Like anywhere in the world, travelers in Latin America can be targets for con artists. But fear not, con artists are almost never violent – they prefer to trick people out of their money and belongings instead of using force to obtain them. If you know what to look for it is easy to avoid getting taken in.
The ol’ mustard trick
This one has been around for ages but it still seems to work. Basically what happens is that as you are walking somebody sprays mustard on you. Another seemingly helpful individual approaches you to help you clean it off. This is just an excuse to get their hands close to your pockets and any bag you might be carrying.
Variations of this include another substance being substituted for the mustard. If you are lucky the substance might only be ketchup or mayonnaise, but it is not unheard of for them to smear your clothes with excrement.
What to do:
You might not be able to avoid the mustard, but when the “good samaritan” approaches you to and pulls out a handkerchief, yell thief (ladrón in Spanish) and walk away.
The “get your home phone number and call your relatives to ask for money” scam
For some reason this seems to be a big one in Colombia. Somebody who appears harmless will befriend you and ask you for your telephone number (This only works well with the very young who still live with their parents ). While you are sitting on a beach or on a weeklong jungle safari they are calling your family to tell them you have been arrested and need money to get you bailed out.
What to do:
Avoid giving out your personal information. If somebody asks you for a phone number, give them an email address.
Somebody approaches you and asks you if you want to buy something illegal. Hopefully you are smart enough to say no, but all the same a few minutes later a policeman comes to question you saying that you have been approached by a know criminal. They may ask to see your passport or wallet, and as you might have guessed you won’t be be seeing them again.
What to do:
If approached, refuse to show the policeman anything and ask to be bought to the police station. Although the laws in some countries require that foreigners carry their passports at all times, don’t do it. Make a photocopy of the page with your photo and passport number, and another of the page with the entry stamp to the country you are currently in, and leave your passport in the hotel room safe. Most honest policeman will accept these copies.
Front Desk calls your hotel room
The phone in your hotel room rings, usually at an early hour when you are not fully awake, and the clerk tells you that there has been a mix up with your credit card. They ask you to repeat your credit card number.
Although these are not really scams, they are the most probable way that you will lose your pertinences. They range from somebody throwing keys on the floor at a bus station and another person picking them up to ask if they are yours. While you are distracted somebody is helping themselves to your luggage. Another is when you are walking down a crowded street and somebody either spits on you our throws water on you from above. As you raise your hands to wipe yourself dry, somebody’s hands are in your pockets.
What to do:
You might think that you can avoid raising your hands when somebody spits on you, but you probably can’t Simple enough, keep your money in a money belt and your camera wrapped around your wrist or in a bag that is difficult to open. But if your valuables are difficult to get at, chances are they won’t even try! If you are in a train or bus station with all of your luggage, keep your eyes on all your bags at all times. Remember that the thief knows that your most expensive belongings will be in your smaller carryon luggage. This is what they will be after, and not your 50 pound suitcase.
In conclusion one thing I have noticed in years of travelling is that thieves generally are not as smart as Hollywood portrays them to be. If you know what to look for, the average con man will stick out like a sore thumb. Also – all thieves are opportunists – if you make yourself less of a target they will go after somebody else.