Buenos Aires subway subte

Fending off pickpockets on the Buenos Aires subway

by Michael on December 28, 2014

Locals warned us to be alert on the Buenos Aires subway, or  “subte,” because the city is the pickpocketing capital of the world. Most major cities have petty crime so we were careful, as we are anywhere, but also wouldn’t let it affect our plans to go out and explore the vibrant city.

On our very first day riding the subway we managed to get a little too close to one pickpocketing and even had an encounter with one of the thieves. We had just stepped off the train at the crowded 9 de Julio station and were part of the scrum headed towards the exit.

Suddenly a man wearing a dark blue t-shirt bumped up hard against my left shoulder. I was ready to give him a Philly elbow back to clear some space when the man abruptly stopped in front of me. This set off my antenna.

Then I noticed that another man wearing a green hoodie, about three feet in front of me, had a white liquid dripping on his shoulder. A common ruse is to squirt something on the potential victim. This marks him to the pickpocket gang, which usually consists of three people, and sets up the next part of the con.

Buenos Aires subte subway two people

Passengers like these know to be extra vigilant.

One of the thieves said to the man that his sweatshirt was stained and started wiping it off to distract him. I tried to warn him but Larissa was standing right next to one of the pickpockets and I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was just a diversion to get to her. I called out “Riss, Riss!” and waved her over to me.

Meanwhile, as the victim was turning to look at his stained shoulder his wallet was lifted by the third man. A woman a few feet away noticed this and yelled at him that he has just been pickpocketed. The man who had bumped my shoulder agreed and pointed down the platform in the opposite direction of where his partner was running towards the exit. I finally managed to convince the victim that the guy pointing was in on it too so he finally ran up the stairs after his wallet.

In the meantime I grabbed the shoulder of the thief who was still there and yelled in my best high-school Spanish, ‘Polizia! Polizia!” Unfortunately I sucked at Spanish and people just stared at me oddly. The thief looked stunned to be accosted but recovered enough to say in his best movie English, “Fu** you!”

I was out of Spanish expressions at that point and called the crook a shrimp (he was pretty short) holding my fingers an inch apart for emphasis. Since no police were forthcoming (for all we know I yelled for a plumber, but we didn’t see anyone running up wielding a plunger either) I parted ways with the criminal.

Buenos Aires subway subte mural

 The tile murals on the subte are gorgeous, just don’t get too distracted by them.

A “charity” mugging in Paris

This was the second time we’d come across a pickpocketing on this trip. In June we rode the Eurostar train from Paris to London. On board we met an Australian couple who had been robbed just outside the Gare Du Nord station in Paris. When they got out of their taxi they naturally reached for their wallet to pay the driver. This let potential thieves know which pocket their wallet was in.

As they walked away from their cab they were approached by several young women with clipboards who said they were getting petitions signed for a charity. We see these people everywhere, including our fair city of Philadelphia. Most are legitimate but the British have come up with a great name for them, chuggers, as in charity muggers.

The woman held the clipboard up to the tourist’s chest and used it as camouflage for her hands to pickpocket him. We hadn’t heard of this scam before and thought we’d pass it along so you can be aware of it.

What scams have you seen in your travels?
28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Fred Allen Barfoot October 4, 2012 at 9:48 am

Aha, one of your most amusingly written and colorful incident reports. What similar stories you’re likely to generate. Twice a victim — both times in London — I long ago devised my mental/physical strategies for all environments. Thanks for your intoxicating adventure reports.

julia October 5, 2012 at 10:09 am

I was in Argentina last year, my boyfriend and I had just arrived and we had our backpacks on. We were pushed onto a tube carriage which was really busy. My boyfriend was holding onto the rail above him and a pickpocket then put his hand into my boyfriend’s pocket.

Luckily he felt the hand in the pocket and swatted it away. But the guy who tried to pickpocket was then stood right next to him for the next few stops!

You have to be so careful, best to to have nothing in your pockets on the tube! Always have valuables in a zipped bag in front of you.

While we stayed in the city we met a few people who hadn’t been so lucky. Great city, don’t be put off by these stories. Happens in most big cities around the world.

Michael October 5, 2012 at 10:39 am

HI Fred,

A friend of ours was texting on a street corner in London a few weeks ago when a bike rider tried to grab his phone. It can happen anywhere.

Michael October 5, 2012 at 10:41 am

Thanks Julia. I love the part about the pickpocketer staying on for the next few stops. So brazen.

Cole @ FourJandals.com October 6, 2012 at 4:14 am

We were with a girl who got pickpocketed as she went through the turnstile into the Metro in Barcelona. They jammed their ticket in right after hers so it blocked the gate then as they “helped” her get through, they lifted her wallet. All happened so fast.

Michael October 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

Hi Cole,

It seems like a lot of these events happen on the subway.

Thanks for checking in.

MissElaineous October 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Very brave of you, Michael, to actually throw yourself in the midst of the thievery…. I applaud your feeble attempt at Spanish (that HS language requirement really coming into play here). You sure had the last laugh tho, by calling that petty criminal a “shrimp”. Way to go!

Michael October 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Thanks MissElaineous, on our next trp I look forward to using my 8th-grade Algebra.

Jeff Fields October 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Wow this is a great story, especially considering how we were just the victims of an attempted robbery in Barcelona. We were sitting at a cafe with our packs (leaving on a flight in about an hour) when a guy taps me on the back to ask a question in some strange language (not Spanish). As we turn to look at him, another guy walks by in a different direction and grabs our pack. Luckily, some guys at a different table noticed something and I was able to race down one of the bandits and get the pack back!

Anyway, as we are also traveling around the world, great tips on things to be aware of! Thanks!

Michael October 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm

HI Jeff,

Sounds like you were almost the victim of a classic misdirection scheme. Sometimes I wish my suitcase would get stolen so someone else can lug around my dirty clothes.



Rick October 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm

It can happn anywhere, not just BA.

JessieV December 29, 2014 at 7:21 pm

What great tips – and useful advice. Thank you!

Lillie December 30, 2014 at 9:10 pm

What an interesting and useful article! Thanks for sharing!

Tawanna December 31, 2014 at 8:39 am

The Argentina story is hilarious! Glad you all didn’t lose any money and I’ll keep this in mind whenever I mention these two places for travel.

noel December 31, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I’m always very careful in crowded environments especially public transportation when it always is a real opportunity for those crowding around you, and really this happens on any location around the world.

Penelope January 12, 2015 at 12:57 am

These urchins are so skilled … try as you might, they find a way to nick you at least once every few years!

Dana @ Green Global Travel May 1, 2015 at 10:02 pm

Wow! This is so scary. Shows you have to be extra vigilant wherever you are, at home or abroad.

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