Crime, scams & travelling in Brazil → Is it safe?

Even though God may actually be Brazilian, divine intervention will not help when it comes to protecting yourself against criminals.

Forget the bling in Brazil

Golden rule number one:  Lower your profile and try to blend in. When you are in public, leave the bling at home. Never wear anything gilded, diamond encrusted or oversized. Gangs will also specifically hone in on people who brazenly sport their penchant for luxury brands. 

Always keep a small amount of cash with you (concealed in a money belt under your clothes, in secret sewn-in pockets, or in your shoes) and minimise the bank cards you carry. When you have been shopping, always return your purchases to your accommodation before you head out to dinner or to a bar for the night.

It is also a wise idea not to have your phone or tech gadget of choice on show all the time, authorities have indicated that since December 2014 there has been an increase of theft involving tech items.

Brazil - Places to watch out for

The statistics for crime in Brazil hardly makes for light reading. While crime plagues the cities of Rio, São Paulo, Recife and Salvador throughout the year, it spikes when tourist numbers reach critical mass during Carnival and festive holiday periods.

Don’t assume that by keeping on-the-beaten-path you are guaranteed immunity. Day and night, travelers are prime targets for street thefts and muggings in tourist enclaves that include Copacabana Beach, Corcovado Mountain, Tijuca Forest and Leblon.  

Needless to stay, once the night crawlers are out, it’s sound policy to turn up your thug-alert dial to extra high. Coordinate to meet friends at your hotel rather than heading out alone, especially at the beginning of your trip when you have not yet got a handle on what exactly constitutes the city’s underbelly.

Stay close to heavily populated areas as much as possible and never take a street that isn’t well illuminated.

Always avoid isolated areas on the beach, especially at night. For all its iconic status, Copacabana Beach is best avoided late at night and before 9am (when the armed police clock on). While the city’s beachfront is a runner’s dream, if you want to stay healthy, you might want to stick to the hotel treadmill.

The Copacabana Palace Hotel might be a much coveted lunch spot but it’s also ground zero for muggings. Avenue Atlântica (especially the area surrounding Praça Lido Park) is not the most salubrious of streets, drawing prostitutes and beggars oblivious to the fact that ‘no’ is a universal term.

Certain stretches of Avenue Atlântica northeast from Copacabana Palace Hotel are especially sketchy as there are no businesses or stores which creates a playground for muggers. If you are keen to stroll at night, limit yourself to Ipanema beach which is illuminated and is heavily surveilled by police throughout the night.

Street kids & favelas in Brazil

Sadly, it's fair to assume in Brazil that kids who approach you on the street are up to no good. While it’s a depressing counterpoint to our desire to want to help those less fortunate, it’s key to remember that street kids are hardened early by a predatory, eat-or-be-eaten life in the favelas (shanty towns). Not to mention some of their dubious role models are quite simply the largest threat to foreigners because they have zero to lose.

In many cases, delinquent juveniles will attempt to rob you (often with a gun) or facilitate a set up for an older accomplice to, at best, rob you of your belongings. If you are approached by kids on the street, ignore them completely, cross the street or head to a well-lit and highly populated area. While it can be counter intuitive to resist their pitch, if you linger too long and engage, there’s no doubt that you will be you ripped off.

Pickpockets in Brazil

Classic pickpocketing scams are universal and are easily foiled if you keep your wits about you and apply some common sense.

Pickpockets devise a myriad of cunning and creative diversions to distract you for that nanosecond it takes for them to steal your wallet. Keep your belongings close to you at all times and don't have your cash, cards and the like in the one place.

Wherever you are in Brazil, you can bet the odds that there’s a pickpocket, a mugger or a fraudster sizing up your worth and your gullibility. While you don’t want to be too cynical—getting to know the locals is one of the best things about travel after all—when a street kid or hustler approaches you, it’s time to make tracks.

In Rio and São Paulo, such techniques as smearing you with mustard, offering to clean your soiled shoes, tying friendship bracelets on your wrist, masquerading as beggars, daubing you with paint, even a crazy lady throwing a baby at you (a doll in a blanket) are common ploys to distract your attention. Regardless of the methods in play, don’t hesitate to be abrupt when you need to ward off villainous overtures. Make it clear you know their game, disengage and then swiftly walk away. 

If unfortunately you find yourself at the receiving end of a menacing mugger armed with a weapon, do not negotiate and comply with their requests. Your safety is paramount. Things can be replaced, you can not.

Bank fraud & ATM scams in Brazil

Bank and credit card fraud in Brazil is rampant. Over recent years, criminal gangs have employed increasingly sophisticated techniques to generate a lucrative revenue stream from ATM crime.

Keep your credit cards in your possession at all times, make copies of credit card numbers and emergency contact information and notify your bank in advance of your trip to avoid your card being blocked.

Be extremely mindful of your surroundings when you withdraw money. Using ATMs in discreet locations, especially those in major tourist hotels, reduces the odds of being targeted for crime. Try to avoid withdrawing cash at night and in sketchy, ill-lit areas.

If you sense that something isn’t right about the ATM, alert the bank and swiftly take your business elsewhere. While fake pin pads and pin pad overlays are on the rise, the most common form of skimming in Brazil involves the placement of hidden cameras; Always cover your hand when you enter your pin number into the key pad.

Be on the look out for notes that bear any traces of pink ink; many ATMs are equipped with an anti-theft device that applies pink ink to bank notes issues from an ATM machine that has been compromised. Pink-hued notes will not be accepted in stores, restaurants, hotels, in fact anywhere.

If you think the color of your money is even slightly off, make sure you speak to the bank in question immediately to get the notes reissued. If the bank is not open, keep hold of your ATM receipt as evidence for a police report: should you decide it’s worth persuing.

Credit card fraud in Brazil

Credit card fraud is common in Brazil. You should only use your credit card at major hotels and formal, established restaurants and shops. In places where credit card fraud is rife; markets and storefronts, try to always use cash.

A good rule of thumb is to never trust anyone with your plastic; that’s everyone from the dapper waist-coated waiter in the casa do feijaodo to the super friendly staff at your hotel and cashiers at any store. Once you are suitably distracted or persuaded to let your out of your sight, it takes a fraudster just a couple of seconds to duplicate your information, and they will.

Always make sure that your hotel has an in-room safe where you can safeguard your valuables; hotel staff should never be led to temptation. Check your account balance online frequently and streamline the number of credit cards that you travel with.

Express kidnappings in Brazil

Despite the media hype, the odds of a traveler getting kidnapped in Brazil are slim. Having said that, despite the government’s attempts to crack down on crime in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympics, kidnappings have increased dramatically over the last decade as organized crime syndicates, weakened by the favela pacification project, have turned to kidnapping as a necessary economic policy.

As with elsewhere in Latin America, the majority of kidnappings involving travelers are defined as ‘express abductions’ (also referred to as ‘sequestro relampago’ or lighting kidnappings) that involve ATM holdups; travelers are held for a few days while their assailants attempt to extract as much money as possible from an ATM using the victims debit/credit cards. The victims are usually released unharmed. 

According to a January 2013 report by the US State department, express abductions of tourists are relatively uncommon in Rio de Janeiro, the danger zone for foreigners are the streets of São Paulo.   

Drink spiking risk in Brazil

Let’s face it, Brazil’s free and easy vibe has an intoxicating effect on most travelers, regardless of whether or not they choose to drink.

When you are out on the town, especially during carnival and other major festivals and events, it’s important to keep your head screwed on. For female Nomads, especially, a healthy dose of common sense goes a long way when you are living it up in a macho Latin society. While the chances of you having your caipirinha spiked are slim, such instances are not uncommon, even in the most upscale clubs in the primo tourist enclaves of Ipanema and Leblon.

There’s no need to get paranoid, just apply the same rules that you would anywhere in the world:

  • Choose your new friends carefully
  • Never leave a public setting with a stranger or allow your friends to either
  • Never accept a drink from a stranger. 
  • It’s a good idea to choose bottled drinks or cans of beer over spirits and cocktails. 
  • If you can’t resist a caipirinha, try to watch the bartender make it and don’t ever leave your drink unattended; if you go to the bathroom, or to dance, either take it with you. 

Once your inhibitions are compromised your weirdo radar is quickly thrown out of whack, which increases your odds of becoming a target. Having your drink spiked in a bar is generally a precursor to sexual assault, robbery or kidnapping.

Drinks laced with ‘date rape’ drugs, including the sedative Rohypnol (Roofies) also known as Mexican Valium, result in confusion, drowsiness, motor impairment and even unconsciousness. While Rohypnol is illegal in the US and most of Europe, it is legal in Brazil (as a prescribed sleep aid) and readily available in pharmacies. It kicks in about 30 minutes after it is ingested and victims usually have little recollection of what has transpired for eight to 24 hours after they have been drugged, which explains the drug’s popularity with sexual predators.
If you (or you notice a friend) start to feel drowsy or more inebriated than the volume of alcohol consumed would justify, seek medical assistance immediately.

Police in Brazil & reporting crime

Police in Brazil have a reputation for being a bit trigger happy. Amnesty International claims that on duty police officers are responsible for at least 16 per cent of the homicides that take place annually in Rio de Janeiro.

Certainly, as a traveler it’s key that you don’t find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the various police and security agencies that you stand a fair chance of coming across during your stay.

  • The mean looking Rio de Janeiro State Military Police are the uniformed police (blue and green uniforms and caps) who actively patrol the streets and the first-responders to calls for assistance and during actual incidents. The military police are accused of using excessive force during security operations in the city's poor neighborhoods.
  • Never enter an unpacified favela: stray bullets are a real and present danger and if you are caught in the crossfire. Once the military police have dealt with the situation and the crime scene has been secured, it’s the more measured (ill paid and rather unmotivated) State Civil Police that will spearhead the investigation.
  • The friendly Polícia de Turismo (tourist police), often speak some English but, generally speaking, are only found in Rio; most hotels will have a sign with their contact information.
  • The Polícia Federal (the Brazilian equivalent of the American FBI) tend to be the most efficient branch with offices at border posts, airports and at ports in most state capitals.

If you are the victim of a mugging or robbery in which your phone/device is stolen, take a step back before you head off to the nearest police station.

A drop in the ocean (the illegal cell phone trade costs Brazil around $35 billion a year), the civil police are unlikely to show much sympathy. Choosing to file a police report entails being sucked into a mind bending bureaucratic vortex which, in addition to testing your sanity, can easily wipe out a day of your vacation, and that’s if you speak Portuguese.

Certainly, if you intend to make a claim with your insurance company, you will have to succumb to the pain of windowless rooms and illogical paper trails; just think first about how badly you want to be reimbursed.
If your passport or identification is stolen, the best course of action is to go to your consulate who will be able to side step the police. In the unlikely event that you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, always contact your local embassy or consulate. It’s also wise to exert your rights to remain silent, make a phone call, and get yourself a good lawyer. 

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  • Alexandre Albertoni said

    I'm a Brazilian-born citizen and I just gotta warn you not to come to Brazil! Unfortunately, crime is rife in my country and no one is safe whether it be daytime or nighttime. If we, Brazilians, are not safe, let alone them tourists... In 2016, there have been well over 59,000 murders in Brazil!!!

  • sam said

    fucking brazil i never want to go brazil ..

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