Getting Robbed in Buenos Aires

It’s a numbers game: you spend enough time in poorer countries where petty crime is common, and it’s going to happen to you. No matter how vigilant you are, there’s only so much you can do against determined criminals.

Granted, what happened to me today could have been stopped had I been a bit more on guard and scrupulous, so I don’t mean to write off my own failings as a statistical inevitability. Still, this is the context in which I’m viewing the incident, if only to make myself feel better (and because it’s true).

I arrived at the Buenos Aires bus station after a really long bus ride. A 28 hour bus ride. It wasn’t supposed to be that long, but various delays, border control issues, and a malfunctioning bus turned it into an adventure. I don’t mind long bus or plane rides as I can get through a bunch of reading, and this trip was no different. But still, I emerged out of the bus exhausted, dehydrated, and needing to go to the bathroom. So I was more vulnerable at the outset. I walked down into the taxi area to take a taxi to the apartment where I would spend my final night in South America.

At the taxi area where I waited there were few taxis coming, and many of us waiting. A couple cabs came and the others got in them, but after those there were none in sight.

So I walked into the next area of taxis, where more were stopping. One gentleman came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I said yes. So he stood out in the street to try to hail me one. Then another driver who was already parked came over and asked if I needed a cab. At first I was unsure – why was he just parked there? Why wouldn’t he drive up and pick up all the other waiting passengers? His cab looked legit, except that it didn’t have a phone number on the top. But some cabs have the number, some don’t. I said yes and followed him to the car.

The guy who was supposed to hail me one followed me to the car, offered to put my bags in the car, but I declined, knowing he would want a tip if I let him. He still asked for a tip, and I said no.

The driver asked where I was going and I gave him the neighborhood and cross streets. He acknowledged the cross streets and started driving. He was older (in his 60’s or 70’s) and friendly. Not too friendly – not enough to cause suspicion – but friendly. He noted how beautiful a day it was. He made small talk.

Then he asked if the route he was going to take worked for me. I said it was fine. Again, it put me at ease – he made sure I was OK with the route.

We arrived at the intersection where I said to drop me off. The meter, which worked and ran the whole time, said 23 pesos. I gave him a 20 peso bill and a 10 peso bill. He looked at the 20 peso bill and said (in Spanish of course – the whole thing has been in Spanish) that it was no good. It was fraudulent. That I had to go to the bank and change it.

If I didn’t know anything, I would have resisted this explanation and insisted that he take it. But I had heard that ATMs in Argentina sometimes spit out fraudulent bills and that taxi drivers sometimes do not accept bad bills. So it struck me as plausible, even though I’m not able to distinguish good from bad bills.

So I showed him a different 20, he said no good. Then a different 10. No good. All in a friendly voice. At this point cars were honking at us to move so we crossed the street. I showed him more bills. All were bad he said, except for the one 20. Cars honking again – we had to move.

The moves proved physically a bit disorienting.

At this point I began wondering what would happen if he didn’t think any of my pesos were legit. Would I just leave the cab and not pay? Give him the pesos, real or fake, and then leave? Would he force me to go to an ATM and get new pesos?

I then showed him my three 100 peso bills and asked if any of them were ok. He looked at them. No, no, no.

Then he moved quickly. He looked again at the bills, handed me a 2, then a 10, asked for the 20, etc, explaining that some of the bills were legit but not all. It all happened quickly. He then handed me folded bills again and stuffed them in my hand and said “this will be ok.” As I began to open the bills to see what he gave me back, he said urgently, “Watch your bills! A child will try to steal them! Watch your money!”

He then reached over and opened the taxi door. Now I was getting concerned. If someone were trying to steal my money, why would he be opening the door to let them? I clutched my bags (I had all my luggage).

He then said more urgently, watch your cash, watch your cash, be careful, right now be careful, ushering me out the door. I took one look at the folded bills, the 20 was on top, and the 10 underneath it. I clutched my bags. At this point I figured something strange was going on, but due to the language barrier, physical disorientation, lack of free hands with my luggage, and cars honking around us, I didn’t have the frame of mind to go through each of the bills he returned to me. I was more concerned that he might try to drive off with my bags, or that the child he pointed to (the non-existent child) was about to steal my wallet. I got out of the cab, looking around suspiciously, grabbing my bags, and he drove off.

At the apartment I went through my bills. He had stolen several hundred pesos, replacing the 100s with 2’s.

Could have been worse. It could have been violent. Could have stolen my passport or computer or other luggage. But still, this hurts, gives me a sour taste about Buenos Aires, and makes me all the more distrustful of third world taxi drivers.

11 Responses to Getting Robbed in Buenos Aires

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    I would say that you were conned, rather than robbed. To me, getting robbed in a foreign country generally involves violence.

    Part of the con is that you don’t want to seem like an a-hole by saying, “Bullshit, the money is good. If you don’t want it, I’m outta here.”

  2. Tyler Link says:

    Agreed, more trickery than thievery, but the result is the same: humiliation and less money than you started with. Still, I can see how this would color your whole Buenos Aires experience red. Despite your experience it’s still at the top of my list of locations to visit.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Chris, I’m happy to be seen as an asshole, but there was no way for me to verify the claim that the money was false. This DOES happen in BA – fake money out of the ATM – so as far as I knew it could have been legit.

  4. Bobby says:

    Rough story my fellow traveler. The irony in it all is that I just saw your story and this article in the same day! Taxi Scams in Buenos Aires Looks like you’re no the only one it has happened to! Spread the knowledge and hopefully it will happen to one less person!

  5. Eugene says:

    Sorry about your bad experience, Ben. When you initially posted a status on twitter, I thought it was a pickpocketing…

    Question: when was the taxi driver able to exchange the 100 peso bills for the 2’s? Was it during the time he pointed at the non-existent child outside? I am sure it happened quickly, but somewhere in there, he must have diverted your attention to carry out his theft, right? You write: “handed me a 2, then a 10, asked for the 20, etc, explaining that some of the bills were legit but not all.” During this exchange, were your eyes gazed on what he was doing the whole time? It’s hard to tell from your explanation exactly where the theft occurred (or when you think it occurred).

    The interesting part to me is how the driver asked you about the route he was going to take. Perhaps this was to create a false sense of security: you can trust the guy from that point forward. It’s also an interesting point because I recently returned from a trip to Europe (Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Budapest, Paris, Munich), and I had a really terrible experience with taxis (they would take exorbitantly circuitous routes, to the point of where a five euro ride ended up costing twenty five euros or more). Particularly in Prague, the taxi driver charged way too much; my experience was made even worse because I thought the taxi driver had stolen my camera bag with thousands of dollars worth of gear. Luckily, things worked out fine, as I describe my full experience in this post.

    I think I’ve learned a lesson for next time: confirm with the taxi driver in advance on which route he plans to take. If he doesn’t give you an answer, carry a map with you so you can tell him the way to go (or so that you can spot if he is taking a circuitous route, calling him out on it if necessary).

    Cheers,

    ~Eugene

  6. Colin says:

    Shady old man aside, isn’t it annoying how the unemployed in Latin America find ways to do things that don’t add any value at all? Like you really needed help hailing a cab?

    Another popular one are the guys who put on an orange vest and act like they’re parking security for a public street. They motion where you’re supposed to park, then ask for a tip for “watching” your car.

  7. I’m so sorry about your bad experience, Ben! Anyway, I think Buenos Aires is a lovely city.
    I spent a great time last month in Buenos Aires. I rented a furnished apartment in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, near the down town. I suggest that service called ForRent Argentina: Buenos Aires apartments For Rent
    Cheers,
    Fred

  8. MadPat says:

    The same thing happened to me today (tired and long bus trip), but the driver left with all my luggage. So instead of the money, he left after I went to the ATM for the 3rd time (my card didn’t work for the other places).

  9. tim says:

    I have lived on and off in Buenos Aires since 2002, always people ask about security and renting apartments and who provides the best service. I have used Buenos Aires Stay Apartments now since 2007 and found them consistently reliable, also their blog has very good and up to date security advice. Take a look.

  10. ptolemy says:

    Has happened to me too, I was taken for $100 pesos + the fare, the taxi driver pretending I had given him a different bill. The scam always uses physically disorienting moments ,like tending to your luggage. What worries me more about these taxi scams is that they are happening more often and seemingly more in the last six months. At the airport today, the officials were handing out printed warnings as you exited customs. First time I’ve seen that..

  11. Annie says:

    This a is really complete work regarding Buenos Aires, it´sa big city and it´s always nice to read more about it. I was checking an Argentina travel guide with pretty info about other regions of Argentina.

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