They Got Me Again: Second Time I’ve Ever Had Something Stolen While Traveling


Update five days later: in the post, I estimated how my behavior would change. Now I have some data. For one day, I was (irrationally) afraid to walk the streets at night. That’s gone.

I am still taking my new phone out a lot less on the street, usually holding it in two hands and taking a look around to make sure no one is nearby first.

I have also started to feel less bad about getting ripped off as I’ve walked the streets day and night and frequently been within arms’ length of someone else’s phone. They are all absentmindedly checking their phone like I was, and I could snatch their phone just as easily as mine was snatched. “Be careful” is always good advice, but realistically almost everyone is a huge, easy target. Luckily getting something stolen is a low probability event in Buenos Aires and most places.

Last night, I had something stolen for the second time ever while traveling. If you’re in the market for an iPhone 6 Plus, there might be one for cheap somewhere on the black market of Buenos Aires.

After an amazing dinner with friends at a (not so) “secret” parrilla in Buenos Aires last night where we learned after we’d finished that each bottle of wine we’d bought entitled us to a free bottle of champagne, I headed out with a few guys. I called it a night early for Buenos Aires at 2:30 AM and was walking the three blocks home that I’ve walked dozens of times at all times of day and night.

As I got within 10 steps of my door, I had my cell phone in one hand and my keys in the other. A short guy came up behind me grabbed the phone right out of my hand and took off.

I started chasing him. I wasn’t sprinting because I didn’t necessarily want to catch him. He hadn’t shown a weapon, but who knows, and I didn’t even want to fight. I just wanted to make it clear to him that I could run all day, so that he would just drop the phone.

I hadn’t taken into account that he had a getaway car, and a block and a half into our jog, a regular city taxi turned onto the block, and he hopped in. There was a moment when I could have maybe grabbed the driver or hopped in myself, or stood in front of the car, but I didn’t do any of those. And probably none of those would have been smart.

The car had another man and woman in the back seat, and the driver was clearly part of the team, so at least four idiots went out to steal cell phones last night.

As the car drove away, I tried to remember its license plate, but I can’t 100% say that I got it–all that free wine and all.

Another taxi driver pulled up 15 seconds later and said he saw what happened and to hop in. We turned down the street they had turned, but we didn’t see them and gave up the search after a few blocks when we saw two beat cops. (In Palermo, Buenos Aires, there are cops throughout the neighborhood who stand around on a certain corner for hours on end. Generally it makes the neighborhood very safe, though these cell phone snatches occur with some frequency.)

I told them the story, and they sent me to the nearest police station to fill out a report. I gave the officer taking the report the license plate as I remembered it, and she said that would be turned over to an investigator today. Hopefully I remembered it correctly, and that leads to the taxi driver being collared and me getting my phone back. I do consider that unlikely though.

Last night I was exceptionally angry for obvious reasons. I kept replaying the chase in my head, but this time I caught the guy and doled out various forms of physical retribution.

I was also embarrassed for less clear reasons. Maybe it’s because I always heard stories of other people getting robbed, pickpocketed, and stolen from in Buenos Aires, but thought that it couldn’t happen to me. Reality is, it can and did happen to me. (By the way, I consider Buenos Aires to be just as safe as most places and definitely safe enough to visit.)

I’d like to draw a grand lesson for me and you, but frankly I doubt I’ll learn much from this. When I have another phone, I will definitely still use it on the street, which will capture my attention, which will make this type of thing possible again. Maybe I’ll be able to stop it next time because an approaching person will set off an alarm bell to grip the phone tighter or because I will sprint after him anticipating I don’t have much time to catch him before he hops into a car.


The Story of the First Time I Had Something Stolen

I rented a moped on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua for a few days and was heading back to the town to take a ferry the next day to the mainland. I fell off the moped by forgetting that you can’t steer while breaking. I was near a clinic, so I went there just to have them clean and dress my cuts. When I came out of the clinic, a very strong rainstorm started, so I decided to take refuge in a nearby restaurant where I had asked the cute waitress for directions a few days earlier.

She was still working, so we started flirting, and I sat down to order something while I waited. I completely forgot that I had put down my backpack when I entered the bar, and it was now out of view on the other side of the counter.

At some point over the next two hours, a guy popped in to ask the waitress directions. When I got up to continue driving, I couldn’t find my bag anywhere. I think that guy used directions as a pretense to grab the bag, since he asked from right where the bag was and the bag was out of view by his feet.

The good news is that the bag contained only several days worth of dirty clothes and a few books. I replaced the contents for probably $100. My passport and other valuables were locked in my moped.

Call me a dummy in the comments or share your similar stories.

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  1. That stinks – 2 things though

    Is the 6 plus valuable to thieves these days (assuming you had the Touch ID activated?)
    I’m surprised you quickly jumped in that 2nd taxi – what if he was with them too and was going to finish the job by taking your wallet,etc? Maybe it wasn’t fishy,but the way it was told in the story kind of seemed like it.

    • I don’t know about the 6+’s value. I assume there is a way to get into all phones. I considered the second taxi a possible trap, but got in any way.

  2. Sorry this happened.

    Got thinking about the other items “locked in the moped”. They get stolen too. Glad they did not get that as well.

  3. The alcohol is to blame for the lack of situational awareness – consider it a lesson. I was drunk one night in Cartagena and couldn’t find the place I rented. All the doors look the same in the middle of the night when the shops are closed up and you are drunk. After walking up and down the street a few times (6 or 8 times?) I finally found it. When I was putting in the key this woman shows up out of “nowhere” behind me and greets me. No way I would have let anyone get that close to me at 3am if I had been sober.

    • I live on a busy street; people walk past me all the time on it. Alcohol definitely slowed my reaction times, but there isn’t much of a lesson there. I am not going to not drink from now on to avoid a once-in-several-years event.

    • Yes, he should help a lot if it isn’t already too far gone. Argentines are living the apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

  4. I’m not sure which is worse, not realizing that one’s actions are the cause of the problem or realizing what actions caused the problem and planning to repeat those actions.

    • A person should give up drinking because once in 65+ countries and several years worth of being abroad his phone was taken? That doesn’t pass my cost/benefit analysis.

  5. Had our rental car with all of our belongings (luggage, computers, passports, everything) stolen off the street in broad daylight literally in front of a police station in Pompeii last October. Had been parked no more than 3 hours while touring the ruins. We were 6 weeks into an 8-month trip. Had the clothes on my back, my phone, and my wallet for the next days. Luckily the consulate in Naples had new emergency passports for us the next morning. Took a while to get back to breakeven.

  6. Scott, did you have “Find my iPhone” activated via your iCloud iTunes account? With it you can use your computer to find your phone, assuming it’s turned on, you can also remotely wipe the phone. The electronic ID of the phone can not be changed, so make sure you let Apple know it was stolen, which will make it worthless…a dead brick to the crooks if they try to use it or re-activate it. More here:


  7. Owning an iphone = Mistake #1
    Using phone in early morning while drunk = Mistake #2
    Chasing after thief = Mistake #3
    Getting in cab to chase thief = Mistake #4
    Wasting time reporting theft = Mistake #5

  8. So – educate us all. How easy is it to replace a stolen phone while overseas – and get it activated. Were you using the cloud or other services/ aps for back up? Any other advise for the rest of us?

    I had people tell me in both Capetown, RSA, and BA, not to carry my cell phone in my hand – that it was dangerous.

    • In Argentina at the moment, it would be very expensive to get a new phone because of crazy, high import taxes. I have many friends here, so I asked if anyone had an extra phone sitting at home I could borrow for a few weeks and one friend did. I downloaded the back up of my iPhone to this phone in under 15 minutes. I had an extra SIM card sitting at home, so I just need to load credit on the phone which I can do at any kiosk and it will be as good as new. I will get a new phone in the US in a few weeks, and that will take also be very easy to set up because my T-Mobile SIM was safe at home.

  9. 1) anyone with the means should take a new iPhone or iPad with them to BA to resell. Try expat forums for leads. You can make a couple extra hundred dollars or so. Don’t bring it in its packaging, govt frowns on this.

    2) anyone going to BA should read about the “blue dollar”. By bringing US dollars top exchange you can discount the price of everything there by 20%+. Lots of exchange houses in Palermo, govt frowns on this but doesn’t do anything. Going into open is very much like going into any other currency exchange–not sleazy places.

  10. That sucks Scott. A similar thing happen to a colleague last year in BA. Except, my colleague ended up catching the guy and then proceeded to beat the shit out of the guy to the point where he ended up getting arrested. The phone snatcher ended up in the hospital.

  11. While there’re crimes everywhere, violently robbing (as opposed to secretly stealing) a 6 foot 4 young, fit guy is a terrible, terrible, terrible indication. Imagine what would happen to a 5 foot 3 lady with a purse in her hand.

    I am crossing out BA from my list of to-visit cities. Terrible… sigh

    • I think this particular person would have avoided a purse situation unless he thought he could cleanly grab it, but there are more violent crimes here of course.

  12. Scott;

    I feel your pain. Because theft violates us in inexplicable ways, we mentally look to exact revenge on the perpetrator(s). One of the best remedy in these situations is to do a random act of kindness as a reminder of how fortunate you are to be alive; especially considering some of bad judgment calls you made that night.
    In some countries, you could have been killed.

    This situation happened to me in Rome while I was visiting at the Coliseum. A thief took away my wallet that was hidden in the inside pocket of my overcoat. No need for self-flagellation. You did everything you thought was possible.
    I will still visit BA, but considering your experience, I’ll exercise more situational awareness.



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