20 Most Common Tourist Scams In Chile

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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!

Contents

 

A. TOURIST ATTRACTIONS / ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpocketing

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, and the Lake District in Santiago.

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

Once they mark a target, they will surround him or her and then work like this:

  • One will keep a lookout and block passer-bys from seeing the scene
  • Another will push or distract the target (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it),
  • A third will steal your valuable / slash your bag and then passes it on
  • The last will hide the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes with it

Rule of thumb:

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

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

This is because once you are targeted, you will almost definitely lose your valuables in a split second.

Only carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.

As for your valuables / emergency cash, conceal them securely in a money belt or hidden pouch and in a sturdy anti-theft bag that is slash resistant, lockable, and difficult to unzip by others. Keep your bag in front of you.

However, do keep most of your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead.

If you would like, you can use hotel safety tools such as a hotel safe lock or door jammer to strengthen the security of your hotel room.

 

2. The ‘bird poo’ / mustard scam

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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 accomplice 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.

Rule of thumb:

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

To protect yourself from such a scam, we recommend arming yourself with a money belt or hidden pouch and an anti-theft bag to conceal your valuables securely.

 

3. The poor student scam

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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.

Rule of thumb:

Decline firmly.

 

4. Chile-Peru border crossing scam

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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.

Rule of thumb:

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

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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.

Rule of thumb:

Do not accept drinks from anyone you don’t know.

Always make sure that all drinks are prepared in front of you.

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

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Public transport theft

Luggage theft on public transport is becoming a widespread problem in Chile.

This is particularly common in San Pedro and the Atacama Desert region. It is also prevalent 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.

Rule of thumb:

To prevent yourself from falling prey, first, if you use a luggage, use a hard shell luggage as  that is more difficult to break into compared to one that uses zippers (a pen is all that is needed to open zippers).

Next, consider investing in an extra TSA lock, luggage strap or some cable ties to further secure your luggage.

Note that these do not secure your luggage 100%, but are just meant to deter the thief from targeting your luggage.

Third, do not leave your valuables in check in luggage or luggage that you store in the storage compartment while travelling.

Instead, store them in a money belt or hidden pouch and in a sturdy, lockable anti-theft bag that is slash resistant.

Also, always make sure you keep your bags close to you on public transport.

Finally, if you notice someone trying to create a distraction on public transport such as falling over, immediately check to make sure all your valuables are secure.

 

2. Airport fake taxis

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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.

Rule of thumb:

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

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!

Rule of thumb:

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

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Anyone going out at night should 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.

Also, try to travel in a group if you are going out at night in Chile.

 

4. Longhauling taxi drivers

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.

They may also drive you through busy areas to keep the meter running for as long as possible.

Rule of thumb:

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

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.

Rule of thumb:

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

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.

Rule of thumb:

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).

 

7. Bus station scam

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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.

Rule of thumb:

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

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.

Rule of thumb:

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

 

9. Car break-ins

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.

Rule of thumb:

Keep valuables out of sight, keep your car doors locked and keep your windows up.

 

10. Flat tire scam

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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.

Rule of thumb:

Never follow a random stranger.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft and robberies

There are many variations of snatch thefts, depending on where it occurs.

There are endless variations. One such is thieves on motorbikes driving up to you and snatching your valuables from you.

This can be dangerous as you can also get dragged along the road at the same time.

Another variation is that of a simple snatch of your phone / jewelry from behind you, and then running into a getaway car to escape.

Restaurants seem to be a favourite place for these thieves, as victims are usually in a relaxed state. Restaurants in tourist areas such as Plaza de Armas, Mercado Centra, Barrio Lastarria and Bellavista are especially targeted.

A bag, wallet / purse or camera slung around the chair, or left on an adjacent seat are super easy pickings for thieves. The either steal it stealthily, or do a distract and grab.

If you have laid out your valuables on the table, another trick scammers use is to lay out a map over them and to ask for directions. When they take the map back, they will take your valuables along as well.

Hotels are another as you will be carrying all your valuables out and are usually distracted while handling the registration process.

The seats beside a train’s doors are a great spot as well as the thief can time his escape perfectly just before the doors close.

A third variation could be a thief snatching your valuables through a car / bus window.

Finally, a fourth variation is at the nightclubs and areas around, where tourists either do not keep their valuables in their line of sight are too drunk to be aware of their surroundings.

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.

Rule of thumb:

Stay alert at crowded places, and even at seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel.

Do not lay your valuables out on the table or expose them unnecessarily in public. Always keep your bags in your line of sight and as close as possible (e.g. on your lap when at a restaurant).

While walking alongside the road and at traffic junctions, watch out for motorcyclists who seem to tail you, especially if they have a pillion rider (accomplice).

Ideally, carry your valuables in a bag across your body with a cross body anti-theft bag, away from the road / windows of your car / bus.

Further, consider investing in a money belt or hidden pouch to conceal your valuables securely.

We also recommend using a cheap spare wallet that you would not mind losing. It may also deter thieves from targeting you.

Finally, do not carry items in your hands such as a mobile phone when walking by the road. Also, do not wear obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off your body.

 

2. Currency switcheroo / sleight of hand

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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.

Rule of thumb:

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

Scammers may rig a machine to trap your card. They will then offer to help you by asking you to input your PIN number again in front of them.

Should you do so, they will memorize your PIN and steal your card as it remains stuck when you walk away from the machine to seek help.

Another set up is to install a card skimmer and a pinhole camera on the ATM. The skimmer will capture your card details, while the camera will capture your PIN.

Rule of thumb:

If an ATM does not work, do not accept any help from strangers who may suddenly come to your aid.

Simply walk away and find another ATM and never give your PIN number to anyone.

To prevent your card from getting skimmed, check out these potential red flags of a rigged ATM.

Also, cover the keypad when typing your PIN to prevent a pinhole camera or someone behind from seeing it.

Finally, if you need to use an ATM, it is best to use those in controlled spaces like in the bank branches.

Also, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet. That will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

4. Sob story scam

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.

Rule of thumb:

Firmly decline.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

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

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