When we first moved to Mexico, I was surprised to learn that all of the gas stations were still full service. An attendant will pump your gas, wash your windows — and if requested to do so — even check your vehicle’s tire pressure and fluid levels.
It reminded me of the old fillin’ station on the Andy Griffith Show — with one exception, on that show, Goober wasn’t trying to shortchange, cheat or otherwise rip off the customers.
Unfortunately, frauds and scams at gas stations are not uncommon in Mexico, and if you’re a foreigner, the odds of someone trying to rip you off increase exponentially.
Almost every expat that we know has multiple stories of gas station attendants either scamming them or attempting to do so. In fact, two different gas stations tried the old money swap trick (#1 below) on one of our friends in the same week.
The key to avoid being a victim is to know what to look for. Here’s a list of the most common scams:
1. Money Swap
How it works
The money swap occurs when you hand the attendant your money and they swap a bill — usually a $50 for a $500 because they are similar in color– and then tell you that you didn’t give them enough money.
The scam works best when there is some form of distraction used. Be wary of attendants who are excessively chatty or if there is a second attendant who comes over to talk to you while the first one is working. The goal is to make you unsure if you gave them the correct amount or not.
Pay attention! Stop chatting with the passengers in the car and get out so you can observe what the attendant is doing.
It’s also a good idea to count out the bills one at a time as you place them in the attendant’s hand.
If they try to swap a bill and you’re absolutely sure they’re trying to scam you, call them on it. Tell them to return your other bill or you’ll call the police. You may even want to take out your cellphone and start recording the encounter.
This is usually all it takes to rectify the problem. The attendant usually responds with a sheepish grin and then gives you the correct change owed.
2. Not Resetting the Pump
How it works
The attendant does not reset the pump to zero before putting fuel in your vehicle, so you end up paying for gas you never received.
For example, the pump already says $500 pesos on it, the attendant pumps $200 pesos worth of fuel in your vehicle and then charges you $700 pesos.
Pay attention and make sure that the pump is at zero.
3. Credit Card Fraud
How it works
Your card is skimmed and later cloned. There have been numerous news stories about this occurring at gas stations in Mexico.
I recommend paying with cash. If you do use a card, watch the attendant carefully to ensure that he or she is not capturing the information with a secondary device.
4. Incorrect Liters
How it works
The software has been altered and the pump is dispensing fewer liters than it says on the display.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to avoid this one.
In fact, you probably won’t even know you’ve been scammed unless the discrepancy is huge. For example, you pump $500 pesos into your Chevy March and it barely fills up half.
If you feel that you’ve been a victim of this, ask for a receipt and report the incident to the government entity tasked with investigating consumer violations, PROFECO. There’s not much more you can do unfortunately.
Let’s Wrap This Up
I get gas a couple of times a week and I’ve never been the victim of a fraud — at least that I’m aware of. The secret to my successful streak is that I diligently follow my own advice every time.
There was one time when I think a couple of attendants were about to try to scam me. The second attendant kept trying to distract me by making small talk. When he asked what I did in Mexico, I told him that I wrote articles about consumer rights violations and how to report them. He looked surprised and then walked away without saying another word to me.