I’m a veteran traveller, but I just fell for a scam (again) – Sydney Morning Herald

We’re sorry, this feature is currently unavailable. We’re working to restore it. Please try again later.
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
It happened just last week. I was in a cab in Palermo in Buenos Aires, coming to the end of a 24-hour journey from Australia. I knew I needed local currency, and I was aware too, somewhere in the murky recesses of my jet-lagged brain, that ATM fees are a total rip-off in Argentina and a cash exchange is the way to go.
“¿Quiere cambio?”
Exchanging currency with a taxi driver in Buenos Aires is probably not a great idea.Credit: iStock
The cab driver had swivelled around to look at me, reading my thoughts. Do I need to change money? I do, yes. And it was already 8pm, so the local money-change places were closed. I nodded and the guy flipped down his sun-visor and pulled out a huge stack of Argentinian pesos.
“Noventa mil pesos,” he said, flicking through packets of notes held together with rubber bands. “Por ciento dolares, no?”
I was trying to make multiple calculations in my foggy brain. I was trying to translate the words – 90,000 pesos, for 100 US dollars – while also trying to figure out the numbers, to decide if that was a decent exchange rate.
I plugged “100 USD in ARS” into my phone to see what Google would come back with. It said 82,000 pesos, so it seemed like I was onto a winner at 90,000.
Argentina’s highest denomination is a 1000-peso note, so I then had to take large wads of cash from this guy and flick through them, trying to ensure that I did actually have 90 real notes of Argentinian currency in my hand, before I eventually handed over my crisp $US100 bill, grabbed my bags and jumped out of the taxi.
Deal done. He seemed like a nice guy. I thought I had fared well. It was only later that night, chatting to a couple of American tourists, that I realised the rate I should have got.
For hard cash in Argentina, US currency, don’t trust Google. You can expect to get at least 1000 pesos to the dollar from a standard exchange place. You’re likely to get up to 1100, or even more, from the dodgy cambio guys down near Avenida Florida.
So yeah, I got ripped off. A bit. I was about 20,000 pesos short, or $US20. The cab driver caught me at the perfect moment, when I was brain-foggy with jetlag, desperate for some local currency in a country where cash is king, wanting to just get a deal done so I could check into a hotel and then go eat a steak.
I’m sure something similar has happened to pretty much everyone who has ever left their home country. Low-level rip-offs like this happen all the time. People take advantage of bug-eyed travellers who are yet to get the lay of the local land.
Plenty of us have been taken for far more than that too, sucked into scams that can seem so obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but that you find yourself wandering into and just going along with when you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar.
I’ve been thinking about scams this week thanks to a viral article published by The Cut, in which the US publication’s own financial advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, admits to having been taken in by an elaborate scam in her home city, a ruse that culminated in her handing a shoebox filled with $US50,000 in hard currency to a supposedly undercover CIA agent in an unmarked car.
If that sounds a lot to take in, it is. Cowles was convinced by a man on the phone claiming to be in the CIA that she was being investigated for money laundering and drug-running, that her bank accounts and social security number were about to be frozen, and that she needed to hand over a year’s worth of spending money so the CIA could securely process it and cut her a cheque.
Never mind the fact the CIA doesn’t even deal with domestic money-laundering cases. Or that a representative from Amazon supposedly transferred her call straight to Langley. Or that handing over $50K to anyone is probably a terrible idea.
The first thing I’m sure all of us thought while reading that story is: that would never happen to me. I would never be so gullible as to pass a small fortune in a shoebox to a stranger in an unmarked car.
And maybe – hopefully – that’s true. But still, I am definitely the sort of person who could get swindled in smaller, less catastrophic ways, and I know that because it’s happened. As it has probably happened in some form to every traveller.
There was the time in Hanoi when a local guy convinced me to go out for lunch with him and I wound up paying $US120, or an entire week’s travel budget, on a single meal. There was the jewellery-smuggling ring that I was roped into in Jaipur, where I was almost convinced to carry thousands of dollars’ worth of jewels into the UK for a small reward.
Once, I was driven to a dark area on the outskirts of Bangkok by a taxi driver who demanded I double his fare. I was bailed up by a guy in San Francisco who told me I didn’t have to give him any money if I could guess what the greatest nation in the world was (turned out it was “a donation”, which I made.)
These things happen less and less often as I get older and more experienced. Still, your defences are down when you’re travelling, you’re not so sure of yourself, you don’t want to cause offence, you don’t know the local norms, and you can easily find yourself agreeing to a currency exchange deal with a random cab driver on a dark street in Buenos Aires.
But hey, at least I didn’t hand the guy $50K.
Sign up for the Traveller newsletter
The latest travel news, tips and inspiration delivered to your inbox. Sign up now.
Copyright © 2024

source