July 10 2009 by Sam Lowe
On a recent trip to South America, we were warned repeatedly about the presence of pickpockets. The warnings were similar to those on every visit to a major city, and my wife and I give them our full attention because I once lost several rolls of film to these handymen on the streets of Moscow.
However, while walking down a street in Buenos Aires, my wife and I were totally unprepared when a young woman rushed up to us, pointed to some gooey, smelly gunk on our jackets and, in broken English, offered to wipe it off. She produced a large number of tissues and began blotting the vile-smelling globs. Suddenly, a man appeared with a bottle of water and proceeded to help. He insisted that I remove my jacket but I refused because by this time more than the goop was smelling bad. Fortunately, another woman approached the pair, said something in Spanish and they ran off. Then it hit us - they were pickpockets. They had squirted us from behind, with the intention of lifting our valuables while they pretended to help.
Later, we discovered that eight others in our group had been accosted in the same manner, but in different parts of the city. Most escaped the sneaky fingers, but an elderly woman lost $100 because her belly pack was outside her jacket, an easy mark for the thieves.
This is a fairly common method used by pickpockets, although the substance used may vary from mustard to ketchup to cooking oil. Regardless, the message should be clear - if you get squirted, don't accept offers of help from anyone you don't know. Instead, start yelling for the police.
Pickpockets are very clever, so always take precautions beforehand. We use safety pins. My wife snaps one across the zipper in her handbag (always carry a small bag because they're harder to get into), and if I put my money in a front pants pocket, I pin it shut. This makes it almost impossible to get a hand into the pocket. It's a hassle when you need something, but well worth the trouble. Also, never carry anything valuable in your back pockets.
Even better, we've found, are those zippered cloth pouches worn around the neck. They can hold both passports and money. Wear them in front and make sure they're tucked down inside your shirt, even your undershirt. That way, even if a thief cuts the cord holding one, it'll fall down relatively safe under your clothing. As a further precaution, don't leave the strap - or any jewelry - showing above your collar. These people are so adept at their trade that they can cut and run and you'll never realize you've been hit until later.
A few other things to be wary about: Large crowds gathered around well-known tourist attractions, women who thrust their babies into your arms, street salesmen who work in pairs (one hassles while the other robs), and unsolicited offers of help.
And, of course, people of our generation have long since learned that it's never smart to display large amounts of money anywhere.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't go to places like Buenos Aires, however. It is a beautiful city with hundreds of old spectacular buildings, huge open spaces and an above-ground cemetery where Evita Peron is interred. Just be alert.