8 Hacks to Stay Safe and Avoid Scams in Mexico

I didn’t want the thing, but knew I wouldn’t bother to return it. The next morning, I decided to open it. The box was empty. The realization dawned on me. We’d been scammed.

Picture of author with her hand on her forehead, annoyed with herself for falling victim to scams.

I was annoyed for not having noticed. Scams rely on the art of distraction.

It was kind of fun to shop so much

The first week we were living in Mexico, we went to the store nearly everyday. It turned out that we needed so many things, especially since our shipment wouldn’t arrive for an unknown amount of time (it took 37 days total and 33 days after arrival). After a trip to Walmart, we returned home and put our items away. I discovered a box for some special deodorant among our stuff. It wasn’t ours and yes, we paid for it. It was around $4 or $5 USD.

The next morning, I decided to get the deodorant out and use it because I knew I wouldn’t bother taking it back with my non-existent Spanish language skills. The box was empty.

we aren’t the first and we won’t be the last

We aren’t the first of our expat group to be scammed. One woman has had more than her share of scams: being charged $40 at the movies for one person, being forced to pay $1200 pesos (over $65 USD) for a bad car wash in another Walmart’s parking lot  and then harassed after she wouldn’t let anyone wash her car there anymore. Someone went as far as to scratch her car. For the record, car washes run between $50-$60 pesos ($2.75-$3.25 USD) for someone who comes to your house to wash and vacuum your car.

Scams are not unique to Mexico (I’m looking at you, “Nigerian prince” email scams). However, people will take advantage of Americans and other naive travelers here and in other parts of the globe. Even in America, too! A friend of mine had his wallet stolen while he was vacationing in Hawaii. Should you avoid these places? NO! Here are some tips to stay safe while living in Mexico (and some may apply to other areas).

A zipper with a clasp, making it harder to be a victim of pickpockets.

One of the features on my “anti-theft” purse.

A few tips

1. If there is a part of town you are warned to stay away from, stay away from it. This seems like a no-brainer, but needs to be said, especially if you will live somewhere long term and plan do a lot of exploring.

2. Be aware that going out at night deserves extra caution (for men and women both) and it is best to stick to areas that you know. We’ve gotten lost in iffy areas during the day. And you definitely want to avoid the bad areas at night.

3. Costco seems to be a better option than Walmart, at least in central Mexico. I still shop at Walmart, but there are a few things I do differently now. I have the cashier wait until all of my items are on the belt before I let them start scanning. This is normal here and people don’t complain or roll their eyes about the wait. Count the items as you put them on the belt. Once you have your receipt, check that the number of items matches the number you counted.

4. Tip your bagger.

5. I do not have the parking lot people wash my car. If you do, get the price in advance. Once you either agree or they’ve done the washing and stated a price, you will have to pay. I certainly don’t want to pay $65 American dollars for a car wash with dirty water and then be harassed every time I return to the store.

6. Do tip the parking lot attendants before you leave. I park in the same row every time and tip the attendant very well (no less than 10 pesos). This goes for all grocery stores where you aren’t otherwise paying for parking. I do not believe the attendants are employed by the store in most cases, but they are allowed to be there and will help prevent thefts from your car. They will remember you, especially if you stand out because you look different.

7. Do not leave your purse unattended. The same woman I mentioned above almost had her wallet stolen at, you guessed it, Walmart. she left her purse open as she paid the cashier. When she turned back to put her change in her purse, the patron behind her had her hand on the wallet. Again, this can happen anywhere. I had my wallet stolen from a community center in Columbus, Ohio.

8. Those of us distracted by kids will be more likely targets for petty theft and that will hold true in Mexico, the USA, and anywhere. I purchased an anti-theft purse before moving, so I had that much more protection, just in case my attention is elsewhere. It may not prevent theft, but might slow it down enough that I don’t become a victim.

avoid the scams

I hope these tips help you avoid scams in central Mexico and around the world. Look up the known scams in your area of travel. Also, always be aware of your surroundings. The world isn’t necessarily crazy dangerous, but people will take advantage of a distracted or other easy looking target. There are steps you can take to keep you and your family safe.

Go forth and safely travel!

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4 thoughts on “8 Hacks to Stay Safe and Avoid Scams in Mexico

  1. April says:

    This was a very interesting read! I’ve always wondered why cashiers here ask your permission before they begin scanning your groceries – this must be the reason. But I still don’t quite understand how this scam could happen while you’re checking out. Is it the cashier himself who slips in the empty box, you pay in cash, and he skims the extra $5 USD off the amount you paid? I’m definitely going to be more careful at the grocery store now.
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    • Natalie says:

      I’m not sure. I really did think it was an accident until I opened the empty box. There are some products that aren’t stocked and you pay and then go pick it up from wherever it is kept. However, we still didn’t have this product in our cart and I don’t know where it came from. It also wasn’t labeled as something that you needed to pick up after you paid for it.

      We haven’t had any issues at all at Soriana or Costco, and not heard of any from others. My friend almost got pickpocketed at Walmart shortly after I arrived in Mexico. That was by another patron, though, and also a very weird situation (the woman’s hand was in my friend’s purse when she turned back to it after paying). These things are actually pretty unusual and can happen anywhere. I had my wallet stolen in Columbus, Ohio. However, I still feel it is good to be aware of things around you and of what the best practices are in different places where you may live or visit. I wouldn’t know you have to tip everyone (like baggers and parking lot people at grocery stores) or even the people who pick up the trash.

      • April says:

        Yep, I feel you. I had my wallet swiped in Honduras and a medicine swiped at home in the US. My husband had his wallet lifted in Mexico City. I’m trying to be extra cautious now because our track record is getting ridiculous, haha.

        We usually shop at Walmart and Chedraui, and haven’t had any problems yet, but I definitely let my guard down in those places because they’re such nice stores. Your post is a good reminder to stay vigilant. We didn’t know about tipping the baggers for a while, either. Once we realized it, I felt so bad for all the times we hadn’t done it before! It takes some time to get acclimated to a new country’s customs, for sure.

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