happily split between the taxi driver and the corrupt policeman.
Ensuring the meter is always on and not paying a penny until the very end is one way to make this more legally difficult for people to get away with corruption like this, or you can use services like Cabify and Uber.
3. The broken taxi meter
Probably one of the most common scams in South America. It’s simple: you get into a taxi, ask them to switch the meter on so you know it’s a fair fare, but then the driver says, ‘Oops, the meter is broken so I’ll have to estimate it myself’.
This often results in wildly exaggerated rates pulled unashamedly out of the driver’s arse, so always check before you get into the vehicle, and if they say this, opt for another taxi immediately.
4. The currency-confuser
Knowing that you’re fresh off a plane and therefore a tantalising combination of loaded with big notes of cash + unfamiliar with the new currency, a taxi/tuktuk driver or shopkeeper will ask you for smaller notes, but when you don’t have any, will ask their friend to switch your large note for change.
They bamboozle you so hard that you won’t realise until they’ve driven off that they’ve switched your big note for fake small notes of ‘change’. I heard of this happening more than once in Máncora, Peru.
If you find yourself in this position of their ‘friend’ switching notes for you, instead head into a larger store to get change.
5. The coincidental robbery
In Medellín, there have been many reports of taxi drivers (there’s a theme, here) driving with their window open, then acting surprised when an armed robber/their friend pulls up on a moped at the traffic lights and demands money.
Always insist the driver puts the window up at the start of any journey, and if they won’t, get the hell out of their car, pronto.
6. The aggressive tip-grab
In some countries – especially those that receive a lot of American tourists – there is a HIGH expectation for big tipping, even in places where locals wouldn’t ever tip (which is the vast majority of places in South America).
Accents are really hard to distinguish between in a second language, so locals tend to assume any English-speaker is from the USA, a country known for their tipping culture due to lacklustre minimum wage laws relative to cost of living.
Service providers (and by this, I mean anything from unsolicited tour guides who stopped you in the street to people who are paid by a company to open an electronic bus door) therefore might try to pressure people to tip, or if they have, to tip more, which steadily gets more aggressive if you continue to refuse.
This sometimes ends up with them shouting ‘fucking Americans‘ down the street at you, which is all sorts of fun.
Although as a non-confrontational (and painfully British) person this is kind of my worst nightmare, the main danger here is embarrassment, so if someone is forcing you to give more money, I’d say that’s enough reason to tell them their service is bad and just walk away.
7. The sticky-fingered shaman
Not a scam, per se, but we heard of people going to ayahuasca camps, and having all of their things stolen from their tents whilst tripping balls for 8 hours in a shaman’s hut.
There are also horror stories of people being sexually assaulted during their hallucinations. I don’t really have much advice on how to avoid this other than I guess don’t do ayahuasca.
8. The beach switcheroo
This one actually made me laugh. It happened to Andy on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, and in spite of everyone’s warnings, was somehow the only crime we experienced during 3 months in Brazil.
Whilst we were sunbathing, a man holding a large board of rip-off sunglasses approached us and tried to make a sale. We said 3 times in Portuguese ‘No, we’re not interested’, and although it seemed he eventually accepted this fact, he weirdly hung around just a few seconds too long to be socially normal.
As it turns out, that’s because he was busy taking off his dirty shoes and putting on Andy’s Havaianas whilst using the board to cover it all from view. Scams in South America do get kinda sneaky!
9. The copy-cat
We got caught out by card-copying in Argentina. This is definitely more of a thing in the south of South America, but wherever you go just be careful your waiter isn’t taking your card to a card machine ‘out the back’.
They copy it, sell the details on the dark web, and within hours your card contents have been wiped by transactions all over the world.
I hope the Canadian Arsenal fan enjoyed his football match, and that guy in Cyprus had a wonderful time on his $150 Uber ride, supposedly around the entire island. Luckily, Revolut were straight on the fraud claim and we got all our money back very quickly. Hooray!
10. The distraction
Andy’s cousin got caught out with this one in a bus terminal in Bolivia, but it’s known as one of the scams in South America’s other countries, too.
A frail little old lady came out to her and babbled in Quechua about something that was clearly distressing her, and while her victims tried to work out what was wrong and how they could help, a younger person came up behind and nicked their small bag, which they assumed carried all the valuables like cash and passports would be in.
Luckily, they were wrong, as it was mostly-empty a decoy bag.
11. The Devil’s Breath
I’m finishing off this list with what I consider to be the scariest of scams in South America, but luckily it’s not very common to hear about unless you’re in the retired-expat-on-a-sex-tourism-trip demographic.
Scopalamine, lovingly known as Devil’s Breath, is a drug that originates from a plant that is mostly found growing in the Andes, though it can be made synthetically now. It’s said to be so strong that it can take effect just by blowing it in someone’s face, but most reports of this drug happen by putting the powder in your drink or food. It’s most known for its use as a spiking drug in Colombia, where gangs target trusting tourists with big wallets.
Scopalamine is famous for its zombie effects, it temporarily turns your brain into mush without huge loss of the bodily control – so from the outside, people on this drug just look a bit drunk, but are massively easy to manipulate and find it very difficult to lie.
This leads to people cheerfully clearing out their entire apartment’s possessions as well as their bank account into the hands of the pretty lady who met them at the bar, telling their concierge not to worry, their friends are just helping them to move out. It seems to be used more as a drug for theft rather than sexual assault, as least with tourists.
Always keep an eye on your drink and plate in Colombia, and if you’re a 4/10 being approached amorously by a 9/10, get your extranjero self to another bar.
So those are the 11 tricks & scams in South America that I’d say are important to get your head around before you travel. Once you get into travelling, you’ll find that looking out for these things becomes second nature, and you’ll definitely relax more as your trip goes on. Stay alert but don’t preoccupy yourself with scams in South America, make sure you’re still giving yourself the chance to enjoy it!
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