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Rookie Alli had her phone stolen yesterday by some pickpockets near the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires.

It was the common scam in which a gang works together to have

  • one member surreptitiously throw something onto you. In this case, bird poop or something similar. I’ve also heard of mustard and ketchup before. It can be anything.
  • one or more members “helpfully” notice it and “conveniently” have napkins or tissues to help you get it off. In this case, two members who even had a bottle of water.
  • while one or more people is touching you and crowding you, another is lifting valuables from your purse and pockets. In this case, a smart phone from Rookie Alli’s purse and 100 pesos ($12) and a California driver’s license from her sister.
  • Then the gang makes a quick getaway before you notice your things are gone.

This is a common scam throughout the world that you should always be on the lookout for when traveling. It works because even if you know about it, you probably won’t think about it in the moment when you have bird poop on your shirt (gross!) and a napkin being offered.

How can you avoid similar problems when traveling?

Do what will actually keep you safe:

  • Not talking to strangers who approach you.
  • Not agreeing to go somewhere with an attractive women who approaches you.
  • Not having valuables accessible. Find some pants with zippers or buttons on the pockets, or if you are more stylish than me, tight pants.
  • Not buying drugs.
  • Not getting inebriated.
  • Studying any currency handed to you for its anti-counterfeiting measures.
  • Splitting your valuables between more than one wallet.
  • If someone ever approaches you to helpfully tell you that you have something on you, begin to scream “Thief, thief” or its local equivalent, or at a minimum, say “No” and walk away.
  • At airports, bus stations, and borders, take official cabs. These three areas have me on the highest alert for scams and danger.

Don’t worry about these things as much:

  • Talking to strangers you approach.
  • Trying to look like a local. That’s impossible in a lot of fun places to travel because of your race anyway. Plus to truly seem like a local to a potential criminal you’d have to be silent all the time and buy local clothes. If I can tell the difference between an Argentine’s jeans and an American’s jeans, I think a pickpocket can.
How could I have blended in better in rural Uganda?

And if you take all the sensible precautions and are victimized one day, don’t let it affect your view of that country too much. Everywhere has pickpockets, scammers, and muggers. If you travel enough, you will be victimized. I have been.*

It’s unlikely, you will be taken for enough to put a dent in your lifestyle, and a thief certainly can’t take actually valuable things from you like friends, health, or purpose in life.

In the end, for Rookie Alli, the thieves got away with nothing irreplaceable, and it’s really just a $300 lesson on travel. The takeaway: the phone will be replaced in a few days, but the teasing will last a lifetime. (Sample: I got some Cookies & Dulce de Leche ice cream to cheer her up, and she got some on her chin. Me: “Miss, you have something on your chin. Let me get that and pickpocket you.”)

*In total, I’ve spent about a year in Latin America on a dozen trips, and I’ve been scammed or robbed three times (at most) for a total cost of about $40.

3. I am convinced someone stole my $3 flip flops in a Lima hostel. I would not have misplaced them.

2. A taxi driver at the Ecuador/Peru border offered my friend and me a ride for $1.50. This seemed too good to be true. The ride to immigration would be several miles, then continuing on to the town of Tumbes, Peru would be several miles more.

Against my better judgment, I agreed because I didn’t see other options. He drove us to immigration, and we got the border formalities handled. But the price nagged at me, so I asked a cop if he could vouch for the taxi driver because I was nervous. The cop said he knew the guy, and I was fine.

We got back in the cab on the way to Tumbes, and he said he needed to stop for gas because he was low. He asked us to prepay the $20, so he could get the gas.

$20!? We agreed to $1.50.

The scam was that I thought it was $1.50 for the whole ride, but he claimed that was the price to immigration, and the full ride was $20. I didn’t want the altercation to turn physical, so I paid.

The real value of the ride was probably $6, so we got scammed for $14–$7 each. I was pretty angry that I’d been tricked, and I felt like an idiot that my friend was out $7 too. I was despondent out of proportion to the loss, and my friend cheered me up with my favorite Peruvian cookie ice cream sandwich.

The lessons are numerous: if it sounds too good to be true…; be extra careful at borders because unscrupulous people know borders have a high concentration of people ignorant to local currency, prices, and scams; and ice cream cheers people up.

1. I ducked into a restaurant to get out of the rain after leaving the only hospital on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua. (I had fallen off my motor bike and gotten some scrapes I couldn’t easily clean, and the hospital was nearby.) There was a cute waitress there who I had met a few days before. I started talking to her standing at the bar, and I put my backpack down next to me. After a while, I shifted to a table around the corner, leaving my backpack out of my view.

At some point, a man ducked in to ask a question and continued on his way. Two hours later, when I went to leave, my backpack was gone and I realized the man must have taken it.

I was on a nine day trip and all my clothes except for what I was wearing and a few books were in my backpack. The clothes, books, and backpack were probably worth $30.

There were three days left on the trip. If there had been four, I would have bought a new outfit or two. But with three left and being 19, I reasoned I was better off wearing the same clothes the rest of the trip. I hope the thief smelled me the day I left Nicaragua!

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