24 Most Common Tourist Scams in Mexico

Mexico city, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Tulum, Guadalajara, Cozumel, Merida, San Miguel de Allende, San Jose del Cabo, Oaxaca, Mazatlan, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido, Cozumel, Chihuahua

Mexico

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Do you know that Mexico is home to the most number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Americas? Similarly impressive, is that over 60 indigenous languages still survive till this age in Mexico, ex-home of the Olmecs, the Atecs, the Maya and many other important civilizations.

Besides the impressive culture which it has to offer, Mexico has tons to offer in terms of nature (one of the world’s top 5 in terms of biodiversity), beaches (14 five-diamond resorts), world class adventure, ancient ruins, delicious cuisines and many others.

However, what spoils the picture is the presence of both violent and petty crime against the backdrop of warring druglords. Fortunately, violent crimes are not targeted at tourists. However, the purveyors of petty crime against tourists in Mexico are an extremely cunning bunch, so read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES

1. Mayan dollar

Maya

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This is basically a bullsh*t currency shady vendors use. For instance, a vendor might offer you a gemstone or carving for only 3 Mayan dollars.

It sounds good, you agreed, and he then tells you that 3 Mayan dollars = 30 USD. Reject the offer, and you might find yourself hounded thereafter.

Rule of thumb:

Instantly reject and walk off if someone uses Mayan dollars on you.

 

2. Virtual kidnaps/kidnapping express

There have cases reported whereby when tourists revealed their personal information in surveys done on the street, it comes back to bite them when fake kidnapping calls are made to them.

For instance, the fake kidnapper can first call your next of kin (assuming he gets the contact), pose as a staff from the telecoms company and ask him/her to shut off her phone as the network is undergoing maintenance. Next, he calls you, and claims to have kidnapped your next of kin.

Obviously, you won’t be able to contact your next-of-kin as his/her phone is shut off. It can also work in the reverse whereby they call up your next-of-kin and claim that you have been kidnapped.

Rule of thumb:

Never ever reveal your personal information, especially on the streets or through unsolicited surveys.

 

3. Timeshare scams

This is another scam common all over the world (e.g. Hong Kong, Indonesia, etc), and it comes in many different variations.

The crux is that you will be given an offer that is too good to turn down. However you must first attend a timeshare sales pitch. For instance, you will find well-dressed salespeople, like at the airport as shown in the video above, approach you. They might offer you free/discounted tickets to tourist attractions. Or they tell you that you have just won some scratch ticket, and you can redeem it if you go for the pitch! Some will even claim to give you a USD 300 gift if you were to go.

Another variation which takes longer for the scammers is the survey method. They approach you on the street, asking you to fill up a form about your holiday experience. Should you leave your contact details there, you will informed through a call later in the day that you have just won a prize! You can redeem it as long as you go for a timeshare pitch.

Should you accept, at the pitch, you will be subjected to high pressure sales techniques over the next two hours.

Besides targeting buyers of timeshares, recently in Mexico even timeshare sellers have been targeted. Scammers working in group act as interested buyers and lead you through rounds of negotiations. During the process, they ask for some upfront fees and will disappear after receiving them.

Rule of thumb:

Do not bother with such pitches, as you are unlikely to redeem any offers you have won anyway due to the many hidden terms and conditions. Further, the timeshare apartments are likely to be of poor quality or are situated at a lousy location.

 

4. Places with drugs and prostitution

Over the years, mafias in Mexico have been engaged in a brutal fight over control of trafficking routes. This has led to the widespread news coverage of drug related violence in Mexico globally.

Although these happen more along the borders (as common sense dictates, such as at Durango oro Sinaloa), it’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid such places.

Besides the borders, these gangs like to hang out at resort cities such as Cancun, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Tijuana, etc.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid places with drugs and prostitution, as these are places owned by the mafia.

 

5. The place is closed

Mexico historic city

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This is an extremely easy scam to pull off and one common globally (e.g. Brazil, India, ec), yet many travellers still fall for it.

It goes like this. A local with perfect English will approach you in the vicinity of a tourist attraction and tell you that the place is closed due to some holiday. He then recommends/offers to bring you around, obviously, to places where he gets a commission.

Rule of thumb:

Never trust a stranger, especially someone with perfect English. If you need help, check with the shop owners along the streets instead.

 

6. Fake sob stories

There have been quite a number of reported cases, whereby a fellow tourist comes up to you, claims he is American/German/Swiss/etc, has just been robbed, lost his passport and has no money and no idea where to go. He then asks you for just $5 for a cab..

Interestingly, there has been this “American” pastor from Chicago who has been at it for the past 5 years, telling tourists that he has lost his luggage and his family is stranded.

Rule of thumb:

Ignore.

 

7. Currency switcheroo

Mexican pesos

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One of the most common scam is sleight of hand note switching. For instance, you pass a rogue shopkeeper/driver a 500 peso note, he turns around and suddenly it becomes a 50 peso note! He then asks for more and you might find your yourself at a momentary loss as it totally came out of the blue and begin questioning yourself.

This is extremely common as both notes look similar (same digits, similar colours).

Another variation is for the merchant to turn around and come back with a torn or even a counterfeit note! So always, be wary of what you pass to the driver (can be any merchant in fact) and if possible, use small notes.

Rule of thumb:

Always be very careful when handing notes over. You can choose to count out each note to be extra safe before handing over.

 

8. Shady equipment operators

Cancun jet ski

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This is another common scam globally (e.g. Thailand, Greece, etc)

Be especially wary when renting water sports equipment such as for parasailing, jet ski and even diving. This is because there have been quite a number of accidents and even scams where they accuse you of damaging their equipment.

If you do not pay up, you will be threatened with jail.

Rule of thumb:

Ask a local/hotel for advice if possible and pay a bit more for legitimate operators. Also, take a photo of the equipment and inspect it thoroughly before using.

 

9. Pickpockets

It pays to be especially careful around crowded tourist spots like the Ruins of Teotihuacan, Mexico’s bus terminals and even at the airport.

Some of the methods pickpockets use include slashing your bag, snatching your bag, distracting you and even by conning you. e.g. they ask if you could show a dollar in your country’s currency so that he will know where you keep your money.

Rule of thumb:

There are many other methods pickpockets can use. You can learn more on these techniques by checking out the list of scams in the Netherlands and  in Spain, where the real pros are.

If you want to avoid becoming a victim, stay alert especially in busy places and keep your cash safe and secure. Only carry small amounts of cash around with you. Avoid carrying the purse or wallet in the back pocket. Also, use a spare walletmoney belt or anti-theft bag to further protect yourself from pickpockets.

Further, keep most of your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead. Also, consider using hotel safety tools such as a hotel safe lock or door jammer to further strengthen the security of your hotel room.

 

10. Fake goods

At tourist attractions, many vendors peddle their ware such as fake jewellery and artifacts. Silver is especially common, as it is mined in Mexico.

However, you can be sure that almost all of these street peddlers are selling fakes, even if they show you licenses as authentic silver sellers.

Rule of thumb:

Only buy at reputable places. You can find them via online research or simply by asking the hotel staff.

 

11. Missing goods

There have been reports of dishonest vendors removing one or two items through sleight of hand when packing your items into a bag.

Rule of thumb:

Always check even after purchase.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. “Pirate” taxis

Mexico taxis

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Something to really watch out for, as it can be a real harrowing experience.

At Mexico City, there are cab drivers who rent out their cabs to gang members/criminals to earn a quick, easy buck. Should these fake drivers in legitimate cabs pick you up, you will be at their mercy. They can threaten you with a knife/gun and bring you to an ATM, or stop on the expressway/in a secluded spot and demand money.

Rule of thumb:

To protect yourself, use official airport tor radio taxis (sitos). Avoid the green Volkswagen Beetle, libre taxis and taxi touts.

If you must, check for a cab driver’s license before boarding, especially when you hail a cab on the streets.

Finally, consider using a spare wallet with little cash in it. Should the driver try to rob you, you can simply hand the wallet over.

 

2. Pemex/The gas station scam

Pemex

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You will be surprised at the number of times you can get scammed over here, though these tend to happen more at touristy areas (Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc) and near airports (Los Cabos) where tourists are usually under time pressure.

Firstly, make sure that the pump is zeroed, i.e. starts at zero, or you will be getting less petrol than desired. Next, watch out if they start pumping from the other side of the pump. This is because you will not be able to tell if it truly started at zero and if it is really providing you the desired amount of petrol. Also, watch out if an attendant brings a container while filling your car with gas, as the container will be where they let out some gas to.

Besides the technical aspects, you can get scammed when paying too. One scenario is after an attendant collects money from you, he disappears and another attendants appears to collect from you. Another possibility is as described earlier, note swapping/switcheroo.

Finally, the most irritating one would be where they claim your credit card does not work, swipe twice, and then ask you for cash. Should you hand over your cash, you would have paid double the price.

Here’s an interesting real-life encounter: http://old.seattletimes.com/html/travel/2025678329_mexicoscamtravelwisexml.html

Rule of thumb:

To not fall for such scams, avoid the use of credit cards and try to keep small change instead. Alternatively, go to the gas stations where taxi drivers go.

 

3. Car rental scam

There are all sorts of ways you can get scammed using a rental car in Mexico.

  • Damages: Like the jet ski scam, the company notice certain light scratches/damages and demand that you pay a fee for it.
  • Chipped windshield: Again, similar to the one on damages.
  • Spare tire/other item swap: While returning the car, an employee might come out when you are distracted and swap the spare tire for a spoilt one. Other items in your car can be swapped as well. You will then be asked to pay to repair the items.
  • Missing license plate: If you were to park illegally in Mexico and are spotted by the police, they will take your front license plate away. You are then supposed to head to the police station to pay a fine, but not many tourists know that. As such, when returning the vehicle, a heavy fee will be demanded from you.f

Rule of thumb:

Ask a local/hotel for advice for the legitimate operators to rent from. Also, take a photo of the equipment and inspect it thoroughly before using.

 

4. Car rental insurance/arbitrary charges

Even if you have car insurance coverage in your home country for Mexico, you will be forced to buy compulsory insurance here.

The scam is that discount sites/car rental agents (e.g. Hotwire, Europcar) do not tell you about this. Instead, they will advertise low rental prices to pull you in from. However, the real total cost after insurance costs are added will be double of you had assumed to be initially.

Then, there are also rogue operators who throw in additional arbitrary charges at the end of your rental, such as SIXT as shown in the video below.

Rule of thumb:

Rent only from reputable operators – do some online research or check with your hotel staff.

If you find yourself hit with extra insurance charges, follow up with your rental agent to get them to credit you back. Or you could check with your embassy to see if there is anything that they could do. Alternatively, you could contest the bill with your credit card company if paid online via a credit card.

 

5. Paying for a van taxi at the airport

You will definitely be approached by a throng of taxi drivers upon arrival at the airport.

Should you take a van taxi or something similar that can hold more people than what a taxi usually holds, the driver will not bother filling the van up, and charge you for the whole van.

Rule of thumb:

Use official airport tor radio taxis (sitos). Avoid the green Volkswagen Beetle, libre taxis and taxi touts.

 

6. Use toll roads instead of free roads

Based on the number of robberies and bus/car hijackings, free or libre roads have been found to be less secure than toll roads.

Rule of thumb:

Use toll roads.

 

C. MISC

1. Corrupt policemen

It is obvious when it happens. These policemen will claim that you have broken some law, and will then hint for a bribe.

Rule of thumb:

When dealing with them, never hand over important documents such as your passport or ID. Should you hand those over, they will refuse to hand it back until you pay a bribe. Consider bringing around a photocopy of your passport/ID instead.

 

2. Counterfeit money

In Mexico, there are both counterfeit Mexican bills and USD notes circulating around. Just in 2015, it was estimated that there was 99 million worth of fake Pesos in circulation!

Do note that it is possible for you to get fake notes even from ATMs, so always check. Good news it that the government/police has been trying hard to clamp down on this.

Rule of thumb:

Learn how to spot the fakes from the real ones, some key principles:

  • Material: The two lowest denominated notes ($20, $50) are printed on polymer, while the rest are on banknote paper
  • Watermark/embossed features: On polymer notes, you should see an embossed feature visible through transparent parts of the note. On banknotes, there is a watermark. Shine a light at the note from below and you should be able to see a silhouette image in a clear area of the note.
  • Holographic threads: On the front side of a banknote, you should be able to see a distinctive holographic optical thread woven. As you tilt the note, the image on this thread changes
  • Printing: Due to how the printing process works, by pressing the imagery on a note, you should be able to feel a “raised” feel to the note. The imagery should also be clear and not blurred no matter what condition the note.

Should you receive a counterfeit note, these are the steps to take:

  • From ATM/bank teller: Within 5 working days of withdrawal, head to the bank which owns the ATM you tried withdrawing. Bring along your identification and the receipt and you just have to fill up a form. You will know of the results in 5 working days.
  • From shops/others: Check immediately once you receive a note. If you have left the shop without checking, then it would be too late. In that case you would have to take it to a bank to test the note, and they will issue a receipt for it. If it’s real, they will return it back. If it’s a fake, it will be destroyed.

 

3. Violent crime

Mexico crime

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Not technically a scam per se, but worth a mention as it has serious consequences (muggings, thefts, robberies, kidnapping, etc).

Rule of thumb:

Use some common sense here. For instance, do not flaunt your wealth, carry a backpack instead of a suitcase, avoid being out alone at night, etc.

Avoid these places especially as it where drug related violence is most rampant at: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Sonora, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Tampico, Durango, Zacatecas as well as the states of Michoacan and Guerrero.

 

4. Spiked food/drinks

As one of the drug capitals of the world, obviously never accept food or drinks from a stranger. You never know what they might have put in it.

Rule of thumb:

Always have a close eye on your drink, from how how it is made to until it is fully consumed. You may consider getting a bottle/can which is more difficult to tamper with.

Also, only go to reputable places which you can find via some online research or by checking with your hotel staff.

 

5. ATM helpers

How obvious is that?!

If anyone wants to help you with the ATM because it is not in English, run, as all he wants is to skim your card.

Rule of thumb:

Use ATMs only in the day and in the banks. Look out for any suspicious characters in the area.

 

6. Fake immigration officers

If you have lost any important travel documents, head straight to the official immigration office to replace them.

There are fake immigration officers who will stand ready to steal your personal information should you turn to them.

Rule of thumb:

Look for the official immigration office.

 

7. Switching drinks

Mexico beer

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Some bars like to do this, sometimes they switch to another (cheaper) liquor, or they simply use less of it.

Rule of thumb:

A good practice is to ask for the glass of alcohol separated from the mixers. Or only head to the reputable places – you can find them via online research or by asking your hotel staff.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Mexico police

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  • Emergencies (police, fire, ambulance, etc): 911

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2 Comments

  1. M

    UPDATE: 911 now works on México, 060 and 080 are soon to be deprecated.

    Reply
    • Admin

      Thanks M for the update! Have changed it in the article 🙂

      Reply

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