Mexico: Tips to Avoid Getting Cheated at the Pumps

When we first moved to Mexico, I was surprised to learn that all of the gas stations were still all 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.

Avoiding it

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.

Avoiding it

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.

Avoiding it

I recommend sticking 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.

Avoiding it

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.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow us on social media

About the Author

Q-Roo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences, as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

39 Comments on "Mexico: Tips to Avoid Getting Cheated at the Pumps"

  1. Good advice. A couple of those were new to me. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you. We plan on visiting Cancun later next month, speak primarily English, and plan on renting a car for our visit. My husband is usually the chatty one so I guess I will have to be on vigilante alert

  3. Wow! Great information. I had not heard about this. Of course I’ve never owned a car in Mexico so I’ve never bought gas. But I plan on renting a car on my next visit so this will definitely be something to watch out for.
    Question: Are these scams prevalent at all types of stations or just at certain types. Is it safer to stick with the larger national brands rather than the smaller mom and pop stations?

    • There are only large national brands and until very recently, there was only one brand Pemex. These type of scams occur all over and it comes down to the honesty of the particular gas station attendant that you’re dealing with.

  4. Here’s Profeco’s current list of gas stations that have altered pumps to cheat customers.

    http://www.alconsumidor.org/noticias.phtml?id=1299

  5. Needing to top off in Batopalis, Chihuahua (in Copper Canyon) their gas was in 55 gallons drums. Lacking pumps, the operator got a siphon going, filled a 5 gallon bucket and once I agreed that it was full siphoned it into my truck. After a couple of iterations I was full, happially paid Goober his due and was off.

    A simple but effective solution that suited the place and time.

  6. Hi Paul, a Mexican friend of mine also gave me this advice: Only fill up at gas stations that have lots of customers. ie taxis, collectivos etc.. Mexicans know which stations cheat on volume so they stay away from them. So if the station has no customers- it is for a reason. Beware!

  7. We haven’t encountered any of these situations at the gas station yet. Everyone has always been helpful and talked really slow to us. But it’s good to be aware of these situations as we travel more around the country

  8. Hi Paul. Is it possible to pay in cash after you tell them $500 and they pump the gas? Then count it out to them. See you in a couple of weeks

    • Hi Frank – that is exactly what I do. I ask for a specific $ amount. I watch to make sure that they’ve zeroed out the pump. They pump it and then I count out the bills, one at a time. Never had a problem.

    • Yes, you can do that but it won’t necessarily save you from them trying the old bill swap trick. Some of these guys are pretty good at close up magic…lol.

  9. Great advice! Last time we were there he made sure to clarify he zeroed the pump out as I was watching closely. I thought all was good, but he did try the 500/50 swap at the end. He was so fast and smooth-if I wasn’t aware of it previously I might have fell for it. Luckily the person with us was fluent in spanish and let him know I was very aware of what he was doing and he wasn’t getting anything else. He finally conceded..but I have to say they are VERY good at it.

  10. Here’s the Profeco website of gas stations that sell “incomplete liters”.

    http://www.alconsumidor.org/noticias.phtml?id=1299.

  11. Larry lloyd Wall | November 19, 2018 at 10:53 am | Reply

    I AM SO HAPPY THAT A FRIEND TOLD ME OF YOUR SITE.. THANKS,

  12. I am pretty sure I got scammed. Can’t remember where exactly, but it was out of Matehuala on my way to Guad. I said to fill the tank, which was half full. The attendant showed me he had zeroed the pump. Suddenly he stopped it at $234 pesos, told me, showed me, then reset it back to zero. Another guy came up, showed me the total by writing the two subtotals on his hand. He said it was $834 pesos. I am sure it was $634 pesos. It was out in the middle of nowhere and was a female traveling alone so I paid it. Be aware! This is the only time I am sure I was scammed in many, many long trips to Mexico. I know better and I will sure be more attentive.

  13. We’ve lived here full time for 12 years (Bahia de Banderas in Nayarit) and have never had any of these things happen to us. Our experience at the gas station has been scam-free!

  14. I pull up to the pump. I get out of the car with my money in my hand. I tell them exactly how much I want and then I stare at the pump while the whole time process takes place and wave off anyone who would seek to engage me in conversation. I have always the exact amount of cash in my hand .

  15. We just drove from Montreal to Puerto Morelos with no attempt to scam us….Last Saturday we got scammed in Playa and tge guy used one of the trick: distracted my hubby and voilà….not funny but we were on our guard for the big trip and now that we are home we let down our guard the guy took advantage….and there was 4 of us in the van!!! Keep your eyes open

  16. Blanca Portella Heil | November 19, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Reply

    Yes, I was scammed once and boy what a disaster! I asked to fill up in El Rosario, here in Baja. I paid and left and in the middle of nowhere in the desert, realized I was far too low on gas ie the attendant had not zeroed out! I went on fumes until I found someone by the side of the road selling from a barrel. Lesson learned, the hard way.

  17. The 50/500 swap happened to me once even though I was aware this was something they pulled. He was so smooth. Watch out for the Pemex right at the exit for the Cancun airport. It’s notorious for it.

  18. You are giving us a lot of good advice. Thank very much.

  19. Planning on living in Ekcumal or Tulum first of 2019 for a year or two and I read all your blogs to prepare for coming there. Incredible info.
    THANKYOU.
    Btw: you look really young to be a retiree!
    Miles

    • Thanks for following us, Miles.

      BTW: Thanks for the compliment. I attribute it to the stress-free lifestyle we have down here — as well as having a decent cellphone camera that seems to make me look better than I actually do in real life…lol.

  20. The only time we ever filled a car with gas in RMaya years ago, 5 attendants just sitting at the pump ran around the car to help us when we drove in. We were a little concerned at all the people/activity but all was on the up and up. I can see how a distraction would be easy though.

  21. Several friends have had the “pay for gas you didn’t get” trick done on them, when they don’t clear the pump before they pump gas for you.

    I’ve also reported a dozen gas stations to Profeco for giving me less than 75% of what I paid for. Otherwise I don’t bother reporting it, since “liter shortchanging” is so rampant in Mexico. Though there are no criminal charges, the fines are very stiff, averaging between $40,000 and $150,000 pesos per infraction when Profeco investigates and finds metering discrepancies.

    But gas station owners don’t care, that’s how much money they steal by maladjusting the pump metering. And we personally, as consumers, NEVER get a refund for the gas we pay for but don’t receive. It’s México…

    Since my experience 3 years ago, I
    ALWAYS get out of my vehicle and stand right there, watching intently, not allowing outside distractions. The attendants always know why I do this because they say, “Mira, ceros…” as they initiate the pump, pointing at the screen, showing all zeros.

    I ALWAYS pull forward just a little bit so the gas fill port on my vehicle is ahead of the pump. This forces them to face me as they pump while I stand and watch them from 3 feet away. Psychological move, more than anything. They don’t feel like ripping off a person who appears in control and watchful.

    New gas station attendants look a little surprised when I pay with a card, that I tell them I’m paying con mi tarjeta but hold my card TIGHT to my sternum without moving, and I wait while they figure out that they are supposed to go get the swiper and bring it to me to complete the transaction in my presence.

    After 50 entries into México in 29 years, I NEVER let them walk away with my card. Especially since this experience: About 3 years ago, while winter-driving from my house in the USA to my house in Mexico, I handed my card to the Pemex attendant and continued washing my windshield (distracted). I looked, he was gone inside. First time that ever happened to me.

    He quickly returned with my card and my ticket for 105 liters, which I signed, and got my copy of both the ticket and the gas receipt and the credit card ticket. The attendant acted a little nervous which got my attention, got me thinking…

    8 hours later when I got home, I immediately checked my online banking, sensing that something was wrong. I just knew that the attendant had done something illegal.

    And he had. There was a second card charge that took place, outside my gas charge, for $800 pesos, 30 seconds after my gas charge had processed.(I now have it set up with my bank to refuse second charges on my card within one hour of a purchase)

    I immediately called my bank. They asked me to snap a photograph of my credit card receipt and gas receipt and email it to them along with my report of what happened, and they investigated.

    In 4 days, the fraudulent charge was refunded to me. The bank had obtained video camera footage of the guy buying additives and oils with my card and fraudulently signing my name to it, purchasing items he later sold to other motorists. He was arrested for theft, the bank itself pressing charges.The attendant also lost his job.

    This was the first time that I was aware that attendants could be so brazen as to do this, and it was a strong reminder to utilize my online banking. I had several cards with that bank, so I still had access to money in my accounts.

    That’s another thing I recommend… Having two accounts with your bank, with 3 cards for each account: a debit card, a credit card and a secured credit card. In the event fraud occurs and one of your cards gets shut down, you still have availability to your money. You can usually move money for free from one account to another online or over the phone, if you lose use of one of your cards.

    Only use your debit card at ATM’s if you can help it. Debit cards have almost zero protection in comparison to credit and secured credit cards. I found this out in 2004 after a 5 minute call from the Rome, Italy airport to my office in Tacoma Washington, paid for with my debit card. Initially, they charged my card $8, then it doubled to $16, then to $32 then to $64, doubling every few hours, by the time I landed in the USA and was able to call my now-former bank. The only thing they could do was just stop them from charging my card any more. But the small, powerless bank could not get the extra $56 that the thieving company had stolen from my debit card.

    A word of extreme caution: Don’t use Mexican banks for anything. Unless you have thoroughly researched and you know exactly what you’re doing, and you are a seasoned expat. I’ll leave it at that because that subject could be an entire series in itself, dealing with Mexican banks- or not.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.