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8 Puerto Vallarta Scams: How to Avoid Them and Stay Safe

8 Puerto Vallarta Scams: How to Avoid Them and Stay Safe

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Puerto Vallarta is safe for tourists to visit, enjoy, explore and relax. Just like visiting any city in the world, you should always be aware of your surroundings and your belongings.

While mostly rare, scams in Puerto Vallarta are unfortunately still in existence and ever evolving.

Even if you’re a savvy and seasoned traveler, some scammers are getting pretty creative. 

The more knowledge you have of these scams before your trip will help you recognize a potentially sketchy situation and help you avoid getting scammed or falling prey to a bad tourist trap.

This post covers the most common tourist scams that happen in Puerto Vallarta and surrounding areas, how to recognize them and what to do to avoid falling victim. 

This post contains affiliate links, meaning if you click through and make a purchase I may make a small commission. I only share information about things I know, love and trust!

The Mustard Scam 

This is the most common scam in Puerto Vallarta and Bucerias right now. It’s what’s known by the locals as the mustard scam (or any other type of sauce like BBQ sauce or salsa).

This can happen when you’re walking on the street outside or even inside big box stores, like Walmart. 

The scammer will walk by you or even between you and your travel partner and make it seem like they accidentally brush up against you.

They will either spill, smear or spray mustard or salsa on the back of your shirt and apologize profusely.

Or, they will get your attention and point out to you that you have something on the back of your shirt.

Then, they nicely offer to help clean it off of you (when you don’t actually have anything on you).

At this point, you’re too distracted with finding the stain and accepting help to get cleaned up and they use it as an opportunity to pickpocket you.

So if someone comes up to you and mentions you have something spilled on the back of your shirt or shorts, hold on to your bag and quickly walk away.

To avoid getting your wallet or loose cash lifted, do not let them touch you and do not accept help. 

This is why it’s important to not carry large amounts of cash/pesos on you. Only carry what you need at a time.

I always place my cash in 3 different pockets/sections of my purse, as well as keep cards in separate pockets.

This way, in the unlikely event that you do get pick-pocketed, the thieves likely will only grab from one pocket, not all 3. 

For women, this is my favorite type of bag to use when travelling to keep my valuables safe. It’s compact and has 3 zippered sections.

The Menu Scam

The menu scam usually happens at busy beach restaurants.

You will get a table, sit down and be given menus with what looks like reasonable prices.

After ordering and enjoying your meal, you’ll be handed your bill which will seem outrageously more expensive than you were expecting.

So you’ll ask to see the menu to confirm prices – except when they bring you the menu, it looks the exact same other than the prices are much higher then when you sat down.

The menu scam isn’t as common in Puerto Vallarta compared to Playa del Carmen, but it can still happen.

To avoid this scam, simply take a couple of quick photos of the menu before you order so you have proof of prices.

Puerto Vallarta Airport Scams

If you’ve never landed at the Puerto Vallarta airport before, it’s very important that you keep reading!

After you pass through customs, grab your luggage and start walking toward the exit, you will be bombarded with sales people offering all kinds of deals that seem too good to be true.

They’ll offer things like free transportation and cheap places to stay, but they are selling overpriced shuttles and timeshare presentations.

If it’s your first time, it can be very overwhelming.

These people will be holding signs and ask where you are staying.

As soon as you mention what hotel you’re headed to, they will say something along the lines of ‘yes, right this way,’ and pull you into their booth.

Some will even offer you a cold beer or a shot!

These are NOT the travel agencies associated with your all-inclusive package or pre-arranged transportation. All the shuttles, taxis and tour buses are only allowed to be outside. 

So, as you’re walking toward the exit, just say ‘no, gracias’ and keep walking straight out the glass doors.

Or better yet, just keep your gaze straight and avoid eye contact.

Once you’re outside you’re clear to look for your legitimate transportation. 

If you have pre-arranged airport transportation that you booked ahead of time or came with your vacation package, look for your tour company. They will have a list and your name will be on it. 

If you’re not comfortable taking a taxi, you can also take an Uber from the Puerto Vallarta airport.

After you exit the glass doors, stay left and look for the pedestrian bridge to cross to where the Uber pickup spot is. It’s only about a 5 minute walk. 

Tip – one of the best ways to avoid scams (or getting ripped off) is to know enough conversational Spanish.

I’ve been using Rocket Languages and it has helped so much when travelling through Mexico.

It’s one of the most user-friendly online platforms. You can try a free 7-day trial here.

Timeshare Scams

In addition to at the airport, timeshare scams can happen anywhere in the Puerto Vallarta area, including at your all-inclusive resort or walking around town looking for an excursion operator. 

You’ll know it’s a timeshare scam when a sales person offers for heavily discounted excursions, free shows or free meals in exchange for a quick meeting or a brief presentation.

They say it’s only a 1 to 2 hour presentation but in reality, people end up staying for 8 or more hours because these highly trained sales people use strong arm tactics to pressure you into signing up.

They make it hard for you to say no

Now, some people might disagree with me on this point that timeshares are scams. Some types of travelers are actually looking for timeshares.

So if this is something that you are actively seeking, it’s not technically a scam.

Some savvy tourists even seek out these opportunities because they have figured out how to say no and walk away from these presentations and then enjoy their free or cheap benefits they were promised. 

However, the timeshares are considered a scam for the majority of tourists because if you’re not in the market to purchase a timeshare, it can be a waste of an entire day of your holiday that’s never long enough!

I recommend researching the types of trips and excursions you’d like to try before you actually leave on holidays.

I wrote a post about the 14 best & unique day trips from Puerto Vallarta (including some hidden gems and secret spots).

I would make a list of the ones you’re most interested in, and look up tour prices online first so that if you’re not comfortable booking online, you’ll at least know how much it should cost when you’re on site.

ATM Scams

ATM scams and bank card fraud is sadly still very common in 2021 and it doesn’t seem like it will go away anytime soon. 

First, don’t be afraid to use ATMs.

You’re going to get a much better exchange rate by withdrawing from ATMs than exchanging your US or Canadian dollars. 

More importantly, don’t exchange your money into pesos at the airport, you will get the worst rate!

However, try to always use an ATM at an onsite bank.

Do not use ATMs that are found on random street corners or inside supermarkets or convenience stores.

To be extra safe, only withdraw cash from the bank ATM during business hours. 

Always inspect the ATM before you insert your card.

Card skimmers will feel a little loose and out of place where you insert your card.

Also inspect the cash dispensing drawer. It’s not as common, but some scammers will place a piece of metal behind the drawer to make the door jam when the cash is dispensed, making your cash inaccessible.

These people will be waiting around the corner and as soon as you leave to find help, they will remove the jam, take your cash and leave.

If anything seems weird or your gut tells you something might be off, just leave and find another machine elsewhere. 

Covering the keypad with your other hand is another easy thing you can do to protect your card. 

If you show up to an ATM at the same time as someone else, I recommend gesturing to them to use it first.

This is so you can make sure it works (e.g., their card doesn’t get eaten and their cash is dispensed properly). 

Finally, to avoid getting scammed at an ATM in Puerto Vallarta, don’t accept help from a random stranger, especially if they seem overly nice.

This usually happens when a machine is displayed in Spanish only and people get confused about which buttons to press.

If someone offers to help, they could possibly try to switch your card so that you walk away with the wrong one while they keep your card and now have your pin number.

If someone offers to help, don’t panic. Say no, take your time, cancel the transaction and find a different machine. 

Cash transactions, Shortchanging and Price Disagreements 

Make sure you always count your change as soon as you receive it, especially if you’re expecting a significant amount back.

While it’s pretty rare for someone to short change you, it can still happen. Especially if you’re a little under the influence. 

Another important practice is to always agree on a price before you pay for anything.

This applies to taxi fares, souvenirs and anything else that you would pay cash for.

Before you step into the cab or say you will buy the trinket, agree on the price so that there’s no awkward disagreement at the end. 

This can also happen at touristy restaurants and beach bars.

Some restaurant bills have the tip built in the total bill, which is fine. But sometimes, this will be printed extremely small so that you don’t realize and actually end up tipping on top of that.

Some people don’t mind leaving a large tip because everything is so cheap and the service is always stellar.

But if you want to leave a tip based on the rate you are comfortable paying, just double check the bill. 

To be clear, you should always tip. We find that the service in Mexico is always a thousand times better than anywhere in Canada, so we have no problem tipping well.

The tip built into the bill doesn’t happen everywhere, it’s just something that not everyone is aware of. 

Malecon Tequila Tastings

Walking along the Malecon (beach boardwalk) is one of the most fun things to do in Puerto Vallarta.

It’s also a spot where some scammers try to take advantage of the tourists.

There are tequila shop sales-people who will ask if you want to try some different tequilas, all free of course.

The problem is, some of these places use free tequila samples to draw you in to start a conversation about timeshares!

This isn’t always the case, as there are some great shops that are only interested in selling you tequila, and nothing else.

But, as soon as someone mentions anything about a free excursion or meal and something about a presentation or meeting, get out!

This is your immediate red flag that someone is trying to sign you up for a timeshare presentation. 

Gas Pump Scam 

This is a scam that you need to be aware of if you are renting a car.

When you go to fill up with gas, the attendant will ask you how much you want to put in. Tell the attendant how much you would like to pay, but don’t pay them yet. 

Make sure the display starts at zero (they will usually yell out “cero’’ as well) and it goes until how much you want to put in, for example up to 500 pesos. 

When your tank is full, pay the attendant, but make sure you tell them how much money you’re giving as you hand it over. For example, say ‘500 pesos.’ 

The reason for this is to avoid potential gas attendant scammers who will use a quick hand to say that you only gave them a certain amount and try to get another 50 or 100 pesos out of you.

This is not as common anymore, but still happens occasionally and is something to be aware of nonetheless. 

Final Thoughts on Avoiding Scams and Staying Safe in Puerto Vallarta

This is not meant to scare you, and you may never encounter any of these scams, even on multiple trips to Puerto Vallarta. 

Scammers are in the minority. The vast majority of the locals and Mexican people are honest and even more friendly than you would find in your hometown.

But, as we all know, there’s always a few people who ruin it for everyone else.

The best way to avoid scams in Puerto Vallarta (and all of Mexico) is by being aware of the most common ones so that you can recognize if it’s about to happen and know what to do to stay safe.

Just be aware of your surroundings and belongings at all times and you’ll be fine! 

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