24 Most Common Tourist Scams in Mexico

Safety at 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

Image source: worldfortravel.com

 

Did 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 ACTIVITIES

1. Mayan dollar

Maya

Image source: crystalinks.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Decline and walk off if someone uses Mayan dollars on you.

 

2. Pickpockets

Image source: englishrussia.com

 

How it works:

Crowded streets, train stations, public transportation, markets, shopping malls, restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, nightspots or anywhere tourists hang out at are pickpockets’ favourite spots.

For instance, It pays to be especially careful around places like the Ruins of Teotihuacan, Mexico’s subway and bus terminals and even at the airport.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelery / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they will surround him or her and then work like this:

  • One will keep a lookout and block passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another will push or distract the target (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third will steal your valuable / slash your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last will hide the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes with it.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done in a crowded environment.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

This is because once you are targeted, you will almost definitely lose your valuables in a split second.

To make it impossible for thieves to steal from you, we recommend:

  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables securely in a slim fitting money belt or hidden pouch.
  • Store larger valuables in an anti-theft bag that is slash resistant and lockable. Keep it in front of you.
  • Keep most of your valuables in your hotel / hostel safe, which can be further secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead instead of the actual one.

 

 

3. Timeshare scams

 

How it works:

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, at the airport, find well-dressed salespeople like in the video above will 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 be 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.

 

What to do:

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 lousy locations.

 

4. Rogue equipment operators

Cancun jet ski

Image source: kevinandamanda.com

 

How it works:

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 for the “damages”, you will be threatened with jail.

 

What to do:

Check online or with your hotel on a legitimate operator to engage.

Also, take a photo of the equipment and inspect it thoroughly before using.

 

5. Fake sob stories

 

How it works:

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 $10 for a cab.

Interestingly, there has been this “American pastor from Chicago” who calls himself Floyd King (in the video above) who has been at it for over 10 years!

He tells tourists that he has lost his luggage, his wife has diabetes and the insulin is in the bag and now the family is stranded. The race card is also played as he makes you think others have been racist to him.

Then he asks you for money

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

6. The place is closed

Mexico historic city

Image source: saveur.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Never trust a stranger, especially someone with perfect English.

If you need help, check with the shop owners along the streets instead.

 

7. Virtual kidnaps / kidnapping express

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

8. Fake goods

Image source: mexicocitydf.blogspot.com

 

How it works:

At tourist attractions, many vendors peddle their ware such as fake jewellery and artefacts.

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

9. Missing goods

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

Always check even after purchase.

 

10. Places with drugs and prostitution

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

 

11. Spiked food / drinks

Image source: timeout.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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.

Finally, do not flaunt your valuables – leave them in your hotel / hostel safe which you can further secure with hotel safety tools instead.

 

12. Switching drinks

Mexico beer

Image source: bruinspiritsinc.com

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

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.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. “Pirate” taxis

Mexico taxis

Image source: technologicvehicles.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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.

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

As for your valuables, conceal them in a money belt or hidden pouch securely.

 

2. Pemex / the gas station scam

Pemex

Image source: baja.com

 

How it works:

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.

 

Some scenarios to watch out for:

  • 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, it gets swiped twice, and then you are asked to pay in cash. Should you do so, you would have paid triple the price.

 

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

 

What to do:

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 the locals / taxi drivers go.

 

3. Car rental scam

Image source: YouTube – GreenEyesSmiley

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Ask a local / hotel for advice for the legitimate operators to rent from.

Also, take a photo of the vehicle and inspect it thoroughly before using.

 

4. Car rental insurance / arbitrary charges

 

How it works:

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 above.

 

What to do:

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

Image source: Wikimedia – Bull-Doser

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

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

Alternatively, you can arrange pickup shuttle from your hotel, or take a bus which cost only a few dollars.

 

6. Use toll roads instead of free roads

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

Use toll roads.

Else, make sure to hide your valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch and in an anti-theft bag locked to a permanent fixture in the boot.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Corrupt policemen

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

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.

In such cases, it is also useful to have a cheap spare wallet with little cash inside just sufficient for daily transactions, while the rest of your valuables are hidden securely in your money belt or hidden pouch.

This way, the corrupted officer might simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash on you.

Even if not, you can simply give up that wallet or the cash in it with minimal loss to yourself and save a ton of trouble.

 

2. Fake immigration officers

 

How it works:

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.

 

What to do:

Look for the official immigration office.

 

3. Counterfeit money

 

How it works:

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.

The good news it that the government / police has been trying hard to clamp down on this.

 

What to do:

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.

 

 

4. Currency switcheroo

Mexican pesos

Image source: treasuryvault.com

 

How it works:

One of the most common scams 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 of course, asks for more.

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!

 

What to do:

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

Also, use small notes if possible.

 

5. Rigged ATM / ATM thefts

 

How it works:

If anyone wants to help you with the ATM because it is not in English, there are a few possible reasons.

First, there is a card skimmer attached (to read your card details) or the card slot has been rigged to keep your card in. He is helping just to be able to see what your PIN is.

Second, he may try to distract you, and let his accomplice snatch your cash while you are distracted.

 

What to do:

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

Further, look out for these red flags before using an ATM as shown in the graphic above.

Also, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet. That will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

6. Violent crime

Mexico crime

Image source: geo-mexico.com

 

How it works:

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

 

What to do:

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.

And as mentioned, it will help if you have a cheap spare wallet with little cash inside to give up, while the rest of your valuables are hidden securely in your money belt or hidden pouch.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Mexico police

Image source: news.vice.com

 

  • 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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