Tourist scams in Rio de Janeiro aren’t much different from those happening in other cities around the world. However, some peculiarities are striking, and unfortunately not addressed in the general media. The tips and reflections to follow are provided by our staff, who have personally experienced many of the situations described, as a result of finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations only because of their desire to help someone, or simply by being a little naive in everyday life situations in Rio. This scam guide aims at sparing you the stress, as well as serving as a warning about potentially harmful situations. We don’t want to frighten you. This text summarizes almost all the parental advice given by careful local parents to their sons and daughters. Note that we will not talk about issues related to violence and situations that may imply a higher risk. If that’s the kind of information you are looking for, we recommend you read Violence in Rio, a guide specially designed for tourists.
Some cariocas (natives of Rio) just love the roguery as an institution, and we all pay the price for that. We are known all over the country as lazy folks, smartasses and, they say, whenever possible we will pull a fast one on whoever we can. It’s a relatively unfair reputation, one that statistics prove wrong. A survey conducted in 2005 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics showed that Rio’s metropolitan area has the highest average of weekly working hours in the country. That shows that the image of the lazy rogue is nothing but a bad reputation and doesn’t reflect real life. In fact, very few try to take advantage of tourists by scamming them in the city.
However, it’s true that, as in any tourist destination in the world, a series of several rip-offs against tourists has developed in Rio de Janeiro to target visitors. Whoever comes from abroad should be prepared for that, and this guide is intended to provide some help to prevent tourist scams in Rio. It’s been said that roguery is something to be learned, but it’s difficult to teach. However, those who want to be a tourist, but not a potential victim, are strongly advised to keep their eyes open. Check out the tips that can help you to do so.
Tourist Scams by Taxi Drivers
Agostinho Carrara, a character from the show “The Great Family”, which is very popular among Brazilians, has become some kind of synthesis of both the faults and better qualities of Rio’s taxi drivers. He’s a rather clumsy guy who is always trying to take advantage of everything, although deep inside he’s got a good heart. Agostinho exists only in fiction, but was inspired by the flesh and blood cabbies who drive through the streets of Rio.
A classic tourist scam that bad taxi drivers often try against our visitors is called “the shot ride”. The pre-priced ride is illegal and tourists should always demand to be charged through the use of the taximeter. The only exception is when the the passenger boards at airports or bus stations, where drivers are authorized to charge prices tabulated by companies operating in this way, which we do not recommend. The passenger should always check if the taximeter has been switched on at the beginning of the ride. There are some websites that can calculate the approximate rate between two locations by using the most likely route.
The “bandeirada”, the initial value that will be added to your fare at the end of the ride, costs 5.40 reais in Rio. The cheapest fare, called “bandeira 1”, costs 2.30 reais for every kilometer traveled (from Monday to Sunday, from 6am to 9pm). The most expensive, called “bandeira 2”, costs 2.76 reais for every kilometer ridden (from Monday to Sunday, from 9pm to 6am, and the whole day on Sundays and holidays). Drivers are allowed to charge you a “bandeira 2” fare on steep slopes. “Bandeira” is the single number to the right (or left) of the fare’s value, and has only two possible values: 1 or 2. The taximeter also calculates the fractions of idle or waiting time, which cost 28.98 reais for a full hour. If your luggage is over 60cm wide and 30cm long you’ll be charged an extra 2.30 reais per luggage piece that exceeds this dimension, provided that the luggage is carried by the driver.
You can and should complain about bad taxi drivers’ inappropriate behavior. Just take note of the license plate and call the customer service number for taxis in the city, which is +55 21 1746, provided by the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro. However, we recommend you do not clash or argue with a bad professional. Call the assistance number when you get out of the car. Alternatively, if you really need further help, call the police, on the emergency number 190, or the police station that specializes in serving tourists, on +55 21 2232 2924.
Another scam that malicious cabbies resort to is to take the longest way in order to charge more money. Monitoring the route through mobile apps is the best way to avoid this kind of problem. Tourists can also use other apps to call taxis, which will help fight another bad habit of Rio’s cabbies: to deny the ride for various reasons, whether it is because it’s only a short one or the fear of driving into some areas of the city, like the Santa Tereza neighborhood, for instance. If you need to hail a taxi on the street, you should turn to specialized cooperatives, which are a safer option for enabling a later contact, if needed. That minimizes the chance of small rip-offs against tourists.
Here is a popular application in Rio de Janeiro to request taxis via smartphone. If you don’t know Uber yet, here is the link to download the application onto your smartphone. Uber doesn’t have a customer service phone number in Rio de Janeiro. However, you can get in touch via email at email@example.com to deal with issues that have taken place in the city, and there is also official help, as well as help through the application itself.
Here are some tips on how to move around the city with our Public Transport Guide.
Tourist Scams Carried Out by Waiters
The uncompromising attitude of some local waiters in the city has become widely known. “The Rio’s waiter is above all a noble”, wrote Antonio Prata in a chronicle entirely devoted to the subject. Customers who are not used to this kind of treatment need to be patient. After all, some waiters think they are actually doing you a favor by serving you. Although that’s not exactly a scam, but it’s very annoying. It’s common, for instance, that the customer has to spend a long time waiting for the attention of their waiter. To be given something different from what you order is not as common, but it can happen. And the bill must be carefully checked at the end, because you can be charged either more or less than the actual amount, as mistakes in tallying the actual food and drink for the table are common. Again, we don’t consider this a type of tourist scam, but only a lack of care.
Moreover, it’s common that the waiters don’t have the patience to explain what some dishes from the menu include – and sometimes they don’t even know – or to wait for the customer to decide what they want to order.
To get through these problems, both tourists and locals can take advantage of some tricks.
The main one is to opt for times when bars and restaurants are less busy. Arriving a bit earlier could mean you will get a VIP service without additional charge. Another valuable strategy is to book a table in the place where you will eat. It’s something that goes unnoticed on a daily basis, although on a trip it means you will have more time to enjoy other attractions. And it’s always advisable to also keep a second option up your sleeve if the chosen restaurant is crowded.
Another important thing to consider is the tip you give the waiter. In Rio de Janeiro, a service charge of 10% is added to the the final bill. However, it’s not mandatory to pay for it, and restaurants must present the bill without the additional amount, and when adding it, they need to clearly indicate the charge and the final sum. The 10% service charge is optional for the customer, and serves as a way to reward the good service provided. So if you like the way you were served, it’s typical to authorize the inclusion of 10% in the final bill, an amount that should be transferred by the employer to the waiter.
Tourist Scams Carried Out on the Beach
The beach is the carioca’s natural habitat. It’s where the natives meet up and socialize on sunny days. This makes those who are not from there more exposed among the sea of tents on the sand, making them easy prey for thefts and extortionate prices. Going to the beach in a group or using a hotel or vendor kiosk as a “base” to leave your belongings at are ways to enjoy your day out without losing everything.
The prices are always negotiable with vendors. Choose a tent, tell them how long you will stay and agree on the prices beforehand. If you wish, make a list of all items and services offered by the vendor. Like in everything else in Rio, haggling is very much based on seduction and your negotiation skills. Phrases like, “come on, it’s too expensive” or “you have got to be kidding me”, combined with a little persuasion, can result in good discounts and prevent some tourist scams in Rio.
Tourist Scams Carried Out by Street Vendors
When buying from street vendors, pay attention to some circumstances: consuming food and beverages sold by them, especially on hot days, can lead to health hazards because there is no effective control over how the food is prepared and stored. On the beaches and in various parts of Rio, there are many stalls and people who prepare and serve a variety of snacks and drinks. You should carefully evaluate the hygienic conditions if you want to buy something. However, it’s not recommended to eat or drink something in Rio de Janeiro without knowing where it comes from; products bought from street vendors have no warranty and it’s almost certain that tourists acting in good faith will end up being scammed by them. Prices can be quite high, especially for tourists, making them vulnerable in this kind of purchase.
We strongly advise you not to consume food prepared with mayonnaise and sold on the beach, since that ingredient deteriorates faster in the heat and may cause severe intestinal infection and spoil your trip.
Tourist Scams Carried Out in Tourist Hotspots
A report broadcasted in 2012 on Brazilian TV revealed the actions of fake tour guides on the climb up to Christ the Redeemer, in Cosme Velho. Scammers will approach tourists and offer a transport option to the monument at a lower price than that charged by accredited vehicles, but that is actually for a van that will take them only halfway up. That tourist scam is only one example of the problems generated by the activities of malicious people in the tourism sector. The phenomenon of false “best buddies” is not exclusive to Rio, but it happens there too, and it is best that tourists are prepared for it.
Visitors should always go for specialized agencies when getting around and be well informed about what they are buying. The internet is a valuable tool at this point and now is accessible to most people. Checking the opening hours and prices of the attractions are simple precautions, but ones that can prevent major headaches. Being watchful is a necessary precaution, not only when you are travelling, but in the actual daily life of anyone living in a big city.
Tourist Scams Carried Out by Beggars
Scams carried out by someone asking the tourists to buy them medicine or diapers for their children are very common in Rio. Unfortunately, real cases of people in need of this kind of assistance are overshadowed by those who, exploiting the good will of others, will get what they say they need and then return to the store where the product was purchased, to try and return it in order to get a refund in cash.
It’s also very common for homeless people to ask for money to buy food. If you really want to help, but don’t want to run the risk of being deceived, we suggest you actually buy some food in a nearby restaurant or bar and hand it over to the beggar. However, we strongly recommend that you do not handle money in the presence of these people, since beggars will occasionally commit crimes of opportunity.
Also common are scams against tourists who believe in false representatives from shelters, nursing homes, kindergartens, orphanages and various international aid institutions. They will show tourists lists of the various people who have already contributed to those institutions in order to try and touch them by making them feel guilty.
We strongly suggest that you never follow any unknown person to buy something or “help” someone who says they’re in desperate need. That’s what the police are there for, and they can be accessed by calling 190, or the Rio Ambulance Service, on 192. If you want to buy some food for someone, tell them to wait where they are and go buy some food. Even better, ignore the request and simply return with something to give them, making a surprise and avoiding some tourist scam.
Be careful with your electronic gadgets, such as cameras and cell phones. Don’t ask anyone to take pictures of you, for instance, and never accept the offer of strangers to do it either. Also, don’t lend your cell phone to people asking to make urgent calls, since many scams against tourists are carried out that way.
If you need to use an ATM, pay attention to the surroundings. Many thefts occur outside banks, where thieves and scammers watch people and approach those leaving the branches after withdrawing money. It’s best to be discreet when handling cash in those places, and only move away from the ATM and leave the branch when the money has already been put away.
We suggest you don’t wear fancy clothes and don’t needlessly check maps and tourist guides. This will call undesired attention to you. Also, don’t flip through your travel documents, including maps and books, carelessly on the street. Instead, do that while having an ice cream, a bottle of water or something of that kind in a more private place.
Never accept someone putting necklaces, bracelets, shirts and related stuff on you, under the excuse of “trying it on”. Some scammers use that technique to then say that the “customer” is using the product and doesn’t want to pay for it, therefore applying a very low type of extortion. They also resort to that in order to “mark” the victim with a fake gift, making it easier for them to be identified, approached and robbed/scammed by someone else waiting ahead. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.
Scams in the Carioca Night
The nightlife in Rio is a hallmark of the city. But dancing, drinking and having fun do not exempt anyone from their responsibilities regarding their own safety. The ideal is to go out in groups, so you can look after each other. Reading about the place you will visit is also a good idea.
Being careful with what you drink is essential, because it can prevent you from being a victim of scams, such as what is locally known as “Good Night, Cinderella”, in which a person spikes the victim’s drink with a drug, leaving them unconscious, and then steals all their valuables. The same precaution should be observed in relation to people who you take with you back to the hotel where you are staying, since often the scam is carried out after the victim leaves a location with a stranger, and are then drugged when in the hotel room.
Having the contact number of a taxi driver who has already proven to be reliable and accurate information on bus and subway timetables when you go out will ensure a smooth journey back to where you are staying. It’s very common in Rio de Janeiro to arrange with a reliable cabbie to pick you up at a particular location, by appointment and certainly following the taximeter.
What No One Tells You About Scams Against Tourists
- Cariocas’ kindness is known internationally, but even among us, we become suspicious when someone seems to be overly helpful, suddenly appearing to be your best friend. Often this far-fetched intimacy means nothing, but in other cases it may mean that they are waiting to take some kind of advantage. Especially when it involves a tourist from abroad in Rio.
- The cost of living in Rio de Janeiro is the highest in the country. Goods and services are expensive by nature, specially with the crisis that has settled in the state. Be wary if the product or service you want to purchase has a price far below that charged by other sellers or what is considered reasonable. The same goes for items that are too expensive. You should always choose established companies to buy from, avoiding dubious purchases. We believe that a difference of over 35% upwards or downwards in relation to what other places are charging and to the value that the item would have on the conversion into your own country’s currency would constitute enough evidence to make you suspect that some sort of scam may be in progress. Always look into the whole situation, including an assessment of the place and the insistence of the seller, in order to keep yourself from being a victim of a tourist scam.
- You don’t need to be friendly with everyone. In fact, what is expected from tourists is to be civilized and respectful. Bad cariocas take amiability for fragility. We know that you are traveling and enjoying a happy moment, but we suggest you take into consideration that, unfortunately, some people will want to take advantage of your friendliness and joy. You know your own city, so act as if you were there. You know the risks of your own region, so don’t disregard that knowledge just because you are in another city. Don’t ignore your instincts. Rio de Janeiro is shown abroad as being made of light, sound, joy and glitter, but it’s a city like any other, with its ups and downs.
Credits for the used images in this Tourist scams in Rio de Janeiro article: Bibliotecasparque.rj.gov.br, Hugo Pardo Kuklinski, Rio.rj.gov.br and Silvia Siles.