Medellín has waged a famous, sustained war against crime in the city; this is reflected in its day-to-day life. Locals will agree that things are better now than they were 10-15 years ago and substantially better than they were 30-40 years ago.
However, scams are a staple feature of almost any city in South/Central America. This does include Medellín. The good news is that if you’ve been to Cartagena or other touristic cities, you’ll likely be prepared for most scams here. There are scams that aren’t as prevalent in Medellín but conversely, there are others which are more common, e.g. gold-diggers.
Fret not though, as we will impart the top scams that are seen today in Medellín. Remember, scams are largely avoidable. When we’re victim, we often feel more frustrated with ourselves than the scammers!
Scammers take advantage of ignorance and/or recklessness. So, read this article and keep yourself ahead of the game.
(1) The Interested Girlfriend (or Wife!)
In Medellín, females outnumber males 52.9% to 47.1%. Multiple polls and word-of-mouth place them at the top of the world’s most attractive ladies. There’s good reason for this; they are warm and beautiful. As they make the rounds, more men come each year in an attempt to level-up their love life.
With this does come risk. Although the vast majority of women in Medellín are honest and industrious, there are many that’ll do what it takes to keep afloat in this developing economy. Here’s the catch, these ladies know they are beautiful. They also know many foreigners are coming to their city in pursuit of them. Naturally, some will take advantage by taking you and your finances for a ride.
The local term is “interesada” (meaning interested). In English, the equivalent term is a gold-digger. So, what can you expect from a gold-digger? A whole in your pocket under the false pretence of love.
Many of these relationships begin before the man has even stepped foot in the country. Before they know it, they are fulfilling financial favours for the woman, whether it’s paying for a certain medical bill or for the week’s shopping.
This kind of surface-level, transactional based relationship isn’t bad per se. Not if you know what you’re getting into and agree to it. Many however, aren’t quite aware of the dynamic that they’re falling into and later complain that the woman was an ‘interesada’.
How to avoid interesadas?
The first way to prevent a broken heart is to first be aware that these types of relationships are very common. Is that what you’re looking for or are you in search of something less transactional? If so, learn Spanish. It doesn’t need to be perfect but at least try. How can you expect love to flourish without a common language? Señor Google (translator) may feel like a saving grace but it’s certainly not in Cupid’s repertoire.
- With all due respect, if you are significantly older than the women you’re seeing, then you should consider what kind of motives she has to be with you. Why has she picked you over somebody her own age?
- Don’t leverage your finances to open up a relationship. By all means, invite her out and be a gentleman but don’t scream “I have money and I’m here to spend it”. Spend modestly and you’ll see who sticks around and who doesn’t. That’s a great way to filter out the intentions of your potential partner. My first dates never involve going to a top-tier restaurant but rather something more casual.
(2) The Scopolamine Sting
The Devil’s Breath – it’s that nightmare drug that has also made the rounds in recent years. Every year, a growing number of foreigners are added to the city’s list of scopolamine victims.
This is a drug that you don’t want to try, but ultimately, it may not be YOU that has the last say on that.
In Colombia, it is known colloquially as Burundanga. The plant actually possesses certain medicinal properties but is better known for its malignant qualities. Scopolamine is used by bad people to drug and facilitate robbery. When under its spell, victims lose their memory and become susceptible to the demands of their captor(s). Unfortunately, it is also easy to OD on scopolamine and die of respiratory failure.
It’s not something you want to meddle with. Although this drug has generated mass fear within the expat community, things have been blown out of proportion. What they often don’t tell you is that the majority of cases involve victims putting themselves into dangerous situations. Don’t put yourself into those dangerous situations and don’t stress.
The most common way of coming across scopolamine? women! The most common way of consuming it? Drinks (that are spiked).
Men getting themselves into trouble in the pursuit of women or sex is nothing new. In Colombia though, the stakes are a lot higher.
- Be very careful on Tinder & dating apps as this is where criminal bands lurk. With the lure of a beautiful woman, it is quite easy work.
- ‘Working’ women that you’ll find on the streets are a no-no if you want to stay safe.
- Be aware of women that are eager to ‘please’ you very early on.
- Request the cedula of any date coming to your place.
- If you have a porter, you can stay safer by letting them know.
- Don’t let strangers get too comfortable around you. Do not let them get close, especially when unsolicited.
- Street smarts – don’t let people stop you on the street. This has happened to me before, and I ended up fleeing.
(3) Gringo Pricing
Tourism is still fairly new to Medellín. Gringo pricing is a phenomenon that has grown as more and more foreigners visit. We didn’t see it so much before but that is slowly but surely changing.
Charging extra to unknowing, non-Spanish speakers is perhaps just too alluring for those wanting an extra buck. English speakers are perceived to be wealthy. With that comes a special price – the gringo price.
Unfortunately, it’s not something we see going away. Why? Just look at other major touristic cities in Colombia… Cartagena has a well-established tourism sector – gringo pricing is, and always has been prevalent.
These scammers hide their ludicrous prices until after the unsuspecting victim has taken them from their hands.
These scams are commonplace in Cartagena. The good news is that in Medellin, you don’t see scams of that gravity and you’re more likely to pay an extra few dollars for certain goods or services. Still, that’s annoying and discriminatory.
Unless of course we’re talking about real estate. Then, things get a bit more serious…
You should also know that certain official attractions and services implement gringo pricing. Examples include the Museo de Antioquia, Parque Arvi and Avianca Airlines.
How to avoid gringo pricing?
- Dress like a local to demonstrate local awareness.
- Learn Spanish as Colombian’s generally aren’t proficient in English. Not knowing Spanish will make you more of a target.
- Don’t be afraid of haggling when the price isn’t listed. You may be able to lower the quoted price by 10-20% (especially in El Centro). Alternatively, ask a Colombian friend to help.
- For Avianca, make sure to buy tickets from their Colombian site, while in Colombia, using Colombian currency (and not USD). The price can be up to 50% cheaper this way!
(4) Street Theft
Since the 90s, Medellín has taken massive strides to improve its safety and open itself up to the world. You probably already know that, hence why you’re either here or considering it.
Having said that, petty crime and street theft remain an inextricable part of life in just about any South/Central American city. This includes Medellín.
Theft happens, I’ve got first-hand experience. The good news is that in many cases, it is easily preventable with enough vigilence. In Colombia, they use the colloquial expression, “no dar papaya” (don’t give papaya). This means you should avoid putting yourself in situations that call the attention of thieves. How can you minimize your odds of theft/robbery?
- Don’t wander around quiet streets.
- Dress appropriately – observe the local dress code when going to less touristic places. Shorts and sandals are seldom worn by locals and will set you aside as an obvious foreigner.
- Get used to checking your 6 when in quieter or less touristic areas. In fact, keeping your head on a swivel is a good practice regardless of time or place.
- Be mindful of when and where you are using expensive devices, such as your phone.
- Walk with intention when it’s quiet.
- Use Uber at night when moving across town.
- Don’t confront thieves, always comply then call the police (1-2-3) when safe.
- Be extra mindful of your possessions in ‘hot’ zones such as Calle 10, on the metro, El Centro.
- Wear your backpack round your chest in busy areas.
- Beware of strangers engaging you or closing the gap.
- Keeping your hands in your pockets can deter thieves, especially in crowded places like concerts or the metro.
Do not let yourself get swindled by people that engage you in a deceptive act. Watch out for street performances where people crowd. In moments like this you may be pickpocketed while your attention is occupied.
Also watch out for street vendors in the Poblado area, especially throughout Calle 10, Parque Lleras and Provenza. Many have baskets strapped to their chest, meaning that their hands are not always visible.
Finally, be cautious of strangers ‘accidently’ bumping into you. While distracted, you may not be perceptive to a hand in your pocket.
Remember, Medellín is not a warzone and is one of the safest cities in the continent. Regardless, it is better to be prudent and internalizing these tips will give you peace of mind to enjoy the city.
The steady growth of tourism tells us that people are coming to Medellín without problem and spreading word of its strengths. Have your head screwed on, but please don’t worry.
(5) Getting Caught Up in Real Estate Scams
With great investment comes great scams. Over the years, we’ve heard our share and so perhaps this deserves its own dedicated article. Nevertheless, here are the most common mishaps to look out for:
Hidden defects – When looking at a new place to buy or rent, we don’t always scrutinize the whole place for flaws as we should. There are some unscrupulous sellers that take advantage of this by omitting certain details that you’d want to know as an informed purchaser. In extreme cases, people have purchased property that posed a signicant safety risk, resulting in evacuation.
How to prevent this? Do your due diligence! Google the building and find out who the developer is. RUN if you see the word CDO as they are a notoriously bad and dangerous developer. Make sure to personally visit the property and chase up on anything that arouses suspicion. Ensure that you ask questions about maintenance and upkeep, the coexistence and security of the building. Having a good agent is crucial as they should be doing their homework on each property that they show you. Never be afraid to ask questions. The more the better.
The ‘out of the country’ scam: Be careful when a property owner is ‘out of the country’ and asks you to make a transfer in order to provide you the keys of the property.
How to prevent this? Make sure that your negotiations are mediated and represented by a real estate agent. It’s critical to have personal contact with this agent. Never send money without dealing with the person directly. Suspicions should be aroused if the seller is insistent on conducting everything via e-mail.
The realtor scam (real estate agent): Not all realtors are on your side! It’s no secret that they earn their money through commission and so unprincipled agencies will try to raise the price of property. This way they can maximize their earnings from you.
How to avoid this? Due diligence. Any Bob and his uncle can be a realtor in Medellín and so it’s important to do your background checks. Is the real estate agency well-established? Have they been recommended by somebody you know and trust? Do they have an office? Are they able to disappear?
Theft of personal information; identity theft scam: One of the more common real estate scams but this one concerns sellers. It’ll typically manifest in such a way where somebody expresses interest in your property and asks for your personal/banking information in order to make a downpayment.
Just like that they’ll have all they need to steal your identity and money.
How to avoid this? Don’t turn over your financial information to people you interact with online.
(6) Psychological intimidation/extortion
In recent years, we’ve heard a number of accounts whereby crooks extort their victims via means of psychological intimidation. They achieve this by collecting publicly available information that they find online. In today’s day and age, we disclose far more on social media than we are sometimes aware of.
Scammers will create a database of all your data before calling you up and putting on the squeeze. They may try to make you feel vulnerable and is if they know more than they do. Unsuspecting victims will then feel coerced to comply with whatever demands the crooks set out.
Specifically, this scam has been happening a lot from a prison in Copacobana (north of Medellín). Many scammers are inmates doing internet studies on how to deceive you into believing them. NEVER give them any information.
A recent case has involved the use of a well-spoken British male that was used to lure people. Specifically, this male would target different tradesmen/businessmen in the area and try to organize business meetups. Unknowing victims would then meet this decoy in a remote place to then be robbed or kidnapped. One of the more concerning and potentially violent scams.
- Manage your data – It’s good practise to be mindful of what you’re posting online. At the time, you’ll not be thinking of how it’s material for a future scam. You’re likely to forget about it down the line only for it to possibly come back to haunt you.
- Whatsapp – You should not publish any statuses that reveal travel plans. It is better to do this after, once you’ve done the trip.
- Facebook & Instagram – Be mindful of who you are letting into your digital space. Sometimes it is tempting to accept random followers but it is prudent to always vet. Hidden behind friendly faces may be delinquents looking for an easy payday.
(7) Card Cloning Scams
Card scams aren’t overly common in Medellín, but they can and do happen. Did you know that your card number and pin can be captured and duplicated after using an ATM or swiping to make payment? With that, thieves can replicate your card. This scam has a name – skimming.
Criminals achieve this by means of a discrete electronic device which can be used in ATMs or on card machines.
This can happen anywhere but you can reduce your risk by using ATMs in areas that are regularly monitored by security. Shopping malls are a good bet. Keep your eyes peeled for anything odd such as a raised keypad or strange looking card slots. It is also good practice to cover the keypad as you type your pin.
Never leave your card unattended at the till; keep an eye on it at all times.
(8) Online Rental Scams
It’s no secret that short-term rentals have risen in cost in recent years as the use of Airbnb in Medellín has surged. As a result, more people are exploring their options via different online rental platforms. The problem is that many of these platforms fall short on the protections you have on Airbnb.
In Colombia, without a co-signer, a landlord may ask you to pay several months’ worth of rent in advance. The problem is that you might be paying for a listing that doesn’t exist. After the ‘landlord’ receives payment, you may find it very hard to get a hold of them. This is known as a phantom rental scam.
They may try to lure you in with the promise of low rent or attractive amenities.
To avoid this, I would recommend sticking with what is trial and tested – Airbnb – especially if you’re new to Colombia.
(9) Taxi Scams
In Medellín, you are far less likely to have any sort of problem with taxis than in somewhere like Cartagena. Unlike Cartagena, taxis in Medellín need to use a taximeter and there is an official rate. Furthermore, the vast majority of drivers have integrity and are friendly towards locals.
However, scams can happen and tourists are particularly vulnerable. The most likely scam is that the driver will add distance and time to the journey, either by taking you the long way or even the wrong way altogether.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have your bearings in the city, you won’t even know that it’s happening.
Another less likely scam is that the driver will provide you counterfeit change, especially if tempted with a 50,000 COP bill.
To avoid this scam, you might be better starting off with Uber. The route is predetermined and as a passenger, you can get keep tabs on it throughout the journey. Get familiar with the city and learn your way around before you start taking taxis. At least that way you’ll be savvier to any tricks or nonsense.
There we have it – the top scams in Medellín. Here’s a recap:
- The gold-digger.
- The Scopalamine Sting
- Gringo pricing
- Street theft (not so much a scam but something to be aware of nevertheless)
- Real Estate Scams
- Psychological intimidation/extortion
- Card scams (known as skimming)
- Online rental scams
- Taxi scams – taking the long route or giving you counterfeit change.
Most major cities have their share of scams. You may have even been victim to one or two. As always, knowing the lay of the land is crucial in helping to avoid them. That’s why this list is important.
This is Colombia and you should not be surprised that Medellín has its share of scams, many of which are prevalent in North America. There are some, however, that are unique to Colombia. This should not deter you from coming to Medellín as with the right knowledge and level of prudence, it is easy to steer clear of issues. Many, if not all of these scams are avoidable.
As always, if you have any questions, get in touch