Not So Fearless – On Having My Phone Stolen in Buenos Aires

My iPhone was Stolen in Buenos Aires

I know, I know, I know.  I’m supposed to be a “fearless” female traveler.  And I was, until three days ago.  Three days ago I got robbed in Argentina, and while it was only petty theft, it really kicked my butt in ways I’d never anticipated.  I’m writing this post to help other travelers in Buenos Aires, and other travelers who get robbed, so that you can navigate the following days with the knowledge that I wish I’d had.

How I Got Robbed in Buenos Aires

There I was, earlier this week, at 2:00 am on Tuesday morning, throwing my hands in the air and dancing along to fantastic Latin pop music at a nightclub in Buenos Aires. I’d been traveling for six months straight and everything was going my way… until it wasn’t.

It only took a second, but I knew it happened right away.  My trusty travel purse, the one with a slash-proof chain-metal strap and two zippered compartments, suddenly felt lighter than usual.  I looked down and saw that it was open.  My money, my credit cards and my transit pass were all inside, but my four-year-old iPhone 6 wasn’t.  Because the money was still there, my first instinct was to think that I’d somehow dropped my phone.  I scanned the floor around where I’d been dancing, but it wasn’t there.  I ran over to the bar to ask the bartender if anyone had turned in a lost phone, but he shook his head.  I knew I’d been robbed.

Next, I ran outside the club to tell the bouncers what had happened, and to ask if they’d seen anything.  Again, they casually shook their heads no.  As I was explaining what happened, however, three more foreign girls came outside… all to report iPhones that had been stolen in the past five minutes.  There was undoubtedly a gang of professional thieves operating inside the club, and the staff didn’t seem to care.  A local observed what was happening and called the police on our behalf.  The police arrived and seemed to care even less than the bar staff.  They told us they couldn’t enter the club without a warrant, and then just stood around chatting to one another.

I knew that I was going to have to handle this on my own.

What to Do Immediately When Your Phone is Stolen in Buenos Aires

If you’re with someone that you trust, use their phone to access your phone’s “Find My Phone” service.  Immediately put the phone in “Lock” or “Secured” mode so that the thieves can’t use it.  Otherwise, do this at the first possible opportunity.

Make sure that you know the location where the theft occurred, as you’re going to need this later when you file a police report.

If you’ve got a back-up phone, tablet or laptop back in your hotel, see if you can log out of apps like Uber, Airbnb, your email accounts and your online banking, just for peace of mind.  My understanding is that there isn’t much that a thief can do with a locked phone, but updating these passwords adds a little extra security.

The person who stole your phone is going to try to get access to your iCloud account (if it’s an iPhone) or to bypass the Secure/Locked mode on other models.  Expect to get phishing messages claiming that your phone has been found, and you just need to enter your username and password at the linked website to initiate the return process.  Do not fall for this scam.  Your phone has not been found – this is just the thieves trying to get your username and password.

If, like me, your phone is stolen in the early hours of the morning, go home and get some sleep.  The next two days are going to be grueling, so you want to be well-rested before you tackle what’s about to come next.

How to File a Police Report in Buenos Aires

After a terrible night’s sleep, I used Skype to call the Buenos Aires Tourist Police to ask about my next steps and how to file a police report.  The person who answered the phone was really kind and helpful.  She directed me to the police station nearest my Airbnb and said that when I arrived, the local officers would call the tourist police who would send a team out to help me file a report.

Before I left, I collected all of the information I thought I’d need: my passport, my local address, my home address, a local contact phone number, the location and time of the theft and a description of my phone (including the IMEI).  I didn’t expect them to ask for my travel insurance provider and policy number, but I had that information in my wallet and was able to provide it up request.

Unfortunately, the local precinct that I visited was not interested in helping tourists.  They lied and told me that they’d called the tourist police, when in fact they hadn’t.  I sat around waiting for about two and a half hours until their shift change occurred.  When the new staff started their shifts they were appalled that I’d been waiting three hours and promptly contacted the Tourist Police, who asked to be put on the line with me and then assured me they would be out within thirty minutes.

When the tourist police arrived it was a very simple process.  They had an English form for me to complete with details about the theft, and then they assisted the local officer in translating the form into Spanish for entry into their computer system.  The translations, and the clunky old computer system, meant that I was there for about another hour before I could leave with my typed police report in hand.

How to Get a New Phone in Buenos Aires

Electronics are ridiculously expensive in Argentina due to local tariffs, and replacing your phone with an equivalent model might not be financially viable.  In fact, most Portenos I spoke with recommended that I go without a phone until I reached my next country, as mark-ups are that high.  However, that didn’t seem like a reasonable plan to me.  I needed a replacement phone, as soon as possible.

Some people recommended that I shop for a used phone on Facebook Marketplace.  However, Facebook Marketplace is rife with stolen phones, and I didn’t want to contribute to the same criminal activity that had put me in this position.  So, that was out.

Next, I went to the MoviStar location nearest me. MoviStar is one of several local telecom providers, and my old SIM card had been through them.  I asked them for their cheapest unlocked phone prices, and they gave me prices for a Motorola and Samsung model, which I noted down.

Back home, I went online to Mercado Libre, Argentina’s equivalent of Amazon.  Here, you can buy new phones from reputable suppliers, and many have free overnight delivery (“llega gratis mañana”).  I was able to find a Samsung phone that was a slightly better model than the one offered by MoviStar, and for 35% less than MoviStar was asking, so I placed an order.  Although I missed the deadline for next-day delivery by half an hour, I was lucky and the phone arrived around noon the next day.

With my new phone in hand I returned to my local MoviStar store and purchased a new SIM card.  This time, the staff followed the rules and made me do the proper foreign registration, so I then had to take my phone back to my Airbnb and complete a foreign registration process through Facebook messenger.  Once that was complete I went back out to a kiosk to put credit on my phone, and voila… I had a functioning (if not particularly high-tech) smartphone!

How It Feels to Get Robbed in Buenos Aires

For the first thirty-six hours or so, I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing.  Honestly, I thought I might get the phone back, in that my “Lost Mode” message offering US dollars in cash might be more valuable to thieves than a useless, locked iPhone, but when phishing messages starting coming to the email address I’d created solely to use on the “Lost” screen, I had to accept that I was dealing with a professional criminal organization, not just a one-off pick-pocket.

My phone got stolen on Tuesday morning, and I spent most of Tuesday at the police station.  Then, I spent most of Wednesday waiting for the phone to be delivered and setting up the new phone.  At some point, on Wednesday afternoon, I stood up and experienced the most horrifying stomach pain I’d ever felt in my life.  I rushed to the toilet, thinking that I was about to die.  Had the thieves somehow poisoned me too?

Of course not.  What had actually happened is that in all my focus on filing the police report and replacing my phone as quickly as possible, I had forgotten to eat and drink.  I was experiencing dehydration and extreme hunger pains, and they were being made worse by stress, and I was getting more stressed out because I felt so sick, which was making the pains worse.

If you get robbed in Buenos Aires, or anywhere else, it’s important to look after yourself as much as you’re looking after your possessions.  Stay hydrated.  Eat healthy food.  Wash your hair.  Don’t stay up too late.  Getting robbed sucks… and making yourself sick over it sucks even more.

I always thought I was the kind of savvy traveler who wouldn’t get robbed in the first place.  And I definitely thought I was the kind of resilient traveler who would bounce back from being robbed right away… who wouldn’t let it get her down… who wouldn’t let it her affect her trip.  It’s been really eye-opening to discover that losing something as small as a phone has made me feel so shitty, and I am so grateful that I didn’t lose my backpack (I am very emotionally attached to the Joe Fresh underwear I bought in 2014) or something actually important, like my passport.

The Truth About Safety in Buenos Aires

Bad things happen everywhere.  I started this trip in Bali, where break-ins and muggings are reported in the Canggu Community Facebook group every single day.  I traveled from Bali to Bangkok, and the city was hit by three (small) bombs during my visit… including one that was less than a kilometer from my hostel.  More recently I was in both India and South Africa, where muggings, robberies and other crimes are daily occurrences.  Buenos Aires is no different than anywhere else in the world…

… except when it comes to cell phone theft. 

The stats about cell phone thefts in Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, are shocking.  In mid-2018 it was reported that more than 5,000 cell phones are stolen every day in Argentina, and more than half of those thefts happen in Buenos Aires.  That news report estimated that the number was likely to increase to 7,000 in the near future… which is now.  So, it is fair to state that approximately 3,500 cell phones are stolen in Buenos Aires everyday… and my research says that iPhones are by far the most stolen model.

If I had known this before I arrived in Buenos Aires, I definitely would have been more careful to back up my phone.  I probably would have still been carrying it when it was stolen, but I wouldn’t be in the situation I am now, with hundreds of photos likely lost forever (I won’t know for sure until I get back to Canada in February and see what, if anything, is on the cloud… which I can’t access now, as it’s tied to my Canadian SIM card).

My recommendation for travelers in Buenos Aires would be to use an older model phone (if you have one available) and to back up as often as possible.  You don’t necessarily need to hide the fact that you have an iPhone, but you should be prepared for the very real possibility of losing it.  Remember, my phone was inside two zipped compartments and it was still stolen within seconds.

To My Fellow Travelers

I have been traveling for between six and twelve weeks a year since 2010, and I’ve been on my current trip for six months.  I’m sure that I’ve beaten the odds in more ways than I can count, and the fact that it’s taken this long to be the victim of a crime is a testament to my overall good fortune.  Would I trade all of the things I’ve experienced to have my four-year-old iPhone back?  Of course not.  If losing an old phone is the price I have to pay to swim with sharks and manta rays, to take a Balinese cooking class, to hike through Indian tea plantations, to visit the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and to traverse the ancient Silk Road… it was more than worth it.

Have you ever been robbed during your travels?  What happened?  How did you deal with it?  Let me, and other readers, know in the comments.

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What to do if your phone is stolen when you are traveling. My phone was stolen in Buenos Aires - here's what happened and what I did afterwards.

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