Scams in Mexico, What to Look Out For & How to Avoid Them
Many people ask, “Is México safe?” The answer is a resounding YES! Mexico is safe for driving vacations, not to say there are no issues that the savvy traveler needs to be aware of.
Because we were just a target of one of these scams (and were subject to one in past), we have decided to make our readers aware of four of the most common scams affecting drivers in México. Three of these involve gas stations and one is on the road. All four of them are worth your attention, and knowing about them will help you avoid them should they happen while you are in Mexico.
Gas Station Scams
There are three scams that occur at gas stations. We would not say they are common, but they happen often enough that you need to be aware of them, as they are easily preventable. These three are:
- Not zeroing out the pump.
- Double charging your credit card; and
- The ole cash switcheroo.
In Mexico, all gas stations are full service. Your gas will always be pumped for you. For this reason, you shouldn’t forget to tip them (20-40 pesos, equivalent to $1-3 USD depending on the exchange rate) unless they do one of the following…
Not Zeroing Out the Pump
This is where the attendant does not zero out the pump from the previous purchase. Consequently, you are charged the amount you have put in your vehicle as well as what the last customer paid. This is remedied by ensuring that the pump is zeroed out before the attendant begins pumping your gas. So many people know this and make sure the pump is zeroed out that many attendants will now call your attention to the fact the pump is zeroed. Pay attention when your gas is being pumped. It used to be common to get out and watch the attendant and some people recommend this. However, we have not ever done so.
Double Charging Your Credit Card
When paying by credit card, there have been reports of people discovering their card has been charged twice. Sometimes for the same amount, other times, for a different amount. Either way, they only made one purchase and the card should not have been charged twice. Often, the attendant is having “trouble with the machine” and, later, you discover the card was charged more than once. Other times, it just shows up on your statement.
There are two ways to combat this. One is to always use cash (see below) and the other is to set up notifications on your credit card that will alert you every time a charge is attempted. For ourselves, this is of limited value as the attempted charge must be a least $100 USD, and we never buy that much gas at one time. However, other banks may have different polices.
The Ole Cash Switcheroo
This is the one that we find most impressive and that has actually happened to us, although we ended up getting our money back. This is when you hand your attendant your payment for the gas and then he/she switches one of the larger bills (in our case, it was a 500 peso note) for a smaller denomination (for us, it was a 50 peso note). It was done so quickly we did not see it at all.
The attendant then says you did not give them enough money and shows what you gave them (after the switch). You naturally then give them the amount needed. (Again, in our case, we initially gave him 500 pesos, and he returned 50.) The attendant has just scored the excess to put in his/her pocket.
In our case, we sat in the car, as I was confused. I had just counted our money and knew how many of each denomination we had. We had not even heard of this scam before. The fact that we sat there, trying to figure out what had happened, must have spooked the attendant. He came back and said we overpaid him and returned our 500 pesos. In the end, his antic cost him 50 pesos!
The remedy for this is very easy. Simply count out your bills, one by one, as you give them to the attendant. This takes a little longer but it ensures they will not be playing the ole switcheroo game with you.
On the Road Scam: The “Bump”
This scam is a little scarier because you are in your vehicle and moving. A car will come up behind you and “bump” you, usually on your passenger side rear quarter-panel/bumper. The people that bump you will then claim it is your fault, and that you are either going to get a very expensive ticket or go to jail if you get the police involved. So, you should just settle with them without the police. Everything about this should set alarms off in your brain.
This recently happened to us heading southbound on the toll road between Tijuana and Rosarito. The first thing we did was continue until there was a safe place to pull over. They followed us. We pulled over and we proceeded to try to call our insurance agent. There was no answer to the call, which was unusual for her, she always picks up. Then we tried to call the representative that is listed on our insurance paperwork. It would not connect. This should have been the first clue something was off. They are jamming the phones so you cannot call out.
The men that bumped into us were very polite. They offered to let us use their phone to call our insurance company, in fact (another alarm bell), they dialed the number for us. They then talked to whoever answered before handing the phone to us. In hindsight, we think that person was already connected, and the dialing of the phone was fake.
Now this is where we should have heard screaming alarms. The “insurance” person on the phone told us about the “expensive,” $50 dollar traffic fine. Another red flag, as México does not charge traffic fines in dollars. They said that in México it is typical to just resolve the damages between the two parties. He assured us the insurance would reimburse us for whatever we paid the other party. (Really? With no receipt or proof?)
At this point, the guys that hit us wanted to get off the highway, to avoid having the police stop. We moved to the next exit down the road. There we negotiated a price. The guys said that if we just paid their deductible, they would tell their insurance it was a hit and run. They showed me their policy, in English, with a $500 USD dollar deductible. Why did a Mexican, driving a Mexican plated car, have an insurance policy in English with a deductible in dollars?
For various reasons, mostly having to do with a personal amount of stress, we agreed to pay them an amount that made them happy. We went to the bank, took out the pesos, paid them, and then went our separate ways. Here is what we have subsequently learned from our insurance agent.
- No insurance company is going to ask you not to get the police involved. They want/need the police report to pay claims.
- In Mexico, when you are hit from behind, it is usually the fault of the person that hit you.
- These people have a way of jamming your cell phone so when you try to call your insurance agent the call will not connect. Our insurance agent says this has happened to many people and it is the same every time; the cell phone will not connect.
Here is a tip we found. In trying to contact our agent, we tried using a Wi-Fi calling service we have. It did not work because we do not have international calling on that service, BUT it connected enough to tell us that we did not have international calling. Our theory is that if you have a Wi-Fi calling ability, be it WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or another service, you should be able to connect with your agent. At this point anyway, they are not jamming the ability to connect to the internet. We should have tried WhatsApp, but hindsight is 20/20.
How do you defend yourself against this happening to you? And what do you do if it does?
First, be aware of all the other vehicles around you as you go down the road. Know where they are in relation to you and keep an eye on the ones that are close to you. Make sure there are no cars traveling in your blind spot, turn your head and look behind you, do not rely on your mirrors.
Second, if you are in any kind of accident, even a minor one such as this, insist on getting the police involved.
Third, if your phone will not connect, try calling over Wi-Fi. Have WhatsApp or another Wi-Fi calling service installed on your phone.
Fourth, inform the instigators that you will not be giving them any money until the police and your insurance representative arrive. Chances are, at this point, they will leave.
In our case, our insurance will pay for the damage to our car, which was minor. So minor, in fact, it is not worth having the insurance pay because it barely reaches our deductible. This is yet one more lesson learned. We thought it would be worth sharing with you so you do not make the same mistakes we did.
Forewarned is Forearmed
We do not want to discourage you from traveling in México. We live there and feel safe all the time. And we, like most people who visit Mexico, rarely experience any problems, even the minor issues described here. But we wanted to let our customers know about these so you are prepared and know how to handle them, should they happen. As always, we want you to thoroughly enjoy your time in Mexico!