20 Most Common Tourist Scams in Panama

Safety at Panama City, Balboa, Boquete, Boca Chiqa, Colon, David, Gamboa, Portobelo
Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

 

Panama is one of the more unique places to visit in Central America as a result of the Panama Canal, which has 170 feet locks and there is no better way to see the canal than on a cruise along this waterway.

Other highlights include Embera Indian Villages, enjoying outdoor activities such as zip lining or trekking in lush jungles on the outskirts of the city, and spending time on white sandy beaches that back out to azure blue seas.

However, Panama has a rising crime rate and tourist targeted scams which means that you need to exercise caution on a trip here.

So read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Colon Port security officer scam

Colon cruise port

Colon cruise port. Source: cruisecritic.com

 

How it works:

At the Colon Cruise Port, you may encounter official port security officers who try to set you up with unofficial tour guides or unofficial taxis.

 

What to do:

Only engage official, licensed and insured tour operators and taxis.

 

2. Fake tours

Panama cloud forest

Panama cloud forest

 

How it works:

Fake tours can be a problem in Panama City such as Panama Canal tours and Gamboa monkey watching tours.

Scammers will charge you a high price for these tours but will tell you that you are getting a discount if you pay upfront.

Once you have paid the money they will promise to pick you up from your hotel the following day but you will never see them again.

 

What to do:

Engage a licensed, reputable tours and activities operator which you can find via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Panama with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operator: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

To determine if an operator is legitimate, ask these questions:

  • Is the operator licensed and is there a professional website, physical office, business email and working telephone number?
  • Are there online reviews? Do they sound legitimate?
  • Is the price too low to be true? What does it cover (vehicles, guides, safety, insurance, hidden fees, etc)?

When paying:

  • Avoid paying in full upfront unless through a reputable platform / operator.
  • If using an online platform, do not make payment off the platform.

 

3. Fake cigars

Cuban cigar

Cuban cigar. Source: peregrineadventures.com

 

How it works:

Panama is known for selling Panamanian and Cuban cigars although many of these are fake.

Some areas of the city famous for selling cigars include Via Argentina and Obarrio although it can be difficult to tell which cigars are fake and which are real.

Often the cigars have a high markup of 60-75% of the normal price but are actually filled with grass clippings and tobacco waste.

 

What to do:

If you wish to buy, learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, or only visit licensed, reputable shops.

Do not be influenced by the price of cigars in Panama as they are often marked up for tourists and this is not an indication of quality.

You can find these by doing some online research or by asking your hotel / hostel staff.

If you find this too time-consuming, other options available include:

  • Using local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Multi-day tour through TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Shopping tour through Viator (largest platform of day tours globally and in Panama): get a professional guide to bring you around.

 

4. Hostess bars

Panama nightlife

Panama nightlife. Source: panamacity.travel

 

How it works:

This scam starts when a young woman starts talking to you and seems extremely friendly.

Often she will say that she is studying English or concoct another reason to talk to you.

She will then suggest going for a drink in a nearby bar or cafe and will proceed to spend the evening drinking and eating there with you.

At the end of the evening she will find a reason to leave suddenly and you will be left with an extortionate bill.

If you refuse to pay a threatening bouncer will often escort you to the nearest ATM machine. This scam almost exclusively targets male travelers.

 

What to do:

If you want to make new local friends, some questions for you to ponder:

  • Does the restaurant / bar seem legitimate (see TripAdvisor)? Are there customers?
  • Is the stranger reading from a script? Evasive about things?
  • Is he / she only bringing you to a particular restaurant or bar?

Some other tricks you can use:

  • Claim that you have company by suggesting to go another place where you have a few friends at and see if she insists on a particular place.
  • Ask for prices before ordering. Only drink what your waiter or you have poured.
  • Take a photo together.
  • Leave your valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured further with hotel safety tools.

If you have fallen into the trap:

  • Pay with a credit card but call the bank to dispute your charges immediately after leaving.

 

5. Pickpocketing

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo. Source: aswesawit.com

 

How it works:

Pick pocketing is particularly prevalent in Panama City (Via España, Avenida Central, Calidonia, old town / Casco Viejo), and in Colon.

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

Once they mark a target, they will surround you and then work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

 

What to do:

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

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

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • 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 in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Bus to Bocas del Toro scam

Bus to Bocas del Toro

Bus to Bocas del Toro. Source: chickenbusnomads.files.wordpress.com

 

How it works:

You can get to Bocas del Toro from most towns in Panama by take a bus to Almirante.

Scam one happens when the bus drops you off at a station about 20-25 minutes to the harbor.

This may perhaps be a walkable distance for some, but the throngs of taxi drivers will try to convince you otherwise and to take their cabs instead.

Scam two happens when you are at the harbor.

For some tourists, they have already bought water taxi ticket (from the Taxi 25 Company) to Bocas del Torra from wherever they boarded their bus.

However, taxi drivers in cahoots with another water taxi company (Transporte Marítimo Valencia) will drop you at the port of that other company.

Should you approach that company, they will tell you that your ticket with the Taxi 25 Company can only be used for trip back from Bocas del Torra to Almirante.

As such you need to buy a ticket with them to get over to Bocas.

 

What to do:

If you have bought tickets with the Taxi 25 Company already, simply walk further to the port used by the Taxi 25 Company, which is just nearby.

 

2. Bocas del Toro boat taxi scam

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro. Source: therealdealtours.com

 

How it works:

When engaging a boat taxi to get to Bocas del Toro, dishonest boat taxi operators may ask you to pay for a return trip (if you are not planning to stay overnight at Bocas del Toro).

However, when it is time to head back, they are nowhere to be found.

 

What to do:

Do not pay until you are picked up.

 

3. Parking scam around Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo. Source: YouTube – Kristian Hoenicke

 

How it works:

It’s difficult to drive around the area, due to the narrow one way streets.

Also, the main parking area at Teatro Nacional can easily be full whenever there are any events happening.

As such, there have been scammers beckoning you to empty areas to park, and then charging you for it.

 

What to do:

Just take a taxi there, it’s cheap and much more relaxing.

 

4. Immigration line ministry tax scam

Tocumen airport

Tocumen airport. Source: airlinequality.com

 

How it works:

When waiting to be served at the Immigration line at the Panama airport, you may encounter someone collecting a $1 ministry tourist tax from foreigners in the queue.

This is a scam.

 

What to do:

Refuse to do so. Insist on paying only when it’s your turn at the counter and if the custom official asks for it.

 

5. Unlicensed taxi express kidnappings

 

How it works:

These can occur in Panama City in areas like Calidonia and Panama Viejo as well as along the Panama – Colon road. The city of Colon itself is also known for its high crime rate.

Express kidnappings often occur in unlicensed taxis as the driver will take you to a secluded place and threaten you, often with several accomplices.

You will be taken to an ATM and ordered to withdraw large amounts of money in order to be released.

If they are unable to clear out your bank account in one go (due to the daily withdrawal limit), you will probably be held for more than one day.

A twist on this scam is that sometimes your travel companions or family will be contacted and told to send money via a money transfer service such as Western Union to secure your release.

 

What to do:

We recommend:

  • Not using unlicensed taxis at all.
  • Only use the official taxis in yellow (e.g. America Libre, Radio Taxi America, Taxi Unico Cooperativa)
  • Do not allow driver to pick up other passengers along the route.
  • Avoid travelling alone at night.
  • Other transport options: booking apps like Uber, using a rental car, or engaging a private driver through your hotel / hostel or a day tours platform like Viator (largest globally and in Panama).

It may also be a good idea to keep a separate bank account just for traveling:

  • Do not keep too much cash in there.
  • Only carry a bank card of that account so that even if kidnapped or if the card is stolen, you would not have much to lose.

Finally, get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

6. Overcharging taxis

Panama taxi

Panama taxi. Source: panamaentaxi.com

 

How it works:

Taxis in Panama do not use meters.

As a result the drivers can ask for any fare they choose even though they are supposed to calculate the price according to zones.

Taxi drivers often ask for inflated fares from tourists as they know that travelers are not aware of the normal taxi prices in Panama.

It is also common for hotel doormen to be in cahoots with taxi drivers.

The doorman asks where you are headed to, and offers to get a cab for you but at an inflated price which he splits with the driver.

 

What to do:

You can estimate the fair price of any route by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel staff.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Uber.

For short trips most taxi rides in Panama City should only cost a few US dollars so if you are asked for a large fare in the region of $25 then know you are being scammed.

Also, always agree on a price with the driver before starting the trip, even if at the airport you were told by the counter that $x is the fare.

Finally, avoid asking your hotel’s doorman for help in getting a cab, but walk to a spot away from a hotel to hail one.

 

7. Corrupt traffic police

Panama police check point

Panama police check point. Source: casademontana.com

 

How it works:

The police in Panama seems to stop cars often for spot checks, where they will ask to see your license, passport and in some cases passports from all passengers.

The majority of them are courteous and genuine but you could also meet some crooked ones asking for a bribe.

If you don’t pay, they will hold your documents hostage.

 

What to do:

If you drive, follow all laws and make sure to bring your driving license along.

Hide your cash and valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This may allow you to negotiate the bribe down when you show that you have not much cash on you.

 

8. Car rental insurance scam

Driving in Panama

Driving in Panama. Source: vangabonds.com

 

How it works:

In Panama, you can get two types of rental car insurance:

  • 3rd party liability insurance which is compulsory.
  • Insurance that covers everything else.

In many instances, car rental agencies here will try packaging the 3rd party insurance package with other products they are selling.

If you are not well-versed, they will try overselling, explaining in a way that makes you believe you need all they are offering even if you already have other forms of insurance possibly through your credit card.

The ones at Tocumen airport are particularly notorious for this. They will force you to buy the full insurance package they offer, even if you show them your other insurance policies.

Often, they will say it’s not acceptable or that the policy needs to be in Spanish. Anything you say, they will have an excuse.

 

What to do:

Get a rental car elsewhere (e.g. Albrook airport or downtown in El Cangrejo).

 

9. Car rental deposit scam

 

How it works:

If you do not purchase the car rental agencies’ full insurance package, your credit card will be charged with a deposit amount.

This amount will be higher than your total rental costs, and the difference will be credited back to you once the vehicle is returned in good shape.

Note that those who buy the full insurance package will still have to put up a deposit, but their credit cards will not be charged at that point.

The scam is that the agencies will delay the refund of the difference. This is because you only have 100 days from the transaction date to put in a formal dispute against any credit card transactions.

Once that time has passed, you will not have any recourse, hence, these agencies will delay the refund as long as they can.

 

What to do:

Check your credit card statement and follow up religiously.

 

10. Damages on rental car

Panama Tocumen airport

Panama Tocumen airport. Source: panamatoday.com

 

How it works:

When returning your rental car at Tocument Airport, the many rogue car rental agencies here are going to find damages on your car one way or another.

It could be something like minor scratches beneath the car’s front bumper or a very tiny chip in the windshield.

It is suspected that these “damages” have always been there, just that they were intentionally not raised during the initial inspection and not marked on the inspection form.

What happens is that you will be charged a few hundred dollars as repair costs, but these “damages” will not be repaired and will be passed on to the next customer to be exploited.

Even if you demand to speak with the manager, they will delay you and claim that the manager can’t be found. This is because they know you have a flight to catch and have no time to waste.

Some assume that they can pay the damages and sort matter out once they get home with the parent company.

However, once home, you will realize that the parent company has no control over the Panamanian branch, or at least that is what they claim.

 

What to do:

Three things to do:

  • Rent and return your car somewhere else other than at Tocumen airport (e.g. Albrook airport or downtown in El Cangrejo), and not on the day of your flight back home.
  • Use legitimate aggregator platforms like AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee.
  • During the initial inspection, inspect the car thoroughly and make sure the inspector marks all visible “damage” (even minor dents or scratches). In particular, pay attention to the car’s windshield and under the bumpers.

 

11. Slashed tire scam

 

How it works:

This scam is prevalent in Panama City and particularly targets rental cars which may have the name of the company displayed on them.

At the beginning of the scam a scammer will slash the tires of your car. When you drive off they will follow you and wait for the tire to blow out.

They will then stop and offer to help you change the tire.

As you are doing so and are distracted by the process they will take the opportunity to steal your possessions from your car.

 

What to do:

If someone tries to flag you or help you, do not stop and decline any help.

Should you want to stop to check if there is any damage to your car, stop a distance away and only step out in full view of traffic and others.

However, make sure that you do not leave any valuables exposed in the car:

Finally, get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Sob story scam

 

How it works:

In Panama, you may encounter the notorious “Carl Baker”, who has been ripping tourists and expatriates from English speaking countries for years.

Although Carlos Beckles Thompson is his real name, he uses a different name each time. He has even called himself “Terry Winner” before!

Most of his victims encounter him on either Friday or Saturday when conveniently, the US embassy is closed for the weekend.

His story revolves around visiting relatives in the country, being in the US military, death in his family or whatever.

Unfortunately however, a rogue taxi taxi drove off with all his possessions and official documents.

As such, he is now stranded and needs assistance to at least tide him over until Monday morning when the embassy opens.

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

2. Snatch theft

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo. Source: freetour.com

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is an issue in places such as Calidonia and Panama Viejo which is the old town part of Panama City and popular with tourists.

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Young child beggars on the roads will distract you, before someone snatches your valuables through a car window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

 

What to do:

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

  • Leave valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables.

 

3. Rigged ATMs

Signs of a rigged ATM

 

How it works:

Generally, ATMs can be rigged in two ways.

First, the card skimmer and pinhole camera / keypad overlay set up:

  • A card skimmer is installed over the card slot to capture your card details.
  • The pinhole camera / keypad overlay is used to capture your PIN.

Second, the card trap:

  • The card slot can be rigged with cheap tools to trap your card.
  • When your card is stuck, someone will come over and tell you that if you retype your PIN, your card will be unblocked.
  • Obviously, your card will still be stuck, but the scammer will now have seen your PIN.
  • Should you head into the bank / somewhere to seek help, the scammer will unblock your card and escape.

 

What to do:

Avoid using ATMs at dark, secluded areas. Use only at controlled environments such as in banks.

Scan the area for suspicious looking characters, look out for red flags of a rigged ATM and cover your PIN when typing it in.

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.

 

4. Fake currency

 

How it works:

Panama uses US dollars as paper currency and counterfeit bills can be a problem across the country, particularly $50 and $100 notes.

Often these are circulated by fraudulent money changers who operate on the streets of Panama City.

 

What to do:

Do not change currency at a money changer who operates on the streets, particularly in the Old Town area of Panama City.

Only change money in large hotels or banks that are far less likely to scam you.

It can be very difficult to tell if a note is fraudulent so it is best to simply try and avoid the source of counterfeit bills.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

 

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Panama map

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Panama. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: less common than petty crime but does occur, though one of the safe places in Central America.
  • Hazards: dangerous currents on the Pacific Ocean and in Bocas del Toro Province.
  • Hotspots:
    • Mosquito coast (Caribbean side): used by drug smugglers and for illegal activities.
    • Darien region (End of the Pan-American highway / Yaviza to Colombian border): used by drug smugglers, human traffickers, criminals, and Colombian guerilla groups.
  • Terrorism: no recent history, but should not be taken for granted.
  • Civil unrest: non-violent demonstrations may occur.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, hotspots, travelling alone at night, and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Areas with high crime include:

  • Panama City: Avenida Central, Calidonia, Curundú, El Chorillo, San Miguelito, Juan Diaz, Parque Soberania, Rio Abajo, Tocumen, Veracruz Beach
  • Colon
  • David

Finally, monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

 

2. Medical care

Panama Hospital Santo Tomas

Panama Hospital Santo Tomas. Source: Wikimedia – Isaías Montilla

 

How it works:

Medical care is good in Panama City, but is limited outside of it.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, malaria, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, Chagas disease, leishmaniasis, onchocerciasis (river blindness), West Nile virus
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis, brucellosis.
  • Animal borne diseases: rabies.
  • Human borne diseases: HIV, tuberculosis.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.
  • Medical evacuation is difficult as many air ambulances cannot fly into La Paz due to high altitude (3,660 m).

Vaccinations to consider:                                                

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: hepatitis B, malaria, rabies, yellow fever.

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

Panama earthquake

Earthquake in Panama. Source: panamatoday.com

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes: Western Panama (Chiriqui) is in an active seismic zone.
  • Rainy season: April to December, can trigger flooding and landslides.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports, weather forecasts and sources such as:

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.
  • Tsunamis: signs include abnormal ocean activity and load roars. Protect yourself from an earthquake first if there is one. Else, get to a high ground as far inland as possible.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Road travel here can be difficult in certain areas / times, due to:

  • Dangerous / careless driving (70% of road accidents due to drunk driving / using phone).
  • Very heavy traffic.
  • In rural areas, poorly maintained roads and lack of street lighting.
  • Lack of road signs and signs alerting drivers to construction (Pan American highway).
  • Rainy season can make roads inaccessible and sometimes wash out some roads in the interior.

Public transportation:

  • Options include metro buses (improved, though crime can happen), taxis.
  • Buses are generally poorly maintained, not safely driven and frequently involved in accidents.

 

What to do:

Make sure your travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) covers travel accidents.

Driving:

  • Only book via legitimate platforms (e.g. AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee).
  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up

Public transportation:

  • To move around, registered taxis are recommended.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Panama police

Panama police. Source: panamatoday.com

 

  • Emergency hotline: 911
  • Police: 104
  • Fire brigade: 103
  • Ambulance: 103

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