Every seasoned traveler knows better than to hop into an unmarked car with a random driver in a large and foreign city, right?
But this particular day, I was on my way to the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery in Buenos Aires in a licensed radio taxi that I found in the established taxi line outside of Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. I knew where I was, where I was going and how much it should cost.
So when he dropped me off at a little parking lot across the street from the airport, I was taken off guard. He refused to accept the ten pesos note in my hand, even when I said he could keep the change. According to this guy, Radio Taxis in Buenos Aires only accept 100 peso notes.
Yeah, dude, right. Do I look like a mark?
Here's the scam. You pay with a 100 peso note. The driver, who of course doesn't have change, says he's going to get some. When he returns, he will not have change and will hand your bill back to you. The bill returned will be counterfeit which you probably won't notice until the next time you reach into your wallet to pay for something. And because you're a tourist, it will be assumed that you don't know where you are, don't speak the language and that you have large amounts of money on you.
Here are some easy ways of detecting, avoiding or extricating yourself from scams such as this one.
Your Scam Artist Tries To Separate You From Other People
This guy parked across the street from the airport. I could just barely see the entrance but was too far away for anyone to see me.
Parking far away accomplished two things. It allowed him to sit without being rushed away by airport security or having our ensuing argument noticed by anyone. It also put me off guard, because while I could see the entrance, I didn't know for sure it was the Aeroparque entrance, and I couldn't recognize my surroundings.
This driver gave me all sorts of random and misleading information in Spanish. He told me I'd have to pay a toll, that he doesn't accept 10 peso notes and gave me instructions to get to the airport along with a lame reason for why we parked so far away. In doing so, he established that I was indeed an extranera and in many cases, the string of quick spanish would be extremely confusing.
If you don't understand something, ask for a repeat. Ask as many times as you need until you understand.
If Something Sounds Ridiculous, It Probably Is
I do speak Spanish and did understand what the cab driver told me, yet I still found myself confused because what he was saying didn't make any sense. What licensed cab on this planet won't accept small bills in cash? Quite frankly, most times, people won't accept 100 peso notes because it means they'll have to run off in pursuit of change.
When your instinct whispers "Hmm, that's not quite right," listen loudly.
Pushy Is A Sign Something Is Wrong
I told him I only had ten peso notes. He insisted I had to have more. Then he not only instructed me to go through my bags to get the rest of my money, he even reached into the back seat and grabbed a wad of dollar bills right out of my wallet.
No matter how well traveled you are or how much experience you have, it's easy to be discombobulated by tiredness. Also, you don't know where you are, don't know local custom. Many of us try to err on the side of cultural oversensitivity, but no one has the right to invade your personal space like this. Ever. If you are not comfortable with something someone says or does, be loud, make your intention clear and screw cultural sensitivity.
Which brings me to my next point.
Don't Be Afraid To Call Attention To Yourself
When this guy grabbed my money, the New Yorker in me popped to the surface, I started yelling. "NO. Don't do that. Give my money back NOW." A show of force tells a would-be-scammer that perhaps you're not as easy as he thought. And by shouting, you alert others that something not-so-kosher is going on.
My shouts caused the driver to immediately return the money he had taken, and because I continued to argue with him, refusing to give into any of his demands, he finally gave up.
That's How We Do It Here, Foreigner
A scammer will try to convince you that you don't understand how it's done because you're from another country. He will probably pretend to be angry and offended. Of course, there's some truth in his words. There will be many times you make mistakes, because you don't know the local custom. You will say the wrong thing and probably embarrass yourself. Most people understand and beyond teasing, won't be offended or upset. When someone gives you a hard time for making a cultural mistake or tries to make you feel stupid, that's another sign you're dealing with someone who isn't entirely honest.
Of course, you might also just be dealing with an asshole, in which case, all the more reason to stand up for yourself.
Orient Yourself Before You Arrive
There are plenty online resources that help you orient yourself to a new city before arriving. Google an online tourist map. Figure out where the airport is in relation to where you want to go. You can also check To and From the Airport, an excellent resource that gives you all methods of transportation to and from major airports in the world. Here, you can get an idea of distance and more importantly cost of your ride. Finally, you can ask on web forums like Trip Advisor, Couchsurfing or even Twitter to help you gather information and tips on getting around.
Report the Motherducker
There are a million reasons to pass off an event like this without reporting. This guy was only after money. I wasn't in any physical danger. He didn't threaten me. I made it to the airport in time for my flight. Even if he had been able to scam me, it would have only been for 25 dollars.
Still, I noted his name and license number and had a little chat with the nearest police officer when I arrived at Jorge Newbery. Why? Because no one has a right to treat me or anyone else this way. This time, he was only after a bit of money from someone he assumed was loaded with cash. You never know what happens next time, and he will do it again.
Photo courtesy of Diego3336's Flickrstream