If Buenos Aires has taught me one lesson repeatedly, it is resilience.
Last week, someone used my debit card information to purchase $1,000 USD worth of wine from an Argentine website. It was upsetting, it was frustrating and it was wrong, but my bank luckily caught the fraudulent charges and I’m on my way to getting my money back and rectifying the situation. The incident inspired me to finally get this post up, because after nine months in the city I have experienced and witnessed a sufficient array of robberies to have figured out a thing or two about how to better prevent them.
Before I begin, I want to say first that it’s not about good luck or bad luck. I have lived in Barcelona, New York City, a Chicago suburb where things went down, as well as traveled through many parts of Europe and Central and South America without issue, while some I know lost valuables. It’s just that unfortunately, a number of people are hard-pressed for money in this city, wanting or needing things they don’t have, and will resort to taking what is not theirs.
In hopes of helping you hold onto your BlackBerry, purse, camera, watch or favorite skirt, (see: laundry section) I pass along the following information. Robberies and pickpocketing can and do happen all over, and while events in Buenos Aires inspired the following advice, I imagine it can apply to most anywhere.
Trust your intuition always
I’m sure you know that gut feeling to which I am referring, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to pay attention to it. Don’t freak yourself out, but trust that little voice. As you’ve heard a million times, you’re better safe than sorry. This entry is riddled with clichés, but is so necessary to include.
Charge it as little as possible
Since I still have the physical card someone used to stock their wine cellar, whoever obtained my debit card information did it one of two ways. A store employee either jotted down the information when I used it for a purchase, or someone had a scanner set up on an ATM machine I used that recorded my information. The latter option might sound a little crazy, but according to this recent NPR article my mom found and sent me after the incident, it is fairly common. Minimize your risk by whipping out your plastic as little as possible, and when you withdraw from an ATM opt for one in a bank where you need to swipe your card to enter. (It’s supposed to be less likely a thief would be brave enough to install a scanner so close to a bank, though you never know.) Use cash for purchases, which you’ll want to anyway as you’ll probably save money.
Only carry what you really need, and don’t show it
What do you need to go out? What do you need to go to work? What do you need for the gym? Pare it down to the necessities and bring just that. I don’t bring my phone to my gym in Buenos Aires, and I only bring my iPod if I’m going to have it in playing in my ears the entire time. I don’t bring my entire wallet to go out at night. When you have a lot is when pickpockets have opportunity.
On a related note, you want to avoid taking out your whole wallet in public, or typing away furiously on your phone while waiting for a bus or in outside around others. Some people will be audacious enough to snap something right out of your hands and take off. This happened to one friend, whose reaction was the chase the thief down like a crazy woman, and she scared him into giving her back her BlackBerry. Still, you don’t want to be in that position.
Get a different purse and keep it in your lap
It’s happened to me and three other girls I know: Something disappeared from our over-the-shoulder purses. You might think you’re safe because it zips or clasps, but when you’re dancing or in a crowd, it’s not right in your hand (clutches are advisable) or jammed under your arm, and it’s at hand-level for passers-by. If you’re going to wear one, keep your hand on it at all times, and avoid crowds, especially at clubs or nights out when you might have had a couple drinks.
Wherever you are sitting, keep your purse in your lap, square in sight and to be extra safe, hand on top. When you and your friends are sipping coffees and wrapped up in conversation at a restaurant, you probably won’t notice someone making off with your purse sitting on the chair next to you, as was the case with a friend.
Watch the language
Speaking out loud in a language other than Spanish makes others think you are a foreigner or tourist and therefore easier to rob. It might not be fair, but that is how it is.
Know how much things should cost
This pertains to avoiding getting ripped off, which I consider a sub-genre of this topic. Before you reach for a product without the price prominently listed, ask what it costs. When you are in a cab, try to have a general idea of how much the trip will run, and keep an eye on where you are. Don’t be afraid to say something if you think a price is off, because if you’re not watching out for your money chances are no one else is. You don’t have to be rude, just politely assertive.
Look like you know what’s up
If you give off the impression you’re not an easy target, you’re not an easy target. Look attentive and determined, like someone who shouldn’t be messed with, and walk with purpose. More importantly, be attentive! Keep your senses alert for anything suspicious. Avoid spinning in circles trying to orient yourself, or taking out a map. Even if you don’t carry mace or a stun gun, as some of my friends do, you can still make suspicious people concerned about what might be in your bag. Dramatic? Maybe, but sometimes it’s what it takes.
(Perhaps) Avoid traveling in groups
There is no strength in numbers if you all are talking and walking focused on each other and your conversation. People from the U.S., and even many Europeans, tend to be louder than Argentines on the street, and moving in groups heard blocks away calls even more attention to you. Make sure you’re listening to and noticing what is around.
Take extra precautions where you know it’s more risky
Way too many people have stories about losing their wallet or iPod on public transportation in Buenos Aires. During rush hours the colectivos (buses) and Subte (metro) are stuffed, people squeezed against each other such that a brush by your bag isn’t a cause for alarm, which is dangerous. Even during off hours, public transportation in the city is a place where pickpockets prey. Keep your phone out of sight, your hand on your bag and look alert.
Lock your phone
This piece of advice is especially pertinent if you have a smartphone. This way, you can at least keep the thieves from getting into your personal information, such as email and Facebook, and minimize their gains as much as possible.
Don’t trust anyone with just anything (laundromats included)
A friend’s roommates were working at a Starbucks. One had to go to the bathroom, so she asked the other to keep an eye on her laptop. Some people came up to the watchdog friend and began chatting. She tried to ignore them, but they were a distraction, and the next thing she knew the other laptop had disappeared. Avoid entrusting people to “watch” things. For the sake of friendships, you shouldn’t give others that responsibility; most thieves are just too experienced. It is best that if something happens the blame can only fall on you or no one.
Slightly related: If you have an item of clothing you spent a lot on or are attached to, consider washing it yourself. On one occasion I had a couple items of clothing not return from the laundromat, and there really is no recourse.
If you’re traveling, look for hotel and hostel reviews that might mention robberies. If you’re staying more long term, try to investigate your landlord and cleaning service, anyone you don’t know who will have access to your residence or be coming by regularly. Also, keep an eye on who is in and out. One friend’s laptop was stolen when people came to check out an open room in the apartment. You don’t have to judge and make assumptions, just be cautious.
Wait for your credit/debit card
In the U.S., ATMs come to life and give you money with a simple swipe of your card. In Argentina, most machines hold onto your card for the duration of the transaction, such that you get your money and receipt before you get your card back. As a result, it’s almost a rite of passage for foreigners to accidentally walk away from the machine still holding their card. Sometimes you get your card back, (thank you, whoever you were who chased me two blocks to hand it to me that time) sometimes you are the one to find a card, (paid the aforementioned good deed forward and gave it to a trusted employee) and sometimes the wrong person will get their hands on it. My best advice is to stay thoroughly focused on that ATM machine and exactly what you’re doing when using it—type pin, click withdraw, type amount, take money, take receipt, take card! Reminding yourself throughout it, “Get your card back, get your card back, get your card back.” Really, it’s what’s required… at least for me.
Know that it happens to everyone
I told my Argentine amiga the story of how my friend’s purse was stolen when we were having coffee, and after expressing her frustration and sympathy, told me the same situation happened to her last year. I don’t say this to encourage pessimism, but to remind you that sometimes it is just going to happen, whether you are a tourist, long-term resident or Argentine.
If and when something does happen, stay calm, walk through the steps for damage control and try not to dwell. (This is me reminding myself, by the way.) Don’t blame yourself too much for the could-have-would-have-should-have, because as my mom wisely told me, you can’t accuse a person of something until it actually happens. If something happens to your stuff, it’s just that: material stuff. You will replace it, get it back or figure it out, even if it’s frustrating or annoying. This post is not intended to frighten, just help people be more aware. Living in fear is no fun, nor is it necessary.