Beware the gas-station scam in Mexico
A traveler ends up paying twice for a tank of gas in Los Cabos, by credit card then cash when the card supposedly didn’t work.
Seattle Times travel writer
Northwest travel guides
Even guys who write about travel can get scammed.
On a recent trip to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, I’d managed to avoid filling my rental car’s tank until the final day when I was about to return the car to the airport. I figured I was better off minimizing the number of times I handed over my credit card to gas stations or any business since credit-card fraud can be common in Mexico.
Good instinct, it turned out.
On Baja’s Highway 1, approaching the exit for Los Cabos International Airport, I pulled my Nissan rental car into a Pemex station, showed the attendant my card — I’m always careful to do this before they start pumping — and asked for a fill-up, por favor.
The first hint of trouble was when I noticed a tourist, outside his car at the next pump, having words with another attendant. It seemed his credit card wasn’t going through.
I soon heard the same message from the smiling mountain-of-a-man in gray coveralls who had just filled my tank: They couldn’t take my credit card.
“But I showed him my card before he pumped the gas,” I complained to the fellow working the cash register, whose English was a little better than my halting Spanish.
Sorry. The bill was 455 pesos — about $31 U.S. Surely I had cash?
Well, no. At the end of my trip, having just come from a small town with no bank or ATM, I’d exhausted my emergency reserve of Yankee dollars (which are often welcomed in Baja). And I’d deliberately spent all but a few of the Mexican pesos in my wallet. My next stop was the airport; why take pesos home?
No cash? Really, señor?
I presumed at this point that they were just doing their best to avoid credit fees on the transaction. Cash is king in Mexico.
But this was right by the airport. Payment by plastic was surely no novelty.
Mr. Coveralls gave a big grin and swiped my card one more time, then showed me a printout that (presumably) indicated it didn’t go through. I offered him another card. Same result.
Several other employees clustered around. A woman who looked managerial came out from the attached convenience store to punch buttons on the outside register.
“Would you have five minutes to go to a nearby ATM and get cash?” my English-speaking friend finally asked.
It was tough to tell if I was being had or whether they were legitimately stymied by technology. I momentarily considered speeding away in self-righteous indignation, but that raised the specter of an angry chase and a Mexican jail.
Luckily, I’d given myself extra time before my flight’s departure.
I nodded and started to get in my car. “Oh, and he’ll come with you!” the English-speaker added, nodding toward Mr. Coveralls, who was climbing in the passenger seat. In a parting shot, he jokingly admonished me, “Don’t kidnap him!”
Who could actually be kidnapped in this situation? The guy with all the credit cards, who had a large stranger in a nice new car and was about to draw money from an ATM? Red flags. Maybe I should have just called a cop.
But sometimes you have to go with instinct. My gut said these guys weren’t menacing. And my passenger’s stumbling efforts to tell me, with a dopey grin, that he had lived in California — “Fresno!” — didn’t add up to danger.
We smiled a lot at each other. I made small talk about Fresno. I got 500 pesos from a machine, we returned to the gas station and I was on my way.
A couple weeks later, I discovered a 455-peso charge on my credit-card statement. I’d paid twice for my gas, both by credit card and cash. I’m going through the hassle of disputing the credit-card charge through my bank.
Was it a scam? Probably. The time pressure on travelers who need to catch a plane encourages victims to resolve the situation expeditiously. An innocent mistake? Possibly. If the perpetrators had really wanted, they could have rung up an even bigger bill.
But next time, I’m keeping enough pesos in my wallet to pay cash when I fill the rental car. It’s hard to know just how much you’ll need. If I have pesos left over? I’ll buy a T-shirt at the airport.
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Travel Wise
Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. The column covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. It runs each Sunday in the Travel section.