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24 Most Common Tourist Scams in Puerto Rico

Safety at San Juan, Rincon, Isla de Vieques, Fajardo, Ponce, Aguadilla, Carolina, Cabo Rojo, Rio Grande, Luquillo, Isla Verde, Isabela, Culebra, Guaynabo, Mayague, Dorado, Caguas, Huamcao
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.

 

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Source: Peter Waller / Flickr

 

Puerto Rico sits in the idyllic Caribbean and is technically an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Visitors flock to this part of the world thanks to the gorgeous scenery which includes paradisiacal islands, coral reefs, stunning waterfalls.

You can also spend time exploring tropical rainforests in El Yunque.

Away from nature and back to the city, you can also marvel at the spectacular colonial architecture including ancient forts in San Juan.

However, Puerto Rico has a higher crime rate than many parts of the United States and visitors should remain vigilant on a trip here.

Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Unsolicited tour guides

Old Street, San Juan

Old Street, San Juan.

 

How it works:

One issue travelers may face in Puerto Rico (e.g. in San Juan) is the presence of an instant and unsolicited tour guide.

This happens when a friendly local strikes up a conversation with you and then takes you to a venue like a restaurant or shop.

If you buy anything at the venue they will get commission and you will probably be charged an inflated tourist price.

Even if you do not buy anything the guide may still ask you for money for their services even though you didn’t ask them for help.

 

What to do:

If you are approached by a friendly local then make it clear that you do not want a tour and will not pay for one even if they follow you.

Should you want a tour then it is best to book one with a licensed and reputable tour company.

You can find one via these channels:

  • 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 Puerto Rico with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

2. Hotel not ready scam

San Juan Port

San Juan Port. Source: Corey Seeman / Flickr

 

How it works:

You may encounter this scam after disembarking from a cruise from San Juan, as there are many tour operators there soliciting customers.

A tourist reported that after he asked for transport to his hotel, a tour operator claimed that because of security concerns, his hotel would not allow them to leave their baggage as their accommodation was not ready at that time.

Instead, the operator offered to take them to some other venue where they could leave their baggage behind and come back later for it when his accommodation was ready.

 

What to do:

Don’t fall for it as your hotel will help safeguard your luggage if your room is not ready yet.

 

3. Beach thefts

San Juan Beach

San Juan Beach. Source: Cyrus H.M. / Flickr

 

How it works:

There have been reports of thefts on beaches in Puerto Rico.

These often take place around dusk when you may be approached by a gang who will take your valuables.

Items can also be stolen from beaches if you leave them unattended to go swimming.

 

What to do:

Try not to walk on beaches at dawn or dusk unless you are part of a large group.

If you are going swimming, then do not leave your valuables unattended and choose a private beach where the chance of theft is unlikely.

Some of the safest beach areas in Puerto Rico include Dorado, Rio Grande, Fajardo and Humacao.

Other protection measures you can use include:

 

4. Photography scam

La Perla

La Perla. Source: Greg Meyer / Flickr

 

How it works:

This is common across Puerto Rico but is particularly prevalent in slum areas known as caserios including La Perla in San Juan or Santurce.

Sometimes children will encourage you to take photographs with them.

This is a scam however and they will expect to be paid for the opportunity.

If you refuse then you will often be challenged by an irate parent or guardian asking why you were taking pictures of their children without permission.

 

What to do:

Do not take any pictures of people in Puerto Rico without asking permission first, especially if they include children.

If you do not want to pay for the pictures then it is best not to take them at all.

 

5. Pickpocketing

Crowded street of San Juan

Crowded street of San Juan. Source: Santos Torres / Flickr

 

How it works:

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) to cover loss of valuables.

 

6. The blocking scam

Street in Puerto Rico

Street in Puerto Rico. Source: Jenny Pics / Flickr

 

How it works:

Puerto Rico is infamous for the blocking scam which takes place when one or several scammers suddenly stop in front of you.

When you bump into them or stop, they then apologize and pat you down to check that you are not injured.

This is a distraction technique and they are also picking your pocket at the same time.

Sometimes this may also be done from behind by an accomplice while you are speaking to the scammers in front of you and are distracted.

 

What to do:

Be alert if you are walking along and someone stops suddenly and then starts to apologize profusely.

To prevent thieves from ever having a chance of stealing from you, consider using:

 

7. Tourist prices

Shopping center in Puerto Rico

Shopping center in Puerto Rico. Source: Jochem Koole / Flickr

 

How it works:

Many venues in Puerto Rico will try to charge visitors tourist prices.

This means inflating the prices in restaurants, cafes, or shops, so that travelers pay twice or even thrice what a local would pay.

 

What to do:

Do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff on recommended places locals go to eat or shop at.

If researching is too much of a hassle, you can also consider joining a food or shopping tour!

  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Puerto Rico with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

When at a restaurant / food establishment:

  • Check the menu carefully for prices and fine print at the start.
  • Do not eat what you did not order.
  • Check your bill (and change if any) carefully at the end.

When shopping:

  • Bargain, or you visit fixed priced shops.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Taxi queue cut scam

Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport

Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Source: wipr.pr

 

How it works:

After disembarking from a cruise ship or plane at the airport, you may encounter someone who claims to be able to help you skip the taxi queue.

What he will do, is to simply take you to a taxi near the end of the taxi line and then ask you for a tip.

This is against the rules and the taxi queue usually moves quite quickly in these areas.

 

What to do:

Decline – stick to the official taxi queue.

Else, other options include:

  • Pre-arrange vehicle pick up through your hotel / hostel or through day tour platforms like Viator (largest globally and in Puerto Rico).
  • Get a rental car from AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee.
  • Use a taxi booking app like Uber.

 

2. Shared taxi robbery

Taxis in Puerto Rico

Taxis in Puerto Rico. Source: myguidepuertorico.com

 

How it works:

Like in some South American countries (e.g. Chile, Bolivia), a common way to travel in Puerto Rico is by shared taxi which is also known as a publico or colectivo.

This is one of the cheapest ways of traveling in the country but it can also be exploited by scam artists.

Sometimes shared taxis do not contain real passengers but actually a gang who are operating and looking for people to scam.

Once you are in the taxi you will be driven to a secluded area and then robbed by the gang.

 

What to do:

If you are traveling alone then it is best not to take a publico.

Real publicos also operate in the day time but most stop working at around 4 pm.

As such if you see a publico driving around at night then this is a strong sign that the passengers are not genuine.

If you want to travel around Puerto Rico after dark, consider these other options:

  • Get an official tourism company-sponsored taxi (white taxi with official logo and Taxi Turístico on front doors).
  • Use a rental car from AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee.
  • Arranging private transport through your hotel / hostel or through day tour platforms like Viator (largest globally and in Puerto Rico).
  • Use a taxi booking app like Uber (though it’s limited).

 

3. Non-metered taxi scam

Road in Puerto Rico

Road in Puerto Rico. Source: Jim Austin-Cole / Flickr

 

How it works:

Taxis in Puerto Rico have flat rates for traveling between main areas such as the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to central spots like Plaza Carolina.

They also have meters if you are traveling to different spots in the country but some drivers may tell you the meter is broken and refuse to turn it on.

This is done on purpose to charge you a higher flat rate.

 

What to do:

There are strict flat rate fares for official taxis so make sure that you check the latest fares before you travel to Puerto Rico so that you know how much you should be paying.

If you want the taxi to use the meter then make sure you discuss this with the driver before you get into the vehicle.

 

4. Bus theft and robbery

Bus in Puerto Rico

Bus in Puerto Rico. Source: Mattes / Wikimedia

 

How it works:

There have been reports of thieves using distraction techniques on buses to steal from passengers, or stealing luggage from bus stations.

In the outskirts of San Juan, buses have also been held up at gun or knife point with passengers robbed of their possessions.

 

What to do:

At a bus station:

  • Keep your luggage / bag in your line of sight.

On the bus:

  • Keep your bag on your lap / beside you instead of in the overhead compartment.
  • Should you wish to take a nap (if a long ride), make sure to use a TSA lock / cable lock / cable ties to lock your bag and to lock the bag to yourself / your seat.
  • Or simply get a lockable anti-theft bag that comes with a mechanism to lock to yourself / your seat.
  • Hide small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch.
  • Finally, get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) to cover loss of bags / valuables within.

 

5. Corrupt traffic police

 

How it works:

Highway patrol officers in Puerto Rico are known as transitos and are often underpaid.

As such they try to inflate their salary through bribes and will stop you for even minor traffic infringements and demand a fine on the spot.

 

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.

 

6. Carjacking

Puerto Rico at night

Puerto Rico at night. Source: KennardP/ Flickr

 

How it works:

Carjacking is a rising problem in San Juan (especially Puerta de Tierra) and Ponce. Thieves usually target secluded areas in these cities late at night.

A common carjacking tactic involves gangs posing as hapless motorists who have a flat tire. When you stop to help they will take the opportunity to mug you.

There are also reports of carjacking occurring at traffic lights late at night.

 

What to do:

If someone tries to signal a problem with your car, or beckons you to help with theirs, avoid stopping.

Continue driving to a safe area and you can then alert the authorities if you feel that the people in question may genuinely need help.

While in the car or when stopping at a traffic light, keep your doors locked and windows up.

Also, always make sure not to 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.

 

7. Rental car fees

Traffic in San Juan

Traffic in San Juan

 

How it works:

In San Juan, there are a number of scams perpetuated by rental car companies that “claim” to have rates which are unusually low.

The catch however comes in several forms:

  • Forced to buy expensive daily insurance even if you already have coverage through other channels.
  • Incurring daily, expensive toll pass fees.
  • Subject to inflated deposits which will be difficult to get back.
  • Unusual / inflated fees for sand clean-up.

 

What to do:

If it’s too cheap to be true, it generally is.

Also, you can consider these channels to get a reliable provider:

  • Online travel forums.
  • AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee.

 

8. Car insurance scam

 

How it works:

Many visitors to Puerto Rico choose to hire a car and you may already have some kind of insurance through your credit card or personal insurance plan that will cover you in the event of an accident.

A common scam in Puerto Rico is to insist that this insurance isn’t valid in the country.

Scammers will then force you to also purchase additional insurance through them.

 

What to do:

Check the details of your insurance plan before you travel to Puerto Rico to make sure that you are covered.

If you are challenged at a car rental agency then be firm and explain that you checked the policy before you left your home country and are sure that you covered.

Do bring your insurance policy along as well.

If the rental agency keeps pushing you then simply move on to another one.

 

9. Rental car damages

 

How it works:

When you are returning your rental car, don’t be surprised to be hit with a an extra charge of a few hundred dollars for a minor, almost undetectable scratch on the spoiler.

 

What to do:

As you are taking the car, document everything and take lots of pictures.

In particular check the lights, wipers and even dirt marks as a precaution against false charges.

If you are forced to pay, take it up with your insurance provider or dispute the transaction through your credit card provider.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Vacation rental scam

Resort Spa

Resort Spa. Source: W Worldwide / Flickr

 

How it works:

There have reports of scammers hacking into legitimate listings on genuine vacation rental websites and changing vital information such as contact details to their own.

As such, you might find yourself sending deposits to people who are not the real owners of the property.

Some red flags to watch out for:

  • Prices that are too good to be true.
  • Payment only by bank transfer off the booking platform (note: they will use names that include the original booking platform to make it seem like you are still dealing with the platform).
  • Or payment to a foreign bank account or via Western Union / MoneyGram (sure sign of scam as transfers are irreversible).
  • Owner is overseas, insists on only using English in emails and emails are worded in poor English.
  • If the “owner” refuses to provide more details or to allow for a tour of the place.

 

What to do:

First, only book through legitimate accommodation platforms:

  • Booking.com: Frommer’s tests have found the site to offer the best selection and rates amongst competing sites most of the time.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of Puerto Rico by staying with a local host!

Next, do some due diligence such as:

  • Search online reviews and Google the names of the owner.
  • Call the phone number provided on the listing.
  • Grill the “landlord” by asking specific questions, such as room dimensions or something unique as seen in the photos.
  • You can even pretend something exists in the online photos and test if the “landlord” can call your bluff.
  • Search if the property has another online presence or contact number and engage that to see if they are consistent.
  • Test the owner by requesting for a visit from a local friend – it doesn’t have to happen, you just want to test the owner’s receptiveness.

Finally, do not pay in full upfront and do not make payment off the platform.

 

2. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

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.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

Take care walking in areas such as Puerta de Tierra and the streets around Parque de las Palomas in San Juan after dark.

 

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) to cover loss of valuables.

 

3. Sob story

Wall painting in San Juan

Wall painting in San Juan

 

How it works:

This is a scheme perpetuated by a man around Avenida Rivera who claims that he hails from Wisconsin.

In perfect English, he will tell you about how he and his dad got lost as they were taking a walk and then got mugged.

He will also claim that the police have taken his dad to the hospital and he asks if you can spare him a few dollars for him to get a cab there.

The truth is that this is a heroin addict who spends much of his time at drug joints in old San Juan. He is well-known by the locals to specialize in scamming foreigners.

He also works in cahoots with a woman who uses the same lines. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by each of them at different times with the same sob story!

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

4. Child beggars

 

How it works:

Often you will be approached by a beggar offering you a sad story about how they need money to feed their children or to go to school or university.

They are mostly drug abusers and scam artists however and the story is fake.

 

What to do:

Avoid giving. If you want to help, donate to an established charity instead.

 

5. Fake kidnappings

 

How it works:

This scam happens when you are befriended by a local who gets your family’s contact details, either under the guise of staying in touch or for another spurious reason.

They then, without your knowledge, call your family and tell them that you have been kidnapped.

A ransom to secure your release is asked for and they are counting on the fact that your family can’t or won’t contact you to verify the story.

 

What to do:

Do not give your family’s contact details to anyone in Puerto Rico if you do not know them well and there is no official reason why they need them.

 

6. Rigged ATMs

Signs of a rigged ATM

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.

 

7. Fraudulent money changers

 

How it works:

Like in Czech Republic and in Peru, there are fraudulent street money changes on the streets in Puerto Rico.

Should you change with these money changes, you either get a very bad rate of exchange or may receive bills that are fake and worthless.

 

What to do:

Only change money at major banks or established money exchanges across Puerto Rico or in large hotels.

Always make sure to check your money when you have exchanged it and count it carefully to ensure that you have not been short changed.

 

8. The short changing scam

 

How it works:

A visitor being short changed is a big problem in Puerto Rico.

In this situation the scammers are hoping that visitors will not realize that they have been handed the incorrect change.

The scammers hope you will simply accept the money and leave the shop or bar.

 

What to do:

Don’t feel that you have to accept your change without counting it properly.

Take your time and make sure that you are familiar with the currency so that you will be able to spot if you have been given the wrong change.

 

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

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: there is a clear crime problem (much connected to the drug trade) but violent crime against foreigners is rare due to strong police presence in San Juan and Ponce. However, watch out for petty crime.
  • Hazards: n.a.
  • Hotspots: caseríos and slums (e.g. La Perla in San Juan) as these are usually where drug dealers operate at.
  • Terrorism: no recent history, but should not be taken for granted.
  • Civil unrest: n.a.

 

What to do:

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

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

 

2. Medical care

Hospital Sima San Pablo

Hospital Hima San Pablo. Source: himasanpablo.com

 

How it works:

Medical care standards are good in Puerto Rico and facilities are readily available.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: dengue, chikungunya, zika, west nile virus.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis, schistosomiasis.
  • 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.

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, rabies (for outdoor / adventure / rural / contact with animals)

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

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Hurricanes: mid-May to November.

 

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:

  • Hurricanes: stay indoors away from windows, do not use electrical appliances / equipment, do not head out and touch debris (more injuries / deaths happen after than during).

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Driving here can be difficult due to these reasons:

  • Roads can be bad with uneven paving and potholes.
  • Motorists not adhering to speed limits or traffic rules.
  • Poorly maintained vehicles without functioning lights.
  • Mountain roads are narrow and twisty with minimal signage.

Public transportation:

  • Publico: shared taxis (yellow license plates with the word “PUBLICO” on top).
  • Tren Urbano: reliable train service serving the metropolitan areas of San Juan.
  • Autoridad Metropolitana de Autobuses / AMA: public bus.

 

What to do:

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

Driving:

  • Get a rental car from 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:

  • Very affordable, though buses can come at infrequent and unpredictable timings.

                                                    

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Police in Puerto Rico

Police in Puerto Rico. Source: Tomas Del Coro / Flickr

 

  • Police emergency hotline: 911
  • Ambulance service: 911
  • Fire brigade: 911

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