19 Most Common Tourist Scams in Chile

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Image source: blacktomato.com

 

Chile stretches for some 4,000 kilometers and is one of the most interesting countries in South America.

This part of the world is covered in valleys, deserts, snowcapped volcanoes and sand dunes. You can also spend time exploring Chile’s beautiful coastline with the country sandwiched between the majestic Andes and the mighty Pacific Ocean, its delicious food and some of the best wines in the world.

Chile is widely considered to be one of the safest countries in South America. This means that violent crime targeting foreigners is rare although this is not to say that it never happens.

Pickpocketing and other scams do occur in tourist areas and you should remain vigilant at all times. Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpocketing

 

How it works:

Pickpocketing is a rising problem in Chile and is one of the biggest problems that visitors to the country face.

Crowded streets, train stations, public transportation, markets, shopping malls, restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, nightspots or anywhere tourists hang out at are pickpockets’ favourite spots.

These include areas such as Las Condes, Vitacura, Providencia, Cerro San Cristobel, Cerro Manquehue, Cerro Santa Lucia, Costanera Centre Mall, and the Lake District in Santiago.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelry / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they will surround you and work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts the target (e.g. ask you a question / survey / drop something and ask you).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and escapes.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get travel insurance so even if all else fails, you are still protected.

 

2. The ‘bird poo’ / mustard scam

Image source: nomadicchica.com

 

How it works:

This is a common scam globally (e.g. Austria, USA, etc).

Places where this has been reported: areas around Central Market and Vegetable Market in Santiago, main transportation hubs, on the routes to the airport, etc.

A scammer will first squirt a substance meant to resemble bird droppings or mustard onto the back of your clothing.

He and / or an accomplice will then rush over to help you clean up with some tissues. Another will try to distract you by engaging you in conversation.

As they are rubbing the substance off your clothes, they will steal any valuables they can find. Or they may ask you to put your bag / valuables / camera down as they claim that it is dirty as well.

Should you do so, an accomplice will swoop in to grab them.

Once you realize that your valuables are stolen, a third accomplice now appears. As you try to track where the scammers went, this accomplice points you in an opposite or different direction.

 

What to do:

Firmly explain that you do not need assistance and quickly move away or push the scammers away.

Again, to prevent these thieves from stealing from you, we recommend the use of an anti-theft bag or a money belt / hidden pouch to secure your valuables.

 

3. The poor student scam

Image source: flyingandtravel.com

 

How it works:

This scam is known to happen in the Santa Lucia area of Santiago.

Tourists are approached by a very friendly local resident who will engage you in conversation. They will explain that they are a student at a local private university where the fees are very expensive.

The scammer then gives you a poem he has written and asks if you will make a donation to their university fees.

 

What to do:

Decline firmly.

 

4. Chile-Peru border crossing scam

Image source: publimetro.cl

 

How it works:

Take care if you take a taxi to the border with Chile and Peru.

Many taxi drivers will drive you to the border and tell you that you need to purchase a “tourist card”. This is not true.

However, the driver will offer to get the card which costs a large sum of money for you.

Once you pay the money they will pretend to buy the card for you. In reality however, they will just keep your money.

 

What to do:

There is no ‘tourist card’ needed to cross from Chile into Peru.

Also make sure that you do not give any money to a taxi driver or ‘visa agent’ as they are likely to be a scammer.

If you have any questions about the border crossing, make sure to only approach an official customs border agent.

 

5. Drink spiking

Image source: santiagochile.com

 

How it works:

Chile is known for its vibrant nightlife scene. However, drink spiking has become a rising issue that is tainting the nightlife scene.

Drink spiking is particularly prevalent in Santiago in areas such as Suecia and Bellavista and usually carried out by gangs.

Once you are in a bar / nightclub, someone will slip medication / drugs into your drink to render you unconscious.

When you are no longer aware of your surroundings, they may try to help you back to your hotel or take you to an isolated location. They will then use the opportunity to steal your valuables.

 

What to do:

Do not accept drinks from anyone you don’t know and always make sure that all drinks are prepared in front of you.

Alternatively, you could only drink bottled or can beverages such as beer as these are more difficult for scammers to tamper with.

Finally, do not flaunt your valuables, leave them in your hotel / hostel safe which you can further secure with hotel safety tools.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Public transport theft

 

How it works:

Luggage theft on public transport is becoming a widespread problem in Chile, being particularly common in San Pedro and the Atacama Desert region, and in the Pucon and Villarrica areas in the Lake District.

While you are on public transport a thief working with an accomplice may pretend to fall over in the aisle or spill something on you.

When you are distracted and trying to help the person, their accomplice will take the opportunity to steal your luggage.

Thieves will also look to steal bags from overheard compartments or when you are asleep.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get travel insurance so even if all else fails, you are still protected.

 

2. Airport fake taxis

Image source: brendonthesmilingchef.com

 

How it works:

At the airport, you will find touts carrying cards with the word TAXI harassing tourists. They pose as “official” employees of the airport with official looking taxis.

These scammers will lie through their teeth to get you onboard.

For instance, one trick is to ask if you have a pre-arranged transport. If you have and do provide more details, they will claim that the van / bus / transport has left.

However, he claims that this happens all the time and you do not have to worry, as the airport has a fleet of trusted taxis to bring you to your destination.

Should you take these unofficial taxis, you will likely be overcharged 3-4x the normal fare.

 

What to do:

Head to the official taxi offices / counters (e.g. Taxi Oficial) if you do not have pre-arranged transport. Note that prices are fixed.

Other options could be to flag a cab outside the airport, take the Centropuerto (bus to city), the Delfos (shared / private transport), the TransVIP (shuttle service), TurBus (another bus to city) or the Turistik (shuttle bus to hotels).

 

3. Pirate taxis / black market taxis

 

How it works:

Besides at the airport, you will find many such black market or unlicensed taxis when moving around at night, especially around the touristy areas. Other countries in South America (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, etc) face this problem as well.

There have been reports of drivers in areas such as Cerro Santa Lucia, Cerro San Cristobel Park, and Cerro Manquehue in Santiago deliberately driving customers to isolated areas and stealing their valuables.

Often they may threaten you with violence to get your possessions and then leave you in the middle of nowhere.

Even if they do not rob you, they will charge you double to even quadruple the normal taxi fare!

 

What to do:

Learn how to differentiate between taxis and other vehicles:

  • Street taxis: yellow top, black body, orange car plate with black letters
  • Radio taxi: orange car plate with white letters
  • Fixed route taxi (colectivos): yellow car plate
  • Normal vehicle: white car plate

Image source: fayerwayer.com

 

Anyone going out at night should do so in a group ideally and pre-book a taxi in advance from a reputable taxi company.

Another alternative is to call a cab with RadioTaxis, or use apps like Safer Taxi, Easy Taxi, Uber, etc. This way, your trip can be tracked.

Finally, get travel insurance for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any losses.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

4. Longhauling taxi drivers

Image source: flyertalk.com

 

How it works:

This scam is usually perpetuated by drivers of black market taxis.

They will take you on a long route around the city to inflate the taxi fare, or drive you through busy areas to keep the meter running for as long as possible.

 

What to do:

Try to work out where you are going, what route you need to take and the rough fare. There are online resources such as http://www.taximetro.cl/ and https://www.taxifarefinder.com/ which you can use.

On the trip, you can also check the route using an offline map app with GPS on your phone.

Let the taxi driver know you are doing this and make sure that they are aware that you know the quickest route to get to your destination.

This way they will be a lot less likely to scam you.

 

5. Meter is down / rigged meter

 

How it works:

In Chile, all official taxis must run the meter. The only exception is taxis at the airport.

If they do not or claim that the meter is down, they are most likely going to charge you an inflated flat fare.

However, just because a meter is used doesn’t mean you are safe. There have also been cases of rigged meters to watch out for.

 

What to do:

If a driver refuses to use the meter, simply find another taxi.

Ideally, try to flag a cab a bit further away from the main tourist attractions and transportation hubs.

Also, official taxi rates start at $300 pesos, and it will increase by 130 CHP every 200 meters. Watch carefully for any abnormal patterns that the meter may display.

Should you get caught in one, take a photo of the license plate number and the rigged meter. Then, threaten to report to the police.

Another trick is to use the Uber app to help you estimate what the correct fare should roughly be.

 

6. Taxi with two occupants

 

How it works:

There is no need for a taxi driver to have another helper to do what he is supposed to do.

If there is another occupant, he is most likely going to be an accomplice in a scam or crime.

 

What to do:

Do not take a cab with someone else besides the driver, unless if it’s a colectivos (a cab that works like a shuttle bus).

And as mentioned, we highly recommend the use of a money belt / hidden pouch to conceal your valuables, and the use a cheap, spare wallet with little cash inside which you can give up if threatened.

 

7. Bus station scam

Image source: santiagochile.com

 

How it works:

This scam happens at the Calama, Alameda and Sur bus terminals. It is slightly different to thieves stealing your bags on public transport.

As part of this scam an elderly person will walk in front of you and drop some money in an obvious manner.

They are relying on you to feel sorry for them and immediately rush to help.

As you are picking up the coins for the elderly passenger, an accomplice will steal your unattended luggage.

 

What to do:

Be wary if you see someone drop money in front of you in a known tourist area.

If you do want to help, then make sure to secure your luggage before you do so.

 

8. Carjacking

 

How it works:

In recent years carjacking has been a rising problem in Chile, with most cases reported at La Florida, Las Condes, and Vitacura.

Gangs often operate in remote areas and will set up an emergency on the road to get you to stop. They may ask for help with a flat tire or ask to borrow your phone to call for help.

When you get out of the car they will then rob you of your valuables.

A twist on this scam involves scammers following victims in cars.

They wait for you to get out to use an ATM or open a gate or garage door. Once you alight, the gang will rob you and will often threaten you with violence.

 

What to do:

Always remain vigilant if you are driving around Chile, particularly in remote areas.

If you see someone trying to flag you down on the side of the road, do not stop.

Instead, consider driving to the closest safe area such as a gas station and then alerting the authorities.

Also, if you see an obstruction in the middle of the road (e.g tires), drive around it and do not stop.

 

9. Car break-ins

 

How it works:

There are two variations of this.

First, there are criminals who break into rental cars, if they spot valuables within.

Another variation is that while you are stuck at a junction be it in a car or taxi, a criminal may break into your car or snatch valuables through your car windows.

 

What to do:

Ensure that your car doors are locked and windows are up.

Do not leave any valuables / items indicating that you are a tourist exposed in the car:

Finally, get travel insurance for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any losses.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

10. Flat tire scam

Image source: songoftheroad.com

 

How it works:

This is somewhat different from flat tire scams in other countries.

While driving in other countries, you find someone trying to beckon you to pull over while you are driving.

Once you do so, the scammers will come over. They claim that you have a flat / faulty tired, pretend to fix it, and then demand payment.

In Chile, what the scammers / criminals do is to let the air out of your tire while it is parked. When you come back to your car, the scammer will point the flat tire out to you.

They then tell you they know where to get it fixed. Should you follow their lead, you will be led to a secluded area to be robbed.

 

What to do:

Never follow a random stranger.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft and robberies

 

How it works:

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

Besides snatch thefts, robberies can happen in the areas of Santiago and Valparaiso, and muggings at Cerro Santa Lucia, Cerro San Cristobal Park, and Cerro Manquehue areas of Santiago.

 

What to do:

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

 

2. Currency switcheroo / sleight of hand

Image source: southamerica.cl

 

How it works:

This is a common trick globally (e.g. Egypt, Vietnam, etc), with taxi drivers especially having a reputation for short changing foreign passengers.

When you hand cash over for the ride, the driver may claim that you have given them a 1,000 Chilean peso note when in fact you have given them a 10,000 Chilean pesos note with a quick swap.

They will say that you have confused the two bills and will ask you to pay more.

Another variation is that you may have paid a total of 20,000 Chilean pesos. However, the merchant pretends that he has received an amount less than that and returns less change than required.

 

What to do:

Try to have small bills for such kinds of situations. Also, be very clear what you are handing over.

Before you hand it over, say what note you are handing over and wait for the merchant / driver to prepare the change. Hand it over only when he has prepared them.

If caught in such a scam, refuse to pay and threaten to call the police. You can find the hotline at the end of the article.

 

3. ATM fraud

 

How it works:

ATMs can be rigged in two ways generally:

First, the card skimmer and pinhole camera / keypad overlay set up:

  • A card skimmer is installed over the card slot to capture your card details.
  • The pinhole camera / keypad overlay is used to capture your PIN.

Second, the card trap:

  • The card slot can be rigged with cheap tools to trap your card.
  • When your card is stuck, someone will come over and tell you that if you retype your PIN, your card will be unblocked.
  • Obviously, your card will still be stuck, but the scammer will now have seen your PIN.
  • Should you head into the bank / somewhere to seek help, the scammer will unblock your card and escape.

 

What to do:

Avoid using ATMs at dark, secluded areas. Use only at controlled environments such as in banks.

Scan the area for suspicious looking characters, check the ATM for any red flags, and cover your PIN when typing it in.

Also, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet.

 

4. Sob story scam

 

How it works:

A scammer will pose as a fellow tourist and tell you how he has been robbed.

As such, he has no money and no identification, and no one is willing to help him.

He will then ask if you can give him some money for transport and accommodation, before he seeks help from his country’s embassy.

 

What to do:

Firmly decline.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

                                                     

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Image source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: low. Be more wary about increasing petty crime and scams.
  • Hazards: minefields
    • Borders with Bolivia and Peru: Arica, Panicota, Tarapaca, Antofagast.
    • Border with Argentina: Magallanes, Antártica.
  • Hotspots: Mapuche indigenous community in the Araucania region have been retaliating against forestry corporations and landowners.
  • Terrorism: small scale explosives detonated in Santiago though rare.
  • Civil unrest: large scale protests can occur in Santiago and Valparaíso, especially on key dates such as March 29, May 1, May 21, September 11.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, travelling alone at night, and don’t look like an easy victim.

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, avoid hotspots and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Violent crime hotspots to watch out for include:

  • Huechuraba
  • Estacion Central
  • Ñuñoa
  • San Joaquin
  • Renca
  • La Pintana
  • Macul

 

2. Medical care

Image source: krion.com

 

How it works:

Standards of medical care are generally good, though limited in remote areas.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, chikungunya, dengue.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis.
  • Animal borne diseases: rabies.
  • Human borne diseases: HIV.
  • Others: air pollution in Santiago (June to September), altitude sickness.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis B, rabies (outdoor activities, activities involving animals).

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes: in an active seismic zone, tsunamis can be triggered.
  • Volcanoes: 500 active volcanoes.
  • Flooding: May to August, due to heavy rain and overloaded sewage systems.
  • Forest fires: December to February, generally occur between Santiago and Valparaíso and in the Magallanes.

 

What to do:

Check the latest media reports and weather forecast. One good source is: Volcano Monitoring.

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting adequate travel insurance protection.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Road conditions in Chile are relatively safe but driving standards are poor, a couple of factors to watch out for:

  • Poorly maintained, poorly lit secondary and mountain roads without guardrails.
  • Not adhering to traffic rules. E.g speeding, changing lane without signalling, not observing road signs.
  • Inclement weather may make certain roads impassable.
  • A four wheel drive is needed when traversing the countryside.
  • Congestion in downtown Santiago during peak hours.
  • During morning and evening peak hours, major arteries alternate traffic direction.

As for the public transportation system (bus network), it is well developed, reliable and safe.

 

What to do:

Check the latest media reports and weather forecast.

Stay alert while driving, always wear seatbelts and keep doors locked and windows up.

Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance in case anything goes wrong.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Image source: municipalidadrengo.cl

 

  • Police emergency hotline:  133
  • Ambulance service: 131
  • Fire brigade: 132
  • Mountain rescue: 136

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